Pope Francis, who began a three-day visit to Greece on Saturday, spoke warmly about the hosting nation and its contribution to humanity at a ceremony held in the Presidential Mansion in Athens.
Addressing Greece’s President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and leader of main opposition Alexis Tsipras, the Pope said that “without Athens and without Greece, Europe, and the world would not be what they are today – they would be less wise and less happy.”
Describing how one looks up and sees the Acropolis while approaching Athens, he likened it to the extension of humanity toward the divine.
“It is the calling to expand our horizons up: from Mt. Olympus to the Acropolis and to Mt. Athos, Greece calls on human beings of any era to align the journey of a lifetime above, toward God, because we need transcendence to become truly human.” Instead, he said, the West is trapped by “the frenetic choice of thousands of earth paths and an insatiable gluttony of a consumerism that strips us of identity.”
Pope on poverty and migration
Francis drew from Greek culture to speak of the need to care for others and realize that humans are citizens of the world – citing Socrates’ saying “I am not an Athenian, but a citizen of the world” and Aristotle, who first said that a human being is “a political animal”, a member of society.
Instead, he said, he was concerned about the regression of democracy, both in Europe and the world, which required participation and collaboration, effort, and patience.
“In order to have true participation in the common good, special attention – if not by priority – should be paid to weaker sectors,” especially in the challenges that humanity faces today, he said, like climate change, the pandemic, the shared market and scattered pockets of poverty.
Referring to the symbol of the olive tree, he noted that this today could serve to stand as a symbol of resilience against the climate crisis and its destruction. It is a tree that features in the story of Noah and the Ark and in the Bible, inviting others to stand by others, especially strangers to our country.
In the refugee crisis, the European Community, he noted, was rocked by nationalistic selfishness, and instead of being an agency of solidarity, it sometimes appears to be immovable and disorganized.
“If at one time ideological clashes obstructed the building of bridges between East and West on the continent, today the migration issue has opened cracks between North and South,” Pope Francis pointed out.
When Odysseus returned home to Ithaca, “he was not recognized by the leaders of the land who had taken over his house and goods, but by those who had taken care of him,” Francis stated.
In the same way, he said, trials like those of migration bring us closer together during difficult times.
Francis and democracy
In concluding his speech, Pope Francis expressed the hope that Athens would continue its message of democracy:
“From this city, this cradle of democracy, there once rose – and may it continue to rise – a message that focuses above and on the other person. To autocracy’s alluring invitation let it respond with democracy, to selfish indifference may it present care for the other, for the poor and for creation – all fundamental bases for a renewed humanitarianism, which our times and Europe needs. God bless Greece!”
Pope to visit Greece’s Lesvos on Sunday
Earlier on Saturday, Pope Francis also met with Mitsotakis before meeting successively with local authorities, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Greece and Greek Catholic Church leaders.
“We still have very vivid memories from the visit of His Holiness in 2016, when he came to Greece during the refugee crisis,” the Greek prime minister said.
“I am sure that tomorrow when he visits Lesvos, he will see a much-improved situation,” Mitsotakis added.
Francis visited Lesvos in April of 2016. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Greece’s Archibishop Ieronymos accompanied him on his visit to the infamous camp in Moria.
Unaccompanied women with children in their arms were extending their hands in an effort to shake hands with the three religious leaders. One refugee approached the Pope with tears and bowed in front of him and asked for his blessing. In an intimate moment, both the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch took a baby in their arms.