Greek Orthodox Archbishop of the Americas Elpidophoros spoke on Monday evening at Fordham University as part of its Christ and Anastasia Economos lecture series, lauding the solidarity he had found with Catholic Cardinal Dolan of New York and calling for much closer ties between the two branches of Christianity.
In this major address, he recalled the difficulties of this past summer, when the holiest shrine of Orthodoxy, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, was reconverted back into a mosque. Elpidophoros told listeners how heartened he had been by Dolan’s support and words at that time.
After picking up the telephone and asking the popular Cardinal if he would sign a joint statement coming out against the reconversion, the Archbishop said it took less than a second to hear Dolan’s reassuring assent.
The resulting statement, signed by both leaders and showing their photographs at the bottom, read in part “We stand together as brothers in faith, and in solidarity with all people of good will and good faith, so that Hagia Sophia may remain what She is – a symbol of encounter, history, spiritual aspiration, and human achievement of the highest order, glorifying the One God Who has made us all to be sisters and brothers of one human family.”
Elpidophoros emphasized in his Monday speech that “the ecumenical solidarity of the last few months has been incredible,” going on to recall that the movement for unity has evolved over the decades into a time when now we enjoy the greatest ease in communications across the planet that has ever existed.
“The 20th century,” he stated, “was the century of two World Wars and the century of globalization. At the center of this tension between fragmentation and unification is an intersection, where dialogue stands as the most significant marker of today’s culture and civilization.
“Dialogue is now social, interreligious, and inter-Christian, or ecumenical. Dialogue is both negotiation and mediation. It is the overcoming of controversy and it transcends arguments. However, it must also be critical and rigorous, at least when it is a tool in the service of truth and unity,” he cautioned.
“Ecumenical dialogue, and particularly dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, goes beyond historical and theological antagonisms to become a gift: a gift of relationship, a gift of freedom, a gift of charity, and a gift of solidarity.
“In his teachings,” Elpidophoros related, “Christ not only enjoins his disciples to be united, but He makes the words exchanged with His Father, His High-Priestly prayer, the very presupposition of the mystery of Trinitarian unity: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who are to believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
Reminding listeners also that the earliest apostles came together despite their varied backgrounds and understandings of God, Elpidophoros said that was accomplished through their decision to do what was best in the light of the Holy Spirit.
Ecumenism in the Postwar Years
The leader of the Greek Orthodox in the Americas explained that “The movements of Orthodox populations, particularly following the Russian Revolution and the great catastrophe (η Μεγάλη Καταστροφή) in Asia Minor have profoundly influenced its ecumenical work. The presence of a large Orthodox population in Western Europe and North America conditions the rapprochement of Christians. The diaspora became a meeting place.”
He reminded the audience that the Orthodox Church also participated in the creation of the World Council of Churches in 1948.
Still, he stated, “the Orthodox Church’s involvement in ecumenical dialogue also depended on the willingness of other Churches to build bridges with her. A radical turn was taken during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), when the Catholic Church decided on the fundamental necessity of a rapprochement between Christians, and especially with the Orthodox Church.
“Behind the scenes,” he said, the path Catholics and Orthodox are walking on together today “was first established by my predecessor, His Eminence, Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory. At the direction of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, Archbishop Iakovos, newly elected in 1959, traveled the same year to Rome and was able to meet with His Holiness Pope John XXIII.
“When Archbishop Iakovos visited the Pope on March 17, 1959, it was the first encounter between a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Pope of Rome since the mid-16th century; only one month later, a representative from the Vatican would visit the Phanar to meet with Patriarch Athenagoras.
“One of the most important events emerging from that decision was, without a doubt, the meeting of His Holiness Pope Paul VI and His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in January 1964,” Elpidophoros related, before recalling the unprecedented events of that time.
Lifting the Excommunications of 1054
“On January 5, Paul VI, after crossing the sea of Galilee, the Pope entered the Apostolic Delegation in Jerusalem. The Patriarch joined him there, accompanied by ten metropolitans and archbishops. On the threshold of the house, the two men embraced.
Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras would later relate “‘We kissed once, twice, and then again, again. Like two brothers who meet again after a very long separation.’ The exchange was spontaneous, warm. Pope Paul VI offered Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras a chalice, as a sign of the communion to which both aspired,” the Archbishop added.
Elpidophoros then reminded listeners that in 1965, the same Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras “decided in common, as a visible sign of their desire to restore the bond of Eucharistic communion that had been lost for centuries, to simultaneously lift the excommunications of 1054.” Later, in 2014, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew recommitted themselves to continue the prophetic mission of their predecessors by meeting in Jerusalem.
“Through the years, what has been characterized as a ‘Dialogue of Charity’ became more and more visible,” Elpidophoros stated, “with the presence of a delegation from the Catholic Church at the Phanar for the feast of St. Andrew the First-Called and the reciprocal presence of a delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Rome for the feast of St. Peter.
“After Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios announced the opening of the theological dialogue between the two Sister Churches in 1979, he said, “transformed of the Dialogue of Charity into a ‘Dialogue of Truth,’ marking the fruitful maturation and the growing confidence which makes it possible to tackle the heart of our divisions.”
He stated that the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation group, in existence since 1965, has produced thirty-two important documents, reports and statements in the service of ecumenism.
The Abyss of Secularism
The group has tackled a range of crucial issues over the years, reflecting in one paper on ‘The Importance of Sunday,’ which says: “For Christians, Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is a special day consecrated to the service and worship of God. It is a unique Christian festival. It is ‘the day the Lord has made’. Its nature is holy and joyful. Sunday is the day on which we believe God acted decisively to liberate the world from the tyranny of sin, death, and corruption through the Holy Resurrection of Jesus.’
