By Robin Gomes
Pope Francis on Saturday urged Greece and Europe to work for a renewed humanity by lifting their gaze to God and showing concern for others, the poor and for creation. He also called for respect for human life, emphasizing that death is not a right and should not be administered.
He made the exhortation in his address to the authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps of Greece at the presidential palace in the capital, Athens.
The Pope flew from the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, to Athens on Saturday morning on the second leg of the 35th foreign Apostolic Journey of his pontificate, 2-6 December. Greek Minister for Foreign Affairs, Nikos Dendias, received the Pope at Athens airport, where children offered him bouquets in welcome. After the guard of honour and the presentation of delegations of both sides, he was driven some 30 kilometres to the presidential palace in Athens city where President Katerina Sakellaropoulou welcomed him. There, after a private meeting with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, he addressed the country’s authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps.
The transcendent and human dimensions
“Without Athens and without Greece, Europe and the world would not be what they are. They would be less wise, less happy,” the Pope said, evoking the country’s ancient past with Athens as the cradle of the Greek civilization.
The Acropolis, and Mounts Olympus and Athos, point high towards God, for we need transcendence in order to be truly human, noted Pope Francis. The Gospels were written in Greek, the language of human wisdom which became the voice of divine Wisdom, he added.
Democracy, politics and the common good
The Pope said our gaze should be directed not only to what is on high, but also towards others, and the surrounding sea reminds us of Greece’s vocation to be a bridge connecting different peoples. In Athens, the concept of a citizen began and democracy was born, giving way to what is the European Union today and the dream of peace and fraternity that it represents for so many peoples.
Democracy requires the participation and involvement of all, yet, the Pope noted, today in Europe and elsewhere, there is “a retreat from democracy” led by authoritarianism and populism.
Politics, he said should be the art of the common good, which ought to give priority to the weaker strata of society. Rather than moving left or right, politics should move forward towards social justice, from partisanship to participation, from committing ourselves to supporting our party alone to engaging ourselves actively for the promotion of all.
This should motivate actions on fronts such as the climate, the pandemic, the common market and, above all, the widespread forms of poverty. Politics needs this, in order to put common needs ahead of private interests and excessive nationalistic demands.
Climate change and care for creation
Pope Francis then drew lessons from the olive tree that unites the different lands around the Mediterranean Sea. In recent years these trees have been burned by fires often caused by adverse weather conditions provoked in turn by climate changes. Yet, the olive leaf brought back by a dove to Noah after the deluge in the Bible was the symbol of recovery, of the strength to begin anew by changing our way of life, renewing our proper relationship with the Creator, other creatures and all creation.
The Pope expressed his hopes that commitments assumed in the fight against climate changes be more fully shared and seriously implemented, lest children once more have to pay for the hypocrisy of their parents.
In Sacred Scripture, the olive tree is also associated with the call to fellowship, especially with regard to those who do not belong to one’s own people. The Book of Deuteronomy urges that at harvests, olive trees be left with some fruits for others.
Greece has witnessed the arrival of migrants in some of its islands, which has exacerbated the difficulties following the economic crisis. Yet, the Pope lamented, Europe continues to hesitate, and the EU has often fallen prey to forms of nationalistic self-interest, rather than being an engine of solidarity, and has appeared at times blocked and uncoordinated. The issue of migration has led to breaches between South and North.
The Pope encouraged a global, communitarian vision regarding the issue of migration, and called for attention for those in greatest need, so that, in proportion to each country’s means, these migrants be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated, in full respect for their human rights and dignity.
Solidarity amid suffering
Sufferings bring us together, the Pope said. Realizing that we are all part of the same frail humanity will help us to build a more integrated and peaceful future. The pandemic has made us rediscover our own weakness and our need for others.
Amid great hardship, he noted, there has also been a remarkable growth in solidarity, to which the local Catholic Church is happy to continue to contribute, in the conviction that it represents a benefit not to be lost once the storm gradually subsides.
Life and death
Pope Francis also touched upon life and death issues. He recalled that part of the oath of Hippocrates of ancient Greece, regarded as the “Father of Medicine”, can be applied to our time, regarding life, especially of the unborn.
“The right of all to care and treatment,” the Holy Father said, “must always be respected, so that those most vulnerable, particularly the elderly, may never be discarded.”
“For life is a right, not death. Death is to be accepted, not administered,” he stressed.
Pope Francis concluded his speech encouraging authorities to guide Greece in the ways of openness, inclusion and justice. He wished that Athens continues to resound the message to lift our gaze on high and towards others; that democracy be the response to authoritarianism; and that individualism and indifference be overcome by concern for others, for the poor and for creation.
"These," he said, "are essential foundations for the renewed humanity which our time, and our Europe, has need."