I'm currently reading the biography of Pope John XXIII and I'd like to share with you this story. It's taken from the book "I will be called John", by Lawrence Elliott, pages 162-163 and describes the period when he, Angelo Roncalli, was archbishop and papal delegate to Istanbul and Greece (around 1941), whilst Greece was under German occupation. I hope there are no copyright issues, but if there are, my apologies and this post can be removed.
Yet it was only a drop of water on the fire of famine that swept the land. By September a thousand people were dying every day, and being buried in mass graves. Sensible men could see that an unspeakable calamity was in the making and that a raising of the [German] blockade was all that could head it off.
The king and the Greek government had escaped to England, leaving the Orthodox church with its metropolitan, Archbishop Damaskinos, as the only functioning national institution. Now Damaskinos, acting as regent, sought out the German military commander in Athens to plead that food in sufficient quantities to save his people from extermination be allowed into Greece. The Gauleiter, who had no interest in starving the conquered civilians, nonetheless posed some difficult questions. Where would the food come from? Would the Allies let it through the blockades? And most importantly, how was contact to be made with Germany's enemies? Who would be the intermediary?
Damaskinos could answer only the last. "I shall approach the representative of a Christian church," he said. The German knew that he referred to the Holy See. Aware of the bitter schism between Orthodox and Catholic and touched that the archbishop stood ready to humble himself for his people, he agreed at once.
No humbling was necessary. Roncalli, whose sources of information were not inconsiderable, learned about the meeting and moved at once. He sent a secret message to Damaskinos in which he requested an interview and asked the Orthodox archbishop to designate the time and place. This deference to the regent's painful position, Roncalli's effort to spare him public embarresment - and possible underground charges of treason for dealing with an Italian - were not unimportant to the success of the mission. It's spirit marked their conferences.
They met first in a private apartment in the Paleophaleron Palace and thereafter in other unlikely places. Damaskinos revealed that the Greek government had sufficient funds deposited abroad to pay for the 370,000 tons of grain needed to prevent mass starvation that winter. The occupying powers had promised that the food would be distributed only to the civilian population. But how to contact the Western world, how to arrange swift shipment of the wheat? And even in consideration of the desperate circumstances, how to win from the British a guarantee of its safe conduct through the blockades?
"I am here to do whatever you ask," Roncalli told Damaskinos. He said that the Holy Father only waited for direct word before acting of Greece's behalf.
Then the regent handed Roncalli a letter for the pope - a plea for help signed by the most eminent lay leaders of Greek Orthodoxy. At their final meeting, early in October, Roncalli offered also to take a letter to the exiled Greek government in London which would detail for the British government the terrible plight of the Greek people.
They parted with the kiss of peace, the gesture of forgiveness and brotherly love in both the Catholic and Orthodox liturgy, and on October 7 Roncalli flew back to Rome. His audience with Pius XII put the urgent plan into immediate action. Angelo Roncalli had done what needed to be done, and now the pope did the same. Before winter, the first wheat-laden ships passed through the blockades and safely reached Greek ports. The famine was averted. Hundreds of thousands lived who would otherwise have died. And when peace returned to Greece in 1945, Catholic and Orthodox churchmen stood side by side in gratitude and thanksgiving.
There's no real point to this topic. I just found this account heartwarming. I pray for the day that these two great churches become one again.
Yours in Christ,