For us, a papal visit means a lot. The local Catholic community is largely made up of Maronites (about 6,500) and Roman Catholics (about 2,000), but they are not alone. According to the Ministry of Interior, legal immigrants bring the total number of Catholics to around 30,000, a sizable population in a country of some about 700.000(for the Republic of Cyprus). There are also many undocumented Catholics, especially from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India (Kerala, Karnataka), and smaller numbers from Nigeria, Cameroon and other African countries as well as some from other Asian countries.
I think that Catholic immigrants are especially eager to see the Pope and attend the different ceremonies that are planned for the occasion. For many of them, it is the chance of a lifetime. Naturally, Catholic immigrants tend to belong to the Roman Catholic Church, whose Bishop is the Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Fouad Twal. During the preparation for the visit, many of our priests have spoken about its spiritual importance. For all of us, it is not a social affair, it is not a political affair; it is going to be a spiritual meeting between children and their Father, Teacher and Guide. Our hope is that the visit will have lasting effects in our parishes, among the many faithful, and strengthen our faith in the Church and Vicar of Christ.
Three or four Orthodox Bishops have spoken against this visit. One went so far as to say that the Pope is a heretic and that he is not a bishop since the Latin Church “detached herself from the true church”. Some even accused the Pope of being silent in relation to the scandal involving some priests. For this reason, a local association has called on the Attorney General of the Republic to arrest the Pope as soon as he lands in Cyprus. The accusations and the way they have been made are not worthy of an answer because they are totally biased, and we know that no proof is valid for those who are moved by prejudice.
The head of the Orthodox Church, the Archbishop of Cyprus Chrysostomos II, said that all the Orthodox Bishops must accept the Pope and must be present to welcome him for the majority of the Orthodox Synod approved the visit. In addition, he said that bishops who refuse to be present might be suspended from participating in the meetings of the Orthodox Synod for a period of one year.
Generally, in Cyprus the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are good. I would say that Cyprus is perhaps the only predominantly Orthodox country that accepts, recognises and appreciates the Catholic Church. This is true both for the local Orthodox Church and for the State.
Of course, our parishes face some practical difficulties, especially concerning the Sacraments. In my personal opinion, many members of the Orthodox community but also among the clergy are “ignorant” of the Catholic Church. This “ignorance” has been fed by prejudices and false information passed on in the education system on the matter of the history and the causes of the division between the two churches. It seems that the situation is being corrected with a more rational and objective approach. Misunderstandings are frequent in the news media as well. Some of them cover the Catholic Church only as a human organisation, coming out against it when the Church explains her doctrine on abortion, same-sex marriage, pre-matrimonial relations, condoms, etc.
On the issue of Cyprus’ partition, the Catholic Church in the past has deferred to United Nations decisions, hoping that the division of the island can be settled in a just manner, to both sides’ satisfaction. I believe the visit will not endanger negotiations between the parties; on the contrary, it will give them a new boost and courage to the people involved.
The main purpose of the Pope’s visit is essentially pastoral. Our Father is coming to see us, his sons and daughters, to visit the Catholic Church of Cyprus, to encourage and console. The political aspect of the visit is secondary. The ecumenical aspect could be important if relations between the two Churches became stronger, but go no further than this.
His Holiness is coming to meet the Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops of the Middle East, and hand over to them the “Instrumentum Laboris”, which is the basis of the Synod of the Middle East scheduled for for Rome between 10 and 14 October 2010.