The Pope steps into a Greek drama

 — Mar. 24, 200124 mars 2001

Pope John Paul II is to make a brief visit to Athens in May. Many of the Greek Orthodox clergy and the monks of Athos are up in arms. Could this nevertheless turn out to be a breaking of the ice which has lasted since the Western and Eastern Church split in 1054? An Assumptionist priest who was formerly stationed in Athens looks at the tensions.

A friend of mine was once presented by a Greek to an Orthodox priest, who, on hearing that he was a Catholic, answered: He’s one of those who sacked Constantinople in 1204. Deeply rooted tradition lies behind a continuing Orthodox antipathy to Rome, as Pope John Paul II will himself shortly experience on his visit. But the Pope’s profound desire is to follow in the footsteps of St Paul: he comes to Greece as a pilgrim, not as a proselytiser.

Catholics had become accustomed since the Second Vatican Council, until the recent statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to accept the Greek Orthodox as constituting a sister Church, albeit not on outstandingly fraternal terms. Greek Orthodox bishops and monks in particular hold not only that Orthodoxy is an integral element of the Greek character, but also that ecumenical dialogue with other religious groups is a vain occupation, since Orthodoxy already contains divine truth in its entirety. The Orthodox hierarchy, although unwilling to receive the Pope in person, grudgingly tolerates his visit, which is an advance on the position not so long ago, when it was said that he would be welcome in Greece only if he abjured his faith and accepted baptism in the Orthodox Church.

A particular grievance is the presence of Catholics of the Byzantine rite in Greece. These Uniates — the so-called Ounia — are abhorred by the Orthodox. They arrived in Greece from Asia Minor with the exchange of populations after the Treaty of Lausanne, and their number is dwindling. Nevertheless, in spite of protests addressed to Rome by the Orthodox hierarchy, they continue to have their exarch. They are regarded as a Trojan horse stationed by Rome in Orthodox territory, an instrument of proselytism. In fact, however, when Orthodox pass to Catholicism — not a common occurrence — they usually prefer the Latin rite, whose liturgy they find more prayerful and offering greater participation to the laity. Such newcomers are not formally received into the Catholic Church but mingle unassumedly with the rest of the congregation.

The liturgy is central to Orthodoxy, but it is conceived rather differently from that of Catholicism. It is performed behind a screen, the iconostasis, independently of the faithful, who may pop into the church while it is going on to venerate an icon or stand there gossiping with a neighbour. The execution of other rites is much the same. I was present once at the baptism of a Bulgarian friend who had discovered God in Greece. He stood in a tub wearing a tunic, while the officiating priest drenched him from head to foot first with water and then with oil, muttering prayers unintelligibly at immense speed as those present chatted together. Probably the most significant moment was when an amulet was fastened round his neck.

The lectionary which the Orthodox use in the liturgy has an archetypal function as providing the official text for the Bible, even though there are capable exegetes who know that it is sometimes inexact. One of these, a lay professor in the University of Thessaloniki, produced a more accurate version of the New Testament containing the koine, the archaic Greek in which it was composed, accompanied by a paraphrase in contemporary demotic. It was rejected by the Orthodox hierarchy on account of the exegete’s amendments, and they insisted that in subsequent editions the liturgical text should be restored, although the Catholic Church in Greece readily adopted it as being easier for the people to understand. The United Bible Society, which had sponsored the project, could hardly fall out with the official Church and followed the hierarchy’s directives, to the chagrin of the exegete whose scholarly work was ignored. A similar attitude is taken towards patristic texts, scholarly editions of which are considered to be less spiritual and corrupted by profane Western science. One is reminded of the witch-hunts which occurred in the Catholic Church when Modernism was proscribed, but that is old history.

Westerners have difficulty in understanding how Orthodoxy is part of Greek culture, with no necessary connection with faith or belief. For example, I have a Greek friend who publicly professed her agnosticism and indeed became a Maoist while she was studying in Paris. When she married a French atheist, however, there was no question but that the ceremony should be performed in a Greek church, with the crowning and all the rest of the procedure. Actually, at that time it would probably have been impossible for them to have been married civilly in Greece, for marriage had been under the jurisdiction of the Church in the East from about Justinian I’s reign in the sixth century. Even Catholics were obliged to undergo a double ceremony, in an Orthodox as well as their own church.

