With Bartholomew at Helm, Constantinople Makes a Comeback

LOS ANGELES—If there is a single assessment to be made of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew l's recent month-long visit to the United States, it's this: ready or not, an ancient Eastern Orthodox institution is back on the world stage.

It's also safe to say that, only a few years ago, not many observers would have placed bets on such a career comeback for Constantinople, today's Istanbul, and the 270th occupant of its episcopal throne.

Ecumenical Patriarch sends mixed signals on Catholic-Orthodox relations during his recent U.S. visit

Constantinople, founded by the emperor Constantine in 333 A.D., was Christendom's cultural capital for more than 1,000 years—its incomparable libraries, art-filled churches, and richly endowed monasteries under the spiritual authority of the city's patriarch, the Christian East's senior hierarch, second in honor after Rome, or, as he has been known in Eastern circles since the sixth century, the Ecumenical Patriarch—that is, bishop of the whole Byzantine world.

Until recently, that once vast apostolate was confined to a few crumbling buildings in an Istanbul slum, the former Greek quarter called the Phanar. After 1453, Constantinople's Greek Orthodox Christians and their patriarch found themselves increasingly isolated from the rest of the world by their Ottoman conquerors.

By the late 1970s and ’80s, the Turkish government, fearful of the patriarchate's ties with its arch-rival, Greece, had restricted the hierarch's ability to travel outside the country, placing him and his entourage under virtual house arrest, a victim of perpetual harassments, and, occasionally, violence.

By 1991, when Bartholomew was elected to the ancient office on the death of the former Patriarch Demetrios, things began to change.

New Life for Constantinople

Under pressure from Vatican, European, and American officials to ease up on the patriarchate, Turkey, eager to join the European Union, allowed Bartholomew more freedom of movement than had been enjoyed by his predecessors. But it was the then-52-year-old patriarch himself who seized the window of opportunity provided by the Turkish thaw and the end of the Cold War and began to project a vigorous, activist role for Constantinople in Orthodox affairs and in ecumenical relations, particularly with the Roman Catholic Church.

Examples abound:

l In 1992, the new patriarch oversaw the repair of some of the ecumenical patriarchate's long deteriorating quarters in Istanbul, including a multi-million dollar restoration of the patriarchal Church of St. George.

l Early on, Bartholomew, who had once studied in Rome, launched an unprecedented annual pilgrimage to the Eternal City for the June 29 Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, an initiative that allowed him frequent opportunities for personal contact with Pope John Paul II and Vatican officials.

l And last year, Bartholomew, “first among equals,” or titular head of Orthodoxy's communion of 15 autocephalous (self-governing) Churches took on his powerful ecclesiastical rival, Alexei II of Moscow, patriarch of the world's largest Orthodox body, when he freed the Estonian Orthodox Church from Russian control. (The dispute, which resulted in a temporary suspension of communion between the two patriarchs, has since been reconciled.)

This revival of Constantinople's ecclesiastical profile was the backdrop for Bartholomew's recent 25-day (Oct. 19-Nov. 16) pastoral visit to the United States, a visit that took him to 13 cities and offered him a unique view of America's religious scene and the more than 1 million Greek Orthodox faithful on this side of the Atlantic who are governed directly by Constantinople.

(There are 5.6 million Eastern Orthodox in the United States, and nearly 300 million worldwide. The Patriarchate of Constantinople has charge of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, and jurisdictions in Canada, South America, Australia, Southeast Asia, and Turkey.)

Bartholomew in the USA

“The visit was a very important event, both for the [ecumenical] patriarch and for American Orthodox,” Father Thomas Fitzgerald, a Greek Orthodox theologian and ecumenist who works with the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland, told the Register.

“In many ways, Bartholomew's visit highlights just the sort of role the ecumenical patriarchate is supposed to take, what he is supposed to be among the Churches,” said Father Fitzgerald. “He and his entourage had the opportunity to take the pulse of the Church in America, with its growing pains and anxieties, and to confirm its witness to Orthodoxy.”

For Eastern Orthodox faithful, the priest stressed, the visit was “a once-in-a-lifetime event, a chance to highlight the strength and vigor of Orthodox life nearly two generations after old world immigrants from Greece, the Middle East, and Slavic lands had founded fledgling Eastern Orthodox congregations on American soil. In fact, the ostensible motive for the patriarch's visit was the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.

But while the patriarchal tour certainly boosted Orthodox pride and visibility, it no less vividly highlighted intra-Orthodox tensions and divisions within the ranks of Bartholomew's own North American flock as well.

“Bartholomew understands himself as attempting to lead a diverse Orthodox Church worldwide to a common purpose,” said Father Leonid Kishkovsky, an American-born Russian cleric and a commentator on ecumenical affairs. “It has not worked very well so far and mistakes have been made.”

