Entries with tag faith matters .

Novak Djokovic: A Champion of Tennis and Humanity

On the last Monday in August of each year, New York City prepares itself for one of tennis’ most illustrious tournaments, the U.S. Open. For the past two weeks, tennis “die-hards,” comprising of a wide array of celebrities, government officials, athletes from various sports and common fans, flooded the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens in hopes of seeing their favorite athletes compete at the highest level. Last night, top-seeded Novak Djokovic concluded this year’s tournament by defeating Roger Federer in a four set thriller, capturing his third Grand Slam singles title of the year. Djokovic, an Orthodox Christian, has won three of this year's four majors for the second time in five years. Yet what is most impressive about “Djoker” isn’t his forehand or his backhand. Neither is it his charismatic demeanor, his entertaining hyperbole, nor his humorous off-court impersonations of fellow tennis players. What is most impressive about one of the greatest “returners” of all time is his commitment to humanity.

While Novak Djokovic can attribute most of his superlative athleticism and passion for success to his family (his father, uncle, and aunt were all professional skiers); ultimately, it was the affliction and privation of war in the former Yugoslavia that drove the young prodigy to pursue tennis with an unquenchable fervor that he displays to this day. The superstar would later recount myriad stories that he and his family would hide in their basement for endless hours over the course of three months so that they could evade exploding bombs over Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade.

Whether a frightened clandestine young boy hiding in his parents’ basement for fear of imminent death or a Grand Slam tennis star, Novak Djokovic’s life has been embedded with two very seminal concepts within Orthodox ideology: struggle and empathy. Today’s paramount feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Holy and Life-giving Cross is the par excellence example that embodies both struggle and empathy. As St. Isaac the Syrian would later describe in the seventh century, “the mystery of the Cross is concealed in the sufferings of the Cross.” Thus, empathy cannot precede struggle, but one must struggle in order to be empathetic. Whether or not Djokovic has read the writings of Isaac the Syrian is not of significant importance, yet it is clear that struggle and empathy were foundational for Novak in his formable years.

Novak would later become a role model to countless others, instilling within them the same principles that were instilled within him: faith, philanthropy, work ethic, but most of all, hope. Serbia has one of the lowest participation rates of children in preschool education. Per the Novak Djokovic Foundation website, the number of children aged 3 to 5.5 years in Serbia is about 180,000, and out of that number, only 44% are included in the pre-school education. The percentage of participation is different in urban areas (57%) and less developed areas (about 29%). Cognizant of this stifling statistic, Djokovic would consequently create the “Novak Djokovic Foundation” to help disadvantaged children in Serbia obtain an education and provide resources to lead productive and healthy lives.

A few days prior to the commencement of the U.S. Open on August 31, Djokovic was named a UNICEF “Goodwill Ambassador,” where he will continue to focus his support on improving the lives of children, especially those who are amongst the most marginalized, with a particular focus on the importance of early childhood education and development in providing children with the best start to life. Novak’s desire to make a difference has transformed into a global initiative, turning today’s poverty-stricken and illiterate children into tomorrow’s Grand Slam champions and human rights advocates. His off-court endeavors have elevated his prestige as both a powerful role model and a strong advocate of children’s rights.

The concepts of suffering and empathy are increasingly prevalent in our everyday lives. Since the world has reached a point of spiritual despondency, it has rendered itself morally and ethically sick. We have failed to understand, or rather to accept, that we find salvation through our suffering. Suffering is not simply a draconian conceptualization, but rather, it is something transformative. It is only through the Cross that “joy entered the whole world.” Thus, it is our suffering that brings us true joy.

Djokovic has gone from a child in a war-torn country to one of history’s most dominant tennis players, also addressing the UN General Assembly in one of the five languages that he speaks fluently. Novak has thrived despite experiencing extreme adversity is an attestation to his work ethic and his will to succeed.

I would argue that humanity is in dire need of this caliber of champion. Wouldn’t you?


