Interviews with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
By Marianne Ejdersten*
(Courtesy of the World Council of Churches)
He earned the title “Green Patriarch” as a religious leader addressing alarming environmental issues over at least two decades. In 2008, Time Magazine named His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as one of 100 Most Influential People in the World, for “defining environmentalism as spiritual responsibility”.
The role of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, as the primary spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian world and a transnational figure of global significance, grows increasingly vital. Bartholomew made huge efforts to organize the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church in Crete earlier this year. Likewise his promotion of religious freedom and human rights, his initiatives to advance religious tolerance among the world’s religions, together with his work towards international peace and environmental protection continue. They justly place him at the forefront of global visionaries, peace-makers and bridge-builders as an apostle of love, peace and reconciliation.
25 years as Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, granted a special interview to the World Council of Churches (WCC) news. Part of the conversation took place in the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul at the beginning of December when the WCC general secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, met with Patriarch Bartholomew. The meeting took place conjointly with Bartholomew marking 25 years as Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch.
We meet in his residence office, a warm and welcoming room with strong colours, padded with books and icons. It tells His-All Holiness’ life story. He greets warmly, offering coffee and cakes, immediately making you feel welcome.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was born in 1940 as Demetrios Archondonis on the island of Imvros (today, Gökceada, Turkey). Bartholomew was elected in October 1991 as the 270th Archbishop of the 2,000-year-old Church founded by St Andrew, serving as Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch.
Q: Your All-Holiness has been involved in the World Council of Churches for many years, as a member of the Faith and Order Commission but also as a Bossey alumnus. What are your strongest, personal impressions from the ecumenical movement?
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: “It is true that we were involved in the World Council of Churches from very early in our ministry, subsequently serving as a member of its Central and Executive Committees as well as for fifteen years as a member, and for eight years as vice moderator (1975-1983) of its Faith and Order Commission. Indeed, we were vice moderator of this Commission during the development of the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry Document, on which the Orthodox influence was profound. We also participated – either as a representative or head of the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate – in three WCC General Assemblies: in Uppsala (1968), Vancouver (1983), and Canberra (1991).”
“Our graduate studies had previously exposed us to the Roman Catholic Church in Rome and in Munich, but also to the Protestant Churches and more generally to the ecumenical movement in Bossey, with such luminary theologians as the late Nikos Nissiotis. Indeed, we owe this formation to our venerable predecessor, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, who opened the hearts and minds of young seminarians and clergymen at the Phanar to inter-Christian relations and dialogue.”
‘Transform the darkness into light’
Q: Our world is changing rapidly. We live in difficult times, but the believer knows that the Lord is present and active in the world. What is today the biggest challenge for the life of faith and the proclamation of the Gospel?
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: “These are indeed difficult, even dark times, when it is a complex task to discern the presence of Christ in the turbulence of our world. All around us, we increasingly witness pain and suffering, often uncertainty and hostility. The temptation for a Christian is to jump to judgment and condemnation of the obvious evil in society and the world. However, that would be a simplistic and unproductive response. The challenge for us Christians is to keep our eyes focused on Christ in order to transform the darkness into light, the despair into hope, and the suffering into reconciliation.”
“We recall the sermon of the late Metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon on the day of our ordination to the Diaconate fifty-five years ago: ‘Never take your eyes from the transfigured Lord,’ he said; ‘always convey this light that never wanes for all people.’ That is our task in proclaiming the Gospel today. Are we distracted by the trouble and turmoil around us, so that we become frightened and lose our spiritual focus? Do we discern the face of Christ in our brothers and sisters, when we see hundreds of thousands persecuted and seeking refuge among us? Or do we choose to construct walls of defence, walls that shut people out, walls that regard others as a threat?”
‘Strangers welcome at our table?’
Q: The migrant crisis seems to preoccupy Europe and will do so for many years. Yet it also has split churches, between those that worry about threats to their identity and those that are more welcoming. In an age that emphasizes diversity, how does Your All-Holiness see the unity agenda evolving? What kind of hope can you see?
