A CONVERSATION WITH ORTHODOX ARCHBISHOP DEMETRIOS: A PAPAL TRIP, CHRISTIANS IN TURKEY, CHRISTIAN UNITY

Yesterday, in Part One of my overview of the papal visit to Turkey, I looked at Catholic-Orthodox relations, at the history of Christian unity and then disunity, as both sides struggle for full Christian unity. I asked: How did that disunity come about? On what points is there agreement? Disagreement?

In Part Two today, I bring you a lengthy interview I had in 2006 in Istanbul (Phanar) with Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, spiritual leader of some 1.5 million Greek Orthodox Christians, and exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The interview came at the end of Pope Benedict’s visit to Ankara, Ephesus and Istanbul where he met with Muslims as well as with the Orthodox, with whom he celebrated their November 30th patronal feast day of St. Andrew.

Hopefully this conversation will help you understand some of the differences between Catholics and Orthodox, where we have been and where we are going. In particular, many of the issues the Orthodox face in Turkey that Archbishop Demetrios mentions in this conversation remain today, and Pope Francis would have heard almost the same words from Patriarch Bartholomew.

Notwithstanding the original reason for Pope Benedict’s 2006 trip to Turkey – to create closer ties with the Orthodox on the path to Christian unity and to encourage the small Catholic community – it took on new meaning after the Pope’s September 12 lecture in Regensburg that angered Muslims throughout the world who accused him of being anti-Islam.

The Pope’s focus for his trip to Turkey in a post-Regensburg climate became fence-mending, or as I prefer, bridge-building. In fact, his title “Pontifex Maximus” – Supreme Pontiff – is from the Latin for “great bridge builder.”

Benedict spent weeks trying to build bridges following his lecture in Regensburg, expressing sorrow to Muslims for the anger generated by his remarks (remarks from which he totally disassociated himself ) by meeting with ambassadors from Muslim countries and with leading exponents of Islam in Italy, and by meeting with Muslim scholars and intellectuals at the Vatican.

Patriarch Demetrios talks about Benedict specifically and about Catholic-Orthodox relations in general.

A CONVERSATION WITH ORTHODOX ARCHBISHOP DEMETRIOS: A PAPAL TRIP, CHRISTIANS IN TURKEY, CHRISTIAN UNITY

PART I

EWTN: Editors and journalists write headlines every single day for news stories. If you had to write a headline describing the visit of Pope Benedict to Patriarch Bartholomew, what would it be?

DEMETRIOS: A visit of love and truth.

EWTN: What were the expectations at the patriarchate before Benedict XVI came to Istanbul?

DEMETRIOS: The expectations based on the experience of previous visits and the continuous contacts between the patriarchate and the Vatican in terms of the leaders of both Churches, were very strong and very positive. The expectations were that we would have a visit that would promote efforts towards unity, that would promote a climate of love and understanding and that would also promote a common work, that is, establishing peace and helping to overcome problems of poverty and disease and the work of saving the environment. In other words, a visit that would promote inter-ecclesial, inter-church progress but also give a witness and contribution to alleviating the pains and problems of the contemporary world

EWTN: Looking back then at the Pope’s visit these past few days, would you say those expectations have been met?

DEMETRIOS: I would say ‘yes’. I had the great honor of being in all the meetings during the whole time the Pope and the patriarch were together, and I would say that in a way the reality was better than the expectations. It was better in the sense that everything that happened, happened in a spirit of cordiality, sincerity, an honest encounter. We did not have extensive theological discussions because that was not the purpose. But you had an encounter of high quality, high human quality and that was really a tremendous achievement.

EWTN: Before he was elected pope I had interviewed Cardinal Ratzinger on a few occasions, as did EWTN a year before his election in an hour-long televised interview in English. I have always come away from meetings with him with the impression that he is a gentleman and a gentle man.

