Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on Inter-Orthodox Relations and the Ecumenical Movement

His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in a long interview published by the Italian newspaper Avvenire, following an interview with three European newspapers of Christian inspiration, speaks of ecumenism, of confrontation between religions, of intra-Orthodox debates.

Your All-Holiness, you have been ministering for thirty years as Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. How do you see this time, especially the ecumenical encounters you may have had with three Roman pontiffs and with the leaders of other Christian churches?

For all that he has bestowed upon me in all circumstances of my life, I give glory to God. I have never been a supporter of introverted orthodoxy. The mission of the Church is to bear witness to the gospel and to transform the world into Christ, which of course does not happen by remaining indifferent to the gospel or by rejecting it. As a patriarch, I fought for the stability and unity of orthodoxy, for intercultural, interreligious and inter-Christian dialogue, and I took many initiatives for the protection of the natural environment, for peace. and solidarity, for the respect of human rights, the first of which is freedom of religion, always drawing from the inexhaustible source of the Orthodox tradition. And the issue of promoting Christian unity is something that I have always considered central throughout my life.

Christianity stands today between the symbolic anniversaries of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (2017) and the 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea (2025). What is the assessment of the ecumenical journey of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople?

The year 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s historic encyclical on Christian unity. This encyclical has rightly been called the “constitutional charter” of the ecumenical movement. On this basis, and with the cooperation of Protestant denominations, the World Council of Churches was established in 1948. It brought Christians together; they now know each other much better, undertake joint actions of charity and solidarity, produce and approve important theological texts, support Christians in difficulty, etc. The Ecumenical Patriarchate not only participates in ecumenical events, but is a founding member and central contributor to the WCC. For the 500th anniversary of the start of the Lutheran Reformation (1517-2017), the Ecumenical Patriarchate participated in various events and manifestations. Of significance is the fact that in 1981, 400 years after the theological exchanges by letters between Tübingen and the Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II Tranos had ended, the official theological dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the entire Orthodox Church began. This year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of this important dialogue. The best way to celebrate this anniversary is to continue the theological dialogue and the dialogue of life with seriousness and sincerity.

How do you think ecumenical dialogue should take place?

In my opinion, ecumenical dialogue should take place at three levels: at the level of personal fraternal contacts, common initiatives and cooperation of the heads of the Christian Churches. Second, in the very demanding context of theological dialogues, to which special importance has been given in our time and where considerable progress has been made. The third level is the “dialogue of life”, communication, coexistence, solidarity of Christians in contemporary societies, where the “different” is no longer a question of “distance”, but of proximity, of daily proximity. The “dialogue of life” also facilitates the reception of decisions and achievements from the first two levels. This dialogue is nourished by prayer to the Founder of the Church to enlighten us in order to give space to others, without being afraid of changing our own identity.

You have established a very close fraternal relationship with the current successor of Peter. Since your election, you have had numerous meetings with Pope Francis which seem to have opened up a new perspective in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. Can you explain the reasons for this harmony and how to understand these developments?

When Pope Francis was elected, I decided to attend the opening ceremony of his pontificate in the Vatican. Since then, I have been linked to His Holiness by fraternal ties. We have met a dozen times. We have many interests, sensitivities and aspirations in common on social issues, such as the protection of our fellow human beings in need, the poor, refugees, the promotion of peace and reconciliation, interreligious dialogue, the protection of creation. Of course, the question of the path to unity and the progress of theological dialogue remains of central importance in our relations. We gathered in Jerusalem in 2014 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting, in 1964, of Patriarch Athenagoras with Pope Paul VI in the Holy City. Mutual trust between the Pope and me, the common will to overcome obstacles and accelerate the path to the desired unity, personal meetings, joint declarations, are all valuable contributions to the wider development of relations between our Churches. And here, of course, the Christian principle applies: man struggles and God blesses and advances the struggle. The future – including the commitment to unity – is in God’s hands.

