Symbolic, yes; historic, not yet

Symbolic, yes; historic, not yet

These days, it is very difficult to defend the use of terms such as “historical,” “historic” or “symbolic” without running the risk of being blamed for premature optimism or exaggeration. 

For example, the word symbolic, according to Merriam Webster dictionary,  means “consisting of or proceeding by means of symbols, using, employing, or exhibiting a symbol;” while the word “historic” means “famous or important in history, having great and lasting importance, known or established in the past.” “Historical,” on the other hand, means “relating to, or having the character of history, based on history.”

Why am I wondering and pondering over these concepts, you may ask. 

It is because, these words surfaced extensively April 16 in the reporting narrations of both Greek and international media when describing the visit by heads of Christianity to the Greek island of Lesbos. 

It was last Saturday morning when Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic church,  landed on board an Alitalia plane at the Odysseus Elytis Airport in Lesbos under a bright sky with the dark blue Aegean Sea in the background. He was welcomed with a red carpet ceremony by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspras, Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church, and the Archbishop of Athens Ieronymos II. 

The arrival of the pontiff in Lesbos was covered by some six hundred accredited Greek and world media members. Everybody scrambled to get the first shot, picture or statement by the white-robed Francis and the lucky ones caught that rare moment when Patriarch Bartholomew, in a highly personal gesture, straightened the wide collar of the Pope’s robe which had been lifted by the fresh Aegean wind. 

All three met in Lesbos for a very important reason. On this island which “bore most of the burden of the refugee problem on its shoulder,” as the Greek PM Alexis Tsipras said, thousands of desperate people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan still live in camps waiting anxiously for the decision by the authorities about their future. These are still early days after the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement. There is some hope that some may just manage it to Europe direct without being sent back to Turkey, first. There are hundreds, thousands of children, many without their parents. There are half families, with other halves having managed to reach Western Europe or are still back in Syria or Iraq. There is tremendous tension, uncertainty, desperation, the feeling of being trapped.  

There is no doubt that the visit by these holy fathers to the refugee camps in Lesbos was a tremendous psychological relief for many who have no one to turn to.  Many refugees and migrants, probably most, are not Christian; yet the presence of the leaders of Christendom –from two churches officially split since 1054- gave them a gleam of hope that perhaps a joint appeal by these Christian fathers may reach the policy makers in Europe more effectively.

And indeed the joint statement all three Christian leaders signed was strong worded: 

“The tragedy of forced migration and displacement affects millions, and is fundamentally a crisis of humanity, calling for a response of solidarity, compassion, generosity and an immediate practical commitment of resources. From Lesbos, we appeal to the international community to respond with courage in facing this massive humanitarian crisis and its underlying causes, through diplomatic, political and charitable initiatives, and through cooperative efforts, both in the Middle East and in Europe....”

Appropriately, most commentators reporting from Lesbos underlined the “historical significance” of the event and its “special symbolism” and emphasized the “strong message” that Francis and Bartholomew sent to a reluctant and divided Europe. “To a Europe that is erecting walls, they are sending a message to build bridges,” said one erudite commentator speaking to the Greek TV.  

Back to definitions: to what extent can we call the visit to Lesbos “historical” and “symbolic?” According to the book, it was certainly “symbolic” as it used the symbol of unity of the church to send a message of unity of the people. Was it “historic?” We cannot say that yet. It will be proven by its impact in the future. 

But I think the last move of Pope Francis to take 12 Muslim refugees on his plane back to Rome may prove to be a move of “historical significance” in the way things will develop.