Distinguished administration and faculty,
Dear students and guests,
It is with a sense of deep honor and sincere gratitude that we stand before you in this historic and eminent academic institution in order to receive the award of an honorary doctorate for our inter-Christian ministry and contribution to ecumenical dialogue.
While we are of course humbled by this moving recognition of our modest service to advance connections and conversations among Christian churches and interfaith communities, we would nevertheless like to draw your attention not so much to our own particular interests and personal accomplishments, but rather to the essential vision and exceptional mission of the Church of Constantinople, which we have been blessed to serve for more than thirty years as its spiritual pastor. This is because, for over seventeen centuries, our Church has selflessly facilitated the cause of canonical unity among the family of Orthodox sister Patriarchates and autocephalous Churches. Moreover, over the last century, our Church has prophetically promoted the cause of ecumenical unity among estranged Christian confessions and other religious communities both through the vibrant ecumenical movement from the early to the mid-twentieth century but also through the vital interfaith dialogue during the latter part of the twentieth century.
During this period, the Ecumenical Patriarchate assumed a prominent initiative and leadership role in creating and shaping, as well as contributing to and sustaining various fellowships including the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches. At the same time, the Ecumenical Patriarchate also instituted and maintained a number of crucial, albeit challenging bilateral dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Anglican and Reformed Communions, for the sake of promoting the unity that we jmutually seek. However, beyond these efforts, the Ecumenical Patriarchate established broader ecumenical encounters and discussions with our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters for the sake of promoting greater understanding and mutual tolerance. All of these endeavors continue to be near and dear to our heart and our ministry.
What the world realized during that critical period of the last century was that it is a scandal for the followers of Christ not to follow the mandate of our Lord “that [his disciples] may be one” (John 17.21), but also that it was impossible for peace to prevail in the world if religions did not follow the shared precept of the “golden rule” that we should “do unto others as we would have others do unto us” ( Luke 6.31).
In this regard, then, we welcome the gracious honor of this honorary doctorate on behalf of the institution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Because ecumenical service is nothing less than the very DNA of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Despite persistent and misguided criticism, the Church of Constantinople has never perceived its ministry or mission as a worldly form or secular model of expansionism. Instead, it understands its purpose and aspiration as the universal acceptance and advancement of human dignity and social justice in every person created in God’s image and every corner of God’s world. Our ecumenical vision is purely spiritual, based entirely on the foundational words of St. Paul, that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.28) These few, simple words radically overturned all kind of division and discrimination that previously or subsequently appeared on this planet.
Such, we believe, has been the genuine basis and focus of Christian ecumenical service through the centuries. We realize of course that there have been times and places when Christians did not practice what they claimed or believed. However, those examples were deviations from the right path; and they constituted a failure on the part of those who behaved with an exclusivist or isolationist attitude, rather than in an ecumenical and inclusive manner. Indeed, we would suggest to you that, what is more tragic than this failure or hypocrisy, is when Christians seek to justify or legitimize practices of discrimination and division, when people become comfortable with how they live—separated and broken by religious and racial barriers. To quote the Psalms: “I look for excuses for the sins that I commit.” (Ps. 143) We should constantly ask ourselves: How can we Christians ever stand with genuine integrity and good intention to proclaim the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father” when we excuse our indifference, segregation, rejection of others?
In a world shattered by contrasts and conflicts, the exchange of peaceful and constructive dialogue constitutes the only way of achieving reconciliation and unity. And in response to those who are resistant to or fearful of dialogue, we would say that the doctrinal reconciliation of existing differences among inter-Christian relations—much like the peaceful resolution of cultural differences among interfaith communities—does not imply infidelity or estrangement from truth.
Because truth does not fear dialogue; on the contrary, truth always invites and pursues dialogue. By contrast, conservatism and fanaticism provoke the defensive persistence of each side in its own positions and opinions, thereby consolidating differences and obliterating any hope of compromise or conciliation. Our objective should always be to pursue and promote “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is beautiful, whatever is praiseworthy” in other people. (Philippians 4.8). And our emphasis should always be to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4.15).
All of us have seen the tragic consequences of a world that rejects dialogue and reinforces division. Indeed, we have seen the catastrophic repercussions of antipathy and antagonism on human lives as well as on the planet’s resources. It was in the wake of the two world wars that the ecumenical movement gained momentum one century ago. People were desperate to discover new ways of relating positively and constructively with one another in order to transcend the violence and hostility, as well as nationalism and sectarianism that plagued churches and religions for centuries.
In recent months, we have observed the destruction of human life and devastation of the natural environment in the unjustified and unprovoked invasion by Russia on the sovereign territory of Ukraine. It has been personally and globally painful, both tragic and reprehensible, to witness the Russian Federation—with the shameless support and endorsement of the Russian Church—eliminating human lives and obliterating natural resources that will be lost forever to our world and to our children. And now, before our very eyes, see the devastating loss of countless innocent lives, along with the destructive loss of structures and infrastructures in the Middle East, where a perpetual conflict has flared up again, because as human beings we are unwilling to collaborate and concede for the sake of our brothers and sisters as well as for the protection of God’s sacred gift creation. In the past, together with our dear brother Pope Francis, we endeavored to bring together and bring to dialogue the leaders of both Israel and Palestine. And only days ago, we issued a strong statement against the use of violence allegedly to establish peace.
Beloved sisters and brothers,
It is this spirit of sincere and loving dialogue that the Church of Constantinople has implemented in its relations among divided Christians, while at the same time proclaiming it to all believers and persons of good will, wherever they happen to be. We know from bitter experience that religion can easily be misused as a banner of fanaticism and conflict. Yet, we are also convinced that the “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4.7), as well as the “love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13.7) will ultimately prevail if our faith in God fills us with faith also in one another.
This is the peace and love that we pray will be showered upon all of you. Thank you.