When you returned from Jerusalem in 2014, where you met Pope Francis at the Holy Sepulcher, you envisioned a meeting with various Christian Churches in 2025 in Nicaea, seventeen centuries after the first truly ecumenical Council, where the Creed was promulgated. Do you still think this event is possible? Are there any preparations underway? Can it be an opportunity to bring us closer as Christians?

It is certain that the 1700th anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 2025 can be an opportunity for Christian Churches to reflect on their journey, on the errors of the past, as well as on the present, and to embark on an ecumenical path more determined, drawing on the lessons of over a century of modern ecumenical experience. The First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea is a symbol, a milestone, a turning point in the history of Christianity, not only because it formulated the Creed, but also because it issued 20 canons. Nicaea therefore offers a unique opportunity to appreciate our common canonical heritage of the first millennium and to examine the importance of canon law as a tool for promoting ecumenical dialogue. Indeed, canons are essential elements in the search for doctrinal agreement, which has been the main and dominant focus of contemporary ecumenical discourse to this day. “Legal ecumenism” has been the neglected aspect of our theological dialogue. The coming anniversary is a call to all Christians to consider that what unites us is greater than what keeps us in a simple habit of separation. The unity of Christians and a common approach to the great contemporary problems is not only a current requirement, but also a command from the founder of the Church. The great historical meetings remind us of this truth.

Since the recognition of autocephaly (ecclesial self-governance) of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, tensions have arisen between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Since then, three other autocephalous Churches have also recognized the Church of Ukraine. In response, the Moscow Patriarchate severed all Eucharistic participation with these four Churches. Can we speak of a schism in the Orthodox Church?

There is no schism in Orthodoxy. I have said it and I will repeat it now. There is a different view on the part of the Church of Russia on the Ukrainian question, which manifested itself in the breaking of communion with the mother Church of Constantinople, then with the other Autocephalous Churches in accordance with the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to grant autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine. In our opinion, this is a wrong action on the part of the sister Church of Russia. So, I insist, there is no schism in orthodoxy. But unfortunately, the “schism” theory comes from some representatives of the Russian Church. They engage in catastrophism in an attempt to justify the attitude of this Church which consists in breaking Eucharistic communion with any autocephalous Church and with any Primate or any hierarch who does not agree with it. Who, then, creates such an atmosphere? What purpose ? Orthodoxy, despite the occasional problems that arise between its local autocephalous churches, despite differing approaches to administrative matters, remains united, for there are no dogmatic differences. Indeed, our unity is based on the dogmatic teaching established by the Church, which is an expression of the common patristic and synodal tradition, lived dynamically in the Eucharistic event.

Orthodox unity is therefore not threatened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s response to the request of the Ukrainian Orthodox…

In the Ukrainian question, we did the same as in the other cases of granting autocephaly. We have followed the Tradition of Orthodoxy, established by secular ecclesiastical practice. It should be remembered that before Ukraine, Constantinople had already granted autocephaly to nine other local Churches. Today, of course, some people, for personal gain, deny this obvious fact. But let those who question the rights and responsibilities of the Ecumenical Patriarchate question the very foundations of their existence and identity, the very structure of Orthodoxy. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, as the first throne of Orthodoxy, with experience accumulated over the centuries, faithful to the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church, has always fought, within the framework of its responsibilities, for the preservation of the pan-Orthodox unity. It is characteristic that all the new local Churches, until the time they received their autocephaly, were part of the spiritual and canonical jurisdiction of the Church of Constantinople. However, facing the preservation of the unity of the one Orthodox Church and the fulfillment of the historical conditions and needs of each age, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has ensured the canonical granting of the status of self-governance, so that these Churches’ local authorities can regulate their internal affairs independently, but closely linked to their mother Church in Constantinople. This is what happened in the case of Ukraine. If Moscow had shown a willingness to collaborate, realizing the emerging historical, social and ecclesiastical conditions, the issue would have been resolved many years ago. For three decades Moscow has been ostensibly blind to the tragic ecclesiastical situation in that country. It practically prevented a solution from being found so that Kiev, which the Church of Russia had taken away from the Church of Constantinople – taking advantage of historical circumstances and situations – did not escape Moscow’s control. The granting of autocephalous status to the Church of Ukraine by the Ecumenical Patriarchate was therefore not only ecclesiologically and canonically correct, but also the only realistic solution to the problem. And, of course, it was not, as some have suggested, to serve political expediency or even geopolitical interests. It was an act of responsibility on the part of the Mother Church to millions of our Orthodox brethren who found themselves, through no fault of their own, outside the Church.

