Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras was born Aristokles Spyrou in the province of Ioanina, Epirus on March 25, 1886 – at that time still a part of the Ottoman Empire. The son of the village doctor, his mother died when he was only 13. In 1903, he entered the Halki Theological Academy near Istanbul. In 1910, he graduated with his degree in theology, was tonsured as a monk and ordained as a deacon. In December of 1922, while still a deacon, he was elected as the Metropolitan of the island of Corfu. In 1930, he was elected the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of North and South America and served as our Archbishop until 1948. During his 18-year tenure, the women’s Philoptochos, the philanthropic arm of the Church was established. He also established an orphanage, St. Basil’s Academy, and a seminary, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Elected Patriarch of Constantinople in 1948, Athenagoras was active in the ecumenical movement, seeking to establish better relationships among Christians. Perhaps most notable was his meeting with Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem in 1964, which resulted in the mutual lifting of the anathemas that had separated Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians since 1054 AD. This symbolic gesture opened the possibility of authentic dialogue between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches for the first time in centuries. Patriarch Athengoras died on July 7th, 1972.
The excerpts below are taken from a book, Conversations with Patriarch Athenagoras written in 1969 by the French Orthodox theologian and writer, Olivier Clement (1921-2009).
DIALOGUE AMONG CHRISTIANS
“I do not deny that there are differences between the Churches, but I say that we must change our way of approaching them. And the question of method is in the first place a psychological, or rather a spiritual problem. For centuries there have been conversations between theologians, and they have done nothing except to harden their positions. I have a whole library about it. And why? Because they spoke in fear and distrust of one another, with the desire to defend themselves and to defeat the others. Theology was no longer a pure celebration of the mystery of God. It became a weapon. God himself became a weapon!
I repeat: I do not ignore these difficulties. But I am trying to change the spiritual atmosphere. The restoration of mutual love will enable us to see the questions in a totally different light. We must express the truth which is dear to us – because it protects and celebrates the immensity of the life which is in Christ – we must express it, not so as to repulse the other, so as to force him to admit that he is beaten, but so as to share it with him; and also for its own sake, for its beauty, as a celebration of truth to which we invite our brothers. At the same time we must be ready to listen. For Christians, truth is not opposed to life or love; it expresses their fullness. First of all, we must free these words, these words which tend to collide, from the evil past, from all political, national and cultural hatreds which have nothing to do with Christ. Then we must root them in the deep life of the Church, in the experience of the Resurrection which it is their mission to serve. We must always weigh our words in the balance of life and death and Resurrection.
Those who accuse me of sacrificing Orthodoxy to a bind obsession with love, have a very poor conception of the truth. They make it into a system which they possess, which reassures them, when what it really is, is the living glorification of the living God, with all the risks involved in creative life. And we don’t possess God; it is He who holds us and fills us with His presence in proportion to our humility and love. Only by love can we glorify the God of love, only by giving and sharing and sacrificing oneself can one glorify the God who, to save us, sacrificed himself and went to death, the death of the cross.
But I would go further. Those who reproach me with sacrificing truth to love have no confidence in the truth. They shut it up, they lock it up like an unfaithful woman. But I say, if the truth is the truth, we must not be afraid for it; let us give it, let us share it, let us show it in its fullness, let us welcome all that there is of light and love in the experience of our brethren. If we continue in this attitude, then truth will become clear of itself, it will conquer all limitations and inadequacies from within, on the basis of the common mystery of the Church. Let us enlarge our hearts, “let each one of us, as the apostle says, look not to our own things, but rather to the things of others” (Phil. 2:4). We have a sure criterion – life in Christ. Faced with a partial expression of the truth, let us ask in what measure it conveys the life in Christ, or in what measure it is liable to compromise it.
Orthodoxy, if it goes back to the sources of its great tradition, will be the humble and faithful witness to the undivided Church. The Orthodox Churches, in coming together themselves in mutual respect and love, will set a movement of brotherhood going throughout the Christian world, giving the example of a free communion of sister Churches, united by the same sacraments and the same faith. As to the Orthodox faith, centered as it is on liturgical praise and worship, and on holiness, it will bring the criterion of spiritual experience to ecumenical dialogue, a criterion which will allow us to disentangle partial truths from their limitations so that they may be reconciled in a higher plenitude of truth.
