May 22, 2009

Vacation / Travel Supplement

'In the Steps of St. Paul': Greece, the Greek Isles and Turkey offer look at Church history

Pilgrims participating in Saint Meinrad Archabbey’s “Following in the Steps of St. Paul” pilgrimage from March 3-13 tour the ruins of the Parthenon at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. (Submitted photo)

Pilgrims participating in Saint Meinrad Archabbey’s “Following in the Steps of St. Paul” pilgrimage from March 3-13 tour the ruins of the Parthenon at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. (Submitted photo)

By Thomas Rillo (Special to The Criterion)

Pope Benedict XVI declared June 28, 2008, to June 29, 2009, a jubilee year in honor of St. Paul the Apostle on the 2,000th anniversary of his birth in the hope of inspiring present-day Christians to imitate his missionary zeal, energy and spirit of sacrifice.

Pilgrims around the world have responded to the pope’s call by visiting holy places connected to the great Apostle to the Gentiles.

A March 3-13 pilgrimage sponsored by Saint Meinrad Archabbey, “Following in the Steps of St. Paul,” was led by Benedictine Brother Maurus Zoeller and Benedictine Father Jeremy King. The monks accompanied 46 pilgrims, and visited historical sites in Greece, the Greek Isles and Turkey.

Their destinations ranged from the Acropolis and the ancient Olympic Stadium, to Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus, to the Isle of Patmos—where St. John received the visions recorded in the Book of Revelation—and to cities famous as the sites where St. Paul wrote his letters preserved in the New Testament.

Athens, the pilgrims’ first stop, is the capital and largest city of Greece. It dominates the region of Attica as one of the world’s oldest cities, with a recorded history spanning 3,400 years. The heritage of the classical era is still evident in the city, represented by ancient monuments and works of art. The most famous site is the Parthenon on the Acropolis.

The Attica periphery encompasses the most populated region of Greece with approximately 3.7 million people. Athens was the host of the modern-day Olympic Games in 1896 and 2004.

As the pilgrims traveled from Athens to Corinth, they passed the Island of Salamis, next to which Greek ships defeated a Persian armada in the fifth century B.C.

A rainy morning loomed over the pilgrims as they looked down at the Corinth Canal connecting the Aegean Sea and Ionian Sea.

The famous canal was built to traverse the narrow isthmus that connects northern Greece to the southern Peloponnesian peninsula. The Corinth Canal, completed in the late 19th century, was an idea and dream dating back more than 2,000 years.

In Paul’s time, before the canal was built, ships had to travel around the Peloponnese, an additional 185 nautical miles and several more days of sea travel.

Paul likely also saw the “Diolkos,” a movable platform constructed on a stone path that crossed the isthmus. Ships were lifted onto these wheeled vehicles and transported across the isthmus. The pilgrims saw parts of the paved stone path.

Ancient attempts to construct a canal never succeeded. It was eventually completed in 1893.

Corinth was an important city in ancient Greece and played a major role in Paul’s missionary work.

The Apostle visited Corinth in the 50s A.D., and later wrote two letters to the Church at Corinth, preserved as First and Second Corinthians. At the time that Paul first visited the city in 51 or 52 A.D., Gallio, the brother of the Roman historian Seneca, was governor of Corinth. Paul lived in Corinth for 18 months (Acts 18:1-18), working as a tentmaker and converting many Jews and pagans. He met Aquila and Priscilla, tentmakers who later became missionaries.

In all likelihood, it was during a second visit to Corinth in the spring of 58 A.D. that Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans.

St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, written in Ephesus, described the difficulties of a Christian community trying to remain faithful in a cosmopolitan city. The pilgrims felt empathy for Paul and his challenges as a missionary.

In the ruins of ancient Corinth is the fountain of Peirene, the major source of water for Corinth. A Temple of Apollo was built on a hill overlooking the remains of the “agora,” the Roman marketplace. Seven of the temple’s original 38 Doric columns still stand, and it is one of the oldest stone temples in Greece. Also among the ruins is the Bema, the public platform where Paul pled his case before Gallio in 52 A.D.

The following day, the pilgrims toured Athens, and viewed the Royal Palace, Stadium and Temple of Zeus. The Theatre of Dionysius was a major open-air theater in ancient Greece. It was built at the foot of the Acropolis and is the first stone theater. The pilgrims saw the remains of a restored and redesigned Roman version of this theater, the birthplace of the Greek tragedy.

The group also visited the Aeropagus, a bald marble hill across from and northwest of the Acropolis entrance. In classical times, the Aeropagus functioned as the chief homicide court of Athens. Paul delivered his famous speech there about the identity of the “unknown God” (Acts 17), defending his teaching of a known God.

