ROME – One of the greatest allies of Pope Francis in promoting international initiatives that defend the environment is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I.
The spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew has been promoting a Christian theology of the environment for decades.
“Our churches are called to offer alternative models of life based on an approach of the human being in his relationship with God, as a creature longing for eternal life, living in fraternity and love with the other,” Bartholomew said in an exclusive interview with Filipe Domingues for the Brazilian newspaper O São Paulo, which Crux shares with permission.
Francis has developed a close relationship with Bartholomew and acknowledged his influence on his 2015 ecological encyclical Laudato Si’.
Domingues conducted his interview with the patriarch shortly after his visit to Rome in May.
Here is Crux’s exclusive English version of the exchange.
Domingues: Your Holiness, a few days ago, you visited Rome and met Pope Francis. Also you were a keynote speaker at a conference in which your speech was titled “A Common Christian Agenda for the Common Good.” What are the fruits of this visit?
Bartholomew: Every meeting with Pope Francis is another opportunity for us to re-register the good relations between our two churches and our will to continue the path towards unity. It is the encounter of two brothers, the successors of Peter and Andrew the First-Called, and every such event symbolizes our common heritage, but above all the common responsibility we share as pastors for the future of Christianity.
As you see in the title of our speech we come across the word “common” twice. Church itself is the place of the “common” – an event of sharing, of love and openness, a “communion of relations.”
Today humanity is facing a serious crisis, [including] its social outcomes, on a global scale. As we stated in our address, “this worldwide crisis is a ‘crisis of solidarity,’ an ongoing process of ‘desolidarization,’ which puts the very future of humanity at risk. It is our deep conviction, that the future of humanity is related to the resistance against this crisis and the establishment of a culture of solidarity.”
Our churches are called to offer alternative models of life based on an approach of a human being in his relation to God, as a creature longing for eternal life, living in fraternity and love with the other. God, as we mentioned, is present, wherever love and solidarity exist. Our churches resist injustice and all powers that undermine social cohesion by putting forth the social content of the Gospel.
It is Pope Francis’s and our common belief that present ecological problems have to be approached in connection with the contemporary social crisis. It is this spirit that our Common Message with Pope Francis on the ‘World Day of Creation’ (Sept 1st, 2018) expresses.
Concluding our answer, we would like to express our joy for the opportunity we had, once again, to meet with the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, with whom we associate long-term acquaintance and mutual appreciation. It was a pleasure for us to share our thoughts on various spiritual issues.
Thinking of those who are not so familiar with the Orthodox Church, what are your main concerns today, as patriarch and pastor of such an important church?
Unquestionably, one of our main concerns is that humanity experiences the magnificence of Christianity and the transformation that our Lord Jesus Christ brought upon the universe. A common misconception among our brothers is to think that this magnificence of Christianity refers only to art or culture.
Our brethren often seek the aforementioned magnificence of the Christian faith in Hagia Sophia and in the Chora Monastery in Constantinople, in Ravenna, in Giotto’s paintings, in the modern and marvelous Oscar Niemeyer Cathedral of Brazil and its hovering angels, and in Byzantine music or in Gregorian melodies. But the splendor of Christianity is not merely found here.
Christianity is represented by people’s countless acts of love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness and sacrifice—acts that were motivated by their desire to live as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. A true Christian is someone who gives off his food to a hungry person; someone who offers water to a brother that is thirsty; someone who shelters a stranger; someone who dresses a naked human being; someone who visits an imprisoned person; someone who takes care of a sick man; someone who has a good thing to say about all people, even those who disagree with him; someone who helps those who hate him; someone who doesn’t judge others; someone who loves his adversaries. Such acts of charity, though difficult to fulfill, are a natural part of the Christian’s being.
Such disciples of Christ are “the salt of the Earth,” as our Lord teaches in the Holy Gospel. The glory of Christianity is the amazing fruit of the faith in Christ, the heart of loving kindness, the love and solidarity for our fellow human beings and the certainty of the eternal destiny of all. If you want an answer about my concerns I would focus on the following fundamental issue, namely, how people can transform the world by becoming disciples of Christ.
What inspires the actions of Orthodox and Catholic Christians on the path to unity?
With the Western Christians we have shared a common path during the first millennium of Christianity’s history. Our churches have tasted the bitter sorrow of separation for many centuries following the schism of 1054. The schism was a painful experience for both sides, regardless of who bears responsibility for it. Everything changed after the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964, which led to the common lifting of the anathemas between the two churches.
Fifty years after that historic meeting, following our predecessors’ example and commemorating that unique moment for our two churches, we gathered again in 2014 with our brother Pope Francis in Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land. During that meeting we confirmed our firm belief that we need each other’s love and support. The first meeting between the pope and the ecumenical patriarch in 1964 initiated a theological dialogue of truth and love between our two churches; the fiftieth anniversary of this meeting confirmed that our desire for unity requires further acts of charity and love.