DEMETRIOS: I knew him before (this visit). I was a representative of the patriarch in 2003 in Rome for the (June 29th) feast of St. Peter and Paul’s – which was a Sunday. On Monday we had a beautiful meeting in his office with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for over an hour. At that time I had the opportunity to see a man with a brilliant mind, with sharp sensitivity about what happens on the spiritual and cultural level in the world, but specifically Europe. He spoke about his cherished ideas on secularization, relativization, and so forth. So I had this same kind of impression as you and I like this beautiful English way of describing him – a gentleman and a gentle man.

EWTN: Can you give me a picture of the Orthodox Church in America?

DEMETRIOS: There are between 5 and 6 million Orthodox, and this depends on their country of origin. There are 1.5 to 2 million Greek Orthodox and all the rest are Russian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Serbian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Albanian and Antiochean – from the patriarchate of Antioch which is Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. As Greek Orthodox we have an archdiocese with 540 parishes and 700 priests. We are divided into 9 districts and have 8 metropolitans – the 9th is myself.

EWTN: At the November 27 press conference in Istanbul the day before Pope Benedict’s arrival, you and Bishop Brian Farrell (secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity), spoke of some of the problems here in Turkey for non-Muslims religions. We know that 99 percent of Turks are Muslim. Would you review those problems for us today?

DEMETRIOS: Let me limit myself in the first place to the patriarchate as I know exactly what the problems are. We have four major problems – or conditions of difficulty.

First: the title ‘ecumenical’ for the patriarchate is denied by the state and accepted by the rest of the world. It is paradoxical to have the president of the United States, the prime minister of England, the president of France, even the president of Iran, addressing the patriarch as “ecumenical” and here in Turkey there is no recognition.

Problem number two: the patriarchate and other minority religions – and here I am expanding the term – has no official legal status. That prevents them from doing a lot of transactions.

Third: the question of the very, very extensive confiscation of properties. This also happened with other communities but with the patriarchate it is quite extensive and that is explainable because historically the patriarchate has been the Church here in Byzantium, therefore we have had churches and monasteries and so on, so we are talking originally about thousands of specific properties but today this is reduced to very small number. And this is on ongoing thing.

The fourth major issue is the continued closing of the theological school of Halki (ed. closed by the Turkish government in 1971) that is the school for preparing clergy for the patriarchate. If you don’t have a seminary, how do you train clergy? For the government the closing is the justification of the ruling that there can be no universities except state universities. The answer is that this was not a university, it was a professional school, preparing priests, which is a profession. So this is not fully justified – not even partially justified. It has been 35 years – a full generation. So you lose one generation and that is a serious loss.

The other religious minorities to a certain degree share difficulties of this kind, except for the problem of the title “ecumenical.”

EWTN: Can you run regular grammar schools?

DEMETRIOS: We have some, yes. Theoretically, they could be all over Turkey, but practically they are in Constantinople, or Istanbul, and in the diocese of Chalcedon and the islands where there metropolitans, Invros and Tenedos (ed: the Turkish government only recognizes the patriarch’s authority as extending to the religious community in Istanbul. For them, he is the spiritual leader of the diocese of Istanbul, not the ecumenical patriarch and spiritual leader of some 300 million Orthodox).

EWTN: Can you publish, print books, a newspaper, church bulletin, etc?

DEMETRIOS. Bulletins and books, yes. The patriarchate used to have a publishing company but they are no longer allowed to have this. Liturgy booklets were printed for the Pope’s visit and books on the history of visits, books with speeches of the patriarch. We used to have a periodical newspaper (ed. Many Orthodox publications are published in the United States).

EWTN: Any signs of hope on the horizon for you and the other minority religions who live under these conditions?

DEMETRIOS: I am hesitant to use the terms “hope” or “hopeless.” What we do know is that it would be beneficial for Turkey to have minority communities. As I said in the press conference, if there was not the Ecumenical Patriarchate, they would have had to invent it. It is an outstanding propaganda item for Turkey.

