Writing History With H.A.H. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Rev. Dr. Nicolas Kazarian
History is a process which starts from an event, entering memory before being written down through a painstaking effort of abstraction. In the case of Fr. John Chryssavgis’s book, the event is a person, the memory is an inspiration, and history is the global destiny of H.A.H. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to whom this biography is consecrated. A quote from Churchill used in the book - “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see” – echoes a central aspect of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s identity: he stands at the crossroads of past and future, leading the Orthodox Church into the third millennium, reminding the world of the eschatological nature of the Church: at the crossroads of time, but also of space, “being in the world, yet not of the world.”
Twenty-five years after his election and enthronement in the See of the Church of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew allows readers an entry into his life through the writing of one of his closest advisors. The concept evokes the long and beautiful conversations between French Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément and Patriarch Athenagoras, and decades later with Bartholomew himself. But the goal of Fr. John’s biography is different, and I would say complementary. The narrator is the author himself, and his proximity with the Phanar and the Patriarch creates a sense of intimacy than no one else could have put into words. This biography does not follow a diachronic path, from the Patriarch’s childhood to the present day. Instead, it is a succession of pictures; each one sketching the lines of Bartholomew’s legacy, completing the complex mosaic of a life dedicated to the service of the Orthodox Church, and through her to all mankind. This is why Fr. John wrote in his introduction: “It is my honor and privilege to compile these biographical pages of a man who has guided the Christian East with dedication and conviction for the last twenty-five years.”
Event as a Person
No one could dare say that he or she knows Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew perfectly. Even his family and friends share only a part of who he is in reality. To read Fr. John’s book is to enter the Patriarch’s personal life as a child on his Turkish island of Imbros during the Second World War and its aftermath, which reshaped the global balance of power; as a student in Halki and as a young clergyman in Rome and Germany; as a religious leader offering to his Church his talents despite the oppression and hostility under which the Ecumenical Patriarchate has survived for centuries in Istanbul, also known as Constantinople. Progressively, his life unfolds a vocation, driven by the spiritual mentorship of Ecumenical Patriarchs Athenagoras and Dimitrios, but also, or perhaps especially, Metropolitan Meliton who noticed at an early age the numerous skills, openness and faithfulness of this modest son of the modest Archondonis family from a modest island. His longevity as a Patriarch is also due to the precocity of his election to the throne of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, when he was only in his early 50s. In this biography, we also discover some characteristics of his personality: simplicity and care for others, an incredible intellect and memory.
Memory as inspiration
The transition from event to memory requires witnesses. One of the strengths of this book is that it offered a variety of famous personalities the opportunity to reflect on the influence that the Ecumenical Patriarch has had on their lives. Remembering his first meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Pope Francis writes: “I felt that I was meeting a man who ‘walks by faith’ (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:7), who in his person and his manner expresses all the profound human and spiritual experience of the Orthodox tradition.” Pope emeritus Benedict writes that, “Patriarch Bartholomew fulfills an essential aspect of his priestly mission precisely with his commitment to creation.” On the political side, Vice-Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore agree. For the first: “But what impressed me most is the way His All-Holiness embodies our Christian faith — thoroughly and completely.” The latter writes that “Time and again Patriarch Bartholomew’s words and actions have demonstrated to us that concern for the environment is not a political or ideological matter, but is— in its essence— a moral and spiritual imperative.” This biography offers some insightful reflections about the Patriarch’s legacy from spiritual, political and cultural leaders, creating a true dialogue between life and destiny that goes beyond the limits of the Orthodox Church and finds a crucial echo in global society. In that regard, Fr. John offers a unique articulation of internal and external representations of the Patriarch’s own leadership.
Writing as History
The author has also gathered an incredible number of sources bridging memory and history. The reader will find some important pages offering the very first synthesis of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s theology. The book not only tackles the challenges of ecumenical and interreligious dialogues from an Orthodox perspective, it also reflects on the issue of primacy and conciliarity. It looks at ecclesiology in practical terms, defending the central position of the Diaspora in the life of the Orthodox Church today. It explains Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s decades-long personal commitment to the environment. As the “Green Patriarch” said himself: “The environment is not a secular or fashionable issue. It is at the very heart of what matters for the God who created our world and who assumed flesh to dwell among us.”
Most importantly, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will soon be known as the Patriarch of the Holy and Great Council. He fulfilled the mission started by his predecessor Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, despite all the difficulties and all the resistance inspired by spiritual isolation and geopolitical concerns. As Fr. John shows, since the very beginning of his patriarchal tenure Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has advocated for pan-orthodox unity through the experience of conciliarity. Conciliarity is what allows the Orthodox Church today to think of herself as a global Church creating a renewed “culture of communion.”
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is one of these rare people whose destiny merges with the history. At the turn of the century, at the turn of two millennia, he inspires his contemporaries from the seat he has held for twenty-five years now, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the first among equals of the Orthodox Churches, enjoys a primacy of love and service, signaled by the daily witness he bears to Christ and to his Church in the face of the world. Unfolding the mystery of his life as an Apostle and Visionary, Fr. John Chryssavgis’s book is a powerful experience of an inspiring encounter.
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