ADDRESS By His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the Harvard Alumni of Turkey (Istanbul, April 18, 2019)
Dear friends and distinguished alumni of Harvard University,
It is a special privilege and pleasure to address you on the significance and sacredness, as well as the importance and influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate throughout history, but especially in our contemporary world. We would like to begin by extending a personal invitation to each of you to visit our historic Center at the Phanar, where you will become immersed in a world and tradition that dates to the origins of the Christian Church.
This history and background is something with which Harvard alumni should readily be able to associate. Harvard University enjoys a rich history and unique prestige in the academic world. Everyone rightly emphasizes that your alma mater is an Ivy League research institution, founded by the clergyman John Harvard, and established in Massachusetts in 1636. Perhaps, fewer recall that Harvard’s original mission was to advance learning within churches, while most of its first graduates went on to become ministers. You see, religion is a chapter in the history of culture, even in that of Harvard University. Culture cannot be understood without taking into account the impact that religion has on it.
This is arguably a good starting-point to introduce the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its role within the global Orthodox Church over the centuries. After all, the Church of Constantinople has a rich history spanning seventeen centuries, during which it retained its See in this very City without interruption. Today, this Church constitutes the spiritual center of all the local Orthodox Churches, exercising leadership not by secular administration but rather by virtue of historical and ecclesial primacy.
You must further remember that the jurisdictional region of the Patriarchate is filled with significance for the whole Christian Church. It is in Asia Minor that St. John the Evangelist wrote his Gospel; it is here that St. Paul the Apostle traveled to the earliest apostolic communities; it is in this area that the earliest councils of the Church defined and shaped the Christian faith; and finally, it is here that the spiritual and cultural legacy of Byzantium has been faithfully maintained to this very day.
Thus, Istanbul is home to numerous religious sites, elegant mansions, historical monuments and remarkable museums – namely, the fourth-century walls of Constantine, the fourth-century Church of Haghia Irene (where the Christian Creed was formulated), the sixth-century Church of Haghia Sophia and the extraordinary frescoes and mosaics of the fourteenth-century Chora Monastery - Kariye. These are but a few of the City’s manifold treasures. In addition, some of the greatest spiritual leaders of Christianity have served this Church as Patriarchs, such as Gregory the Theologian in the fourth century and John Chrysostom in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, as well as Photius the Great in the ninth century and Cyril Loukaris in the seventeenth century.
It was here that Emperor Justinian I pioneered reform and codification of Roman law and jurisprudence, while Leo III influenced later Slavic legal institutions. It was the Byzantine East that Christianized the Slavic north. It is also in this part of the world that the literary works of classical civilization were preserved for the Western Renaissance. From our daily life and customs, to our hospitals and our academic universities, the legacy of Byzantium has proved to be a lasting and profound influence. Indeed, Byzantium was the longest experiment in church-state relations, lasting from 325 to 1453, and advanced progressive policies of social justice and social welfare.
It is also here that Fatih Sultan Mehmet granted to Patriarch Gennadius Scholarius privileges (προνόμια) in the form of an imperial decree (βεράτιον, berat), concerning the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the rights of the Ottoman Empire’s Orthodox inhabitants. The Patriarch’s recognition as a religious leader of the Empire’s Orthodox population, as “Millet Başı,” constituted the core of these privileges. Of course, the meaning of the term “Millet” does not coincide with the contemporary understanding of the term “nation.” “Millet” does not refer to a “special nation,” but rather to the entity of Orthodox Christians in the Empire. With this act, the Sultan acknowledged the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s supranational character and status. Certainly, through this privilege, the Ecumenical Patriarchate was incorporated into the administrative system of the Ottoman Empire, and it assumed secular responsibilities. This fact had positive impacts on Orthodox Christians, but also, quite often, it had negative consequences for some Patriarchs, especially when they were considered to be co-responsible for revolts and rebellions against the Empire, for which they had no involvement in and could not prevent.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church
So, we must imagine a long history, during which the Ecumenical Patriarchate has literally stood at a crossroad of civilizations and religions, marking the boundaries between East and West.
Beloved friends, this clearly demonstrates how our Church is at once rooted in the past, yet at the same time looks toward the future. It draws from a rich tradition to respond to a modern age. And it is precisely this dual nature that permits us to speak boldly about critical contemporary issues, while at the same time firmly retaining our respect for sacred values. This is why we like to refer to Orthodoxy as a “living tradition,” which shapes the way that we think, feel and live at the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The ministry of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is spiritual. The values that it represents, and which we personally promote and defend throughout the world – from the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, to UNESCO and the Davos Economic Forum, in universities and congresses, in dialogues with political and religious leaders, in communication with Christians and faithful of other religions, as well as with every person of goodwill – are all universal spiritual values. Fidelity to our sacred and longstanding tradition is a cause for openness and peaceful cooperation.
