• World

Why Greeks Blasted the Pope

3 minute read
Tony Karon

TIME.com: Pope John Paul II faced massive demonstrations and a hostile local clergy when he arrived in Greece on Friday. Why is the anti-Vatican feeling there so intense?

The underlying historical antagonisms between the Orthodox Church and Catholicism rarely come to the surface — usually, they’re expressed privately. But now that the pope is venturing into a predominantly Orthodox country, they’re coming out into the open. And we can expect even more hostility when he visits the Ukraine in June.

The pope really wanted to go to Greece so much that he didn’t care that the reception would be hostile. It took some complicated internal politics at the Vatican to be able make the trip. When he first mentioned it a couple of years ago, the synod of Greek bishops said he won’t be welcome until he goes down on his knees and asks forgiveness for the sacking of Constantinople by Catholic crusaders in 1204.

Which, of course, he pretty much did when he spoke in Athens…

Yes, but it seems that this was not enough for some of the Orthodox faithful. Everybody knew the depth of ill feeling between these two churches, but this may be the first time in recent memory that they’ve been so bluntly expressed in public.

What drives the pontiff’s determination to visit these Orthodox countries — he’s already visited Rumania and Armenia and plans to go to Ukraine?

He’s passionately driven by the desire to reconcile the churches, almost to the point of naïveté. A few years ago he wrote an encyclical, “That All Might Be One,” expressing the fervent desire to unite all Christians. He believes this is God’s will, and that it will happen. Until now, when leaders of the two churches have been brought together in ecumenical sessions, they’re never lovefests. They generally agree to disagree. Today one of the Orthodox bishops read him the riot act in a long accusation of Catholic wrongs against the Orthodox throughout history. But you seldom see the sort of brutal expression of hate expressed in the “go home” type protests that greeted the pope on the streets. Still, part of his strategy may be to prompt such venting, draw out the anger so that the two churches can move beyond it.

Does the fact that there’s no central Orthodox authority and that each country has its own Orthodox church make it more difficult to “negotiate” an end to the hostility?

There are certainly a lot of different levels of hostility among the different Orthodox churches. Rumania was considered quite a successful trip, and the pope was greeted warmly. But the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches have traditionally been the most hostile.

Are the tensions only over things that happened centuries ago, or are there any contemporary flash points?

Yes, but not in Greece. But certainly in the Ukraine, and possibly other parts of former Soviet Union. Since 1990, there has been contention over the fate of church property confiscated from the Catholics by the Soviet authorities. There are also complaints in the former Soviet territories over what they call Catholic proselytizing. There must be a million American Pentecostals out there trying to convert Russians, and yet it’s the Catholics — who mostly focus on bringing their own flock back to the Church — who are taking the heat for it. Still, this pope is committed to reconcile the churches, and he’s prepared to suffer the heat.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com