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Pope visits Greece, Cyprus

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VATICAN CITY — With the Angelus prayer replacing his weekly general audience Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis used the opportunity to thank the governments and churches of Cyprus and Greece for their hospitality during his trip to the countries Dec. 2-6 and shared what he considered the highlights of his trip: his meetings with the heads of the Orthodox churches of the two countries and his meetings with migrants and refugees.

Cyprus and Greece are the "wellsprings" of early Christianity, of fraternity and of Europe with Cyprus as "the outpost of the Holy Land on the continent" and Greece as "the home of classical culture," the pope said in a Nov. 27 video message to the countries ahead of his trip.

"Even today, Europe cannot ignore the Mediterranean, the sea which has seen the spread of the Gospel and the development of great civilizations," he said. "The sea, which embraces many peoples, with its open ports reminds us that the sources of living together lie in mutual acceptance."

While looking forward to visiting the Orthodox and Catholic populations in the two countries, Pope Francis said he cannot forget "those who, in recent years and still today, have been fleeing from war and poverty, landing on the shores of the continent and elsewhere, and encountering not hospitality but hostility and even exploitation."

"They are our brothers and sisters," he said. "How many have lost their lives at sea! Today our sea, the Mediterranean, is a great cemetery."

The pontiff began his Dec. 2-4 visit to Cyprus with a meeting with bishops, priests and religious, highlighting the value of welcoming and diversity in a nation struggling with migration.

Located on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and just south of Turkey, Cyrus has a large Orthodox majority, but also centuries-old communities of Maronite and Latin-rite Catholics, whose numbers have grown because of foreign workers, especially from the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India.

"We are brothers and sisters loved by a single Father," he told them.

Arguing is normal, the pope said, adding as an aside that he and his four siblings argued almost every day when he was growing up, but they still came together as a family around the dinner table.

"This is what fraternity in the church means: We can argue about visions, sensibilities and differing ideas," he said. "Yet let us always remember: We argue not for the sake of fighting or imposing our own ideas, but in order to express and live the vitality of the Spirit, who is love and communion."

Dec. 3 the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would help move a dozen migrants from Cyprus to Italy before Christmas. Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, said promising to bring a dozen migrants to Italy in the next few weeks does not rule out more following later. In fact, news agencies were reporting that the others would follow in January and February.

For more than eight years, Pope Francis has argued against closed borders and closed hearts, and continued to do so on his most recent trip.

But during his Dec. 5 visit to the Mavrovouni refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos and in remarks to reporters flying with him back to Rome the next day, Pope Francis also made it clear that in calling for outstretched hands he was not ignoring the complexity of the migration issue or the limits of what some governments can do.

In other words, he does not expect people to look at migration with rose-colored glasses, but he does expect them to look at the actual migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers as brothers and sisters.

The tie of kinship is what should tip the balance when a community or a country weighs whether it has the resources needed to "welcome, protect, promote and integrate" the newcomers.

Dec. 5 also featured a late-afternoon Mass in Athens and a private visit by Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II, head of the Orthodox Church of Greece.

"God surprises us," the pope told the 2,000 people at Mass. "His ways surprise us, for they differ from our human expectations; they do not reflect the power and grandeur that we associate with him. Indeed, the Lord likes best what is small and lowly."

Before leaving Greece, he met with Catholic teenagers and young adults from across the nation at St. Dionysius School in Maroussi, a suburb of Athens, Dec. 6. Three of them had a chance to briefly share their stories with him.

For example, Katerina Binibini, whose family came from the Philippines, said she sometimes feels angry or jealous when she sees people without any faith easily coast through life without any problems, while as "a faithful Christian, I feel constantly put to the test."

She said she finds it hard to explain her faith to others, especially when there is so much suffering or injustice in the world. But, nonetheless, she still recognizes the strength, graces and opportunities she has had because of her faith and is grateful for God's love.

Pope Francis said all those moments of doubt in life are "vitamins" for the faith, making it stronger, more resilient, wiser and more mature.

"Faith is precisely that: a daily journey with Jesus who takes us by the hand, accompanies us, encourages us, and, when we fall, lifts us up," he said. Never be afraid to reflect and ask questions because "you cannot walk this path of faith blind."

The wisdom inscribed on the Greek temple of Delphi, "Know thyself," is still valid today, he said.

"Realize that your worth is in who you are and not what you have. Your worth is not in the brand of the dress or shoes you wear, but because you are unique," he said.

This wisdom will serve them well to avoid, like Odysseus, the dangerous allure of the sirens' song, the pope said. "Today's sirens want to charm you with seductive and insistent messages that focus on easy gains, the false needs of consumerism, the cult of physical wellness, of entertainment at all costs."

Serving others is "the path to true joy! Helping others is not for losers, but for winners; it is the way to bring about something truly new in history," he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021