“These words, the Archbishop stated, “resonate in both of our Churches in today’s context of a post-Christian era where the sacredness of the world, its time and places is forgotten in the abyss of secularism.”
Today, Elpidophoros urged, more than ever, “we need to think about how we can anticipate our Churches being united through a rediscovered experience of communion based on mutual recognition, a common confession of faith, the acceptance of diversity, liturgical sharing, synodality and conciliarity, mission and evangelization, subsidiarity, renewal and reforms, and finally the role of the Papacy.”
To the latter issue, which has proven to be a sticking point throughout the centuries, Elpidophoros noted that “His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew uses a beautiful expression, speaking of ‘a primacy of love, honor and service.’
There are also other ways in which the two sects could tangibly bear witness to their common thirst for unity, according to the Archbishop. “Celebrating Easter or Pascha together on a common date shouldn’t be so difficult,” he stated, “but we are not there yet, even among Orthodox. In rare years, our dates for Easter do coincide, and this is a great joy for Christianity as a whole.
“The 2010 document ‘Celebrating Easter/Pascha Together’ raised some excellent questions: “Can the members of our interchurch families celebrate Easter together? For the mission of the Church, a common celebration would support the unity we already share and help to build it further in the future,” he added, with hope that this would one day be a reality.
Archbishop Elpidophoros went on to relate that the North American Orthodox-Catholic Consultation focused its discussions from 1999 through 2003 on the Filioque, “an issue that has been identified, for more than twelve centuries, as one of the root causes of division between our Churches: our divergent ways of conceiving and speaking about the origin of the Holy Spirit. When Orthodox and Catholics come together, we need to be able to have the same and identical confession of faith. For us Orthodox, this is a very important step.”
Along the path that Orthodox and Catholics are taking toward unity and communion, Elpidophoros said, “we have identified spaces where our relations globally, but especially in this blessed country, should encourage and strengthen: a dialogue of charity and truth, an ecumenism of solidarity.”
However, he cautioned, the ecumenical movement is now experiencing a crisis. “I would say an identity crisis,” he clarified. “Our religious landscape has profoundly evolved,” he explained. “The Christian landscape is a real mosaic…Changes and reforms in some Churches and communities have created a new sense of estrangement. Other Churches have embraced a more nationalistic and/or fundamentalist approach.”
The Culture Wars
Still, he said, “Interfaith dialogue has taken on a more important role, especially in a world viewed through the lens of the ‘clash of civilizations.’ We live together, but in silos. The relations between our Churches seem to be shaped by today’s culture war. This same culture war coupled with recent geopolitical developments also prevents the Orthodox Church from speaking with one voice. The future of Orthodox-Catholic relations depends on the condition of inter-Orthodox relations. Rev. John Meyendorff, in one of his articles, gives us a wonderful view of today’s situation:
“As the culture of the contemporary world has become universally secular, it is not the medieval model of symbiosis between culture and religion which is applicable, in practical terms, to our situation, but rather the model of early Christianity, when the Church was conscious of its ‘otherness’ and its eschatological mission. Let us remember that it is this consciousness which made the Christian mission truly universal.”
Today, he noted, “the 63% of marriages that take place in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese are marriages between an Orthodox and a non-Orthodox Christian. Inter-Christian or ecumenical couples and families represent a joint pastoral responsibility for our Churches. The issue has been discussed by the Consultation since 1971 and I have been told that its members are currently working on it again.
“The inclusion of the non-Orthodox spouse is a vital question for the spiritual well-being of the entire family that has been blessed by the blessing of the Church, welcoming all its members into a divine plan, the economy of salvation.”
Messages of Hope
Ecumenical dialogue is such an important part of the Orthodox mission in the world today, the Archbishop stated, that it was also discussed during the Great Council of the Orthodox Church, which took place on Crete in June, 2016. The document resulting from that council affirms that:
“The Orthodox Church has played a leading role in the contemporary search for ways and means to restore the unity of those who believe in Christ, and she has participated in the Ecumenical Movement from its outset, and has contributed to its formation and further development.
“The apostolic faith represented by our Sister Church of Rome,” Elpidophoros added, “is embodied by gestures of brotherly love like this one, a little more than a year ago, when His Holiness Pope Francis offered to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople relics of Saint Peter the Apostle in a sign of Church unity.
“This unexpected gift on the day of Rome’s patronal feast was a powerful message of hope. As Pope Francis said, ‘The joining of the relics of the two brother Apostles can also serve as a constant reminder and encouragement that, on this continuing journey, our divergences will no longer stand in the way of our common witness and our evangelizing mission in the service of a human family that today is tempted to build a purely secular future, a future without God.’”
“I am convinced,” the Archbishop concluded, “that the future and mission of Catholic-Orthodox relations in the US is to continue bearing witness to God’s presence in the world, faithful to the Spirit of Jerusalem that we received as a legacy.”
The Archbishop’s lecture was made possible by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, whose co-directors are Professor George Demacopoulos and Professor Aristotle Papanikolaou, both Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Ecumenical dialogue, particularly between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, goes beyond historical and theological antagonisms to become a gift of relationship, of freedom, of charity, and of solidarity. Orthodoxy in America Lecture. @FordhamNYC @FordhamOrthodox pic.twitter.com/DCFe9CDH7X
— Elpidophoros (@Elpidophoros) September 21, 2020