"Today, according to my own experience at least, Catholic and Orthodox Christians in Cyprus have, to a large degree, mutual understanding and respect for each other. Why? Because, as I personally experienced, practical steps towards Christian Unity were taken, and they had a healing effect among all of us."
Akis, from Nicosia
What is the sign that Jesus Christ is Risen and alive among us today? The greatest miracle of all, we were told in catechism, the unmistakable sign, the sign of His Merciful Love for His people, and among Christians in His Church today, is unity. Divisions among Christians scandalize us and the world around us, and destroy the Church rather than build and strengthen it. "Look how they are united, how they love one another", is what the world needs to witness in us, in Christians today, so that, as Christ himself tells us, "the world may believe"!
I was fortunate to have a strong personal life experience of unity in Cyprus, where I grew up and where I now live with my family, in the Holy Cross parish of Nicosia - where two Popes stayed when they visited the island. An experience that made me and many others around me understand what Unity among Christians really brings, how precious it is and how much we need it, and how it can be strengthened in practice and can change us and our world. And so I feel an immense gratitude for the work of the Lord among us, which I will now attempt to share with you.
As a Catholic Cypriot, who grew up and attended school at a time when the Catholic Christians in Cyprus amounted to only about 2% (while the Orthodox Christians were the great majority, about 80% of the population of the country), I remember vividly how the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord were celebrated separately by the Catholics and the Orthodox communities, at different times, sometimes more than a month apart - without being united. I recall how Holy Week and Easter were celebrated by us Catholics in Cyprus, how the Easter Triduum was not a holiday, but like every other day of the week. It felt so strange to celebrate like this, with only some of us in the class as Catholic Christians, sometimes completely alone, while most of the others, fellow students and friends, were still in Lent and fasting. Then, some time later we'd have the "official" Easter holidays, when the Orthodox Christians were celebrating "their" Holy Week and Easter.
We stood out as being different again and again, separated, a strange sort of Christians, divided from the others; and questions arose in our society, even arguments, criticism and judgements; "why does this happen", "do we believe in something else", "why do we have to act like this", "who is correct", "who is wrong", "who needs to be corrected and what is going on", and so on - basically, why are Christians divided and are not united even when celebrating their greatest feast, the Lord’s resurrection, when Christ suffered, died, was buried, and rose from the dead, calling us all to love mercifully and be united!
Today, however, according to my own experience at least, Catholic and Orthodox Christians in Cyprus no longer see each other like this, and, to a large degree, have mutual understanding and respect for each other. There are no longer judgements, negative arguments and apprehension between the two communities. Why? Because, as I personally experienced, practical steps towards Christian Unity among the Catholics and Orthodox Christians in Cyprus were taken, and they had a healing effect among all of us.
First came the decision of the Catholic Church to align with the other Christian denominations for Easter celebrations when Catholics are a minority, for the sake of unity. Thus, all of us, Catholics and Orthodox alike, began to celebrate Easter together and no longer at different times.
Then, later, two Popes came to visit us in Cyprus - the late Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and Pope Francis in 2021. These two visits were taken very seriously not only by the government and all the local media, but the Orthodox Church in Cyprus as well – I know this first hand, having been a member of the central preparation committee.
During many hours of very well planned programming, all the meetings of the Pope, during both visits, were shown live by the national television stations, with direct translations of all his speeches, Masses celebrated for the Catholics in Cyprus, and all his greetings, homilies and words. The media also relayed discussions and dialogue involving both Catholic and Orthodox religious and lay people. The Popes' approach, their words, their humility and great respect for their hosts and the Orthodox Church in Cyprus made such a strong positive impression, that it had a deep transforming effect on the communities in Cyprus, the fruits of which remain with us, bringing us closer as brothers of the Eternal Father.
So much so, in fact, that during the Catholic mass celebrated outdoors by Pope Francis during his visit to Cyprus in 2021, an unexpectedly great number of Orthodox Christians attended to pray together with us, filling up the big football stadium where the event took place, although it was during the morning of a normal, very busy working day of the week! And last November, during the Orthodox Requiem Mass for the late Orthodox Archbishop of Cyprus Mgr Chrysostomos II, as well as this January, during the official liturgy for the enthronement of the new elected Orthodox Archbishop of Cyprus Mgr Georgios I, the Pope’s personal messages were among the very few (there were only a handful) that were publicly read to everyone and broadcasted live from the Orthodox Cathedral of Nicosia - where all the different Orthodox Churches of the world and the Ecumenical Patriarchate were also represented at the highest level!
Yes, there is still a long way to go to be fully united as one universal Church in full communion. We always strive to do everything possible to achieve this, especially by meeting every year to pray for the Christian unity that the Risen Lord has called us to live, asking Him for His help and guidance.
But we thank Him as well, because we recognize also that He is listening to our prayer and that He is indeed helping us and our children, as we trust Him to do, to move forward and to taste some of the fruits of what His resurrection, His grace, Spirit and power can bring us today. Until He blesses us in His mercy with the fullness of Christian Unity, which only He has the power to create in our lives, we will continue to pray and hope for it throughout the world.