Together, you and Pope Francis ask for more respect for Creation, for the environment. Is that a major concern that unites the two of you?
It is an undeniable fact that our planet faces serious problems, largely due to unprecedented human abuse of God’s creation. Such human interference has brought about an ecological crisis.
The atmosphere is being polluted more and more with each passing day; clean water is becoming scarcer since we are polluting our oceans, rivers and lakes. We are destroying thousands of acres of forests each year; meadows grow smaller. Changes in the planet’s climate have led to the loss of many species of our flora and fauna.
We believe that these things have occurred because of our gradual separation and alienation from God. Even we Christians, who often pride ourselves over our faith, have distanced ourselves from God. It is easy to blame others for the destruction of the planet, but we must also ask ourselves whether or not creation is actually safer in the hands of Christians.
The ecological crisis is an issue that affects the natural world, but it stems from a crisis in our hearts. As we seek to advance concrete and fact-based solutions to the problem, we must also focus on the need for personal repentance, which would bring about a “change of thought” and a change in our ways of life. And as we change our lives, we ought to realize that as members of creation we are not the center of the world. We depend on God; God does not depend on us.
Could Catholics and Orthodox dream that one day we will celebrate Easter on the same date? Are you optimistic about this?
The subject of a common celebration of Easter is important and complicated. Therefore, the matter needs to be handled delicately in order to avoid scandal among the faithful. Nonetheless, this issue is of great concern to the Orthodox Church.
The idea of a common date of Easter for Orthodox and Catholics was raised in the regular work of the Pan-Orthodox Conference of 1923 in Constantinople and later during the 1930 Preparatory Committee Meeting on Mount Athos. Since then it has been discussed during many inter-Orthodox meetings.
This shows our sincere desire and hope that, as Orthodox Christians, we will celebrate Easter on the same day as other Christian brethren. A common Easter date between Eastern and Western Christians will, among other things, deliver us from many practical difficulties, especially important for the faithful of both churches who reside in lands where Orthodoxy or Catholicism is not the predominant religion.
The truth is, the Orthodox Church will have a difficult time accepting any decision that overlooks what has already been determined on this subject matter by the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea (325 AD). We pray, however, and hope that almighty God will guide our steps.
You were in Egypt with Pope Francis (in April 2017), visiting the Grand Imam of Al Azhar. How would you describe Christian-Muslim dialogue today?
Our meeting highlighted the role of religion in achieving and maintaining peace in the world. We stressed humanity’s need to embrace faith and to acknowledge the presence of God. We also emphasized the need to respect pluralism and diversity.
To this end, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has initiated a dialogue with Judaism and Islam. It is our responsibility to work with people of diverse backgrounds. We hope that our cooperation with other religious traditions, especially on social issues, will bear great fruit for the entire world. For the Orthodox Church, religious freedom and freedom of conscience is an imperative part of the process; we cannot accept, under any circumstance, the fostering of fanatic sentiments against other religions.
We firmly believe that religious dialogue and, from time to time, meetings between religious leaders, will help people overcome their fears of each other, and move from conflict to rapprochement and peaceful coexistence.
Lastly, neither war nor indifference to the plight of people are consistent with religious teaching. As we have pointed out time and again, war in the name of religion is, in fact, a war against that religion itself.
How would you express your concern for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, where some of the original Christian communities risk disappearing?
The persecution of Christians immensely concerns and is the source of great sorrow for us.
Unfortunately, such persecution is not confined to the Middle East. Christians are persecuted also in other corners of the world where exists a so-called “Christianophobia.”
In Europe and in many Western societies, policies of secularization and de-Christianization pose a grave challenge to Christianity. But, unknown to Christianity’s persecutors, it is a fact that faith in Jesus Christ is governed by the spirit of peace, love, forgiveness, and service; we do not seek to exploit and dominate others. The present reality in Europe and in other parts of the world proves that every cultural accomplishment and, most importantly, social achievement, springs from Christian principles.
Thus, the persecution of Christianity actually leads to the persecution of culture and of unique values that beautify our world.
Undoubtedly the situation occurring in the Middle East is alarming. Many Christians are persecuted, while others are forced to flee from their ancient homelands. We have voiced our serious concerns countless times to world leaders; we have reminded them that we have yet to discover the whereabouts of the two abducted Hierarchs, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Paul and Syriac Bishop John Ibrahim, both of Aleppo. We anxiously wait to receive news from the regional and global authorities and pray for their safe return.
The Orthodox Church, as it has been stated in the Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council, convened on the island of Crete, Greece, in June 2016, “is particularly concerned about the situation facing Christians, and other persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East. In particular, she addresses an appeal to governments in that region to protect the Christian populations – Orthodox, Ancient Eastern and other Christians – who have survived in the cradle of Christianity. The indigenous Christian and other populations enjoy the inalienable right to remain in their countries as citizens with equal rights.”