Today, the Orthodox Church numbers some 300 million people worldwide. It is composed of fifteen self-governing, autocephalous churches united in a form of a “family” within which each local church retains its cultural traditions and identity, as well as remains committed to oneness in faith and life, and is coordinated, facilitated and safeguarded by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The function of the Patriarchate as center par excellence of the life of the entire Orthodox world emanates from its constant ministry in the witness, protection and outreach of the Orthodox faith. In this way, the Ecumenical Patriarchate possesses a supranational and supra-regional character. It is from this lofty consciousness and responsibility for the people of Christ – regardless of race and language – that the new regional churches of the East, from the Caspian to the Baltics, and from the Balkans to central Europe, were born. This activity today extends to the Americas and Australasia.
The jurisdictional organization of the Orthodox Church flows out of the principle of the local churches gathered under their bishops, arranged in larger Metropolitan provincial synods, and this as eventually culminating in the expression of the ancient Pentarchy of Patriarchates, comprising Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. To the latter four of this number, which remain in communion since the eleventh century – when the division between Rome and Constantinople occurred – several other autocephalous Orthodox Churches are now included. Thus, with the exception of the ancient Church of Cyprus, all the other Churches have received their autocephaly/the right to self-governance directly from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. These include the Churches of Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Georgia, Poland, Albania, as well as the Czech lands and Slovakia. The most recent of these is the Church of Ukraine, to which was officially granted autocephaly only in January of this year. Together, this kaleidoscope of Orthodox autocephalous Churches manifests an expression of the international character of world Orthodoxy.
Among all these Churches, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, throughout history and to this day, holds the primacy of responsibility, service and honor among the world’s Orthodox Christian Churches, thus exercising a unique role for the sacred and sensitive ministry of unity and collaboration. Exercising this significant duty, after a vacuum of almost 1,000 years, the Ecumenical Patriarchate successfully convened the Holy and Great Council in Crete (June 2016), where all Orthodox Churches committed to assembling in order to discuss matters of mutual concern, as well as to issue statements on the role of the Orthodox Church before the challenges of the modern world. It was a historical achievement that brought together many Churches that were formerly isolated by oppressive regimes.
In the same context, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has pioneered initiatives on critical global matters, such as inter-Christian and interreligious dialogue, social justice and peace, as well as creation care. Beyond its leadership role within the ecumenical movement – which produced many common statements of great importance, led to the lifting of prejudices and strengthened mutual confidence, and continues today with its final aim being unity in faith and sacramental life – it has promoted international dialogues between Christians and Jews, as well as between Christians and Muslims. Most importantly, it has assumed responsibility for raising international awareness on climate change. Allow us to give some further consideration to these two aspects of our ministry, namely ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, as well as ecological and social justice, because we are convinced that they are vital in the world we inhabit today.
The Call for Dialogue
Throughout our Patriarchal ministry of almost twenty-eight years, we have striven for the promotion of dialogue, which we consider to be the most effective means for addressing problems. Dialogue is a gesture and source of solidarity; it leads to the overcoming of prejudices and mistrust; it promotes mutual familiarization and appreciation; it builds respect for otherness; and it builds bridges.
One principal area of interest and involvement of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is dialogue with believers of all faiths and, indeed, people of no religious commitment. It is tragic that people have identified religion with terror, war and persecution. Almost every day we learn of violence in the name of religion. This tendency to identify religion with its negative aspects is unfortunately reinforced today through the misinterpretations of religion, which circulate among progressive intellectuals – of course, not among you! Today, we realize the depth of error of all those who have characterized – and insist on doing so – religion as a “neurosis,” as an “illusion,” or as an “opium of the people” who have underestimated the power of religion, its social contribution and the culture it has created. How could someone claim that a “neurosis” built the Parthenon in Athens, Haghia Sophia in Constantinople, the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, all the other unparalleled monuments of religious art and inspiration, as well as the admirable explosion of charity and love in the name of the Merciful God? Ignorance, intolerance and violence are the failure and not the essence of religion. They are the marks of fundamentalism and extremism, which regard their own ideology and interests as truth that must be imposed upon others. Genuine religion is always based on freedom and respect for human dignity and human values.
