The faithful flocked to Nicosia’s stadium on Friday morning not to cheer a football match but to celebrate an open-air papal Mass. A rainbow congregation of Catholics – white, brown and black – were joined by Cypriot Orthodox, Anglicans and Evangelicals to welcome Pope Francis, the gentle rock star of the Christian faith.
Bearing Covid passes and wearing masks, old, young, hearty and halting, prelates and politicians, rich and poor, 7,000 came by bus, car, motorcycle and bicycle from all over the island, where apostles Paul and Barnabas preached 45 years after Christ.
While 95 per cent of Cypriot Christians are Orthodox, only 10 per cent of 25,000 Roman Catholics are Cypriot. The majority are from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Africa and Europe. Cypriot Maronite Catholics, a separate group, number 7,000.
Cheering members of the congregation brandished Filipino and Lebanese flags. One large Argentinian flag was flown in honour of the pope’s homeland.
Waving the gold and white flags of the papacy and Cyprus, a gaggle of girls from Terra Santa College, the oldest in Cyprus founded by Franciscans in 1646, paused at the top of the stairs to the stands. “We are very excited,” said Stephani Petsa, whose entire school was present. “We were too young to see Pope Benedict. ”
They cheered schoolmates who were in the 130-member choir which sang hymns in Greek, English and Arabic.
Grace and cheer
Although she has been in Cyprus for two decades, devout Filipina Gregoria Kei also missed Pope Benedict when he visited in 2009. She was determined to be present for Pope Francis, who was on a mission to bring grace and cheer to migrants, both legal and illegal.
The pope urged the reverent throng to overcome blindness to the needs of others and “renew our sense of fraternity. If we remain divided, if each person thinks only of himself or herself, or his or her group, if we refuse to stick together, if we do not dialogue and walk together, we will never be completely healed of our blindness.”
Pope Francis (right) visited Cypriot Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos (left) to deepen relations between the two churches. Photograph: Andreas Loucaides/PIO/AFP via Getty
Ahead of the Mass, Pope Francis visited Cypriot Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos to deepen relations between the two churches, which have been divided and often at odds since the 11th century.
During his final gathering at the Holy Cross Church, the pope heard testimony from migrants who have faced prejudice and rejection as illegal immigrants. Cyprus hosts the largest number of asylum seekers per capita in the European Union and, like Greece and Italy, seeks aid and understanding when dealing with the influx.
This reached 11,000 this year, half from countries at peace. Pope Francis has pledged to resettle 50 in Italy.
He had first-hand experience of the division of the island as he stayed at the Vatican nunciature, or embassy, which is located between the two bastions of Paphos Gate in the 16th century walls of Nicosia’s Old City. One side is under Turkish control, the other is held by the Cyprus republic, an EU member.
Pope Francis flies on Saturday morning to Greece for a second two-day mission to migrants.