4 December 2021 | Apostolic Journey


Presidential Palace in Athens

Madam President of the Republic,
Members of Government and of the Diplomatic Corps,
Distinguished Religious and Civil Authorities,
Illustrious Representatives of Society and the World of Culture,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I offer you a most cordial greeting and I thank Madam President for her words of
welcome in your name and that of all the citizens of Greece. It is an honour to
be in this glorious city. I make my own the words of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus:
“Golden Athens, patroness of all that is good… In seeking eloquence, I found
happiness” (Or. 43, 14). I come as a pilgrim to this land rich in spirituality,
culture and civilization, to find the same happiness that so thrilled the great
Father of the Church: the joy of cultivating wisdom and sharing beauty. A
happiness that is not private and solitary, but, born of wonder, yearns for the
infinite and is open to community; a wisdom-filled happiness that from here
spread everywhere. Without Athens and without Greece, Europe and the world
would not be what they are. They would be less wise, less happy.
From this place, humanity’s horizons expanded. I too feel invited to lift my gaze
and let it rest on the highest part of the city, the Acropolis. Visible from afar to
the travellers who over the millennia have arrived here, it inevitably bespoke the
presence of the divine, the call to expand our horizons to what is on high. From
Mount Olympus to the Acropolis to Mount Athos, Greece invites men and women
of every age to direct their journey of life towards the heights. Towards God, for
we need transcendence in order to be truly human. Today, in the West that
emerged from here, there is a forgetfulness of our need for heaven, trapped as
we are between the frenzy of a thousand earthly concerns and the insatiable
greed of a depersonalizing consumerism. Yet places such as these invite us to
feel wonder before the infinite, the beauty of being, and the joy of faith. Here
were the paths travelled by the Gospel, uniting East and West, the Holy Places in
Europe, Jerusalem and Rome. In order to bring to the world and the good news
of God, lover of mankind, the Gospels were written in Greek, the undying
language in which the Word – the Logos – expressed himself, the language of
human wisdom which became the voice of divine Wisdom.
In this city, our gaze is directed not only to what is on high, but also towards
others. We are reminded of this by the sea, which Athens borders and which has
shaped the vocation of this land, set in the heart of the Mediterranean, to be a
bridge connecting different peoples. Here, great historians sought to recount the
histories of peoples near and far. Here, according to the celebrated words of
Socrates, people began to view themselves as citizens not only of a single city,
or a single country, but of the entire world. Citizens. Here man first became
conscious of being “a political animal” (cf. ARISTOTLE, Politics, I, 2) and, as
members of the community, began to see others not subjects but as fellow
citizens, with whom to work together in organizing the polis. Here democracy
was born. That cradle, thousands of years later, was to become a house, a great
house of democratic peoples. I am speaking of the European Union and the
dream of peace and fraternity that it represents for so many peoples.
Yet we cannot avoid noting with concern how today, and not only in Europe, we
are witnessing a retreat from democracy. Democracy requires participation and
involvement on the part of all; consequently, it demands hard work and
patience. It is complex, whereas authoritarianism is peremptory and populism’s
easy answers appear attractive. In some societies, concerned for security and
dulled by consumerism, weariness and malcontent can lead to a sort of
skepticism about democracy. Yet universal participation is something essential;
not simply to attain shared goals, but also because it corresponds to what we
are: social beings, at once unique and interdependent.
At the same time, we are also witnessing a skepticism about democracy
provoked by the distance of institutions, by fear of a loss of identity, by
bureaucracy. The remedy is not to be found in an obsessive quest for popularity,
in a thirst for visibility, in a flurry of unrealistic promises or in adherence to
forms of ideological colonization, but in good politics. For politics is, and ought to
be in practice, a good thing, as the supreme responsibility of citizens and as the
art of the common good. So that the good can be truly shared, particular
attention, I would even say priority, should be given to the weaker strata of
society. This is the direction to take. One of Europe’s founding fathers indicated
it as an antidote to the polarizations that enliven democracy, but also risk
debilitating it. As he said: “There is much talk of who is moving left or right, but
the decisive thing is to move forward, and to move forward means to move
towards social justice” (A. DE GASPERI, Address in Milan, 23 April 1949). Here, a
change of direction is needed, even as fears and theories, amplified by virtual
communication, are daily spread to create division. Let us help one another,
instead, to pass from partisanship to participation; from committing ourselves to
supporting our party alone to engaging ourselves actively for the promotion of
From partisanship to participation. This what should motivate our actions on a
variety of fronts. I think of the climate, the pandemic, the common market and,
above all, the widespread forms of poverty. These are challenges that call for
concrete and active cooperation. The international community needs this, in
order to open up paths of peace through a multilateralism that will not end up
being stifled by excessive nationalistic demands. Politics needs this, in order to
put common needs ahead of private interests. It might seem a utopia, a
hopeless journey over a turbulent sea, a long and unachievable odyssey. Yet, as
the great Homeric epic tells us, travelling over stormy seas is often our only
choice. And it will achieve its goal if it is driven by the desire to come to home
port, by the effort to move forward together, by nóstos álgos, homesickness.
Here I would like to renew my appreciation for the perseverance that led to the
Prespa Agreement signed between this Republic and that of North Macedonia.