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: “The theological understanding of God in the Orthodox Church is an image of God as encounter and communion, of God as hospitality and inclusion. This is why the traditional icon of God as Trinity is a depiction of the three strangers – or foreigners – in the form of angels received by Abraham under the oak of Mamre, as described in Genesis, chapter 18. He did not consider them as a danger or threat to his ways and possessions. Instead, he spontaneously and openly shared with them both his friendship and food.”
“It was as a result of this selfless hospitality that Abraham was promised the seemingly impossible, namely the multiplication – literally from barrenness! – of this seed of love for generations. Is it too much to hope that our willingness to converse and cooperate as people of different and diverse religious convictions might also result in the seemingly impossible coexistence of all humanity in a peaceful world? So, how many strangers will we welcome at our table?”
“In its official document on ’the mission of the Orthodox Church in today’s world,’ the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church held in Crete in June 2016 determined that ‘the Orthodox Church considers it is her duty to encourage all that which genuinely serves the cause of peace and paves the way to justice, fraternity, true freedom, and mutual love among all children of the one heavenly Father as well as between all peoples who make up the one human family. She suffers with all people who in various parts of the world are deprived of the benefits of peace and justice.’”
‘Open horizon towards the diverse world’
Q: Your All-Holiness hosted the Holy and Great Synod in June. What was the most important outcome for the Orthodox Church and for the wider ecumenical movement?
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: “It was indeed a great blessing that we were deemed worthy to convene – with the consent of all Their Beatitudes the Primates of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches – the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church held in Crete (June 2016). This great historical event demonstrated the conciliar identity of the Orthodox Church and the immense struggle to preserve this identity above and beyond nationalistic interests.”
“In this regard, we express our deep satisfaction that the Holy and Great Council decided to maintain the ecumenical openness and bilateral dialogues of the Orthodox Church, since anything to the contrary would imply recession and introversion in our difficult and disturbing times. It is not dialogue that constitutes a threat to our identity, but rather the rejection of dialogue and sterile self-confinement. This is precisely why we have also encouraged and always promoted interfaith dialogue with Judaism and Islam, which are able to bear tangible results for global reconciliation and the sacred cause of peace.”
“The unprecedented gathering of so many Churches in Crete ‘opened our horizon towards the contemporary diverse and multifarious world . . . and emphasized our responsibility in place and in time, ever with the perspective of eternity’. (From the final Message) As the formal Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council declared, the Church is ‘witness in dialogue.’
’Acquire a compassionate heart’
Q: Does Your All-Holiness feel that fear is the best deterrent from pollution of the environment?
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew wrote, “It should not be fear of impending disaster with regard to global change that obliges us to change our ways with regard to the natural environment. Rather, it should be a recognition of the cosmic harmony and original beauty that exists in the world. We must learn to make our communities more sensitive and to render our behaviour toward nature more respectful. We must acquire a compassionate heart – what St. Isaac of Syria, a seventh-century mystic once called ‘a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation: for humans, for birds and beasts, for all God’s creatures’.”
Bartholomew has organized eight international and inter-faith symposia, as well as numerous seminars and summits to address ecological problems in the rivers and seas of the world. His initiatives earned him the title “Green Patriarch” along with the award of several significant environmental awards. We now have the Paris Agreement and the churches are committed to work on climate justice.
Q: How do you look at the future ecumenical work on environment? What is Your All-Holiness’ vision for Christianity to be a voice for the transition we need for a sustainable future?
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: “We are delighted that the Paris Agreement has been widely accepted. Indeed, we were involved in the early stages of preparations for the COP 21 at the gracious invitation of the French government. In this regard, we accompanied President Hollande to the Philippines and attended an interdisciplinary summit in Paris prior to the Conference of Parties in December of 2015. The 22nd session of the United Nations conference of the parties on climate change in Marrakech was, on the one hand, cause for celebration but, on the other, a painful reminder that 197 parties have today ratified a convention enforced after the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.”
“Twenty-two years, however, is an unacceptably long period to respond to the environmental crisis, especially when we are conscious of its intimate and inseparable connections to global poverty, migration and unrest. What price are we prepared to pay for profit? Or how many lives are we willing to sacrifice for material or financial gain? And at what cost would we forfeit or forestall the survival of God’s creation? After twenty-two years, it is finally time – and long overdue – for all of us to discern the human faces impacted by our ecological sins.