Theodore Pritsis is the Archdiocesan Fellow at the United Nations through the Office of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Relations, and holds both a M.Div. and Th.M. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

Call to Conscience: Orthodoxy and the Environment

His All-Holiness is in Paris for a major preparatory meeting organized by President Francois Hollande, who will host the international climate change meeting in Paris (COP 21) later this year. Fr. John Chryssavgis, who works for the Ecumenical Office of our Archdiocese, is accompanying him and was asked to deliver a brief introduction to the work of the Ecumenical Patriarch. His remarks follow below:


For over two decades, the world has witnessed alarming ecological degradation, a widening gap between rich and poor, and increasing failure to implement environmental policies. During the very time that we should have been acting, we have only been talking.

During the same period, HAH Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew discerned the signs of the times and called people’s attention to the ecological crisis. I don’t know if any other religious leader has made the environment the central plate in his pastoral ministry and spiritual worldview. He has persistently proclaimed the primacy of ethical values in determining environmental action. And his endeavors have earned him the title “Green Patriarch.”

Since 1988, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has sounded the alarm about the climate change crisis. Since 1989, it invited Orthodox Christians throughout the world to reserve September 1st as a day of prayer for environmental protection; numerous Christian communions have followed suit, encouraged by the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew organized eight interfaith and inter-disciplinary symposia from 1995-1009: in the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea, along the Danube River and in the Adriatic Sea, in the Baltic Sea and on the Amazon River, as well as in the Arctic and on the Mississippi River. Since 2012, he has organized international summits assembling scientists and academics, intellectuals and artists, politicians and activists.

In 2002, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope John Paul II co-signed the “Venice Declaration,” the first joint environmental statement by two world religious leaders. And this year, Pope Francis generously highlighted the Patriarch’s pioneering leadership in his encyclical Laudato Si’.

For Patriarch Bartholomew, responding to global warming is a matter of truthfulness to God, humanity, and creation. As early as 1997, he dared to condemn environmental abuse as sin! He has widely and repeatedly proclaimed that the environment is not a political or technological issue but a religious and spiritual challenge. Climate change is an existential crisis for the planet, for its resources and species, including humankind.

Today, alarms are sounding off in every religious community, in every scientific discipline, in every corner of the globe. Why, then, are we so slow in responding? When will we actually dare to make changes – in our hearts as in our communities, in our politics as in our markets? Why are we still . . . just talking?

Paris, July 21, 2015

Bartholomew and the Environment: Nature, Orthodoxy, and Global Leadership

As the 270th successor to the Apostle Andrew, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholomew I is the first among equals among all Orthodox Patriarchs and Primates and the spiritual leader of approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.  According to the seminal work on Bartholomew and the environment, Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew, by Rev. Fr. John Chryssavgis, from the moment of Bartholomew’s enthronement at the Patriarchal Cathedral in the Phanar on November 2, 1991, “Patriarch Bartholomew outlined the dimensions of his leadership and vision within the Orthodox Church: the vigilant education in matters of theology, liturgy, and spirituality; the strengthening of Orthodox unity and cooperation; the continuation of ecumenical engagements with other Christian churches and confessions; the intensification of interreligious dialogue for peaceful coexistence; and the initiation of discussion and action for the protection of the environment against pollution and destruction.  Perhaps no other church leader in history has emphasized ecumenical dialogue and communication as a primary intention of his tenure.  Certainly, no other church leader in history has brought environmental issues to the foreground, indeed to the very center of personal and ecclesiastical attention."

Capitalizing on the pan-Orthodox, interfaith, and international network of relationships and influence that Bartholomew had established for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople through his tireless work in the World Council of Churches in the 1970s and 1980s, the newly enthroned Patriarch put his ecological vision into practice.  In less than one month after assuming the Patriarchal throne, Bartholomew initiated and convened an international ecological summit on Crete.  Under the title “Living in the Creation of the Lord,” the gathering was opened by His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and International Chairman of the World Wiildlife Fund for Nature, who, despite his conversion to the Anglican Church as a condition of his marriage to the future Queen Elizabeth of England in 1947, has remained connected to the Orthodox Church in which he was originally baptized on Corfu as a member of the Greek royal family. 

