Your RDA of Irony

Reading Between the Lines


Associated Press Jan 28th, 2008

ATHENS, Greece — Hundreds of mourners, many sobbing, gathered Monday at Athens’ cathedral to file past the remains of Archbishop Christodoulos, the first leader of Greece’s powerful Orthodox Church to welcome a Catholic pope to Athens in 1,300 years.

Never portraying a gay cowboy or the wife of Bob Newhart, Christodoulos obviously was an underachiever. So the Associated Press was desperate to find something stellar about him. “Being the first leader of Greece’s powerful Orthodox Church to welcome a Catholic pope to Athens in 1,300 years” does sound significant…except. Let’s rephrase it in a contemporary context: He welcomed the assistant postmaster of Buffalo, New York to Camden, New Jersey. Unfortunately, 1300 years ago the Pope was a middling bureaucrat and Athens was a ruin.

At the time, the Pope’s name was Constantine. So visiting Greece was not exactly a novelty for him. In fact, he was just one of a long line of Greeks who served as Pope in the seventh and eighth centuries. Why was there this Hellenic monopoly? The Greeks still retained literacy during the Dark Ages, unlike Western Europeans at the time, and they were more committed to celibacy than the Italians. However, there really was a political basis for all those Greek popes. The Pope then was appointed by the Byzantine Emperor, and guess which nationality the world’s most powerful Greek preferred. If and when the Pope ever sought to be independent of Constantinople, the Byzantine garrison in Rome tended to keep the Pope modest. Indeed, the Popes were at the Emperor’s beck and call; the slower or less sycophantic Pontiffs arrived in Constantinople in chains. And the Papacy was not even an impressive sinecure. Rome was a threadbare and dangerous outpost in the Byzantine Empire. If Pope Constantine had any influential friends at court, he probably would have preferred being Archbishop of Thessalonika.

As for Athens in the 8th century, the once glorious inspiration of civiilzation now was its own mausoleum. The city was a depopulated ruin. Athens had been ravaged by the barbarian invasions and was still threatened by them. What the barbarians had not destroyed, the Christians suppressed. The Parthenon was now a Church. Other conversions could not be easily accommodated. Even after Christianity had become the official religion of Rome and Constantinople, the philosophy schools of Athens continued to teach a classical education, which the Church regarded as implicitly pagan. In 529, the Emperor Justinian ordered the closing of Athens’ schools, ending a 1000 year-old-heritage. (Aspiring scholars would be obliged to get the Christian curriculum at the University of Constantinople.) Without its schools–and the scholars and business they attracted–Athens descended into desolation.

So a Papal visit to 8th century Athens would have been no thrill for the Pope or honor for the city. It was just a bureaucrat passing by a wreck. At least when Pope John Paul II visited Archbishop Christodoulos, both the Papacy and Athens looked a little more prestigious.

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