The papal trip to Cyprus and Greece (December 2-6, 2021) showed Francis’ attention to the Mediterranean, which was also the focus of his first trip (Lampedusa in July 2013), but also his attention to Eastern Orthodoxy as a traveling companion to a Catholic Church increasingly subject to identitarian and nationalist tensions in Europe and worldwide.
There were different and interrelated dimensions to this trip. There was the ecumenical dimension, with the privileged attention to the Eastern Orthodox churches in continuity with the key partnership (since 2013) between Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew. There was the humanitarian dimension, with the Holy See devoting much energy to raising attention on multiple crises on multiple fronts in the area, adding to the long-standing migration from Africa to Europe. In the last decade, the degradation of the security, social-economic, and environmental situation in many countries facing the western, central, and eastern Mediterranean has made the mare nostrum the bottleneck in the flow of human beings fleeing from wars and failed or semi-failed states in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. There was the political dimension, with Francis as the outspoken opponent of nationalisms and populism now coming to Greece, the birthplace of democracy (albeit not liberal and constitutional democracy), calling Europe and the international community to their moral responsibilities. Far in the background, there was finally the ecclesial, intra-Catholic dimension, which for Francis must refer always to what Catholics do ad extra.
Pope Francis visited the refugee camp in Lesbos five and half years ago, on April 16, 2016, and his return to Lesbos in December 2021 helps us understand the meaning of that year on the global religious and political stage, in rapid succession: the meeting with Patriarch of Moscow Kirill in Havana, Cuba; the election of Duterte in the Philippines; the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete; the Brexit referendum; the failed coup attempt in Turkey; the election of Donald Trump after alleged interferences by the Russian government in the presidential campaign.
On all those fronts, the situation has deteriorated, and Francis has spoken honestly, if not bluntly, about that in the speeches he delivered in Cyprus, Athens, and Lesbos.
On the ecumenical question, this trip has confirmed that Francis draws inspiration much more from the Orthodox churches and the Eastern Christian tradition than from the Protestant tradition. But the non-liberal and, at the same time, non-integralist Catholicism of Bergoglio/Francis puts him closer to a minority Orthodox church like the one embodied by the Patriarch of Constantinople than to the Russian Orthodox Church in regime of Putinisme (during the in-flight press conference the pope spoke about the work for the preparation of a second summit with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow). At the same time, this visit to Cyprus has made evident that the “active neutrality” of Francis’ papacy has put the Vatican more often at risk of being dragged not just into intra-Orthodox disputes (Ukraine), but also into the tensions between the Orthodox churches and state actors (Turkey).
On the humanitarian issue, Francis looked—and forced us to look—at the plight of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean: those in the camps and the many more who died at sea. In other parts of the continent, there are new Lesboses and new Lampedusas (at the border between Belarus and Poland, in the English Channel, in Ceuta y Melilla). The humanitarian issue intersects with the political dimension. Francis chose to speak about the new age of walls in Cyprus, close to a wall with multiple meanings—a division between different religious, national, and international communities of reference. The way in which the divided Cyprus is suspended between European Union and the political peripheries of the old continent is similar to the ways in which a number of countries in Europe find themselves in an uncertain present and future of membership in an international alliance. The history of relations between cultures and religions of neighboring countries says a lot about the possible consequences of one country choosing or being forced to choose one side or the other of the fence—not just the EU, but also NATO, between the USA and Russia (especially Ukraine and Turkey).
On the intra-Catholic issue, Francis is trying to reinterpret the Catholic conservative mantra of two decades ago (in the context of the debate on the Constitution of the EU) on the “Christian roots of Europe” away from a civilizational and identitarian motif and to convert them to a new covenant in the old continent between religious traditions and laicitè (but not in the French understanding of the concept).
All these dimensions contain direct messages for a Catholic audience. When Francis talked about the danger of living in a world of walls, his words rang a bell for international political relations, for the Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical dialogue, and also for intra-Catholic relations, which since 2016 (the year of the publication of Amoris Laetitia) have seen an unprecedented opposition to the very legitimacy of a pontificate and normalized talk of schism.
During the last few years, Europe and European Catholicism have become receptive to the American culture wars, and Eastern Orthodoxy has become part of that global political-religious cause célèbre from Russia and in the USA. Both secular Europeans and European Catholics are scarcely sensitive to Francis’ appeals for a defense of democracy hospitable to migrants. Merkel’s departure as German chancellor leaves Francis even more lonely. This pontificate continues to represent a Vatican II, ecumenical optimism for a possible coexistence between different identities in a neutral secular space. But that narrative of a possible, successful reconciliation between the churches and constitutional democracy is no longer universally accepted, not even in Western European and American (North and South) Catholicism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and since the 1990s, North American and Eastern European churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) present global Christianity and the papacy with sensibilities and a reckoning with the recent past that are very far from the universalism of the 1960s which the Holy See still embodies. The situation is even more complicated for the churches in Africa and Asia.
Francis’ trips represent the attempt to stitch up an ecclesial and civil fabric at risk of being torn in areas that are key for the self-understanding of both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Francis does so in ways that make it look like this pontifex is trying to build a bridge too far.
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