The bond of Orthodoxy and a shared purpose helped seal a friendship between Patriarch Bartholomew and Prince Philip that soon led to active cooperation for the preservation of the environment and a higher European profile for the Patriarchate.  In the summer of 1992, Prince Philip accepted an invitation to visit the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and participate in an environmental seminar at Halki organized by Bartholomew.  In November 1993, Patriarch Bartholomew met with Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace at the latter’s official invitation.

Underscoring the growing influence of the Patriarch’s ecological message in government and other centers of secular power, in April 1994, Bartholomew was invited to speak before the European Commission in Brussels.  The Patriarch’s speech marked the first time that a figure who was not a state leader or politician had been asked to address the European Commission. 

Convinced that Orthodoxy’s efforts to respond to global environmental issues must take place within a corresponding global dialogue with other Christian churches, non-Christian religious traditions, government and non-governmental bodies, and scientific and other disciplines, Patriarch Bartholomew established the Patriarchate’s Religious and Scientific Committee in 1994.  Officially chaired by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, Greece's most prominent theologian, and coordinated by the Patriarchal advisor, Maria Becket, the Religious and Scientific Committee has convened eight international, interdisciplinary, and interreligious symposia since its founding.  In addition, His All Holiness has also hosted several innovative and distinguished summer seminars in Turkey, including the recently completed June 8-10, 2015, Halki Summit II, dedicated to “Theology, Ecology and the Word.”     

Patriarch Bartholomew’s symposia have gathered environmentalists, journalists, writers, intellectuals, policy-makers, representatives of the world’s main religious faiths, and scientists in an effort to draw global attention to the plight, in particular, of the world’s rivers and seas.  Symposium delegates generally meet in plenary sessions, workshops, and briefings that bring them into cooperative contact with prominent authorities on environmental, economic, social, ethical, and policy issues.  All symposia take place in the specific environmental sites under investigation, thereby placing participants directly into the field to see firsthand the reality of the problems confronting them.

The First Religion, Science and Environment Symposium, “Revelation and the Environment,” took place in September 1995, under the joint auspices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Prince Philip.  Establishing the model for future conclaves, Fr. Chryssavgis notes “travelling through the Aegean, the two hundred participants of this symposium identified the pollution of the world’s waters as a threat to the survival of the planet and recommended the creation of a common language for scientific and theological thought to overcome centuries of estrangement and misunderstanding between science and faith.”   

Two years later, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Second Symposium, “The Black Sea in Crisis,” was cosponsored by the European Commission.  It was also in 1997, during an official Patriarchal visit to the United States, that Bartholomew was admiringly dubbed the “Green Patriarch” by Vice President Al Gore, who would himself be famously inspired to new levels of environmental activism by the Patriarch’s example.  Vice-President Gore’s endearing appellation for Bartholomew was immediately popularized as a kind of shorthand in media and policy circles to identify Bartholomew as the world’s preeminent religious leader in the protection of the environment.  The label, “Green Patriarch,” is now ubiquitous when describing Bartholomew precisely because he has come to be seen by so many statesmen and other influential figures as the world’s moral conscience on the environment.

As a direct result of the 1997 Black Sea symposium, the Halki Ecological Institute was organized in 1999, “in order to promote and provide wider regional collaboration and education among some seventy-five clergy and theologians, educators and students, as well as scientists and journalists.  This educational initiative marked a new direction in the interdisciplinary vision and dialogue concerning the environment, seeking to implement the principles of the ecological vision determined by the Religious and Scientific Committee by turning theory into practice,” according to Fr. Chryssavgis.

Encouraged by Patriarch Bartholomew’s imaginative and constructive efforts, the European Commission cemented its collaborative relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarchate through subsequent symposia on the Danube River in 1999, the Adriatic Sea in 2002, and the Baltic Sea in 2003.  In July 2006, the Patriarch inaugurated the first New World symposium, “The Amazon: Source of Life,” which attracted the joint support of the United Nations.  The Seventh Religion, Science and Environment Symposium, “The Arctic—Mirror of Life,” saw both the European Commission and the United Nations lend their patronage to Bartholomew’s crucial case-study initiative. 

