A near-pope experience
The shared history of two churches
The massive Cathedral of Saint Barnabas forms an intriguing addition to the Nicosia skyline. In a city filled with churches and mosques that date back to antiquity, the Greek Orthodox cathedral is brand-new, opening in summer 2021. On December 3, 2021, that cathedral played host to Pope Francis II, who visited Cyprus as part of a two-part visit to Cyprus and Greece.
This was significant not only because it was just the second time in history a pope has visited Cyprus (Benedict XVI visited in 2010), but because it represented a meeting of the minds between the two churches which split up a thousand years ago.
During the ceremony, Pope Francis II iterated the long connection between the two churches—that both came from the same “mother church.”
The deep time of religious history
By some considerations, the island of Cyprus forms part of the Holy Land. Apocryphally, the Apostle Paul and a Cypriot named Barnabas visited Paphos, the capital of Roman Cyprus, and in a miracle they blinded a magus named Elymas, whom Paul condemned as a son of the devil.
The Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus was so impressed with the miracle he converted to Christianity; he became one of the first Romans to adopt the new faith. Paul went on to found the church in Rome, and Barnabas was martyred at Salamis (near modern-day Famagusta).
Over time, as the church gained in power, it attained regional distinctions. In 285 CE, when the Roman Empire split into a Western Empire (falling in 476 CE) and an Eastern (Byzantine) Empire (its last gasp in 1453 CE), the Christian church of the divided Roman world drifted apart. In 1054 CE, the Patriarch of Constantinople was excommunicated by the Pope in Rome, leading to the “Great Schism” dividing the churches between the Catholics based in Rome and the Orthodox Christians based in Constantinople. The sack of Constantinople by Catholic Crusaders in 1204 CE didn’t help mend the relationship.
In the meantime, the Church of Cyprus has always always held position of primacy in the Orthodox world. In 478 CE, the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno granted the Church of Cyprus an autocephalous (essentially independent) status and the Archbishop three privileges—to write in red ink, to wear royal purple vestments, and to wield an imperial scepter.
Despite a short-lived restoration of the Byzantine Empire in 1261 CE, the empire fell for good in 1453 CE after Mehmet I of the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople. In their administration, the Ottomans collaborated with the Orthodox Church to help manage the Hellenic population (and collect their taxes).
When the Ottomans took control of Cyprus in 1570, they also let the Church of Cyprus handle much of the civil administration when it came to the Greek community. The Ottomans took over Catholic churches (established by the French crusader dynasty and maintained by the Venetian overlords), but for the most part, the Ottomans let the Orthodox community manage its own affairs. The civic position of the church helps explain why Archbishop Makarios III, the first elected president of the Republic of the Cyprus in 1960, could hold both a religious and national political position simultaneously.
When he came to Cyprus last month, Pope Francis II had a busy agenda. He paid a visit to a Maronite church—the Maronites being a Catholic community in Lebanon and Cyprus descended from antiquity. He also held mass for a crowd at a soccer stadium outside Nicosia, a thrill to many Catholics part of the island’s Filipino community. In an important gesture, he loaded 50 migrants, two of whom had been trapped in the UN Buffer Zone and unclaimed by any authority on Cyprus—onto a plane to Italy.
When I heard the Pope was coming to Cyprus, I naturally wanted to try to see him. I’m not a Catholic, but I’m a big fan of Pope-based media, The Young Pope series starring Jude Law, as well as the papal subplot of the otherwise-maligned The Godfather III comprising highlights in papal pop culture. But the office of the Pope is one of the most powerful and interesting institutions in the world, so I couldn’t stay away.
And so I thought it might be possible to watch Francis enter the motorcade in front of the Archbishop’s Palace after his meeting with the Archbishop on the morning of December 3rd.
I expected crowds, but there was hardly anyone about, apart from the police. Then, through the gate, he emerged.
After the Pope’s car passed around the corner, I was informed there were empty seats in the nearby Cathedral of Saint Barnabas for the Pope’s joint speech with the Archbishop. And so I was whisked into the cathedral, surrounded by bishops, cardinals, and other clergy. Though everyone wore masks, there was nary a pat-down or metal detector in sight.
Every seat had a headset with a live translation into English from the Archbishop’s Greek and the Ecclesiastical Latin spoken by the Pope. The Archbishop was asking for assistance from the Vatican in regards to repatriating artifacts apparently looted in the aftermath of the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. But when it came time for Francis to speak, he sidestepped the archbishop’s appeal and iterated that both churches derived from the same “mother church.”
Then the two churchly authorities walked down the aisle to exit the building. Francis looked tired.
I have had the privilege of seeing a president throw a first pitch at a baseball game and famous authors reading from iPads and Beto O’Rourke standing on my favorite café table in Reno, but nothing ever like this. I am grateful for the experience.
This is the eighth post in The Cyprus Files, a limited-run newsletter series from The Usonian chronicling my Fulbright experiences in Cyprus. You can read all the posts in The Cyprus Files here. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss a (free) dispatch from the island of Aphrodite!