Here comes the language of hope: If at some point Turkey could really see that there is nothing to be gained by having this type of pressure exerted on very little minorities. Turkey has 70 million people – what harm can 3,000 Orthodox do? So it would be very beneficial for them. Therefore our hope is that the people responsible for policies and decisions would see the good.

I want to add my experience from the States. There have been officials, even from the State Department who as ambassadors or consuls general or in some other way dealing with Turkey, have advocated at least the opening of Halki seminary on the basis that this would be a very good thing for Turkey, that Turkey has nothing to lose.

PART II

EWTN: Let’s talk about relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Patriarchate: For you, the Orthodox, what is the bottom line to effect unity?

DEMETRIOS: The main thing is a very important, indelible one thousand years of history. That’s there. You can’t eradicate history, you can’t change history. It is the memory that is very strong – 1,000 years. The early church, the synods, the ecumenical synods accepted by both churches, a beautiful kind of common tradition developing parallel between East and West. So this is the basic thing that is there. Then you have 1,000 years of separation. Separation itself is something very traumatic, very dramatic and it causes results that might last. And during the centuries, changes happen, changes in dogmatic issues, items of faith, some more important, some less, and the question of primacy of the pope. And there are sometimes practical issues, for example, the existence of the Uniate Churches, something that stopped dialogue for several years. Dialogue resumed in September in Belgrade, though I must say we never stopped talking in America. But dialogue did stop in Europe. Basically there is this Uniate issue. Remember, you cannot talk just theological generalities when there is an historical matter that is a thorn in the flesh of the Church So we have the common experience (of 1,000 years) on the one hand, the very clear good will, the quality of the leaders of the Church, especially in the persons of Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Benedict XVI, as his predecessor, John Paul II. You have people who are sensitive to human needs, they know how to handle different situations and they are well committed to advancing the cause of unity, in non-stop, constant reminders. So there is something there that we must do – and this is the strongest element helping us.

EWTN: What do the Orthodox perceive as the bottom line for Catholics to effect unity?

DEMETRIOS. If I have to be direct, there is an expectation of some steps that will show in practice, in action, the willingness. Let me give you an example. I was at a meeting in Rome in the Vatican, in 1982, I think, organized by the seven universities of Rome on the occasion of the 1,600 years, I think it was, of the second ecumenical council that established the dogma and articles on the Holy Spirit. Cardinal Ratzinger was there and Pope John Paul gave a lecture there. There were a number of prominent theologians and one of them, Father Yves Congar, said let’s be specific and really show how willing we are. In the liturgical books that will be printed from now on, next to the page that has the creed with the filioque, let’s have a page with the creed without the filioque and allow the priest to chose what he wants. Now that’s a step. There are other things but that is one specific thing

EWTN. Yesterday in his speech, Pope Benedict spoke of the petrine ministry. He noted that Our Lord chose Peter and Andrew as fishers of men and yet he gave each a specifically different task (See ADDENDUM below). Do you see a complementarity of ministries in those remarks?

DEMETRIOS: Absolutely. And if I may expand your phrase of complementarity and differentiation – which is an enriching, not a diminishing or dividing, factor. St. Paul was clear – we have a variety of charisms, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in order to have the full program of the church in helping the edification of the church as a whole body. It would be boring, allow me to say, if all was the same. With differentiation you have this beauty of variety – imagine a world where everything was white or black – we need shades. So the distinction between the petrine (Peter) and the Andrean (Andrew) kind of ministry is a very nice sign of the variety and richness of the gifts of God.

EWTN: In Istanbul, the Pope said precisely that, “The issue of the universal service of Peter and his Successors has unfortunately given rise to our differences of opinion, which we hope to overcome.” He quoted Pope John Paul’s “invitation to enter into a fraternal dialogue aimed at identifying ways in which the petrine ministry might be exercised today, while respecting its nature and essence,” and said, “It is my desire today to recall and renew this invitation.” If the Pope today were to exercise the petrine ministry as he did during the first millennium, could this bring the Church closer to unity?