Held in Greenland, in September 2007, where the Ecumenical Patriarch was joined by Denmark’s Princess Irene and over 100 environmentalists, journalists, and scientists, as well as Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Shiite, Shinto, and Sunni religious leaders, Bartholomew directed the seventh symposium’s attention to the Arctic Sea and the imminent dangers of global warming.  Underscoring the depth and expanse, as well as the remarkable intersection of faith and science, characteristic of Bartholomew’s symposia, the Arctic conclave participants “considered the suffering of the indigenous populations, the fragility of the sea ice, and the encroachment of oil exploration in a region considered to be one of the first victims of human-induced climate change.  Delegates visited areas where the impact of melting ice is already clear… There, the assembled religious leaders of various faiths and disciplines joined in prayer for the protection and preservation of the planet,” notes Fr. Chryssavgis.              

The Ecumenical Patriarch’s Eighth Religion, Science and Environment Symposium, “The Great Mississippi River: Restoring Balance,” took place in New Orleans, in October 2009.  Returning to Louisiana for the first time since his January 2006 visit to witness the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Bartholomew led approximately 200 participants, including business, community, government, and religious leaders, environmentalists, journalists, and scientists, in discussions and workshops which explored solutions to the Mississippi River’s environmental problems.  

As in all past symposia, in New Orleans, Bartholomew conducted a blessing, the Aghiasmos, of the waters.  Symbolically sprinkling the Mississippi River with Holy Water, Bartholomew performed the Service of Sanctification as a sign of promise and hope in the future.  The purpose of such blessings is not limited to symbolism.  In fact, what has set Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew apart from other global leaders involved in ecology is his unprecedented and profound influence in recalibrating environmental awareness in ways that aim to restore spirituality and religion as centerpieces in the protection of the planet, the first major religious leader to do so on a global level.

Indeed, Bartholomew’s approach to ecology, like his recognition of the social injustices and inequities produced by environmental degradation, is predicated upon and proceeds from Orthodox theology.  For Bartholomew, the environment is not only an economic, political, social, or technological issue it is primarily a religious and spiritual matter.   

The binding unity and continuity that humans share with all of God’s creation is axiomatic of Orthodox beliefs and worldview.  According to its philosophy, expressed through the instructive narrative of cosmology, Orthodox Christianity views both the Fall into the imperfect state and redemption through Christ’s salvation as extending to all of creation, humanity and nature alike.  Consequently, Christ’s redemptive purpose was undertaken not just for the sake of mankind—it was undertaken for the renewal of all of creation, to reconcile heaven and earth and to restore and reunite God, humanity, and the universe, ending the estrangement and disintegration produced by the Fall of man.             

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s many encyclicals, as well as actual work, on the environment, beginning one quarter of a century ago, have expressed and brought to life the centrality of ancient, early Christian thought on ecology that is a fixture of Orthodoxy.  Such thought is inseparable from belief in a kind of knowledge that is contemplative and spiritual.  Such heuristic openness, in fact, enables Orthodoxy to value science and mystery as complementary.  Conversely, Western modernity’s dogmatism and faith in only the principles of inferential rationality, which characterize materialist science, reject the very possibility of contemplative, spiritual awareness and knowledge that is at the heart of Orthodoxy.  Yet, the origins of Western secular materialist thought can be traced directly to the intellectual consequences produced by medieval Roman Catholicism’s deviations from, and, Early Modern Protestantism’s distortions of, original Christian, i.e. Orthodox, theology. 

It is worth noting, after all, that rationalist, unbridled science-driven Western modernity has produced the ecological crisis that threatens the world’s extinction, while “environmentalism,” as a response to this crisis, did not begin with scientific study but with contemplative, creative reflections on the mystery and beauty of nature.  Indeed, the antecedents to environmentalism are to be found in the sympathetic, ethereal, non-materialist knowledge of nature expressed in the writings of nineteenth-century Russian authors such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, who, regardless of their sometimes contentious personal relationships with the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, were intrinsically and deeply influenced by Orthodoxy.  Equally instrumental were the works of the Russians’ Western European counterpart poets and painters of Romanticism, as well as their contemporaries in the New World, the American naturalists and writers such as Emerson and Thoreau, who, ironically and unwittingly, in their move away from the conventions of Western Christianity articulated select ideas associated with Eastern Orthodoxy.