Perhaps the most glaring of these “mistakes” have been those attributed to Archbishop Spyridon of New York, Bartholomew's hand-picked candidate to succeed the popular Archbishop Iakovos, Greek Orthodoxy's leader in America for 37 years. Archbishop Spyridon, 57, who was born in Ohio but educated in Europe, was appointed to the post last year.

Even the new archbishop's supporters admit that he has stumbled badly in his first months in office, exhibiting a high-handed management style that has alienated many influential lay and clerical leaders in the Church.

For example, in the months leading up to the Patriarch's visit, the archbishop fired tenured faculty members at the archdiocese's Holy Cross Seminary in Weston, Mass., including the school's president, and several of its leading theologians, after they protested Archbishop Spyridon's refusal to discipline a cleric accused of making sexual advances to a student. The imbroglio made international headlines, and the archbishop subsequently reinstated the fired faculty to new posts at the seminary and authorized the archdiocesan council to investigate the alleged abuse.

Leadership styles aside, significant issues in contemporary Orthodoxy are underlined by the Spyridon controversy.

Unrest in America

Chief among these issues is a nearly three-decade-old discussion among ethnic Orthodox bodies in the United States about whether they should form a self-governing “American” Orthodox Church.

As old world identifications fade with time, many Orthodox in America have urged the abandonment of ethnically based branches (Serbian, Greek, Ukrainian, Russian, etc.) in favor of an indigenous, English-speaking expression of Orthodoxy on an equal footing with the mother Churches of Europe and the Middle East.

Three years ago, at a meeting in Ligonier, Pa., between the ecumenical patriarch and archbishops of the various Orthodox branches in America, Bartholomew reportedly tried to discourage independence moves on the part of American Orthodox leaders, and assert Constantinople's traditional responsibility for the Orthodox diaspora. (That responsibility is based on a fourth-century canon that gives Constantinople control over Orthodox in “barbarian,” or mission lands.)

Most observers believe that Bartholomew's selection of Archbishop Spyridon to succeed Archbishop Iakovos has a lot to do with the fact that the former archbishop of New York was an outspoken champion of the American Orthodoxy movement, and Archbishop Spyridon is more attuned to Constantinople's concerns.

“There are obvious tensions between old world cultures and living in America,” Father Fitzgerald observed, “but everybody wants a more united Orthodox witness in America. The question is, ‘how do we do it?’ We simply don't have all answers now, but what we can say is that Constantinople, the mother Church of Orthodoxy, has an essential role to play in the process. That's what Bartholomew is trying to assert. That was his main mission in coming [to the United States].”

Mixed Signals for Catholics

Outside intra-Orthodox affairs, possibly the most controversial aspect of the ecumenical patriarch's visit to America was his less-than-encouraging words about Eastern Orthodox-Catholic relations during a speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Oct. 21.

Most observers expected the patriarch to comment on Pope John Paul II's 1995 apostolic letter Orientale Lumen (Light of the East), a call to Christian unity in the context of the millennium, which highlighted the search for reconciliation with the Orthodox. Instead, in his address, Bartholomew tended to highlight Orthodoxy's differences with Roman Catholicism.

“The Orthodox Christian does not live in a place of theoretical and conceptual conversations,” the patriarch told his audience, “but rather in a place of an essential and empirical lifestyle and reality as confirmed by grace in the heart.…”

If the Patriarch's message at Georgetown is examined, Father Ronald Roberson CSP, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), told the Register, “what he was saying was that the differences between us, Catholics and Orthodox, are real. They're not superficial.”

The Patriarch was indicating that in order to move forward the dialogue needs to be on a deeper, more spiritual level than mere intellectual discussions, Father Roberson said.

Nevertheless, the Catholic ecumenist noted, Bartholomew's sober words were symptomatic of the current impasse in Catholic-Orthodox relations—an impasse mainly focused on the highly charged issue of the Eastern Catholic Churches, ecclesial communities from a historically Orthodox background that are in union with Rome.

“It's mainly the re-emergence of the Greek-Catholic Church in Ukraine in the wake of the fall of communism that has put the issue on the front burner for the Orthodox,” Father Roberson said.

On the other hand, the ecumenist pointed out, the Patriarch's willingness to lead a prayer service in Baltimore's Catholic cathedral in the presence of Cardinal William Keeler two days after his Georgetown speech “puts a happier spin” on the Orthodox leader's assessment of the state of relations between the two Churches.

“It's a rare thing for an Orthodox bishop to preside at a prayer service with non-Orthodox,” Father Roberson said. “It's a sign of recognition, an indication that, despite the difficulties, Bartholomew, personally, and as a representative of Orthodoxy, has a real relationship with the Catholic community. That's certainly a far cry from the nature of our relations only a few decades ago.”

Register contributing editor Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.