After a flight from Rome through Athens, I have been in Thessaloniki since Saturday evening. At the time of Alexander, Thessaloniki was part of Macedonia and, not surprisingly, he is considered the local boy who made good. You can get a lot of Alexander stuff here. Since Aristotle was his teacher, he too is an important guy here. The major university is Aristotle University and the city’s major square is Aristotle Square. It’s also a city with a long Christian history. Paul preached here in 49-50, almost certainly in the ruins of the ancient agora, and wrote the earliest book of the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, in 51 or 52 to the ancestors of the people who live here today. Two years ago it was also rated as the world’s fifth best party city. (I am apparently staying in the wrong part of the city; I have, however, found a really good restaurant where real people, i.e., not tourists, eat.)
I already miss Rome and the North American College. For seventy-seven days I was privileged to be with a really outstanding group of priests, twenty-seven from the United States, two from New Zealand and the Solomon Islands, and one from Canada. I have, I hope, formed some friendships that will last for the rest of my life. In a couple of cases I am especially hopeful that they will. I told the two guys from New Zealand that after I retire, I would be more than interested in covering their parishes, in their summer of course, so that they could take some lengthy (two or three month) vacations. Friday we all concelebrated mass at the Church of St. Sebastian on the Via Appia Antica and afterwards walked across the street to a fantastic going away banquet at the Cecilia Metella Restaurant, which would ordinarily be outside my price range.
Right now here in Greece I am cautious. In many ways this seems to be a country that could very easily come apart. Very few people (remember that this is not the tourist season) seem to be spending much money and many of the shops are closed. A lot of people approach you and ask for money, and they don’t look like the professionals you get used to in Rome. I sense they really are hurting. I don’t see many signs of a police presence, and I really do not know how safe I am right now. Suffice it to say that my eyes are wide open.
I am not anticipating any such concerns once I get to Mount Athos. The only people there are fourteen hundred monks and hermits and fifteen lay people (all Greek Orthodox men) who work in the government offices. I know there is a small police station at Karyes, the administrative center, and that makes me curious: when was the last time a crime was committed on the Mount? There is also a big gift shop at Daphne, the main port of entry. I plan to spend a couple of hours there. From the internet it looks like they have lots of refrigerator magnets. Maybe an “I (heart) Mount Athos” coffee mug?
Tuesday I took the train to Czestochowa (two and a half hours from Krakow each way) to see the Monastery of Jasna Gora and the painting of the Black Madonna, who saved Poland in 1655. I was fortunate to be there for the daily unveiling of the picture. The Black Madonna hangs inside a chapel of the monastery church and every afternoon at 1:30 p.m., right before the beginning of mass, the gold cover that conceals the Madonna is lifted, to the sound of trumpets no less! I really liked the Black Madonna. I got myself one and bought a couple for some members of my family. I thought long and hard about getting myself a Black Madonna coffee cup, but after due reflection I decided they were tacky.
I cannot say enough good things about Krakow. Wednesday I put in a second full day of exploring the city. Before he became pope, Blessed John Paul II was Cardinal-Archbishop of Krakow and the cathedral, of course, was his cathedral. It’s also the place where most of the kings of Poland and many of the significant people in the country’s history are buried .The most important of those crypts is that of St. Stanislaus, the eleventh century bishop and martyr and the country’s patron, who is buried beneath the main altar. Given my ignorance of Polish history, however, I wasn’t able to appreciate much of what I was seeing. (When I got to the tomb of Chopin, by the way, I did know who he was.)
I was also able to get over to the old Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz and visit the factory of Oskar Schindler, the man who saved twelve hundred Jews from Hitler by keeping them in his workforce, often falsifying reports to the S.S. in order to do so. I find myself wondering why we Catholics don’t advertise the fact that Schindler was one of us. He may not have made it to mass every Sunday, but if he didn’t do the kind of things saints do, who does?
Now I prepare for the grand finale: my entrance as a registered pilgrim to the Most Holy Mount Athos. When it comes to actually getting on The Mount, I am not taking anything for granted. From what I have read, just about anything can wrong, e.g., papers get lost, the coast guard cancels ferries because of the weather, etc.
I can, however, say that I have done all that I can. I have even eliminated the early morning bus trip from Thessaloniki to the port city of Ouranoupoulis on the day of entry (November 21) by arranging to stay tomorrow night at Ouranoupoulis (population 978). I am sure that the city is a wonderful place to spend a warm, summer day, but in mid-November I am not expecting very much. (The demand for the local hotels must plummet when the summer ends. I am going to stay in a fourstar hotel for $44.83.)
I certainly plan to be in full compliance with all the rules for admission that appear on the web: short hair (I visited Antonio’s barber shop near the Piazza Navonna a couple of weeks ago and told Antonio I didn’t want to take any chances with the grooming police at Ouranoupoulis), covered forearms and no white shoes (a sign of disrespect). I will also have a passport stating that I am a male member of the human race (remember, the monks keep women out to avoid temptation). I am also not going to advertise the fact that I am a Catholic priest. The monks of Mount Athos are not exactly in the forefront of the ecumenical movement. By the way, this year and last “60 Minutes” did pieces on Mount Athos. You can find them on the web by googling “60 Minutes Mount Athos.”