VATICAN CITY, MAR. 8, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The Holy See expressed its gratitude to the governing Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church for consenting to the papal pilgrimage to Athens, Greece.
"The decision, which enables the Holy Father to visit the Athens Areopagus, also has ecumenical significance, which corresponds to the Holy Father's expectations," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls explained over Vatican Radio.
The Vatican spokesman said no dates have been set for the trip. "We hope to announce soon the realization of this spiritual pilgrimage of the Pope in St. Paul's footsteps, which has been his wish," he said. "A two-stage trip has already been announced: one to Syria and another to Malta. Now a date will have to be found that could be included in this trip, or independent of it."
Vatican experts have told the Italian press that if the papal pilgrimage to Damascus, Malta and Athens is completed in one, three-stage trip, it could take place from May 5-9.
When he received the news, Archbishop Paul Fouad Tabet, apostolic nuncio in Athens, referred to it as "a historic moment for the Catholic and Orthodox Churches."
According to Eustathios, Metropolitan of Eparta, the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church decided Wednesday that "it did not want to respond negatively to the wish of the pontificate of Rome, especially because the visit has the character of a pilgrimage."
Archbishop Tabet sees the decision as a Greek Orthodox option in favor of Christian unity. By "regarding it as a pilgrimage, they have given the visit a profoundly spiritual significance," he said.
Greek President Costis Stefanopoulos officially invited the Pope to Athens when the two met in January. Orthodox Christians represent 99% of the Greek population. There are only about 50,000 Roman Catholics among Greece's 10.2 million native-born population.
Some liberal clergymen could see the Pope's presence as helping heal the estrangement between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. But many Greek Orthodox factions hold strong anti-Vatican views and thus oppose the trip.
Meanwhile the Papal Retreat continued with Francis Cardinal George, OMI conducting it at the Vatican.
Christian life cannot be understood without "communion," which distinguishes it from the isolation that characterizes contemporary man, John Paul II heard in his retreat Thursday.
"Communion" was the theme of the two meditations preached by Cardinal Francis George to the Holy Father and his collaborators of the Roman Curia, on the fourth day of their spiritual exercises.
Cardinal George explained that there are two indispensable means to reach this communion: the Word of God and participation in the sacraments.
First, he said, it is crucial that Christians today regain the ability to "listen to Christ."
"In a world full of rumors that dissuade," the cardinal said, "where one runs the risks of being pulled in all directions, living in cultures that favor isolated individuals over the group, we have need, especially we, the pastors of the Church, to learn to listen to God and to our neighbor, so that are communion can be deeper."
The great obstacle to this end is original sin, he said, which above all is "lack of obedience, namely, of listening." Indeed, Adam's original fault led to the tower of Babel, highest symbol of absence of communication among men, Cardinal George said. This communication was only recovered at Pentecost, making men capable of real dialogue among themselves and with God, he said.
Communion is born precisely here, which maintains the Church united and is a reflection of the existence of the Trinity, where the divine Persons reach full identity in the total giving of themselves, the archbishop of Chicago commented. This communion gives cohesion to the different ambits of the Church's life: its structure, rites, faith, unity possessed at present, and that desired for the future, he added.
In the second place, Cardinal George continued, communion requires participation in the sacraments, that is, "acting in Christ." However, to be genuine, it must presuppose consistency, because "the act of faith genuinely lived must lead to a new life."
"Sacramental consistency means harmony between what is celebrated and lived, between prayer and action," the cardinal stressed.
It was precisely to foster this "harmony" that the Second Vatican Council reformed the liturgical practice, trying to make it more immediate and comprehensible to the faithful, he said.
However, the cardinal maintained, the work that remains to be done, to reach a profound understanding, is still very great, and the cardinal demonstrated this with examples of pastoral problems that are critical today: Catholics go to Church sporadically and for special occasions; parents baptize children just to please grandparents or to give the newborn a folkloric "entry ritual."
Cardinal George said this also explains the widespread idea that the Church exists only to "moralize human existence," exercising a type of "control," which is difficult to accept in a world that prizes its liberties.
On Wednesday, Cardinal George's meditations ended by focusing on the force of the liberating power of God: the freedom to "give and receive."
To clarify his argument, the cardinal gave the example of the mentally retarded: Their active integration in the community of faithful presupposes the latter's attitude of fraternal acceptance.
However, the handicapped also have something to give: "their weakness," he said. Today more than ever, the cardinal said, at a time dominated by the cult of self-sufficiency that isolates others, it is important to underline the primacy of being over doing, of the dignity of the human person over the capacity to produce.
Today's meditation ended with another type of freedom: the voluntary acceptance of suffering in the name of faith. Cardinal George said that "Jesus showed Himself to be supremely free" in His suffering, and that the Church's martyrology, from its beginnings until the century that has just ended, demonstrates this constant will to witness, including with the blood of the mystery of the cross.