By H.E. Spyridon, former Archbishop of America
In 2008, an exceptional vigorousness characterized the life and the initiatives of most Orthodox centers throughout the world. Many Orthodox Churches appear to have adopted a new, rapid pace when dealing with situations and challenges in an attempt to keep up with modern societies in startling evolution. A new wind of renewal seems to be blowing throughout the Orthodox Church worldwide, sometimes precipitating the finding of solutions to chronic issues and sometimes creating new challenges.
* In spite of intense efforts made in all directions and despite factual concern demonstrated by the European Union and the US Admnistration, the Ecumenical Patriarchate was unable to improve its position within Turkey where human rights and religious freedom seem to be irrelevant and governmental restrictions and existential challenges continue to be daily realities.
Thus, no solution has been found to such fundamental issues as: a) the contestation of the Patriarchateʼs ecumenicity and legal character; b) the lifting of the restrictions when electing an Ecumenical Patriarch; c) the re-opening of the Theological Faculty of Halki; d) the seizure of church properties by the government.
With regards to the Patriarchateʼs ecumenicity, Turkish authorities continue to systematically contest, at every level, national and international, the Patriarchateʼs ecumenical character and role while, at the same time, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan tells reporters that “the Patriarchateʼs ecumenicity is a internal issue to be dealt with by the Christian world and Orthodoxy.”
As to the re-opening of the Theological Faculty of Halki, the Turkish government insists on claiming that “the file is being studied.” This unyielding attitude of Turkey led the Patriarchate to request that a “New Halki” be established in Greece. The faculty, whose expenses are to be covered by the Republic of Greece, will be opened at the Monastery of Saint Anastasia in Vasilika, Halkidiki.
Despite the multitude of difficult challenges, the Phanar persists in believing that Turkeyʼs future admission to the European Union will entail “spectacular changes in the lives of the Greek Orthodox Community, the Mother Church, other minorities, and in the overall structure and make-up of Turkish society as a whole.”
Meanwhile, UNESCO gave the Turkish Administration six months time to take whatever measures necessary to safeguard the temple of Saint Sofia from total destruction. In stressing the deplorable state in which the historic temple finds itself today, the international organization gave notice that, if appropriate steps are not taken soon, Turkey will be dismissed as a member of the UN World Heritage Committee.
In 2008, challenges were not absent from Mouth Athos either:
-the situation at the Esfigmenou Monastery continues to remain stagnant. The historic abbey is still occupied by a group of anti-canonical monks who refuse to have any relations whatsoever with the Ecumenical Patriarchate;
– the financial scandal that burst forth at the Vatopedi Monastery caused immense agitation on Athos itself, in Greece and at the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The exchange of real estate with the Greek State following nebulous procedures, the purchase and sale of numerous properties, exorbitant bank account balances and dealings with off-shore companies comprise the Vatopedi scandal which had extremely negative repercussions on the traditional religious feelings of Greek believers. The matter is currently under review by the Greek Parliament and Greek Justice. Church leadership will certainly be happy to see this issue with its many facets (financial, moral, spiritual, and political) put behind them. Not only did it cause tremendous public outrage and diminish the Churchʼs image, but it threatened to reopen the door for discussing extremely thorny matters such as that of Church property or of the separation between Church and State.
* The recognition of Patriarch Theofilosʼ election by the State of Israel, a full two and a half years subsequent to his ascension to the patriarchal throne, seems to have contributed to the normalization of church affairs in Jerusalem.
However, the dismissal of Metropolitan Kornilios of Petra from the Patriarchateʼs Synod led to the questioning of said synodʼs composition by the State of Jordan. The ministry of Internal Affairs, invoking the act of 1958 which laid down the rules of how the patriarchal institution operates, made it known that “the current composition of the Holy Synod violates the provisions of the law, as the Synod includes 8 bishops and archimandrites not in possession of Jordanian citizenship … also, there are no Arabs of Jordanian origin among the members of the Fraternity of the Holy Sepulcher.” The Jerusalem Patriarchate has offered no comment on the Jordanian intervention.
Another serious issue that must be resolved as quickly as possible by the Jerusalem Patriarchate is that of the repeated contestation of the status quo at the Holy Sepulcher Cathedral by the Armenian clergy. The Armenian claims during the past years have led to violent incidents that have had a most negative impact on public opinion worldwide.
* Following 18 years of patriarchal ministry, Alexey II, head of the largest Orthodox Church in the world, passed away. The architect of the spectacular renewal and reconstruction of thousands of churches and hundreds of abbeys in Russia, he led a resurgence of Orthodoxy in his country following the collapse of the atheistic communistic regime and succeeded in bringing the Russian Orthodox abroad back into the bosom of the Moscow Patriarchate.
In Alexeyʼs time, relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate have often been tense because of initiatives taken or planned by Constantinople in territories considered by the Russian Church as her own (Estonia, Ukraine and China). The future of these relations remain uncertain as the chief candidate likely to succeed Alexey is Metropolitan Kyril of Smolensk, a favorite of the Kremlin and known to be a strong advocate of his Churchʼs rigid positions.
* In Serbia, Patriarch Pavle handed in his resignation due to poor health and advanced age. An ascetic figure, Pavle ministered successfully to the Serbs in a exceptionally difficult period following the dissolution of the Yugoslav State and became a symbol of unity to the Serbian people amidst the wars that followed.
* The Church of Cyprus will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in order to abolish the Turkish ban on the renovation of plundered churches and the reconstruction of collapsed temples in the northern part of the island occupied to this day by the Turkish military.
* For the Church of Greece, a period of exceptional opening to Greek society closed with Archbishop Hristodoulosʼ passing. The archbishop of blessed memory proved to be an illuminated hierarch, sensitive to the anxieties of young people and keen on closing the gap between Church and Greek Orthodox youth. Believers, young and old, turned out in huge masses for their beloved religious leaderʼs funeral in Athens.
Consultations at the highest level took place between the Greek Government and the Ecumenical Patriarchate to discuss Hristodoulosʼ succession. It was determined that the new archbishop should, first and foremost, be willing to collaborate with both the government and the Patriachate.
In fact, the election of Metropolitan Ieronymos of Thebes as Archbishop of Athens and All Greece inaugurated a new period in relations between the Autocephalous Church of Greece and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The age-old requests by the Ecumenical Patriarchate (primarily regarding the Metropolinates in Northern Greece) were immediately satisfied by Ieronymos. With regard to her relations with the Government, the Church of Greece changed course without delay. Church authorities now carefully avoid any comment on issues of broader social or national character for which only the government considers itself responsible.
* At their Synaxis held in Constantinople, the primates of all Orthodox Churches adopted a resolution to have two Pan-Orthodox Conferences convened within 2009. The conferences are to study the issue of how the Orthodox Diaspora is to be organized in the future as well as how to continue the preparation of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church.
* The theological dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church is progressing “despite significant difficulties and known problems,” according to an assertion by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew who visited Rome three times this year.
For her part, the Russian Church denounced, for the umpteenth time, Roman Catholic proselytism in Russia. Such proselytizing activities, according to the Moscow Patriarchate, have a negative impact on the dialogue with Rome.
Roman Catholic news agencies throughout the world broadcast Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomewʼs positive comments on the idea of “double unity” promoted by the Uniates. That is, the possibility of being completely united with Rome and Constantinople at the same time. The Patriarchate, of course, later denounced such news as inaccurate.