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‘Dialogue and reconciliation are not optional for us’: An interview with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

‘Dialogue and reconciliation are not optional for us’: An interview with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is the spiritual leader of an estimated 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.

He was chosen in 1991 to lead the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the ancient see identified with the Apostle Andrew, who Benedict XVI described as “the Apostle of the Greek world.”

Nicknamed the “Green Patriarch” because of his passionate commitment to defending the environment, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew enjoys a close bond with Pope Francis.

In an interview with The Pillar, conducted via email, he spoke about his upcoming visit to Britain, the Ukraine war, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the quest for Christian unity.

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You are visiting London on Oct. 21-25 to mark the centenary of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain. What contribution do you think the archdiocese has made to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the wider Christian world?

Our Archdiocese in Great Britain is historically the second Eparchy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the diaspora. It derives its title “Thyateira” from the ancient church cited in the Book of Revelation. As such, it is the earliest of our churches in Western Europe and boasts numerous local saints of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

Following the celebration of our 30th anniversary since being elected to the Throne of Constantinople, we decided to visit our largest English-speaking eparchies in order of seniority, traveling to the United States last year, coming to England in October of this year, and journeying to Australia in 2024, especially since all three archdioceses have recently received new, young, and vibrant archbishops.

While in London, we hope to meet with community leaders, members, and youth in order to learn about their progress under the spiritual direction of Archbishop Nikitas. The responsibilities and privileges of the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain have traditionally included relations with the Church of England and particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Royal Family, and especially with Prince Philip and now hopefully King Charles on matters related to the environment, but also the student populations of the renowned universities of the United Kingdom.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia served as an assistant bishop within the archdiocese until his death on Aug. 22. His books helped English-speaking readers to gain a better understanding of Orthodoxy. What legacy do you think he leaves behind?

The late Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia was a distinguished theologian and teacher, who served Orthodox Christianity, and more broadly the ecumenical church, with his wisdom and knowledge that illuminated and shaped seekers of truth and faith in every corner of the world. He was also an eminent minister and bishop, who served the Archdiocese of Thyateira and more broadly the Ecumenical Patriarchate with his dedication and advancement of reconciliation and unity within the Orthodox Church and among the Christian confessions.

As a respected and prominent hierarch of the Church of Constantinople, his life and work highlighted the very essence of our Patriarchate as Ecumenical, transcending national borders and ethnic limitations. Metropolitan Kallistos represented the very best of what the Orthodox Church has to offer the contemporary world.

In a message that Pope Francis sent to you on the feast of St. Andrew 2020, he expressed his desire for full communion between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. “Although obstacles remain, I am confident that by walking together in mutual love and pursuing theological dialogue, we will reach that goal,” he wrote. Do you share the pope’s confidence that full communion is possible?

Unless we share hope and yearning for full communion, then we cannot really say that we are disciples of Christ. Union and communion is a mandate of the Lord Himself, who — on the night he was betrayed — prayed with tears that his disciples may be one (John 17:21). Dialogue and reconciliation are not optional for us; they are directives and commandments.

Needless to say, there remain obstacles, both ecclesiastical and theological. But in the 1960s, we established the “dialogue of love” whereby our two churches exchanged visitations and communications with a view to dispelling misunderstandings and prejudices of the past. And in 1980, we commenced the “dialogue of truth” whereby as sister churches we continue to deliberate on matters that unite and divide us in an effort to discern ways toward our common journey forward.

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The Russian-Ukraine War is a conflict largely between Eastern Orthodox Christians. How do you feel about this as the spiritual leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians?

The ongoing war waged by Russia into the sovereign territory of Ukraine has weighed heavily on our mind and heart in recent months. It is true that it has been characterized as Orthodox fratricide, although the consequences have reached many more people, including Ukrainian Catholics as well as other Christian and religious believers, and the repercussions have surely been felt throughout the world.

What is still more painful to us is the fact that the Patriarchate of Moscow has stooped to the level of submitting to political ambitions of the Russian Federation, even endorsing and seemingly blessing this cruel invasion and unjustifiable bloodshed. We have repeatedly condemned the aggression and violence, just as we have fervently and fraternally appealed to the Patriarch of Moscow that he separate himself from political crimes, even if it means stepping down from his throne.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. N. Papachristou/Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

In recent years, the relationship between the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Moscow Patriarchate has not been easy. Do you see any way that the difficulties could be resolved?

Since you asked about the war in Ukraine, we might add that it is a clear example of characteristic expansionist ambitions of Russia over the centuries.

Indeed, even as the war was being waged in Ukraine, the Church of Russia violated the ecclesiastical territory and jurisdiction of one of the most ancient Orthodox patriarchates, the Church of Alexandria and All Africa. Patriarch Kiril of Moscow justified this transgression on the basis of the Patriarch of Alexandria’s support for the independence of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

As you know, Moscow severed the Church of Constantinople from communion, just as it has done with the Church of Alexandria and every other church that recognizes the autocephalous Church of Ukraine. For our part, we continue to be in communion with Moscow, not only because it is canonically and ecclesiologically unacceptable to cease being in communion for non-dogmatic reasons, on the basis of purely administrative excuses, but also because it is unimaginable for the Mother Church of Constantinople to cut off its historical spiritual ties with the pious Russian people, who received their Christian faith from Constantinople and constituted for many centuries a vivid part of the flock of the Ecumenical Throne.

In this spirit, we hope that someday the Moscow Patriarchate will also recognize that unity is not enforced by domination, but only embraced in freedom.

We are witnessing multiple crises in Europe: war, refugees, energy, poverty, and the environment. Where can we find hope?

There is a moment in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, when the priest turns to the congregation and says: “Let us love one another so that we may confess God with one mind.” The challenges you mention confront not just Europe, but the entire globe. Unless we face them in a spirit of love, we will not prevail. This is why we have committed to addressing these problems jointly with our brother in Christ, Pope Francis. If our churches are as yet unable to claim full communion, we can at least proclaim our resolve to address the world’s crisis in solidarity of faith and action.

We learned this lesson very clearly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we realized that our decisions and behaviors directly affect the wellbeing and survival of our fellow human beings. We can no longer be separated or isolated on this planet. We are responsible and accountable for one another.

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