This past October marked Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s 30th anniversary at the helm of Orthodoxy’s senior see in Constantinople, making him one of the longest tenured patriarchs in the history of the Church, but also one of the longest-serving contemporary religious leaders worldwide. The combination of his strong personality and three decades leading the Church has left a lasting impression. Someday, when his tenure is completed, his void will certainly be hard to fill, but this is nothing new for Hellenism, which has historically ensured – like few other nations – its leaders’ smooth succession with remarkable consistency. The advancing age of our 81-year-old Patriarch and recent angioplasty inherently gave rise to some omphaloscopy within the ranks of the Church.
And while concern for the Patriarch’s health and the stability of Church governance stems from the faithful’s love for their spiritual leader, unfortunately, a disproportionate percentage of this ‘interest’ is being monopolized by journalists, whose motives are not always so pure. Questionable pieces likely written at the behest of ‘interested’ parties are circulating. Most of these resemble the work of hacks, based only on hazy generalizations, false narratives, or misleading reports that omit information or isolate phrases, altering their meaning.
It’s worth remembering that the Phanar is famously unpredictable. In the past, its actions often ended up being precisely the opposite of what senior-most officials had stated earlier. In other words, Patriarch Bartholomew often speaks in riddles and his crosswords are not easily solved. Hence, the only thing that childish reports regarding heirs apparent and the race for succession accomplish are to embarrass the persons listed on the byline or the media that run them. Most of all, they reflect poorly on hierarchs who may happen to be a party to this recital of bad journalism.
Instead, analysts should be focusing on issues such as multiple jurisdictions in Greece and abroad, which sometimes lead to unnecessary conflicts. For example, the Archdiocese of Athens is currently in the midst of a prolonged dispute with the Phanar over a church in Athens that was bequeathed to the latter, but is being challenged by the former. The Municipality of Athens has since gotten involved, granting the property to the Archdiocese, despite the fact that this issue is still being deliberated in court. This dispute between the two Churches, which has now taken on political dimensions(!), can only cause headaches and dissension within the ranks of Hellenism.
Incidentally, there are currently five different ecclesiastical jurisdictions operating in Greece, four of which belong to the Ecumenical Patriarchate – the Metropolises of the Dodecanese (canonical territory of the Patriarchate), the Archdiocese of Crete (an autonomous eparchy of the Phanar), Mount Athos (whose monasteries belong directly to the Patriarchate), the so-called ‘new lands’ (Greek territories liberated after the Balkan Wars, like Epirus, Macedonia, Thrace, and the Northern Aegean islands, all of which were ‘temporarily’ entrusted to the Church of Greece from an administrative standpoint, but are spiritually under the Patriarchate), and the Autocephalous Church of Greece, which was also once the canonical territory of the Patriarchate, until the founding of the Kingdom of Greece.
It must be noted that the Church of Greece separated from the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the behest of the Bavarian viceroys governing the country, who believed that Greece should emulate Europe’s Protestant nations, where the king serves as head of the state church. The result was that the Church of Greece was considered schismatic for 17 years, from 1833 to 1850, when the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued a tome of autocephaly (as it did recently for Ukraine).
So long as Greece’s first Governor Ioannis Kapodistrias was alive, he vehemently opposed autocephaly, however, after his assassination, proponents of the idea seized the opportunity to wrestle Greece away from the Mother Church, setting the precedent on which the Balkan nations emerging after their liberation from the Ottoman Empire would later base their claims for autocephaly.
Supporters cited the familiar argument that the Patriarchate is hostage to the Turkish state. But just how free are autocephalous Churches? Government intervention during the pandemic clearly indicates that even they are not exempt from the long arm of ‘Caesar’. Meanwhile, hierarchs eyeing succession frequently seek government support for their candidacy, showing that even when one is far removed from the hostile Turkish regime, instances of quid pro quo with government officials still exist. Besides, even during Roman times, emperors meddled in Church affairs. Even ecclesiastical giants like St. John Chrysostom were not spared.
The return of the Church of Greece to the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s jurisdiction, under a status of autonomy, would resolve the issue of multiple jurisdictions, while ensuring the necessary freedoms for Greek hierarchs against blackmail from Turkish authorities.
Greece would also have greater say in issues where the Phanar has received criticism in the past, including ecumenistic practices and the limited function of the synodical system. Meanwhile, it would ensure a canonical resolution to Church-state relations in Greece in the event of a future separation.
In any event, there are much more essential issues for journalists to cover than acting as the mouthpiece of self-styled heirs apparent, or to speculate, like petty opportunists, about the health of Patriarch Bartholomew and spread rumors about his supposed impending resignation. It was precisely due to rumors like this that he himself had to issue a statement to the hierarchy dispelling it as fake news.
As convenient as it might be to place blame on Moscow and the aspirations of its ever-ambitious Patriarch Kirill, the truth is that Greek journalists, including reporters for major newspapers, cannot divest themselves of culpability…
It would be most unfortunate to repeat the mistakes of the 19th century and allow unbridled ambition to turn Greek institutions against the Mother Church, which occupies a central position in the Hellenistic worldview.
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