In the final analysis, the West altered and distorted Christian theology to produce an alternative worldview and an essentially adversarial, rapacious approach to nature.   Western Christianity fostered a contemptuous and arrogant attitude toward the environment.  Indeed, the Western Christian traditions promoted the materialist notion that nature had been created by God to be conquered, ruled over, and exploited by man.  Once folded into the physical power of science and the unforeseeable, uncontrollable results of technology, this deeply embedded philosophical outlook and corresponding set of values unleashed the ravaging of the earth that has led to the world’s present environmental crisis.  Only very recently have some Western Christian churches acknowledged the folly of this thinking and begun to reevaluate their theological engagement with, and public positions on, the environment.

Conversely, Orthodoxy has always understood nature not as a commodity to be subdued and consumed, but as a sacred place and medium, or as Patriarch Bartholomew is well known for saying: “The world is not meant to be used by humans for their own purposes, but is the means whereby humans come into relationship with God.”  Indeed, in the Orthodox view, the sanctity of the earth is affirmed by its connection between our Creator and His creation.  Therefore, human beings are to act as the stewards of nature, to revere and protect the world.  This view, of course, rejects both Western extremes: the religious outlook that historically placed man above nature; and the current misanthropy of stridently secular environmentalist movements, which insist that humanity is merely an undistinguishable part of the environmental whole, ultimately no different than fauna or fish.  Orthodoxy, instead, asserts that humanity has both an integral and a central, pivotal role in nature.  In short, mankind’s presence should be in balance with the natural world while its unique role is as admirer and guardian of all of creation. 

In his initiatives to raise awareness and find solutions to ecological suffering, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has emphasized the importance of spiritualism and theology that is righteous in its harmony with the world.  In this sense, inasmuch as some religious currents in the past were instrumental in forming the roots underlying the environmental crisis in the present, spiritualism and theology should and can contribute to the resolution of those problems in the future.  By putting forward the relevance of Orthodox theology as a way of understanding nature and man’s responsibilities to the environment, as well as the Orthodox way of life as the practical spiritual means by which to protect the ecological order, Bartholomew has implicitly extended a humble but brilliant message of reconciliation and ecumenism between faiths.  Likewise, by explicitly calling on us to recognize and embrace the unity of nature and humanity, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew affirms the immutable beauty, harmony, and universal importance of Orthodox Christianity for the entire world.                

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

Bartholomew and the Environment: The Origins and Background of the “Green Patriarch”

It may seem remarkable and even inexplicable to many that a religious leader would be so involved, as has been His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, in addressing the world’s environmental crisis.  After all, the public policy responses to this looming problem have been dominated by the secular commercial, political, and scientific actors whose past actions have been directly responsible for setting into motion the current environmental disorder.  Nonetheless, an understanding of Orthodox Christianity’s theology and attendant worldview reveals a spiritual and intellectual intimacy between faith and environment.  Likewise, recognition of the extraordinary yet humble dedication and service to God, humanity, and all of creation that characterizes the spiritual, intellectual, and ecclesiastical life of Patriarch Bartholomew underscores why this particular Church leader has also become a world leader, a pioneering visionary in the protection of nature.    

Several studies have been published in the last decade that offer us impressive histories of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s writing and work in advancing global environmental awareness and action.  Two seminal works stand out as perhaps the most important among these sources: the 2011 volume authored by His All Holiness and edited by Rev. Fr. John Chryssavgis, On Earth as in Heaven: Ecological Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the third and final volume in a series of collected writings by Patriarch Bartholomew; and the 2009 publication of Fr. Chryssavgis’ book, Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew, which provides us with a clear view of the life and labors of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.  Both of these meticulously assembled volumes blend reflective, original writing with impressive collections of primary materials that reflect Bartholomew’s vision and work on the environment.   

