Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Speaks Exclusively to TNH

November 21, 2020

BOSTON – His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew granted to The National Herald the interview of his heart on the occasion of the 29th anniversary of his enthronement to the First Throne of the Orthodox Church. The historic interview begins by touching on the day of his enthronement November 2, 1991, and continues with reminiscences of his childhood in his homeland, the beautiful but long-suffering island of Imvros. The small boy, Demetris Archontonis, who today is His All Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Orthodoxy, used to helped his father after school in the coffee shop and barber shop. He does not simply love Imvros, he adores the place, which is why he visits it in every chance he has. During the interview he announced that “I plan to celebrate next Easter there.”

The Patriarch spoke about the constant pain of his heart, the Theological School of Halki, which continues to remain closed by the Turkish Authorities.

His principal care and concern is the unity of the Orthodox Church, and when the interview turned towards ecclesiology His All Holiness said “we should acknowledge that the undivided Ecumenical Orthodoxy only has one ‘First’ – and not just by way of an honor, but a ‘First’ with specific responsibilities and canonical duties prescribed by the Ecumenical Councils. This is what guarantees the eternal preservation of the unity and common witness of Orthodoxy in today’s world.”

He loves and holds in high esteem Archbishop Elpidophoros of America. When we asked him how you would describe the archbishopric ministry of Archbishop Elpidophoros thus far, he said “we consider it dynamic and positive. God illumined us to choose for this great Eparchy of the Throne a worthy, brilliant, hard-working, decisive and bold Archbishop, with faithfulness and devotion to the Mother Church.”

The entire interview follows:

The National Herald: Your All Holiness, what are your thoughts on the completion of 29 years from your elevation to the Ecumenical Throne?

Patriarch Bartholomew: First of all, I feel a profound sense of gratitude to the Lord, who called me to this supreme office of our Church and People, on the one hand for allowing me to remain in this position for almost three decades, and on the other hand for all that He has further allowed me to accomplish during the same period, while I consciously and confessedly assume obligation for all the failings and errors that occurred. At the same time, I wholeheartedly thank my coworkers over this time, beginning with the venerable Hierarchy of the Ecumenical Throne that assisted and supported me in fulfilling my truly responsible and demanding Patriarchal duties, which I will continue for as long as the Lord of this vineyard pleases.

TNH: What thoughts were going through your mind as you were ascending as Ecumenical Patriarch to the Throne at the Patriarchal Church of St. George?

Patriarch Bartholomew: My thoughts on that day were recorded in my enthronement address. I was of course delighted because, among other things, my election and enthronement gave immense joy and pride to my parents (it was a blessing in itself to have them still living on that occasion), but I was also nervous and anxious about the magnitude and burden of responsibility that I was undertaking. I naturally trusted in the providence of the Leader and Founder of the Church as well as the love and corroboration of my brother hierarchs, who elected me unanimously, but the prominence of the sacred Ecumenical Throne alarmed and challenged me with a sense of vertigo and awe. I glorify God who did not allow me to fall from this height.

TNH: Did it ever cross the mind of the young Demetris Archontonis when he was attending elementary school in Imvros that someday he would become Ecumenical Patriarch?

Patriarch Bartholomew: Of course not. My greatest ambition in my childhood years (since I felt inclined and called to the priesthood) was to become Metropolitan of Imvros and Tenedos. My fellow pupils in the Central School (middle school) of Imvros recall that I would tongue-in-cheek sign as “Agathangelos of Imvros and Tenedos!” I glorify God, who bestows every good thing, for all that He abundantly showered on my humble person, without my deserving it. There is nothing in my life that is my own achievement.

TNH: What do you remember most from Your childhood years in Imvros?