Since the schism between East and West in the 11th century, many Orthodox Churches have been transformed into National Churches with ecclesial boundaries that align with civil boundaries. Do you think this is a threat to the internal unity of the Orthodox Church?

The Great Council of 1872 in Constantinople condemned ethnophyletism as a serious wound in the body of the Church, as a heresy. The entry of nationalism into the Church leads to a break with the catholicity of the Church and abolishes the principle of synodality. This is a real “reversal of values”. Here the Church is judged on her service to the nation and to the state. It is inconceivable that the nation should be considered the decisive factor in ecclesiastical life, that the Church should be called upon to deliver an ethnocentric discourse, to ally with nationalist political movements, to sacrifice the canonical order in the name of the nation, to deny one’s own eschatological reference and to identify with the historical framework of each era.

Can the Orthodox Faith Promote Nationalism?

It is impossible for the true Orthodox faith to be a source of nationalism. Wherever nationalism appears in an Orthodox context, it has other roots and other motivations. In addition, the Orthodox Church respected the particular cultural characteristics of the evangelized peoples and emphasized the catholicity of the local ecclesial community, regardless of its national and linguistic identity. Byzantinist scholar Sir Steven Runciman, in his last interview before his death, said that “Orthodoxy is an excellent solution to the question of the unity of peoples, because it does not promote nationalism at all.” The Ecumenical Patriarchate, although in the whirlwind of nationalism, has not given up and maintains its supranational character.

The modern ecumenical movement began over a century ago. From the beginning, the Orthodox churches have been very involved, but some believers still refuse to pray with Christians of other faiths. Why is there resistance on the path to full communion? What is there to lose or to defend?

In today’s Orthodox world, there are various groups that express an extreme anti-ecumenical spirit and characterize ecumenism as “pan-heresy.” The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church held in Crete in 2016 condemned all those who, “under the pretext of maintaining or presuming to defend the true orthodoxy”, break the unity of the Church (Relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world, §22).

What means can enable a fuller Orthodox participation in the progress of Christian unity?

There is no other way forward to unity than through honest dialogue. In my opinion, what threatens the witness of the Church is not openness and dialogue, but closure and introversion. For the Orthodox Church, the general objective of ecumenical dialogues was clearly defined by the Holy and Great Council: “It is clear that in theological dialogues the common goal of all is the final restoration of unity in the faith and true love”. The Orthodox Church, through its participation in ecumenical dialogues, has never accepted compromises on questions of faith. Unity, which is based on Truth, is and continues to be desired.

However, with the introduction of same-sex marriage in several churches and the ordination of women to priestly ministry, the distance between Protestant churches and others appears to have increased. How is it possible to get closer to each other again?

We are concerned about these issues, which are the result of modern social developments and a hypertrophic perception of individual rights. The practice of some denominations and Christian Churches in this matter creates divisions even within these communities, as in the case of Anglicans, the Old Catholic Church and Lutherans. It is a fact that today disagreements on anthropological and moral questions create new difficulties in the relations between the Churches. What is accepted from a sociological, anthropological, psychological point of view does not automatically become acceptable and normative for the Church. The Church has its anthropology, its faith in the holiness of the human person. Truth is the criterion in the life of the Church. As it is said theologically, in Christianity, “man is not an experience. He is a being defined in terms of origin and destination”.

