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Your Eminences and Excellencies,
Honourable Representatives of the civil authorities,
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,
It is a joy and a blessing to find ourselves here with you in the footsteps of Saint Paul, the Apostle of the Nations. Indeed, it was almost two thousand years ago when the Roman citizen and former Pharisee from Tarsus who converted to Christianity while on the way to Damascus landed on this island while he was on his way to Rome to face trial. The Acts of the Apostles state that the people who lived on the island showed him great kindness (Ac. 28:2). Meanwhile, our humble person, on this day, is witnessing your exceptional benevolence and excellent hospitality.
Together with the Psalmist, we can exclaim: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Ps. 132:1). And our words do not come from politeness but flow from the very prayer of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who before His Passion, prayed that “all may be one” (Jn. 17:21). This wish of the Lord is irrelevant today considering that we live in a secularised society, so marked by nihilistic and atheistic ideologies. To witness Christ effectively to the world today, we Christians, who are unfortunately divided against God’s will, must unite our voices and our hearts to proclaim the salvific message of the Gospel, following the example of the Apostle of the Nations who exclaimed: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).
The Ecumenical Movement was born at the beginning of the last century, stemming from the necessity of being united for an effective Christian mission worldwide. The Orthodox Church was a pioneer of this movement. Already in 1902, our predecessor on the Ecumenical Throne, Patriarch Joachim III of blessed memory, wrote to his brothers, the Primates of the Orthodox Churches proposing collaboration, also on practical issues. Among various questions, Joachim the 3rd mentioned “the subject of our present and future relations with the two great growths of Christianity,” meaning by this the Roman Catholic Church and what he referred to as “the Church of the Protestants.” Afterwards, he then added: “Of course, the union of them and of all who believe in Christ with us in the Orthodox faith is the pious and heartfelt desire of our Church and of all genuine Christians who stand firm in the evangelical doctrine of unity, and it is the subject of constant prayer and supplication.”
A few years later, in 1920, the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued a historic encyclical addressed “to the Churches of Christ everywhere in the world,” inviting Christians to establish a koinonia, that is to say, a communion or a fellowship of Churches, based on the model of the League of Nations which had just been established in Geneva in 1919. In this encyclical, one can read: “Our own Church holds that rapprochement (προσέγγισις) between the various Christian Churches and fellowship (κοινωνία) between them is not excluded by the doctrinal differences which exist between them. In our opinion, such a rapprochement is highly desirable and necessary. It would be useful in many ways for the real interest of each particular Church and of the whole Christian body, and also for the preparation and advancement of that blessed union which will be completed in the future in accordance with the will of God.” Subsequently, the Ecumenical Patriarchate became a founding member of the World Council of Churches in 1948 and has been present and active in it ever since.
This encyclical not only invited the Churches to come together for dialogue but also proposed concrete joint actions such as exchanging ecclesiastical representatives and delegations as well as professors and students of theological faculties, convening conferences together, allowing each other the use of chapels and cemeteries, striving to ensure that all Churches celebrate major Christian feasts at the same time, and assisting one another in endeavours for religious advancement and charity.
More recently, the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, which we, by the grace of God, convened and presided over in Crete in 2016, reaffirmed this commitment of our Church to the Ecumenical Movement. Against those who erroneously call it heresy, the Council stated clearly and unambiguously: “the Orthodox Church, thanks to the ecumenical and loving spirit which distinguishes her, praying as divinely commanded that all men may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4), has always worked for the restoration of Christian unity. Hence, Orthodox participation in the movement to restore unity with other Christians in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is in no way foreign to the nature and history of the Orthodox Church but rather represents a consistent expression of the apostolic faith and tradition in new historical circumstances” (Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian world, 4).
Against those who questioned the ecclesiality of other Christian communions, the Council affirmed: “the Orthodox Church accepts the historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with her and believes that her relations with them should be based on the most speedy and objective clarification possible of the whole ecclesiological question, and most especially of their more general teachings on sacraments, grace, priesthood, and apostolic succession” (Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian world, 6). This is precisely the theological work necessary and inevitable for any eventual restoration of communion between our Churches, and which is currently being done by our six bilateral theological dialogues, particularly those with the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran World Federation, which have all treated or are treating these subjects.
The way to Christian unity is long and arduous. It requires a lot of effort, patience and prayer. It cannot be satisfied with a monologue which would unilaterally impose one’s thoughts or customs on others, but on the contrary, it requires a spirit and a culture of dialogue attentive to the will of God, listening to the Word of God and listening to each other. We personally strongly believe in the culture of dialogue.
Dialogue is a gift from God. According to our famous predecessor on the Ecumenical Throne of Constantinople, Saint John Chrysostom, God is always in a personal dialogue with human beings. God always speaks through the prophets, apostles, and saints. And the Word of God can have meaning for us only if we enter into dialogue with Him by responding to His call with faith. We are also convinced that contemporary theology has to eminently be a theology in dialogue (διαλεγομένη θεολογία), whether it be a dialogue between divided Christians, dialogue between religions or dialogue between Christianity and modern culture.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate has always been convinced of the need for inter-Christian dialogue. Dialogue has never been entirely absent from Christianity, even after the regrettable divisions. After the rupture of communion between Rome and Constantinople in the 11th century, the Ecumenical Patriarchate remained in dialogue with the Church of Rome until at least at the time of the Councils of Lyons (1274) and Ferrara-Florence (1437-1439). Subsequently, in the 16th century, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, there were a series of exchanges between the Lutheran theologians of Tübingen and the Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II. Although this remarkable correspondence was not a dialogue in the proper sense as we understand it today, it bears witness to the openness of mind which always characterised the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Dialogue has been particularly fruitful in the second half of the 20th century within the framework of the Ecumenical Movement. No one can forget nor underestimate the importance of retracing the history of the historic meeting between our predecessor, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, and Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem in 1964, which led to the mutual lifting of the anathemas of 1054 (on 7 December 1965), as well as the historic visit of the late Pope John Paul II to our predecessor, Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios, in 1979, which led to the announcement of the official bilateral dialogue between our two Churches, which officially began in 1980.