As example, despite the enormity and wealth of the book’s primary sources, Fr. Chryssavgis’ Cosmic Grace is not merely a linear collection of Patriarch Bartholomew’s pronouncements on the environment.  In this publication, like On Earth as in Heaven, we can see how Bartholomew has for decades moved past mere encyclicals that urge others to take up the hard work of protecting nature to championing that responsibility himself.  Indeed, through his introduction in Cosmic Grace, Fr. Chryssavgis (a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the theological advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch on environmental issues) has written an invaluable contextualization of Bartholomew’s thoughts and actual labors as they relate to ecology.  In short, Fr. Chryssavgis successfully discusses Orthodox theology’s understanding of ecology and thus presents us with a useful primer for reading and interpreting Bartholomew’s documents and record of accomplishment on the environment.  Fr. Chryssavgis’ work is also notable for its excellent biographical sketch of Bartholomew, one that goes beyond achievements and accolades to reveal the Ecumenical Patriarch’s human face. 

Patriarch Bartholomew was born Demetrios Archontonis on February 29, 1940, to parents Christos and Merope, natives of the modest village of Aghios Theodoros (Zeytinili Koyu) on the northern Aegean island of Imbros (Gokceada).  Situated near the entry to the Dardanelles, Imbros, despite its historically homogeneous Greek population, was awarded to Turkey on strategic grounds by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.  Before the Turkish state’s ethnic cleansing of Imbros, beginning in earnest in the 1940s, the young Demetrios’ island was home to over 10,000 ethnic Greeks, who have been reduced to fewer than 300 today.  Indeed, before their obliteration in the 1960s and 1970s, Imbros’ Greek farming, fishing, and winemaking villages formed thirteen small but vibrant communities throughout the island.  Imbros’ villages and its countryside were long revered for their spiritual aesthetic and for their outpouring of men of faith and leadership, including the island’s native son, the late Archbishop Iakovos, godfather of Demetrios Archontonis. 

Demonstrating an extraordinary brilliance at a very early age, after attending elementary school in Imbros, Demetrios completed his secondary education at the Istanbul Greek community’s famous Zographeion Lyceum.  Driven by his faith, a deep and abiding love of the Orthodox Church, and a kindness that his contemporaries uniformly described as humbling, as well as perhaps the ennobling example of his godfather—Iakovos, the future Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America—Demetrios pursued his undergraduate training at the Patriarchal Theological School of Halki, the seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  In 1961, Demetrios graduated from Halki with honors and was ordained in August of that same year to the deaconate, receiving the ecclesiastical name Bartholomew.

After fulfilling his obligatory military service in the Turkish army as a reserve officer between 1961 and 1963, Bartholomew went to Europe to pursue postgraduate studies.  From 1963 to 1968, Bartholomew began his scholarly research with a series of prestigious appointments at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey in Switzerland, and the Pontifical Oriental Institute of the Gregorian University in Rome.  Completing his doctorate on Canon Law in Rome, Bartholomew, whose command of languages includes English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin, and Turkish, taught as a lecturer at the Pontifical Oriental Institute before returning to Turkey, where in 1969 he was ordained to the priesthood.                                 

Shortly before Bartholomew’s ordination, he entered the faculty at the Theological School of Halki by appointment under Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I.  Bartholomew held his teaching position until 1971, when, in a blatant act of religious persecution, the Turkish authorities forcibly closed Halki.  During the tenure of Athenagoras’ successor, Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios I, from 1972 to 1991, Bartholomew served as director of the newly established Office of the Ecumenical Patriarch, and in 1973 he was elected Metropolitan of Philadelphia in Asia Minor. 

In his capacity as a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Bartholomew participated throughout those years of service in the General Assemblies of the World Council of Churches, serving at different times as Vice-Chairman of the Faith and Order Commission, as well as working on its Central and Executive Committees.  This almost two-decade period was critical for the formative development of the environmental sensitivity of this influential international organization, and for affording Bartholomew a global platform and network to initiate the articulation of his ecological vision. 

In 1990, in recognition of his accomplishments, Bartholomew was elected Metropolitan of Chalcedon, the most senior position among the bishops of the Holy and Sacred Synod of Constantinople.  In October 1991, following the death of Patriarch Demetrios, Bartholomew was elected Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.  Immediately after his enthronement in November of that same year, Bartholomew inaugurated a new phase in his longstanding dedication to actualizing Orthodoxy’s understanding and commitment to environmental stewardship.  Bartholomew’s record of global environmental leadership and the Orthodox theology underpinning the Ecumenical Patriarch’s initiatives in this area will be the focus of this blog’s next essay.

