Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: The gift of the relics is a crucial step

In an exclusive interview by Andrea Tornielli for with Vatican News and L’Osservatore Romano, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople speaks of his surprise at Pope Francis’ unexpected gift, and says how the key to evangelization is through service. He also mentions the fires in the Amazon, and explains the spiritual and theological reasons why we need to be committed to the environment. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople, has described Pope Francis’ gift of a portion of the relics of Saint Peter as “a new milestone” and a “crucial step” in the journey towards Christian unity.

Your Holiness, what was your first reaction when you received Pope Francis’ gift of the reliquary containing the nine fragments of the bones believed to be those of the Apostle Peter?

“I must admit that at the beginning we were very surprised to learn that His Holiness, our brother Pope Francis, was giving us such a treasure. This gesture surprised many. Not even the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that was in Rome for the patronal feast of our Sister Church expected it. Usually this type of event is the subject of protocol discussions. It was not so this time. We sincerely appreciate this gift, which is the manifestation of spontaneity, a sign of the true fraternal love that today unites Catholics and Orthodox”.

What is the significance of this gesture?

“We can identify at least three profound meanings. Firstly, the arrival of the relics of the Holy Apostle Peter at the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople is in itself a blessing. Saint Peter is a central figure of holiness because he is apostolic and in many ways close to all Christians: he is the Apostle of confession, but at the same time that of denial. Saint Peter is the witness of the Resurrection, a sign of hope for all Christians. Finally, the third meaning is more ecumenical and refers to the search for unity and communion. This gift from our brother Pope Francis is a new milestone on the road to coming closer together, a crucial step in the dialogue of charity initiated more than fifty years ago by our predecessors. A dialogue that today is placed under the blessing of the Holy Apostle Peter. We need only recall these words of the Apostle, which in our present context take on a very particular dimension: “Love one another intensely from a pure heart, born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and abiding word of God”. (1 Peter 1:22)

More than 50 years ago, your predecessor, Athenagoras, donated to Pope Saint Paul VI an icon depicting the brothers Peter and Andrew embracing each other. Pope Francis has called this “a prophetic sign of the restoration of visible communion between our Churches”. At what point is the journey?

“That is an excellent question. At what point are we? Much progress has been made in more than fifty years. However, we still have a lot of work to do to re-establish the bond of communion that continues to make us suffer because it denies the perfect fraternity to which we aspire. The division of Christians is a scandal for the Church, because there is no true witness to the Gospel except in the unity of the members of the Body of Christ.

As already mentioned, the gift of the relics of Saint Peter to our Church by our brother Pope Francis is a powerful gesture that demonstrates the commitment of the Church of Rome to the service of Christian unity. In a very symbolic way, it is an almost perfect reflection of the icon mentioned in your question. Brothers Peter and Andrew kiss mystically once again to teach us to live the bond of ecumenical brotherhood to which we are so attached.

On the road to unity, two paths are necessary. The first is defined as the dialogue of charity, made up of all those gestures that brought us closer after the embrace exchanged in Jerusalem in 1964 by Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. The second is called the dialogue of truth. This is composed of bodies of theological dialogue that allow us to consider the common traditions on which to build our future of communion, studying with honesty and respecting the issues that still divide us. To these two paths we would like to add a third, a prophetic one. This is what we have witnessed with this unexpected gift.”

The gift of the relics was accompanied by a letter from the Pope that was made public on September 13, the day the Latin Church celebrates the memory of its predecessor Saint John Chrysostom. A Father of the Church venerated by Catholics and Orthodox who in one of his famous homilies said: “Do you want to honor the Body of Christ? Do not neglect Him when He is naked. Do not honor Him here in the temple with silk cloth, and then neglect Him outside, where He suffers cold and nakedness”. How do we proclaim the Gospel today, beginning with these words?

“We believe that the liturgical experience on which our spiritual life as Christians is based should not separate us from our commitment in the world and towards the world. As you certainly know, at the end of the Divine Liturgy we say: “Let us go in peace”. This invitation not only calls us to maintain the peace that has been given to us, but also to share it with the rest of the world. When we follow Saint Paul and proclaim the Church as the Body of Christ, we must remember that there is no other way to accomplish the mission and spread the Good News of the Risen Christ than through service, diakonia. In this way, we follow the example of Christ Himself who gave Himself entirely “for the life of the world”. But our service will be even better when Christians have regained full unity in the communion of the Churches.”

The Catholic Church is about to celebrate a Synod dedicated to the Pan-Amazzonian region, a great green resource for our “Mother Earth”. You have always been particularly sensitive to the theme of safeguarding creation. Why is it important that this sensitivity be spread, and what can Christians do together to concretely help?

“The protection of our natural environment has been a priority for the Ecumenical Patriarchate for more than thirty years. The reasons are ecological, but also theological. Creation is a gift from God to all humanity. It is in Creation, in which human beings participate, that God’s saving Grace for the salvation of the world is realized. Thus, we have always been particularly attached to the idea that the destruction of Nature is above all a spiritual question and a sin. That is why the answer must also be spiritual.

We pray for Creation in every liturgy. We pray in particular for the protection of the environment every September 1st. Prayer is essential, but it is only a first step. Christians must commit themselves to the development of a spiritual ecology based on the theme of conversion. We often hear the question of conversion when we speak, for example, of the Sacrament of Confession. It is the same thing here. If the destruction of the environment is a sin, we cannot protect it without conversion. Because it is from the conversion of hearts that the awareness of our responsibility will come. In the Christian tradition, we have the means to think and influence the transformation of our ways of life: worship, asceticism, fasting and charitable actions.”

The forests of the Amazon have recently been devastated by fires…

“Let us pray with heartfelt intensity for the Amazon rainforest, the destruction of which is more than a catastrophe, it is a calamity. The impact of these huge fires could have consequences for generations, affecting the land, infrastructures and human beings. There is an urgent need to change our practices and way of life, because these extreme phenomena force us to consider the fundamental fragility of Nature, the limited resources of our planet, and the unique sacredness of Creation.”