Patriarch Bartholomew: My good parents and my brothers, with whom we played and grew up despite deprivation, the café and barbershop of my late father, where I too would help when my classes permitted, the beautiful scenery of our village and of our island in general, our affectionate teachers, one of whom would come and go every morning and every evening from his village (Panagia, the island capital, where he lived) to ours (Saints Theodores). I would travel the same route (some 45 minutes) for two whole years (1952–1954) by foot, like he did, in order to attend the Central School, which was the first achievement and first blessing of our then shepherd, Metropolitan Meliton, who from that time provided me with his paternal protection and support for my subsequent ecclesiastical journey.

I certainly remember the late Fr. Asterios, our village priest, very vividly. In fact, I have frequently referred to him because he marked my childhood years with his simplicity, dignity, and focused attention to his duties. Throughout his forty years as the priest at Saints Theodores, he never neglected a matins or vespers service. I was his loyal companion and altar boy on Sunday and for festive liturgies, in ‘solitary’ liturgies at the many mountainside chapels, or in services of Paraklisis in August. I still remember with much emotion that he would always buy me a snack at the coffee Shop of ‘Mr. Christos,’ my father, after liturgy; and when I became a deacon in 1961, he gifted me with a gold-threaded fabric for my vestments. I am sending you a photograph that depicts me with our priest outside the chapel of St. Haralambos, and I would like to remind you that Turkish law forbids clergy from wearing a cassock outside of churches.

TNH: How was life when You were growing up in Imvros?

Patriarch Bartholomew: It was difficult, but it was beautiful. That is how I remember it. Most people were involved with agriculture, farming, and beehives. This is why, with the expropriation of our lands by the Turkish Government in 1964 (but primarily with the closure of the minority schools and the establishment of an open prison on the island), the residents were mournfully compelled to abandon their homeland and journey abroad. There were of course also those who labored in necessary professions and trades. But in our village, there was no water at home; we would carry it with jugs from public fountains. And we had no electricity; I would study for classes under the light of an oil lamp, and we would buy the oil from the village store.

We had wonderful customs and traditions, festivals and weddings where village musicians (my uncle would play the zither). On name days, villagers would exchange visits and offer classic treats like almond sweets and baklava. Unfortunately, as in all communities, large and small, we also had cases of disagreement and conflict, mostly related to property – differences over property boundaries that would end up in court and rattled the peaceful atmosphere of peaceful coexistence among the residents.

TNH: I follow you for many years now I don’t forget that you visit it very often, and also just a few days ago. What is Imvros for You?

Patriarch Bartholomew: Yes, I was on Imvros only a few days ago for the feast of St. Demetrios (whose name I received at my baptism on May 8, 1940; it was my paternal grandfather’s name) and I enjoyed the island in the fall for the first time in many years. I also greatly enjoyed the company of our new shepherd Kyrillos, who is from Mytilene, as well as of my fellow-islanders and my younger brother Antonios and his wife Effie, who live in France but often come to the island. In general, I visit my homeland two to three times a year and, with God’s grace, I plan to celebrate next Easter there, which falls rather late (at the beginning of May) and the surrounding nature will be magnificent in Spring. God also granted me this unique experience in 2013, when we celebrated Easter in our paternal house along with my three brothers. Needless to say, during the days of Holy Week and Pascha, I attended and served in all the villages of Imvros, so that no village would be disappointed! In other words, Imvros is an inseparable part of my life. And who knows? Perhaps I will conclude my last days in the Nursing Home there, which I pledged to build and dedicate to my dearly beloved and much distressed homeland.

TNH: God has provided, and many things that you announced in your enthronement speech were fulfilled. Bur why has your big dream of the reopening of the Theological School of Halki remained unfulfilled despite the so many declarations and interventions and by so many and so many powerful people? 