Dr. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.


What Happened to St. Peter?

What happened to St. Peter? The short answer is that we don’t know.  The long answer is more interesting. It is precisely the lack of authoritative information about St. Peter that enabled later Christians to develop competing legends about the final years of his life. In some cases, these differences are quite surprising, especially for modern readers used to associating St. Peter with the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy. But not all of the ancient stories about St. Peter place him in Rome.

Why is there such an important discrepancy? And what, exactly, does the Orthodox Church teach about his final years? The last biographical mention of St. Peter in the New Testament occurs in the Acts of the Apostles (15). This chapter places St. Peter at a meeting of the disciples in Jerusalem. For biographers, there’s not much else to go on. Two ancient letters (1st and 2nd Peter), attributed to the Apostle, offer no information about him apart from a vague reference that sends greetings from “Babylon.”

The earliest written accounts of St. Peter’s post-biblical activity, known as “apocrypha,” date to the late second century A.D. Many of these stories are elaborate tales in which St. Peter is a heroic protagonist. Among the oldest surviving references to St. Peter in this material is a story that he traveled to Rome in order to combat the false teaching of a sorcerer named Simon. That story builds on material known from earlier writers. In Acts 8, for example, St. Peter had rebuked a man named Simon for trying to purchase the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, Simon will reappear in almost every apocryphal account of Peter’s activities as a kind of arch-nemesis.

The Martyrdom of Peter and the Acts of Peter are apocryphal texts that exemplify this kind of dramatic encounter with Simon. In both accounts, St. Peter and Simon trade supernatural blows. In some versions, Simon dies and St. Peter’s demonstration of power leads to widespread conversion. Some writers place this quasi-duel in Rome. Then, they proceed to narrate St. Peter’s martyrdom there. In one account, St. Peter is killed by a group of angry Roman landowners because the saint has convinced their wives to adopt celibacy. 

What is equally remarkable, though, is that not all of the ancient stories place St. Peter in the city of Rome. An alternate view is provided by a collection of texts known as the Pseudo-Clementines. These texts were written in Palestine by a variety of authors in the fourth century A.D. The collection contains homilies, supposedly preached by Peter; a treatise; and two letters. In all but one of the letters, the disparate writers see Jerusalem—not Rome—as the center of the Christian world. The texts themselves deal exclusively with the churches of Palestine and Syria.

For many of the same reasons that the Roman church would eventually emphasize the connections between St. Peter, Rome, and the Roman church, so too these other documents, the Pseudo-Clementines, emphasize St. Peter’s role in the foundation narratives of many Syrian and Palestinian communities. None of these apocryphal texts describe St. Peter as a bishop. Only a very few, moreover, describe him as having any relationship to the episcopal structure of Rome. 

To be sure, there are some other second and third century sources (anti-heretical writings and letters) that do link Peter to the episcopal structure of the Roman Church.  But it is important to emphasize that there was no single authoritative teaching in the Orthodox Church about what happened to St. Peter when he drops out of the historical narrative of the Book of Acts. We should not confuse legends and apocrypha with theological belief. 

So where does this leave us?  How does the Orthodox Christian reconcile the conflicting accounts of the end of St. Peter’s life that have circulated so widely? The answer lies in our hymnography.  It is there, in the experience of communal worship, that Church offers its most authoritative means for communicating the significance of St. Peter’s life.  And it is telling that the hymns of the Church provide no biographical information about St. Peter that is not contained in the New Testament. Indeed, for all of the hymns that the Church developed over the centuries, not a single one situates St. Peter in a historic space. For Orthodox Christians, the Liturgical commemoration of St. Peter is a celebration of his faith, his leadership, and—most significantly—his repentance. 

George E Demacopoulos, Author of The Invention of Peter:  Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity (University of Pennsylvania Press). Director and Co-Founder, Orthodox Christian Studies Center, Fordham University. @GDemacopoulos

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