An Extraordinary Meeting of the Forum of the Orthodox Churches in Europe was held via Zoom Call on Wednesday, 15th of September 2021, in the context of the Forum of Dialogue between the Orthodox Churches in Europe and the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences of the Roman Catholic Church (CCEE). Despite the fact that this Meeting was jointly decided since last January, the very busy program of the CCEE, with several international conferences scheduled for the month of September, as well as the election of its new President, made impossible the participation of the Roman Catholic delegation. Nevertheless, the Orthodox delegates decided to meet among themselves and to benefit from this unique opportunity of fellowship and fraternal discussion. The Meeting, which was chaired by H.E. Metropolitan Prof. Dr. Gennadios of Sassima (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Orthodox Co-President of the Forum, dealt with the following timely theme, necessitated by the coronavirus crisis: Covid-19: The Society’s Experience and the Role of the European Churches Today.
The participants in the Meeting were: H.E. Metropolitan Prof. Dr. Gennadios of Sassima (Ecumenical Patriarchate), The Rev. Presbyter Prof. Dr. Bassam Nassif (Patriarchate of Antioch), Prof. Dr. Bogdan Lubardić (Patriarchate of Serbia), H.E. Metropolitan Dr. Joseph in Western and Southern Europe (Patriarchate of Romania), The V. Rev. Protopresbyter Prof. Dr. Giorgi Zviadadze (Patriarchate of Georgia), H.E. Metropolitan Prof. Dr. Vasilios of Constantia and Ammochostos (Church of Cyprus), The V. Rev. Archimandrite Dr. Amfilochios Miltos (Church of Greece), Prof. Dr. Nathan Hoppe (Church of Albania), H.E. Archbishop Prof. Dr. Job of Telmessos (Consultant, Ecumenical Patriarchate), Prof. (Em.) Dr. Konstantinos Delikostantis (Consultant, Ecumenical Patriarchate), and The V. Rev. Grand Ecclesiarch Aetios, Director of the Private Patriarchal Office (Orthodox Co- Secretary, Ecumenical Patriarchate).
The Meeting was opened with a moment of prayer. After the approval of the draft agenda, in his Greeting, H.E. Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima offered a brief overview of the establishment and development of the Forum between the Orthodox Churches in Europe and CCEE not as a mechanism to replace by any means the official theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, but as a proper regional avenue for the discussion of social issues and problems within a theological framework. In his introductory remarks to the main theme of the Meeting, Metropolitan Gennadios explained how the ongoing health crisis prevented the convocation of a new Forum Meeting. Then, His Eminence invited each one of the participants to briefly introduce himself and to share, with the other members, experiences about how his local Church faced and dealt with the tragedy of the coronavirus.
Two papers were presented in the context of the main topic of the Meeting, by Metropolitan Vasilios of Constantia and Ammochostos and Prof. Dr. Nathan Hoppe.
Metropolitan Vasilios in his paper, entitled “A Continuous Good Friday: A Eucharistic Fast,” offered a theological and spiritual hermeneutic as a pastoral response to the ongoing pandemic. Through several Scriptural examples, His Eminence highlighted that the current health crisis, like every crisis that afflicts humankind, reveals a hidden spiritual crisis. Metropolitan Vasilios compared the period of the pandemic with Great Lent, a period of repentance and prayer, and he paralleled the measure of not attending the holy services during the periods of lockdown, including the Divine Liturgy, which eventually results to Eucharistic abstinence, to a continuous “Good Friday” without Eucharist. Therefore, he continued, apart from simply complying with the strict governmental measures for the prevention of the spread of the coronavirus, we must also take urgent spiritual actions for the protection of our spiritual health and for the safeguarding of the purity of our souls from the virus of sin. According to the Metropolitan, what is necessary during this period of trial is repentance and an introspective reflection of what went wrong in mankind that led to such tragic results. And he concluded by emphasizing that the outcome of our reflection should be the realization that while the virus’ active rays pass through us, we must not be selfish. Each of our deeds must reflect the love of God, the “brotherly love” and the solidarity, so that we can always collaborate for the good, asking for the visitation of God’s power to save us all.
In his presentation, Prof. Dr. Nathan Hoppe mentioned how the crisis arising from Covid- 19 has been the occasion for significant controversy within the life of the Orthodox Church about the proper response to this crisis. There has been a whole spectrum of responses ranging from one extreme to its opposite. He stressed the necessity of avoiding both fundamentalist and secularist responses to the Covid-19 crisis, recognizing that danger cannot be avoided. For Dr. Hoppe, the witness of His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Albania shows us a third way. The Orthodox Church of Albania has been inspired by the witness of its Primate, who has guided the Church to take all necessary precautions out of love, avoiding fear, knowing that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” According to Prof. Nathan, the question about safety is the wrong one. And he highlighted: “Our goal throughout the pandemic is not to be safe but to be faithful. The quest for faithfulness recognizes that there is no safety in this world. There is danger in contracting Covid-19, there is danger in isolation, there is danger in being deprived of the Eucharist.” Living by the criteria of faithfulness through a time of crisis fosters freedom and opportunity. Faithfulness will mean taking necessary risks in the face of danger. The goal of crisis is not simply to get to the other side; it is the transforming work of God in our lives through the crisis. And he concluded his presentation with the hope that as we come to realize that we are not in control, we may turn to God in new ways, recognizing that He is truly in control.
In the lively discussion that followed the two presentations, the necessity of solidarity to our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ was highlighted, as well as the significance of the respect of the freedom of conscience in relation to the question of mandatory or voluntary vaccination.
The Meeting was concluded with a closing prayer. It was agreed that the next Forum Meeting, will take place in person next year, under the hospitality of the Orthodox, while the dates and place of the Meeting have to be determined.