VATICAN CITY, MAY 3, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The Vatican's official spokesman downplayed speculation that John Paul II is facing an impossible task when he travels to Greece on Friday and Saturday.
Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Pope hopes the trip will promote dialogue with Eastern Christianity in general and the Orthodox Church in particular.
"Not only would I say that it is a possible mission, I would also say that the currents of tension we have witnessed over the past weeks in some way have underlined the need for this trip," the Vatican spokesman said in an interview on Greek television "Star Channel and Et."
Navarro-Valls was evaluating statements by Catholic Archbishop Nikolaos Foscolos of Athens, who has referred to the "Calvary" of Greek Catholics and has described the papal trip as an impossible mission.
"As regards the press statements of the Catholic archbishop of Athens," Navarro-Valls said, "I believe he would like the Catholic minority to be more recognized and less discriminated against."
"However," he added, "I wish to stress that the Pope is going to Greece inspired primarily by everything that unites us -- without forgetting the complexity of the problems, and looking at everything that unites the Greek Orthodox Church with the Latin.
"I say this because, as you know, the separation between East and West goes back 10 centuries -- 10 centuries of very few contacts and very many misunderstandings."
The Orthodox Churches separated from communion with Rome at the time of the 1054 schism. The separation was due, above all, to differences in the understanding and application of the role of the Bishop of Rome.
"Now is the time to take advantage and concentrate on what unites us," Navarro-Valls said. "There will be time later to discuss problems."
The papal visit comes at a difficult moment for ecumenical dialogue. The possibility of a personal conversation with the primate of the Greek Church could promote understanding.
In this connection, the Vatican spokesman revealed that "the program includes three decisive meetings: the Pope's visit to His Beatitude Christodoulos; the visit to the nunciature; and later, the most significant: the meeting of both in the Areopagus, to read a text from the Acts of the Apostles together."
Navarro-Valls continued: "I do not know if there will be time and an opportunity to arrive at important agreements. But sometimes actions are so meaningful that many misunderstandings are overcome. The ecumenical dialogue began in a new way 21 years ago. We have journeyed on a very long road together, and there is still much to be done. However, in this walking together, which the two Churches undoubtedly desire, the Athens meeting takes on great historical value."
Some observers think the trip will open Moscow's doors to the Pope. Navarro-Valls is cautious.
"I think that these two trips are absolutely unrelated," he said. "For the moment, the Pope wishes to go to Greece on a personal pilgrimage, and deep down he is only thinking of [Greece]. To go to Greece thinking of Rome would be tantamount to saying: 'I am not interested in Greece; the Greeks don't count.' There is nothing further from the Pope's mind.
"The Pope is going to this great country of Greece with a great Christian Church, to render due homage to their common history, which, in some way, St. Paul's trip personifies. At present, the Pope is thinking of Greece."
The eve of the papal visit to Greece has been marked by protests, some within the Orthodox Church itself, including the monks of Mount Athos.
Navarro-Valls said he does not think there will be such reactions when the Pope arrives in Athens.
"I honestly do not expect them," he said. "In relation to Greece's demographic context, the reactions of the past days are meaningless. Culturally, I think, they are not part of the logic of the majority of the country. Naturally, we respect any civilian reaction of dissent."
The possible protests against John Paul II's visit to Greece this Friday and Saturday would be only the latest sign of the 1,000-year-old separation that has divided Eastern and Western Christians.
"Unfortunately, here in Greece there are no official relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox," Catholic Archbishop Nikolaos Foscolos of Athens told Vatican Radio. "The latter regards itself virtually as the sole religion of the state."
The Pope, who is retracing the steps of St. Paul the Apostle, hopes to foster dialogue with the Orthodox.
"For the Orthodox Church," Archbishop Foscolos said, "all other confessions and religions are considered 'xenia dogmata,' namely, 'foreign religions.' The Orthodox Church is regarded as the only religion of the country. Unfortunately, therefore, there is neither ecumenical dialogue nor relations at the official level. There are relations at the personal level, but they are not very developed."
He added: "I hope that, despite this opposition on the part of fundamentalists and conservatives among our Orthodox brothers, something good will still come from this visit, either at the national level, or in regard to relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church generally."