In his exhortation “Evangelii gaudium”, Pope Francis designated the Orthodox Churches as a model of synodality. Do you think that to serve the visible and universal unity of the Church, the “first Rome” would need more synodality and collegiality and the “second Rome” (Constantinople) a more effective primacy?

The current debate over the synodal structure of the Church, the understanding and application in practice of the principle of synodality, is an important theological advance. A central aspect of synodality is its essential link with Eucharistic ecclesiology. Not only are there excellent ecclesiological studies to understand the role of the “protos” (primus) in the Church on this basis, but the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church has also worked a lot on the question of “primacy” and “synodality”. The question asking whether the New Rome (and not the “Second Rome”, since there never was a “First Rome”, but the “Old Rome”) would need a “more effective” primacy, does not properly address the problem. The role of the Patriarch of Constantinople is defined by canons and has so far been exercised, always within the framework of these canons, in an effective manner. Disputes over effectiveness or non-application arise from a misinterpretation of canons, usually in favor of those who make them. Those who question the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Orthodoxy introduce an unstable new ecclesiology. As we have stated once and once again, the Ecumenical Patriarch cannot have “papal claims” because we do not need a “Pope” for synodality to work. Synodality is inextricably linked not to the papacy, but to the primacy, for there is no synod without a primus. This is a requirement of the Orthodox faith and not just canonical convenience.

In your country, Turkey, has the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque been seen as a threat to a pluralistic Turkish society where citizens of different religions – and among them the different Christian minorities – can live in peace and enjoy religious freedom?

The transformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque saddened us. The fact that Hagia Sophia functioned from 1453 to 1934 as a mosque does not negate the fact that it was built as a church and was the most important Christian temple in the world for nine centuries. We believe that the decision to convert this monument back into a mosque sent the wrong message to the world about the importance and possibility of peace and interfaith cooperation and the value of interfaith dialogue. Instead of being seen as a symbol of the conquest of the city by the Ottoman Turks, Hagia Sophia could be projected, more authentically, as a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of different traditions, solidarity and dialogue. The same goes for the conversion of the monastery of Chora (Kariye) into a mosque.

What specific actions – besides prayer – would you encourage on the part of the European Churches in the face of the persecution of Christians in many parts of the Middle East?

The Holy and Great Council of Crete discussed this issue and unequivocally condemned the persecution and murder of members of religious communities, coercion to change faiths, destruction of temples and religious symbols and other cultural monuments. It expressed the Churches’ concern over the plight of Christians in the Middle East and called on governments in the region to protect the Christian population in this cradle of our faith. The Council emphasized that they “have the inalienable right to remain in their country as citizens enjoying equal rights” (Encyclical, §18). We believe that the issue of religious intolerance and violence in the name of God and of religion should be at the center of concerns in interfaith dialogues. Religions must develop the potential for peace and brotherhood which is inherent in them. Peace, to which they refer, is not only inner peace, but also concerns peace and justice in society and in relations between religions.

What do you think the credibility of religions depends on today?

Today, the credibility of religions is largely judged on their contribution to the struggle for peace. It is not acceptable that religions, forces of peace and reconciliation, can be fanatic and sow discord. Neither scientific progress, nor economic development, nor communication via the Internet will be enough to bring about peace. We Christians, as part of our ministry for peace and the struggle for justice, have the supreme duty to show the inseparable unity of love for God and love for neighbor.

This interview with Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, is part of a journalistic collaboration started some time ago by several European newspapers of Christian inspiration. In this case, the joint work was carried out by Avvenire, with Stefania Falasca, accompanied by two Protestant-inspired newspapers, the Dutch Nederlands Dagblad, with journalist Anders Ellebaek Madsen, and the Danish Kristeligt Dagblad with Hendro Munsterman.