The group proceeded to the Acropolis and the Parthenon, the most well-known surviving building of ancient Greece and one of the most famous buildings in the world. The Parthenon has stood atop the Acropolis for nearly 2,500 years. It was built to give thanks to Athena, the city’s patron goddess, for the salvation of Athens and Greece in the Persian Wars. To the left of the Parthenon are the Temple of Athena Nike and the Porch of the Maidens.

The next day, the pilgrims began a three-day cruise of the Aegean Sea and Greek Isles. After stopping at the scenic Greek isle of Mykonos in the Cyclades, the ship set sail for Rhodes in stormy weather with rough seas.

The pilgrims felt closer to Paul because they experienced a storm at sea, and he was shipwrecked on his journeys.

On the Isle of Patmos, the pilgrims visited the Monastery of St. John, which contains the site where John received inspiration to write the Book of Revelation. John had his vision and wrote the apocalypse in a cave called the Grotto. John described the vision to his disciple Prochorous as it was unfolded to him. The Romans used the Isle of Patmos as a place for exiles, and that is why John ended up there.

That afternoon, the ship set sail for Kusadasi, Turkey, and the pilgrims embarked on an excursion to Ephesus, a significant center for early Christianity. Paul likely preached there, an ancient city that has been inhabited for several millennia.

The Romans made Ephesus a provincial capital, and it grew to be a great commercial trading center of political importance.

A significant Christian community developed there. St. John the Evangelist likely preached there in the first century.

Paul lived in Ephesus for two years and wrote some of his letters there.

The pilgrims walked the marble streets to see the fabled Temple of Artemis, a wonder of the ancient world, and the Library of Celsus. The ruins were magnificent and gave the group a feeling of the importance of this cosmopolitan center during Paul’s time. The public baths as well as the Temple of Love were proof of the people’s immorality that Paul faced there.

Just a few kilometers away in Selchuk are many historical remains of early Christianity, including a house that a tradition says was the home of the Virgin Mary, and Ayasoluk Hill, where St. John wrote his Gospel.

The House of Mary is sacred to Muslim and Christian pilgrims, including popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The Saint Meinrad pilgrims were touched by this holy edifice.

According to tradition, Mary was brought to Ephesus by the Apostle John after the resurrection of Christ. The building dates to the sixth or seventh century A.D. The foundations may date to the first century A.D., the time of Mary.

The pilgrims then returned to the ship for the cruise back to Athens. Upon their return, they traveled to Thebes, Livadia, the picturesque mountain village of Arachova, and to Delphi.

For the ancient Greeks, Delphi was the center of the world. The pilgrims walked among the ruins of Delphi to see the Temple of Apollo, the Theatre, the Athenian treasury and the Castalian Spring.

In the Kalambaka area, the pilgrims traveled to Meteora to see the hanging monasteries perched on top of unusual rock formations. The monasteries were built atop the high cliffs so the monks and nuns could grow closer to God through solitude and prayer as well as be protected from invading Ottoman Turks.

Of the original 24 monasteries, only six remain occupied. All are perched on natural rock pillars at the edge of the Pindus Mountains in northern Greece. The pilgrims were permitted to enter the Monastery of St. Stephen, home to Greek Orthodox nuns.

At Trikala, the pilgrims saw the construction and painting of icons, a vital part of the Greek Orthodox prayer life.

The pilgrims also traveled to Thessaloniki and Phillipi, where Paul first preached in Europe and baptized a woman named Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), Europe’s first convert to Christianity.

Father Jeremy was the celebrant for Mass, and blessed the group with water from the stream that Paul used to baptize Lydia. A baptistry there has beautiful mosaics and stained-glass windows.

Philippi, an ancient city in eastern Macedonia, was founded by Philip II in 356 B.C. The ancient ruins there of a Roman Forum, market and early basilicas were impressive. The prison where Paul was flogged, imprisoned and later released (Acts 16:16-40) was in good condition.

Paul visited the city around 50 A.D. during his second missionary journey. He wrote his Letter to the Philippians about five years later.

The Apostle traveled to the city of Berea after leaving Philippi (Acts 17:12).

The pilgrims returned to Athens via the Valley of Tempi and Themopylae then departed for New York the next day.

Brother Maurus said the pilgrimage made reading the New Testament and especially St. Paul’s letters come alive.

Father Jeremy appreciated the opportunities to celebrate outdoor Masses at sites important to the history of the Church. He also celebrated Mass on a pitching and rolling ship during the height of a storm, and at one of the few Roman Catholic churches in Greece, the Cathedral of Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception of Thessaloniki.

The pilgrims learned that the footsteps of St. Paul were long and hard, and called us to imitate them in whatever manner we can to evangelize in Christ’s name.

(Thomas J. Rillo is a member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington, and a Benedictine oblate of Saint Meinrad Archabbey.)

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