While reporting on Pope John Paul II’s visits to Athens, Damascus, and Malta this past May, syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer wrote: “His obvious and increasing ailments seemed to strengthen the mystical pull of his spirit. His physical weakness seemed to emblemize to the faithful the biblical admonition that God uses not only churchmen but also the poor, the weak, and the suffering in ‘miraculous ways.’”
Her words inspire us to recall the vigorous, athletic man that Karol Wojtyla was when he was elected to the papacy in 1978. More than 20 years of sacrifice have taken their toll on his body, but they have not exhausted his love. His affectionate addresses to Greek and Syrian, Muslim and Christian audiences in the course of his pilgrimage prove that the pope is still being used by God and, we suspect, still will be for years to come.
Pilgrimages aside, John Paul’s name alone broadens our minds to consider parts of the world that we rarely hear of. His Slavic origins associate him with Russia and Eastern Europe, and these places in turn have ancient cultural and religious roots in Greece and the Middle East.
In keeping with his heritage, the pope’s salutation in the Cathedral of St. George in Damascus on that trip called us far beyond our contemporary Western understanding of equality to a holy, humble equity: “Your Holiness, Your Beatitudes, Eminences and Excellencies, Brothers and Sisters in Christ….” In Roman Catholic custom, only the pope himself is addressed as “Your Holiness.” But in Syria, the pope used this title not to refer to himself, but to greet Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas.
In the pope’s mind, this historic pilgrimage “in the steps of St. Paul” completed his journeys connected to the Jubilee Year 2000. He did not visit every place that the apostle to the gentiles visited. But surely Paul himself is quite astounded, as we all must be, at all the places John Paul has seen in his world travels. He embodies the words “apostle” and “missionary,” two words that mean the same thing: “sent with a message.”
In Athens, the pope’s message centered on a favorite theme of his: fides et ratio (faith and reason). He named Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in a homily that also recalled Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Athens using a Greek philosophical poem as his text (Acts 17:22-34). To the Greek president Kostas Stephanopoulos, John Paul said, “Reading the learned writings of Augustine of Hippo and Dionysius the Areopagite, we see that Christian theology and mysticism drew elements from the dialogue with Platonic philosophy”
On the evening of May 4, seated together in the ruins of the Areopagus, the pope and His Beatitude Archbishop Christodoulos, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, listened to a reading of the speech that Paul gave so long ago on that very spot. The two leaders then made a “common declaration” in which they said, “We rejoice at the success and progress of the European Union…. However, the emerging tendency to transform certain European countries into secular states without any reference to religion constitutes a retraction and a denial of their spiritual legacy.”
Two days later, at the Abbassyin Stadium in Damascus, the pope remarked in his homily that “Christian identity is not defined by opposition to others but by the ability to go out of oneself towards one’s brothers and sisters.” There is no question that Catholics in the Middle East face many trials in the form of warfare in Israel and Islamic fundamentalism. The pope’s prescription is not rebellion against secular governments but a generous patience grounded in respect and a sense of common ground.
The pope always arranges to speak to local youth on his journeys. His special charism has a lasting effect on them. (Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., of Denver recently credited the pope’s 1993 visit to that city with turning a whole generation of young people around.) Speaking to a crowd of young men and women at the Melkite Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Dormition of Our Lady in Damascus, John Paul said, “Dear young people, having discovered God, you must now offer Him to the world. The `logic’ of Christianity is truly unique. No one can keep this gift unless he also gives it away.”
I have often asked myself, “Who but this pope tells us these things?” God uses the weak and aged, who seem to hold onto nothing, to show us what we need to know when we would prefer to ignore or even change the logic of Christianity. Following the footsteps of St. Paul, John Paul is, like him, the apostle to the world.