JERUSALEM — The historic meeting between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople in the Holy Land continues to make its effects felt throughout the Catholic and Orthodox worlds.
The public display of fraternal love between the apostolic successors of the brothers St. Peter and St. Andrew has raised hope to new heights that full communion between East and West may be achieved before the Great Schism turns 1,000 years old in 2054.
Since the historic joint prayer meeting in the Holy Sepulcher on May 25, and their signing of a joint declaration, there is already discussion under way that both leaders will meet in the ancient city of Nicaea in modern Turkey to commemorate the 1,700th anniversary of the Church’s first ecumenical council.
History is rapidly in the making, as both Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew work to reconcile the Churches and heal the centuries-old wounds. But it is happening, and many Catholics and Orthodox are praying and working for unity to happen at long last.
Anthony Limberakis, a Philadelphia radiologist and a Greek Orthodox archon (the highest honor for a layman in the Orthodox Church) in the Ecumenical Patriarch’s delegation, spoke May 25 with Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith in Jerusalem. Limberakis is the national commander of the Order of St. Andrew, an organization of leading Orthodox in the United States, whose mission is to support and defend the Ecumenical Patriarchate and promote religious freedom.
Limberakis told the Register that he was part of Patriarch Bartholomew’s accompanying delegation, comprised of people from throughout the world who traveled to Jerusalem “to witness history.”
Anthony, what makes this meeting so historic and important?
From the Christian’s perspective, we have the Catholic Church of 1.2 billion, and we have the Orthodox Church of 300 million: Together, we’re 1.5 billion to 1.6 billion people, and it’s to everyone’s advantage for a greater communion, a greater dialogue.
The vision of Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, who initiated the original meeting in 1964 that lifted the anathemas of their predecessors of over 1,000 years and brought a dialogue of love and a dialogue of truth (based on St. Paul’s “speak the truth in love”), has enabled a greater cooperation between the two Churches.
Between the early 1960s and before, certain sacraments were not recognized by either Church. Say a Roman Catholic person and an Orthodox Christian married: Depending on where you were, the other Church didn’t recognize it [as a sacrament]. That’s different now. That’s helped common people and affected so many marriages, because in the United States, most of our marriages are between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. To commemorate this and to reaffirm a greater dialogue for further cooperation is very encouraging.
How in particular do you think Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew can help bring our Churches even closer together with this meeting?
Well, I think they both are committed to ecumenism and cooperation. Look at the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarch was the first ecumenical patriarch in history to travel to Rome to witness the ordination, the installation of the senior brother [in the Catholic Church]. You know, Peter and Andrew were brothers: Andrew was the first called apostle, and Peter was the first pope. Bartholomew is the 269th successor to Andrew. I believe Francis is the 265th successor to Peter. There’s always been that basis for fraternal love, mutual respect, as brothers. To reignite that [progress from] 50 years ago — to lift the anathemas, to say, “Let’s talk again; let’s be brothers, closer” — is very encouraging, and they’re each committed to that.
The fact that his All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch, went to the [papal] installation — this never happened before in history — and invited [Francis to the Holy Land] at the very first encounter, and the fact that Francis accepted the invitation, tells you that they are committed to this. It’s one of their first actions. That’s an encouraging thing.
Would it be a good step forward if all Christians had a common date to celebrate Easter together? Would that be a powerful symbol? The Coptic pope, Shenouda III of Alexandria, has raised that question to Pope Francis.
Wouldn’t it, though? I tell you, the formula for Easter is an interesting one. They base it on the vernal equinox and a number of things: the Gregorian calendar, the Julian calendar. We have a shared Christmas, and from a logistical point of view, it’s a wonderful thing to have a shared Christmas. We went to the holy fathers to determine if we should have a shared Easter on the same date, but I must say, we enjoy having Christmas universally.
The Middle East has seen Christians, whether they are Catholics or Orthodox, both suffering persecutions.
It’s alarming. It’s horrific. There is an exodus of Christians from the Middle East, from all these areas. There needs to be a call to love, not to arms, but brotherly love, so that this can stop.
What’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in this whole area — in Egypt, even the situation here in Israel, Palestine — it’s very, very troubling. And we’re not here to make any political statement. The only statement we want to make is “Let’s work together;,let’s be reconciliatory and not divisive in any way.”
Do you think the shared suffering of Christians has kind of helped form a stronger bond, a stronger identity? I think Pope Francis described it as an ecumenism of blood.
Well, that’s probably an appropriate statement. We have an Orthodox Christian in the Sudan who, for the mere fact of marrying a Christian, the Sudanese government and court system has condemned her to execution. This is inhumane; this is horrific.
Extremists are the ones who are at the spearhead of this attack on Christians. The common people of various religions want to live side by side in harmony. It’s the extremists who are destroying and causing the persecution and the bloodshed — and it’s a horrific bloodshed.
What do you think Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew’s presence here can do to help further that peace and help Christians to stay?
Well, you know, the [great] commandment "Love thy neighbor” — where did that originate? Right here [in the Holy Land]. So, coming to this very spot, where love thy neighbor became the [great] commandment, is very symbolic. It’s a very strong statement.
The other statement is, again, a dialogue of love, and this is what they’re reaffirming.
I’m excited that this will open yet again another chapter in cooperation, dialogue and mutual love and respect. That’s what we’re looking forward to.
How do you feel about this statement?
I’m looking forward to analyzing it and studying it. The authors, the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch, they’re visionary leaders, as their predecessors were 50 years ago who lifted the anathemas. So you’ve got intellectual, visionary, human leaders who seek to relieve suffering, so nothing but good can come out of this statement. I’m really excited.
It should be important to both our Churches.
What else do you hope comes of this meeting between the successors of Peter and Andrew that Catholics and Orthodox Christians can both work together on?
I think we also need to reaffirm the tenets of religious freedom. Religious freedom does not exist in most of the population of the world. The Pew Foundation in the United States did a study, and the vast preponderance of the world’s population suffers under religious oppression. I would like to see a reaffirmation of religious freedom, so that Jews can go to their synagogue on Saturdays, Muslims to the mosque on Fridays and Christians of any denomination can go to church on Sundays without worrying about building a church, about getting permits for church or about having free access to churches.
There are ancient churches that we don’t have access to because of government restrictions. So we’re hopeful that there will be a real awakening, and a real emphasis on religious freedom, both here, where Christianity was born, and the country of Turkey, where Christianity and the seven ecumenical councils established the very foundation of our shared Christian faith.
That is my hope as an archon of the Ecumenical Patriarch and also as a Christian who wants to see our brother Christians, brother Jews and brother Muslims enjoy religious freedom.
Thank you so much, Anthony. Any final thoughts about today’s historic meeting?
Well, it’s just such a great honor to be privileged enough to witness this historic meeting. Just from a personal perspective and from my organization, which fights for religious freedom in the Ecumenical Patriarchate and other minorities, it’s such a tremendous honor to be in the position to have the opportunity to witness this historic event.