A preview of the pope’s trip to Cyprus

Tomorrow morning the pope departs for a three-day visit to Cyprus. What’s he going to do there and why is that important?

Before the trip to Portugal, John L. Allen already noted that this year’s papal visits seem to be “laid out in ascending order of difficulty”. Malta was a home game (although it included an unscheduled meeting with victims of sexual abuse), and Portugal was deemed a general success, nationally and internationally (although the Portuguese government did choose to allow same-sex marriage not even a week after the pope had spoken against it). Cyprus, though, seems of a different order of difficulty. Here, the Catholic Church is very much a minority. The 25,000 faithful in the island nation make up 3.15% of the entire population.

Archbishop Chrysostomos and the pope pictured at a meeting in 2007

It is the Orthodox Church which dictates the Christian landscape here. And there is protest in their ranks against the visit of Pope Benedict XVI: At least five of the eighteen members of the Holy Synod are opposed, causing Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Nova Justiniana and All Cyprus to issue a warning to these bishops that they place themselves outside the Church by not welcoming the pope as a visitor to Cyprus.

There is tension aplenty which dates back, in some respects, to the Great Schism of 1054. And while there has been rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches since the pontificates of Blessed John XXIII and Paul V (and a possible meeting between the pope and Moscow Patriarch Kirill I seemingly just over the horizon), the disagreements go deep, centering on the authority of the bishop of Rome and certain theological teachings, for example about the Trinity.

The visit to Cyprus will obviously have a very strong ecumenical nature, and the things discussed here will, at least on the short term, be quite important for the ongoing relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. For Pope Benedict, the Orthodox Christians, who are closest to us in faith, are natural partners in many matters facing the western world today. Ecumenism with them is therefore of prime importance.

Back to my first question: what’s the pope going to do in Cyprus? Well, there will obviously be the official receptions and meetings with heads of state and Church, as well as meetings with the Catholic community. The liturgical celebrations planned in Paphos and Nicosia are all described as ‘Ecumenical’ and ‘Eucharistic Celebrations’ – not Masses: a sign that representatives from the Orthodox Church will be involved, perhaps?

On Saturday, the pope will visit and have a luncheon with Archbishop Chrysostomos II and on Sunday morning the Instrumentum laboris of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, planned for this autumn, will be published. The fact that that publication will happen in the presence of the pope and in Cyprus, and island that in ecclesiastic history has always had close ties with the Holy Land and the rest of the Middle East, is an indication of the importance that Pope Benedict XVI attaches to this special assembly. The Instrumentum laboris (meaning ‘working instrument’), is basically an outline of the topics, with notes and addenda, to be discussed at the assembly).

The two ‘legs’ – ecumenism with the Orthodox and the future of the Church in the Middle East – will both have important repercussions for the near future. This weekend’s papal visit will be one to watch.