Yet, our conviction – as we have repeatedly declared throughout our tenure – is that any crime supposedly committed in the name of God is actually a crime against God. This is why we work to combat religious fundamentalism – “this expression of morbid religiosity,” as was stated in the Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church in Crete (paragraph 17). It is especially provocative that faith in God – the foremost power of the soul that opens the gates of heaven and orients us toward our eternal destiny – is being manipulated as a vehicle of relentless and blind obedience.
Today, word is made of “the return of God,” expressed as the presence of religion in public space and the definitive annulation of the theory on the impending “post-religious age” and of the total secularization of culture. It is not by chance, then, that in our present day and age, we speak of a “post-secular” period in which religions join all the remarkable efforts of humankind.
In general, the four following functions of religion are emphasized today: a) Religion provides answers to the deep existential questions of man, for the meaning of life, for pain and death, for our origin and final destination. b) Religion created and preserved the highest achievements of culture, the most precious spiritual values of man and a deep anthropological knowledge. c) Religion is intrinsically linked to the identity of people and cultures. d) Religion is a mission and responsibility for peace. The credibility of religions worldwide is connected to their contribution to reconciliation and the promotion of peace, which is incapable of succeeding without interreligious dialogue and concord among religions. The famous German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas, who first characterized contemporary western societies as “post-secular,” stated that political decisions in these societies should not offend the core values and convictions of religious communities, which on their behalf are obliged to respect civil law and human rights, as well as to cultivate interreligious understanding and dialogue.
It is overly utopic to expect that solidarity and social cohesion can be established through globalization, economic progress, improved living standards, science and technology, digital communication and the Internet. It is impossible for a world of peace and justice to exist without the contribution of the great spiritual powers of humanity – that is, of religions. This is why we work tirelessly to inspire faith leaders and religious institutions to engage in a dialogue of peace on local and international levels in order to insure the peaceful coexistence and collaboration among people. Religion has a vital role to play in the world today, by participating in and contributing to public discourse. In this regard, we have persistently underlined that understanding other people’s beliefs and values is an indispensable precondition of establishing dialogue and coexisting peacefully. Religion is a vital factor in the process of bridge-building and reconciliation. True faith does not release humans from being responsible for the world. On the contrary, it strengthens the commitment of human action, and it enlarges our witness for freedom and justice, even providing support to our efforts when they appear to be at an impasse.
This is why the Ecumenical Patriarchate has pioneered ecumenical organizations, such as the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches, as well as advocated and advanced bilateral dialogues with non-Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Middle East and internationally. In this process, our objective is for religions to understand one another, while serving as instruments of peaceful coexistence and motivating their faithful to respect one another, as well as to work together for a better present and future.
Such dialogue does not imply abandoning or betraying one’s belief or tradition, but instead learning to live with all people and cultures. Moreover, we have insisted on educating people throughout the world that Islam is not equated to terror, and that terror is foreign to the essence of religion. This was the conclusion of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church in 2016, which declared that: “Honest interfaith dialogue contributes to the development of mutual trust, and to the promotion of peace and reconciliation . . . True peace is not achieved by force of arms, but only through love . . . The oil of faith must be used to soothe and heal the wounds of others, not to rekindle new fires of hatred.” (Encyclical, paragraph 17)
Protecting God’s Creation and Promoting Social Justice
Let us now turn to the vocation to protect God’s creation. In recent decades, the world has witnessed alarming environmental degradation – with climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the pollution of natural resources – along with a widening gap between rich and poor, as well as an increasing failure to implement environmental policies. This is why the Ecumenical Patriarchate has discerned the signs of times and called people’s attention to ecological and social problems, emphasizing the urgency of protecting God’s creation.
The environmental initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate date back to the mid-1980’s, while in 1989 our predecessor (the late Patriarch Demetrios) issued the first encyclical letter encouraging Orthodox Christians to preserve the planet’s resources for the sake of leaving behind a better world for our children. Since then, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has dedicated September 1st of each year for prayers and protection of the natural environment. Subsequently, all Orthodox Churches embraced this practice, while the World Council of Churches officially endorsed it for its member communities. More recently, Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby have also instituted the same day of prayer for creation in the Roman Catholic Church and the global Anglican Communion.
To the same end, since 1992, we have organized numerous seminars, symposia and summits, engaging leading theologians, environmentalists, scientists, civil servants and especially students – in fact, last year we assembled two hundred scientists and theologians in Athens and the islands of Spetses and Hydra, while in a couple of weeks we are inviting fifty educational institutions to Istanbul – in order to alert people to the pressing challenge of creation care. We have worked closely with the United Nations, the European Union, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, as president of WWF, and other prominent ecologists in order to inform people of the global impact of climate change. Moreover, we have worked closely with other religious communities and Christian confessions, because we believe that any resolution to the environmental concerns of our time must occur in dialogue with all other faiths and disciplines.
