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.