“And, as we have repeatedly stated, ‘we are all in the same boat’. Climate change is not the problem of one nation or another, of one race or another, or of one religion or another. We can only respond to the demands and proportions of climate change when we assume our responsibilities together as believers and citizens.”
‘Promotion of Christian unity’
Q: We read also the text from an “Encyclical Letter of the Ecumenical Patriarch to the Autocephalous Orthodox sister churches on the World Council of Churches” from 1952. What does that letter mean today for the Orthodox Church?
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: “This Encyclical Letter to the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches in 1952 – namely, in the earliest and most formative stages of the creation of the World Council of Churches, but also with the desire to encourage the Orthodox Churches to participate in the WCC at a time when much suspicion and reluctance prevailed, just as it succeeded in doing during the 3rd Assembly of the WCC in New Delhi (1961) – is articulated in the same spirit as the recent decisions of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church does not emphasize one aspect of its faith at the expense of another; it seeks at all times to maintain the sacred, albeit sometimes sensitive symmetry of both faith and order, of doctrine and discipline, of believing and doing.”
“This is why, in its decision about ‘relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world’, the Holy and Great Council affirmed the conviction that the Orthodox Church, ‘in her profound ecclesiastical self-consciousness, believes unflinchingly that she occupies a central place in the matter of the promotion of Christian unity in the world today.’ Moreover, the assembled churches and bishops agreed that this commitment ‘springs from a sense of responsibility and from the conviction that mutual understanding and cooperation are of fundamental importance’ if we wish never to ‘put an obstacle in the way of the Gospel of Christ.’”
‘Contribution of the Orthodox Church to the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace’
Q: What is the major challenge for the World Council of Churches from Your Holiness’ perspective? How can the WCC continue to be relevant for the member churches and the wider ecumenical movement? And what could we learn from your Church – as part of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace?
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: “The World Council of Churches was established on the basis of proclaiming the unity of the Christian confessions in their Trinitarian belief, while professing the differences of its member churches. Therefore, it is important to hold together and balance the two poles of recognizing the vital principles of the Christian faith, but at the same time respecting the fundamental teachings and particular traditions of each denomination. It is always tempting – though also perilous – to maintain one aspect of these poles, while condemning the champions of the other as hindering the process of reconciliation.”
“At the Holy and Great Council, the churches and hierarchs discussed – sometimes passionately, albeit always positively – the important work of the World Council of Churches and especially its Faith and Order Commission. The specific document on ‘relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world’ underlines the commitment of the Orthodox Church to promoting Christian unity, while “contributing with all means at their disposal to the advancement of peaceful co-existence and co-operation in the major sociopolitical challenges.”
“The ecumenical movement is not ‘inter-confessional compromise’ but adherence to our obligation and mandate to Christian unity ‘without diverging from the true faith of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’. This is why the same conciliar document concludes: ‘In this spirit, the Orthodox Church deems it important for all Christians, inspired by common fundamental principles of the Gospel, to attempt to offer with eagerness and solidarity a response to the thorny problems of the contemporary world.’ This would be the unique and invaluable contribution of the Orthodox Church to the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace.”
‘Breathing the Spirit of God’
Q: Can you describe the ecumenical movement in terms relevant for the young generation?
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: “Your question provides the premise as well as the promise of our answer. The ecumenical movement is not an ideological allegiance or social engagement; it is not political persuasion or global activism. It is a movement; and it must remain a movement. That is to say, it must always be inspired and energized by the breathing Spirit of God that should burn in our hearts and in our lives. It is this Spirit that holds together and makes sense of all aspects of church life. Thus, it is the same Spirit that accounts for commitment to the tenets and traditions of our faith; and it is the same Spirit that illumines our capacity to ‘discern the spirits of our times” as well as our responsibility to witness to the Gospel in a prophetic manner’.
“Ironically, we would not wish to advise or admonish the young generation. In many ways, they have more to teach the older generation about openness and gentleness, about forgiveness and generosity. Perhaps we would encourage the young generation to remain true to itself despite the widespread forces and efforts to discriminate and divide.”
“The ecumenical movement can remain relevant in our world if we return to the fundamental principles of the Gospel to love our neighbour, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger.”
*Marianne Ejdersten is director of Communication at the World Council of Churches.