Patriarch Bartholomew: Your question should be addressed to the Turkish nation. We/I cannot explain how such an historical home of letters and culture, which functioned for almost 130 years, could possibly hurt our country and what the government could fear from the presence of 50–100 seminarians that would serve humankind as clergy or as professors, as preachers of love and peace and solidarity among people and nations. The suspension in operations of the School at Halki for half a century now has critically harmed our Ecumenical Patriarchate, and the persistence in this situation justifiably forces us to ask whether this was precisely the objective of that regrettable decision of 1971. Nevertheless, we always pray and hope. Our School lies on an idyllic mountain, filled with pine trees, on the island of Halki, among the Princes Islands; and that hill is symbolically named the Hill of Hope.

TNH: Which is the biggest agony of Your heart today for the Orthodox Church around the World?

Patriarch Bartholomew: Without a doubt, the unity of the Church, for which the Ecumenical Patriarchate has accomplished much through the centuries; personally, from the first months of my Patriarchal tenure, I attributed great significance to unity, which is why in March 1992 I convened a Holy Synaxis of my brother Orthodox Primates at the Phanar, in the form of an informal and previously unknown consultative and advisory body. Since then, there have been many similar Synaxeis of Primates, the last being in January 2016 in Geneva. The culmination of our efforts for Panorthodox unity and collaboration was the advancement of preparations for and the convocation of the Holy and Great Council of Crete, which broke new ground and promoted an Orthodoxy that could boldly bear good witness in the world and look to the future instead of passively and nostalgically yearning for the past. Those who did not participate in the Council, despite having participated in its preparation, will be judged by history. However, I am certain that they will never be praised for their decision.

We Orthodox should be self-critical and reexamine our ecclesiology if we do not want to become simply a federation of churches in the protestant sense. Since at our ordination to the episcopate we vow to preserve the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, we should acknowledge that the undivided Ecumenical Orthodoxy only has one ‘First’ – and not just by way of an honor, but a ‘First’ with specific responsibilities and canonical duties prescribed by the Ecumenical Councils. This is what guarantees the eternal preservation of the unity and common witness of Orthodoxy in today’s world.

TNH: How would You describe the archbishopric ministry of Archbishop Elpidophoros thus far?

Patriarch Bartholomew: We consider it dynamic and positive. God illumined us to choose for this great Eparchy of the Throne a worthy, brilliant, hard-working, decisive and bold Archbishop, with faithfulness and devotion to the Mother church. There were certainly other deserving Hierarchs also capable of undertaking this position, but Archbishop Elpidophoros was the most suitable under the present circumstances. As you would say there: “The right man in the right place.”

TNH: What would You like to say to all generations of Greek–Americans but especially to the young generation?

Patriarch Bartholomew: First, I would like to assure the children of all ages of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America of my deep love, affection and great appreciation for what they are, for what they represent, for their place and recognition in the contemporary society of the United States of America. I am grateful to all members of the Omogenia for their devotion to the Mother Church, for their faithfulness to our People’s traditions, as well as for their struggle to preserve and cultivate them.

The Archdiocese of America is a pivotal Eparchy of the Ecumenical Throne. My paternal exhortation to the younger generation is to lift up high the sacred institution of the family. My predecessor on the Throne of Constantinople [St. John Chrysostom], whose memory we keep on November 13, calls the family “a small church.” It is the link that connects the community with the parish, the nucleus of the Church. Moreover, I invite our young men and women to apply in their lives the spirit of community, the culture of solidarity, within a society characterized by self-centeredness and the idealization of individual rights. As it has been said, the nucleus of our faith, the Holy Trinity, is the denial of seclusion and isolation. It is truth as personal relationship and as communion.

In closing this interview, I call upon you with all my heart to feel truly proud that you are Orthodox Christians. In Orthodoxy, we not only preserve but fulfil Hellenism, which assumes an ecumenical character. One contemporary theologian, rightly reversed the famous phrase of the late Fr. Georges Florovsky, that we might “become more Greek so that we might become truly catholic, truly Orthodox,” inviting us to “become more Orthodox in order that we might become more Greek.”

I wish you a blessed beginning of the spiritual advent of Christmas!


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