Looking once more to the Mediterranean, the sea that opens us to others, I think
of its fertile shores and the tree that can serve as its symbol: the olive, whose
yield has just been collected. The olive tree unites the different lands bordering
this one sea. It is sad to see how, in recent years, many age-old olive trees have
been burned, consumed by fires often caused by adverse weather conditions
provoked in turn by climate changes. Against the scarred landscape of this
marvellous country, the olive tree can symbolize the determination to tackle the
climate crisis and its devastation. After the primordial cataclysm related by the
Bible, the great Flood, a dove returned to Noah, carrying “in its beak a freshly
plucked olive leaf” (Gen 8:11). That 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. It is my hope, in this regard, that
the commitments assumed in the fight against climate changes may be more
fully shared and seriously implemented, rather than remaining a mere façade.
May words be followed by deeds, lest children once more have to pay for the
hypocrisy of their fathers. We are reminded of the words Homer placed on the
lips of Achilles: “Hateful in my eyes, even as the gates of Hades, is that man
who hides one thing in his heart and says another” (Iliad, IX, 312-313).
In Scripture, the olive is also associated with the call to fellowship, especially
with regard to those who do not belong to one’s own people. “When you beat
your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien”, the Bible tells
us (Deut 24:20). This country, naturally welcoming, has seen on some of its
islands the arrival of numbers of our migrant brothers and sisters greater than
the number of their native inhabitants; this has heightened the difficulties still
felt in the aftermath of the economic crisis. Yet Europe also continues to
temporize: the European Community, prey to forms of nationalistic self-interest,
rather than being an engine of solidarity, appears at times blocked and
uncoordinated. In the past, ideological conflicts prevented the building of bridges
between Eastern and Western Europe; today the issue of migration has led to
breaches between South and North as well. I would like to encourage once again
a global, communitarian vision with regard to the issue of migration, and to urge
that attention be paid to those in greatest need, so that, in proportion to each
country’s means, they will be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated, in
full respect for their human rights and dignity. Rather than a present obstacle,
this represents a guarantee for a future marked by peaceful coexistence with all
those who increasingly are forced to flee in search of a new home and new hope.
They are the protagonists of a horrendous modern Odyssey. I like to recall that
when Odysseus landed in Ithaca he was recognized, not by the local lords, who
had usurped his house and goods, but by the person who cared for him, his old
nurse. He recognized him by seeing his wounds. Sufferings bring us together;
realizing that we are all part of the same frail humanity will help us to build a
more integrated and peaceful future. Let us turn what seems only a tragic
calamity into a bold opportunity!
The pandemic is itself the great calamity. It has made us rediscover our own
weakness and our need for others. In this country too, it poses a challenge that
calls for suitable interventions by the authorities – I think of the necessary
vaccination campaign – and not a few sacrifices on the part of citizens. Amid
great hardship, 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.
Some words of the oath of Hippocrates seem written for our own time, such as
the commitment to “follow that regimen I judge best for the benefit of the sick”
and “to abstain from whatever is harmful and offensive” to others, to
safeguarding life at every moment, particularly in the mother’s womb (cf.
Hippocratic Oath, ancient text). The right of all to care and treatment must
always be respected, so that those most vulnerable, particularly the elderly, may
never be discarded: that the elderly may not be subject to a “throwaway
culture”. The elderly are the sign of a people’s wisdom. For life is a right, not
death. Death is to be accepted, not administered.
Dear friends, some Mediterranean olive trees are so ancient that they predate
the coming of Christ. Age-old, enduring, resistant to the ravages of time, they
remind us of the importance of preserving deep roots, fortified by memory. This
country can rightly be called the memory of Europe – you are the memory of
Europe – and I am happy to visit twenty years after the historic visit of Pope
John Paul II, and in this year that marks the bicentenary of its independence. I
think of the well-known words of General Kolokotronis: “God has set his
signature on the freedom of Greece”. God readily sets his signature on human
freedom, always and everywhere. It is his greatest gift to us, the gift that, in
turn, he values most from us. For God created us to be free, and what most
pleases him is that, in freedom, we love him and our neighbour. Laws exist to
help make this possible, but also training in responsibility and the growth of a
culture of respect. Here I would again express my gratitude for the public
recognition of the Catholic community, and I assure you of its desire to promote
the common good of Greek society, directing to that end its innate universality,
in the hope that in practice the conditions needed to carry out its service
effectively will always be guaranteed.
Two hundred years ago, the provisional government of this country addressed
Catholics in these touching words: “Christ has commanded us to love our
neighbour. Yet who among our neighbours is closer than you, our fellow citizens,
despite certain ritual differences? We have the same fatherland, we are one
people, we Christians are brethren – brethren in our roots, our growth and our
fruits – under the Holy Cross”. To be Christians under the sign of the cross, in
this country blessed by faith and by its Christian traditions, spurs all believers in
Christ to cultivate communion at every level, in the name of the God who
embraces all with his mercy. Brothers and sisters, I thank you for your
commitment in this regard and I encourage you to guide this country in the ways
of openness, inclusion and justice. From this city, from this cradle of civilization,
may there ever continue to resound a message that lifts our gaze both on high
and towards others; that democracy may be the response to the siren songs of
authoritarianism; and that individualism and indifference may be overcome by
concern for others, for the poor and for creation. For these are essential
foundations for the renewed humanity which our time, and our Europe, has
need. [In Greek:] May God bless Greece!