DEMETRIOS: That’s a very good way you put it. In essence, when we deal with the petrine ministry we are dealing with primacy, with a universal kind of authority. If we go backwards we can see this kind of thing developing to what it is today. That was not the case in the first centuries. Nor was it when Constantine transferred the capital from Rome to the new Rome, Constantinople. At that time you had the five patriarchates – Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Rome – and Rome was clearly recognized as “presiding in love.” It was the Pope of Rome, the bishop of Rome who was primus inter pares, first among equals.

The more you go back, the more you find a level of common acceptance. There was no problem. The problems developed in the way there was an increase in the authority – or, to use a contemporary expression – at the expense of the others. Therefore, a study to have a proper understanding should go as far back as possible. The suggestion you mention will be very fruitful. I dare not interpret Pope Benedict XVI but knowing him as a scholar, because I am an academic person myself, I can see him as an academic saying, “let’s go back and check.” It is he who insists there is no real dialogue without real data. And the data regards not only this moment but going back in history.

EWTN: Having studied the history and relations between Orthodox and Catholics, it is my impression that the Orthodox want more collegiality.

DEMETRIOS: Absolutely. I don’t like simplified statements because they can often do injustice, but if we had to make a simplified statement you might say the central issue is collegiality versus the absolute authority of one person. This is reducing the whole thing in a very simple way.

EWTN: Before closing, may I ask your impression of the Muslim reaction to Pope Benedict, given the anger on their part and the fears for the Pope’s safety before he undertook this trip (because of his speech last September in Regensburg, Germany)?

DEMETRIOS: It is a complex issue here but the first impression is that the spiritual condition of the people vis-a-vis the Pope is not the same today as it was five days ago. The visit gave a different picture of someone who was not what the media projected. He is a gentle man who spoke clearly and with respect for Islam and Muslims. My first estimate: it was very positive in terms of changing things.

END OF PART II

ADDENDUM: Pope Benedict and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I celebrated a Byzantine liturgy in the church of St George in Istanbul on November 30, the feast of St. Andrew, patron saint of the patriarchate.

In his talk, Pope Benedict said, “the divisions that exist among Christians are a scandal to the world and an obstacle to the proclamation of the Gospel.” One of the principal reasons for the thousand-year old split between Catholics and Orthodox is the petrine ministry and the Pope made reference to that as well in his talk. He noted that Christ gave Peter and Andrew the task of being “fishers of men,” but entrusted that task to each in different ways. Peter, said the Pope, was called “the rock upon which the Church was to be built and entrusted him with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” Peter traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome “so that in that city he might exercise a universal responsibility.”

“The issue of the universal service of Peter and his Successors,” said Benedict,” has unfortunately given rise to our differences of opinion, which we hope to overcome.” Citing Pope John Paul’s “invitation to enter into a fraternal dialogue aimed at identifying ways in which the petrine ministry might be exercised today, while respecting its nature and essence,” Benedict said, “It is my desire today to recall and renew this invitation.”

The Pope and Patriarch, both during the liturgy and afterwards in a joint declaration they signed, reaffirmed their commitment to pursue the goal of full unity between the two Churches and “to cooperate in proclaiming a Christian witness in a world marked by secularization, relativism even nihilism, especially in the West.”

To recap briefly: What has come to be known as the East-West Schism occurred in 1054 when Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople, leader of the Eastern Christian Churches, and Pope Leo IX, leader of the Western Church excommunicated each other in that year. The excommunications were only lifted in 1965 when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, following an historic encounter in Jerusalem a year earlier, presided over simultaneous ceremonies that revoked the excommunication decrees. Differences between the two Churches had been growing for years on issues such as papal primacy, liturgical matters and conflicting claims of jurisdiction. The split occurred along doctrinal, theological, linguistic, political and geographic lines and the two Churches have been seeking unity ever since.

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