Athens, Greece, Dec 4, 2021 / 13:40 pm (CNA).
The smallness of a Christian community can be a sign of closeness to God, Pope Francis told members of Greece’s tiny Catholic minority in Athens Saturday evening. He reflected on the example of St. Paul in evangelizing ancient Greece and proclaiming that their pagan culture held the seeds of Christian faith.
“So, dear friends, I would tell you this: Consider your smallness a blessing and accept it willingly. It disposes you to trust in God and in God alone,” the pope said in remarks to bishops, priests, religious, seminarians, and catechists at Athens’ Cathedral Basilica of St. Dionysius the Areopagite.
“Being a minority – and do not forget that the Church throughout the world is a minority – does not mean being insignificant, but closer to the path loved by the Lord, which is that of littleness: of kenosis, of abasement, of meekness,” he continued. “Jesus came down even to becoming hidden in the weakness of our humanity and the wounds of our flesh. He saved us by serving us.”
While Christians can often be “obsessed with external appearances and visibility,” St. Paul teaches that the Kingdom of God “does not come with signs that can be observed.” Rather, “it comes secretly, like rain, slowly, over the Earth.”
Greece’s 10.7 million people are predominantly Eastern Orthodox. Only about 50,000 are Catholic. The pope arrived in Greece for a three-day trip on Saturday after a two-day visit to Cyprus.
In his Saturday evening remarks, Pope Francis emphasized St. Paul’s trust in God and his wise approach towards the Greeks he evangelized. The apostle knew that God had already planted the seeds of evangelization before him, and saw “the desire for God hidden in the hearts of those people, and wanted gently to share with them the amazing gift of faith.”
“Paul proclaimed the God unknown to his hearers. He thus was able to present the face of a God, who in Jesus Christ sowed in the heart of the world the seed of resurrection, the universal right to hope,” said the Roman Pontiff.
“When Paul proclaimed this good news, most of them laughed at him and went their way,” the pope said. However, some Athenians joined the apostle and became believers, including the cathedral’s namesake, St. Dionysius. “A small remnant, yet that is how God weaves the threads of history, from those days until our own,” the pope remarked.
Pope Francis praised Greece as “a land that is a gift, a patrimony of mankind, on which the foundations of the West have been built.”
“All of us are sons and daughters of your country, and in her debt: without the poetry, literature, philosophy and art that developed here, we would not be familiar with many aspects of human existence, or be able to respond to many profound questions regarding life, love, suffering, also death,” he told the gathering.
“At the dawn of Christianity, this rich heritage gave rise to an inculturation of the faith, carried out, as if in a ‘laboratory,’ thanks to the wisdom of many of our Fathers in the faith, who by their holiness of life and their writings remain a beacon of light for believers in every age,” he added. St. Paul helped inaugurate “this encounter between early Christianity and Greek culture.”
“He began this work of synthesizing those two worlds. He did it in this very place, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles,” said the pope.
Pope Francis found in the apostle two attitudes that can help contemporary Christians enculturate the faith. First, St. Paul showed “confident trust” in God. Some philosophers who encountered his preaching in Athens considered him a “charlatan” and brought him to the Areopagus not simply to “offer him a platform,” but “to interrogate him” about his “new and strange teaching.” According to the pope, Paul was “being put to the test.”
“This was not a moment of triumph for Paul,” Pope Francis explained. “He was carrying out his mission in a difficult situation. Perhaps, many times along the way, we too feel weary and even frustrated at being a small community, a Church with few resources operating in a climate that is not always favorable.”
“Think about Paul in Athens. He was alone, in the minority, unwelcome and with little chance of success. But he did not allow himself to be overcome by discouragement. He did not give up on his mission. Nor did he yield to the temptation to complain,” said the pope.
“This is very important: watch out for complaints,” he emphasized. “That is the attitude of a true apostle: to go forward with confidence, preferring the uncertainty of unexpected situations rather than the complacency that comes from the force of habit. Paul had that courage.” This courage was “born of trust in God,” who “loves to accomplish great things always through our lowliness.”
As shown by St. Paul, an attitude of acceptance “does not try to occupy the space and life of others, but to sow the good news in the soil of their lives.” This approach, the pope said, “learns to recognize and appreciate the seeds that God already planted in their hearts before we came on the scene.”
“Let us always remember that God always goes before us, God sows before we do. Evangelizing is not about filling an empty container; it is ultimately about bringing to light what God has already begun to accomplish,” Pope Francis said.
St. Paul did not proselytize but based his work on the meekness of Christ. He did not approach the Athenians with the attitude that they were all wrong, as if to say, “Now I will teach you the truth.” Rather, he accepted their religious spirit, invoking their altar dedicated to “an unknown god.”
“The Apostle dignified his hearers and welcomed their religiosity,” the pope said. “Even though the streets of Athens were full of idols, which had made him ‘deeply distressed,’ Paul acknowledged the desire for God hidden in the hearts of those people, and wanted gently to share with them the amazing gift of faith.”
“The Holy Spirit always does more than what we can see from the outside. Let us not forget this. In every age, the attitude of the apostle begins with accepting others,” said Pope Francis. He encouraged Christians “to cultivate an attitude of welcome, a style of hospitality, a heart desirous of creating communion amid human, cultural or religious differences.”
“The challenge is to develop a passion for the whole, which can lead us – Catholics, Orthodox, brothers and sisters of other creeds, including agnostics, anyone – to listen to one another, to dream and work together, to cultivate the ‘mystique’ of fraternity,” said the pope.
Being a small Church, he said, “makes us an eloquent sign of the Gospel, of the God proclaimed by Jesus who chooses the poor and the lowly, who changes history by the simple acts of ordinary people.”
The Church is not called to have “the spirit of conquest and victory, impressive numbers or worldly grandeur,” he said.
“All this is dangerous. It can tempt us to triumphalism,” said the pope.
“We are asked to be yeast, which rises patiently and silently, hidden within the dough of the world, thanks to the constant work of the Holy Spirit,” Pope Francis said.
“The secret of the Kingdom of God is in the little things, often quiet and unseen,” the pope reflected.
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