During our tenure as Ecumenical Patriarch, we had the joy of receiving Popes Benedict XVI and Francis at the Phanar. Our numerous official visits to the Vatican and fraternal meetings with Pope Francis elsewhere on other occasions, like our recent meeting in Bahrain, were opportunities to strengthen our shared commitment to rapprochement as we strive for unity.
But other bilateral dialogues are also very important for us. The theological dialogue with the ancient Oriental Churches results from our meetings during the conferences of the Faith and Order Movement, especially the one in Edinburgh in 1937. The establishment of the World Council of Churches enabled the Orthodox to feel a particular closeness with these ancient Oriental Churches and to engage with them in a bilateral dialogue in the 1960s. In the framework of the official bilateral dialogue launched in 1985, both families acknowledged in 1990 that they confess the same faith despite past theological controversies on Christology resulting from terminological misunderstanding.
Only sincere dialogue can allow clarification and overcome misunderstanding. It is imperative to bear this in mind when we consider our bilateral dialogues both with the Churches emerging from the Reformation and those with the Anglican Communion and with the Old Catholic Church. It is true that the question of the ordination of women, to take just one example, heavily challenged these dialogues. The experience of these dialogues teaches us that ecclesial communion cannot be restored only through the resolution of the dogmatic controversies of the past but also implies considering current circumstances and developments. We recognise that without dialogue, nothing can be resolved. Therefore, the Orthodox Church pursues with great patience the progress of dialogue.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate was also a pioneer of interfaith dialogue. Being at the crossroads of continents, civilisations and religions, the Holy and Great Church of Christ has constantly been challenged to serve as a bridge between religions. In this regard, it is imperative to clarify that, unlike inter-Christian dialogue, which aims to restore communion among Christians, inter-religious dialogue does not seek to unite diverse religions into one mega religion. Inter-religious dialogue aims for religions to coexist peacefully by getting to know each other better, clarifying misunderstandings, and striving for joint actions in front of contemporary threats and challenges.
After being elected Ecumenical Patriarch, we have had the opportunity to address the issues of peace and religious tolerance on many occasions before various audiences worldwide. We will never forget the conference on peace and tolerance, which was first held in Istanbul in 1994 and which issued the famous Bosphorus declaration, affirming, based on the Bern peace conference of 1992, that a “crime committed in the name of religion is a crime against religion”. We will also remember another critical meeting: the conference on peaceful coexistence between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, following the tragic events of 11 September 2001, which was held in Brussels the following December and which, in its famous declaration, rejected the assumption that religion contributes to the clash of civilisations, drawing attention instead to the role of faith in “providing a constructive and instructive platform for dialogue among civilisations”.
As representative examples of the witness of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in facing contemporary challenges, we mention our Church’s contribution to protecting the natural environment and the struggle to promote a culture of solidarity. Concerning the ecological crisis, we want to highlight not only the series of international congresses, seminars, symposia, summits, and significant publications organised by our Patriarchate, but also our joint initiatives with Pope Francis. Regarding the culture of solidarity, we refer to the declaration of 2013 as the year of solidarity for all humanity and 2017 as the year of the protection of the sacredness of childhood, as well as our shared engagement with Pope Francis for the protection of migrants, and the organisation of critical forums on modern slavery together with the Anglican Communion.
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,
The credibility of religions today depends on their attitude towards protecting human freedom and dignity and their contributions to peace. This is the presupposition not only of peaceful coexistence but even of the sheer survival of humanity. We can face these challenges only together. Nobody – not a nation, state, religion, or science and technology – can meet the current problems alone. We need one another; we need common mobilisation, common efforts, common goals, and a common spirit. The numerous challenges our world faces today provide an opportunity for practising solidarity, engaging in dialogue and cooperation, and openness and confidence. Our future is shared and the way toward this future is a shared journey.
Unfortunately, those who started the war in Ukraine ignore and violate these principles and act against the common good. In His Sermon on the Mount, our Saviour teaches us, saying: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt. 5:9). Any distortion of the Gospel message for political purposes, trying to find a theological reason for war and violence, thus trying to justify the unjustifiable, turns out to be not only a caricature of the Gospel but also, and above all, a blasphemy against the God of mercy and the Prince of Peace.
At this time, when we Christians prepare to celebrate the Nativity of Christ, the coming into this world of the Son of God to reconcile all creation with its Creator, let us wholeheartedly strive to be artisans of peace by caring about justice, solidarity, and the protection of creation. Let us never forget that our Saviour enjoins us in the Gospel to love one another as He has loved us, specifying that “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). This is our common heritage. This is what we share. This is what drives us to come together and act together. During this holiday season, may our Saviour grant you all health, peace, and progress in every good thing, every blessing from above, during Christmas, the upcoming new year, and all the days of your life!
God bless you all!