For us, caring for the natural resources of our planet is a matter of truthfulness to God, humanity and the created order. This is why we have repeatedly condemned environmental abuse as nothing less than sin. Beyond this, however, we must remember that caring for the environment is not primarily a political or a technological issue; it is predominantly a religious and spiritual issue. We are proud of the fact the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the first Church that gave this emphasis to the ecological message of Christianity and highlighted the ecological dimensions of faith, worship, ethos and the culture of Orthodoxy in a time when humanity is on a dangerous course to destroy the conditions of life on earth.
Our planet is our home; yet it is also the home of everyone, just as it is the home of everything created by God. This means that we have an ethical responsibility to carefully consider the way we inhabit the world, the policies we endeavor to promote and the lifestyles we choose to adopt. We cannot live as isolated individuals, disengaged from events in our world. For, we are social beings, and we share this world. We are created for personal encounter; we are judged as people, societies and nations on the basis of such interaction. In this context, our Church has assumed numerous initiatives addressing the immense social, ecological and economic challenges of our time; for, social problems and economic developments touch human beings at the heart of their existence, on issues, such as hunger and poverty, war and peace, and climate change, all of which nowadays plague so much of the world’s population, while crushing the dignity and sacredness of human beings.
We are convinced that our response and responsibility stem from the essence of the Christian Gospel. This respect for the dignity of human beings, created “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1.26), has served as the fundamental criterion and essential standard for the ministry of the Ecumenical Patriarchate throughout the centuries, and this is precisely what motivates and guides its mission today. It is a tradition and vision of solidarity for all human beings and all creation. In this sense, the Ecumenical Patriarchate declared 2013 as “the year of universal solidarity.” In our Patriarchal Encyclical we articulated the conviction that the ongoing worldwide economic and social crisis ultimately expresses a lack of solidarity. Solidarity with other human beings is a basic presupposition not only for peaceful coexistence among people, but also for the very survival of humanity. Our aim was to sensitize individuals and peoples to poverty and the great inequalities that exist. We underscored the necessity for initiatives to relieve those who are needy and to ensure the right that every human being enjoys the essential goods of life.
It is in this spirit, then, that we organized three forums on Modern Slavery. The first forum, “Sins Before Our Eyes,” was held in cooperation with the Anglican Communion here in Istanbul in February 2017; the second forum, “Old Problems in the New World,” took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in May 2018; and the third forum, “Awareness, Action and Impact,” was once again held in Istanbul in January of this year. With these forums, we endeavor to convene experts, practitioners and policymakers from international, governmental and non-governmental organizations, in consultation with representatives from Orthodox Christian ministries of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in order to explore the myriad dimensions of the scourge of modern slavery – a terrible sin – as well as to act and to witness towards the elimination of the interconnected forms of visible and invisible enslavement, which adversely affect the lives of over 46 million people throughout the world.
For us, the contemporary multifaceted worldwide crisis is a result of a broader spiritual crisis. Humanity needs a renewed culture of solidarity, that transforms our society of “having” into a society of “being.” Our future is common, and the way to this future is a common journey for us all. No single leader and no single state, no single nation and no single religion, indeed no single science and no single institution can face contemporary challenges alone. We need one another; we need common goals; we need collaborative efforts. We are called to build bridges based on love and understanding, and not to construct walls of fear and exclusion based on fear and ignorance. We must be critical of all tendencies that undermine solidarity and oppose whatever reduces human beings to insatiable consumers at the expense of their fellow human beings. We are called to find ways of avoiding any conflict of races or clash of civilizations – respecting differences, championing rights and promoting dialogue – for the sake of a better and brighter world. The Ecumenical Patriarchate invites all of you to join in these endeavors.
Metropolitan John Zizioulas, who studied at Harvard University and is one of the most prominent theologians of our time, stated that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is an institution that “left and continues to leave its indelible mark on the history of humanity” and “continues to be a hope for contemporary man’s present and future.” It is an institution that “even if it did not exist, we would most certainly have to invent it.” This sacred institution has existed for seventeen centuries in this very City and continues its uninterrupted presence and witness. That means, that there is no need for it to be reestablished or reinvented. What must occur, though, is for it to be discovered. And if it is rediscovered, then, as has been properly said, “the Turkish people will be proud for this historical institution, which is located in their country.”
Thank you for your kind attention!