ATHENS, Greece, MAY 4, 2001 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II arrived in Athens today, beginning his spiritual pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul, and praised the contributions of Greek culture to Christianity.
From the moment the Holy Father landed at Athens international airport, the delicate character of his mission was evident.
As is his custom on international trips, the Pope kissed the soil, which on this occasion was presented to him by a nun. The earth came from an Orthodox monastery.
Pictures of this event were not carried on Greek television, in order to avoid problems with nationalist Orthodox sectors which oppose the visit.
“I come as a pilgrim,” the Pope said during his first address at the Presidential Palace, where he was welcomed by President Costis Stephanopoulos. The meeting was cordial. Stephanopulos was one of the leaders who made the visit possible. He invited the Pope officially despite the opposition of nationalist sectors.
During his meeting, the Pontiff referred to the “great debt” that European civilization and the Christian religion have incurred with Greece.
The Gospels were written in Greek, he noted, and Greek culture dominated the world in which Jesus grew up. He also mentioned the Olympic Games, one of the signs that identifies that culture. The Games will return to Greece in 2004.
Greece was one of the first Christian communities founded by St. Paul, and this is the main reason for the Pope´s pilgrimage.
The Holy Father´s first address acknowledged the country´s great contribution to the history of Christianity. Christianity was given great impetus in Socrates´ and Plato´s Greece, which was concerned with virtue, respect for divine law, and attention to the education of youth, something the Catholic Church works to continue in that country today, he said.
The Pope summarized this education by quoting the words on the facade of the Temple in Delphi: “Know yourself.” The Pope appealed to Europe “to know herself.”
“Such self-knowledge,” he said, “will come only insofar as Europe explores afresh the roots of her identity, roots which reach deep into the classical Hellenistic patrimony and into the Christian heritage which brought to birth a humanism based upon the vision of every human person as created in the image and likeness of God.”
Despite media predictions of protests against the visit, the Pope´s first hours on Greek soil were characterized by hospitality.
The pilgrimage that began today is a follow-up to John Paul II´s journey to places of salvation, including Sinai and the Holy Land. On Saturday the Pope will travel to Syria, and on May 8 he will go to Malta. He returns to Rome on May 9.