Only recently has civil marriage become legal in Greece, to the strong disapproval of the hierarchy — one sign that the separation of Church and State is beginning gently in Greece. Another sign is that Greek citizens are no longer required to have their religious allegiance stated on their identity cards, with the underlying assumption that true Greeks are Orthodox. The practice was not given up lightly. When Greece became a member of the European Community, from which the country reaps enormous economic advantages, pressure had to be applied for years by the community before the identity card requirement was finally ended by a civil decree. The Greek clergy opposed this decree, going down into the streets to protest against it.

One distinguished layman in favour of abolishing the practice was my late friend Nikos Oikonomides, who died prematurely last year of Legionnaires’ disease. Forced to go into exile under the colonels, he returned in triumph while I was living in Athens. A close friend of the Prime Minister, he was given eminent posts at the university and the National Research Centre and finally became president of the Greater Hellenism Foundation. Because of his open and influential support for the suppression of the mention of religion on identity cards, he was bitterly attacked by members of the Orthodox hierarchy. When he died, his widow sent an open letter to the major Greek dailies stating that she would not have a priest present at his funeral, and according to one of my acquaintances who was there, the clergy did indeed abstain.

Yet Nikos was not anti-religious. My relations with him were affable from our first meeting in the 1960s when he was in exile in Paris. In the 1990s he organised a joint Serbian and Greek colloquium in Athens; he invited me to take part. When I pointed out that I was neither a Serb nor a Greek (in fact the only participant who was not) — and a Catholic priest into the bargain — he replied amicably that I was an honorary member of both their nations.

It is more than evident that the ideology which the more fanatical Orthodox try to impose on the country is by no means universally accepted. Even in Mount Athos, their stronghold, attitudes vary from monastery to monastery. At Esphigmenou, when I last visited Athos, a sign was placed at the entry, a skull and crossbones, accompanied by the legend: Orthodoxy or Death. I did not attempt to go in. On principle, I used to wear a cassock when I visited Athos (although I did not elsewhere). This could provoke rude exchanges, and naturally I was treated in some monasteries as heterodox, forbidden to enter the catholicon (church) during offices and obliged to eat meals apart from the community. In other monasteries, my cassock posed no obstacle to dialogue.

One incident may be worth mentioning. At the end of the Byzantine liturgy, it is the custom to distribute the antidoron, bread which is blessed but not consecrated. When I presented myself in one monastery to receive my piece, the priest who was distributing it turned me away, saying I was heterodox. A bishop also staying there who happened to know me came across and discreetly gave me half of his own antidoron.

In general, I found that relationships with Greeks who had some acquaintance with Western culture were friendly and spontaneous, particularly if they were colleagues dedicated, like me, to Byzantine studies. The study centre of which I was formerly in charge had an ecumenical mission, which was fulfilled in the sense that it was a place where Orthodox and Catholic scholars could meet informally. The same purpose is served by the library which the Jesuits have in Michael Boda Street, and which they have developed considerably in recent years.

Institutional ecumenism encounters obstacles, however. This was clear to me during the Church Unity Octave. The Catholics and other schismatic Christian communities, for example the Armenians and Protestants, took it extremely seriously. Every church organised its ecumenical service. The Octave lasts at least three weeks in Athens and by the end I used to find that I was sated with ecumenism. The Orthodox Church, however, did not take part officially, though individual Greeks, priests and laymen, did as their personal choice.

One of the weaknesses of the Orthodox Church in Greece is that there is no place within its structure for those with liberal ideas. Civil authorities can challenge it and flout its policy, but only from the outside. There seems a danger of it losing touch progressively with the outside world, with unpredictable consequences. The Pope’s visit may prove to be a litmus test. The hierarchy is boycotting him, but will the people? In other countries vast crowds have turned out to welcome him. Will they in Greece?

Posted: Mar. 24, 2001 • Permanent link:
Categories: TabletIn this article: Catholic, John Paul II, Orthodox
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Catégorie : TabletDans cet article : Catholic, John Paul II, Orthodox

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