VATICAN, Apr. 19, 01 (CWNews.com) – The Vatican has made public a detailed schedule of the May trip by Pope John Paul II to Greece, Syria, and Malta.
The Holy Father will leave Rome on Friday morning, May 4. The first leg of his trip will be a 2-hour flight to Athens. Following official Greek protocol, he will not deliver an address at the airport but will go directly to the residence of President Constantinos Stephanopoulos for a welcoming ceremony there. It was Stephanopoulos who issued the official invitation for the papal trip during a January visit to Rome.
In the early afternoon, the Pope will visit the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, at his residence. Then he will proceed to the apostolic nunciature, to meet with the 9 Catholic bishops of Greece and deliver an address to them. He will make a short visit at the cathedral of St. Denis in Athens, then go on to the Areopagus, the rocky promontoary near the Acropolis where St. Paul addressed the people of Athens, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles.
There is no formal ceremony scheduled for the Pope’s visit to the Areopagus; he will apparently offer a private prayer. Following that important stop—a part of his Jubilee pilgrimage to "the sites linked to the history of salvation"—he will return to the nuncio’s residence. That evening, he will receive a return courtesy call from Archbishop Christodoulos.
On Saturday morning, May 5, the Holy Father will preside at a Mass celebrated in the Sports Palace of Athens. (Although the Sports Palace will hold only 18,000 people—a tiny fraction of the estimated 200,000 Catholics living in the region—the organizers of the papal trip deliberately chose not to use the much larger Olympic stadium because of concerns about hostility among the Greek Orthodox people of Athens.) Then he will go to the airport for a short farewell ceremony.
After another flight of approximately 2 hours, the Pontiff will arrive in Damascus. There will be a formal ceremony there, attended by Syrian President Bachar el-Assad and by the three Christian Patriarchs who reside in Damascus: Ignace IV Hazim of the Greek Orthodox Church, Gregory III Laham of the Melkite Catholic Church, and Ignace Zacca I Ivas of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
Later Saturday afternoon, the Pope will pay a courtesy call on President el-Assad at his palace. Then he will travel to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition for an ecumenical ceremony at which Patriarch Ignace IV will be his host.
On Sunday morning, the Pope will preside at Mass, celebrated according to the Latin rite, in the Abbayssin stadium outside Damascus, which can accommodate 35,000 people. After praying the Regina Coeli there, he will have lunch at the residence of the Melkite Patriarch Gregory, along with all the Catholic bishops of Syria.
Later in the day the Pope will go to the Syrian Orthodox Cathedral of St. George for an ecumenical meeting attended by patriarchs, bishops, priests, and religious of all the Christian churches of the country.
Next the Pope will make a historic visit to the Great Mosque of the Omayyads in Damascus: the first visit ever by the Pontiff to an Islamic house of prayer. The head of St. John the Baptist is buried in the Omayyad mosque, and the Pope will offer a short private prayer at the burial site. Afterward, he and the Grand Mufti Ahmad Kaftaro will deliver separate address to Muslim and Catholic leaders outside the mosque.
On Monday, May 7, after celebrating Mass privately in the chapel of the nunciature, John Paul will travel to the Church of St. Paul on the Wall at the Bab Kissan gate of the old walled city of Damascus. This church is built on the site where, according to the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul escaped from persecutors inside the city by being lowered down outside the walls in a basket. The Pope will also visit the memorial to St. Paul in the city: an international center opened in 1971 under Franciscan auspices.
Next the Holy Father will be drive to Qunaytra, on the Golan Heights—the site of fierce battles between Syrian and Israeli troops. He will offer prayers for peace at a Greek Orthodox church there.
After returning to Damascus, and resting for a short time at the nunciature, the Pope will address the young Christians of the city at the Melkite Catholic Cathedral of the Dormition in the evening.
On Tuesday morning, the Pope will leave from Damascus airport for his flight to Malta, the last stop on this trip. He will arrive in the heavily Catholic island nation at 2 pm, and after an airport ceremony he will go to the presidential palace to meet with President Guido de Marco.
Wednesday morning will see the Pope presiding at Mass and the beatification of Father Georges Preca, a priest of Malta who died in 1962 and is widely considered as a precursor of Vatican II because of his insistent preaching in favor of liturgical reform and the importance of apostolic activity among the laity.
In the afternoon the Pope will meet with the bishops of Malta, visit the tomb of Father Preca, and deliver an address to the Society for Christian Doctrine. The Holy Father will leave Malta on Wednesday evening, for the 90-minute return flight to Rome.