But we Orthodox: are we worthy of Orthodoxy? Up till the efforts we have made in recent years, what kind of example have our Churches given? We are united in faith and united in the chalice, but we have become strangers to one another, sometimes rivals. And our great tradition, the Fathers, Palamas, the Philokalia: is it living and creative in us? If we are satisfied to repeat our formulas, hardening them against our fellow Christians, then our inheritance will become something dead. It is sharing, humility, reconciliation which makes us truly Orthodox, holding the faith not for ourselves – if we did that we should simply be affirming yet one more historic confession of faith – but for the union of all, as the selfless witnesses of the undivided Church.”
COMMUNION AND FORGIVENESS
“To those who reduce the Eucharist to a mere brotherly meal one must say that such a meal, even when shared in love, will not prevent us from dying. The Eucharist is first and foremost union with the Risen Christ, who raises us up. It is the bread of heaven which even now imparts eternal life to us. And that is why it is, at the same time, the only meal of total brotherhood, indeed of more than brotherhood, for Christ makes us “members one of another,” as St. Paul says, and He identifies us in his flesh.
But people do not forget the evil they have done and the evil they have suffered, above all when those who have committed the wrong are men or collectivities that are still alive. People don’t forget. And you can’t force them to forget. But if you lay down your arms, if you dispossess yourself, if you open yourself to the God-man Jesus Christ who makes all things new, then the evil past is done away with, and He grants us a new time, in which all things are possible. Forgiveness; it is God himself who takes flesh, dies on the cross and rises again. He forgives us, and allows us to forgive, for He renews time, even the past. This is the mystery of repentance.
As to the future, we cannot dictate it. We only know that in our lives, as in history, the Resurrection will be the last word. That is why we have no fear; we turn our eyes to God and put absolute trust in him for the events of the future. So we can welcome the present and live in it as intensely as possible. Every day I get up, thankful to be alive, and I receive the new day as a blessing. And every promise of life which comes from the past and is turned towards God’s future, I try to make grow today, as I live the moment in its fullness.
Nothing troubles me. Nothing can trouble me. I am in the hands of God. In suffering and in troubles there always remains for us the naked faith that God loves us with an infinite love. There always remains for us the blood of Christ, and the tenderness of His most holy Mother. I know those moments when the situation is quite beyond you, when you can no more do anything. Then I altogether let go of the weight of my weakness, and abandon myself in trust. And peace comes to me, that peace which the Lord gives us, which passes all understanding.”
REPENTING OF OUR SINS AS A CHURCH
“What have we done? What have we done? Christ has left us. We have driven him away. Our hatreds, our pride, our pharisaical self-sufficiency have driven out the Spirit of the Gospel. And Christ has gone. Christ has gone. Oh, how satisfied we are with ourselves! We are the pure, we possess the truth, and we condemn others! But life and history go on. They are knocking at the doors of the Church, and putting ultimate questions to us. Everything is changing. The scientific revolution is advancing, it is modifying and not only man’s environment, but man himself, his education, the relationship between the sexes, his psychology, and tomorrow perhaps his heredity and character as well. Not that science and technology necessarily build a world without God, as is sometimes said. But they force man, and they will force him more and more to ask where all this is going, what is the meaning of it all, what is the meaning of his own life.
What is most lacking among men of the Church is the Spirit of Christ: humility, selflessness, an open welcome, the capacity of seeing the best in others. We are afraid, we want to hang on to what is over and done with, because we’re used to it. We want to be right over against the others, and under a language of conventional humility we hide the spirit of pride and power. We carry on apart from life. We have made the Church into an organization, just like all the other ones. We have put all our energy into setting it up, and now we put all our energy into keeping it going. And it works more or less; rather less than more, but it works. Only it works like a machine, and not like life.”
THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH
“All the peoples of the world are good; all the races. All must find their place in the unity of mankind. I belong to all peoples. Christian unity must be the ferment of human unity. The unification of mankind is at once the expression and the search for our perfect unity in Christ, where we are all members one of another. There is only one Church, the Church of Christ; only one theology, the proclamation of Christ risen from the dead who raises us up and gives us the power to love. Soon men will be going to the moon, but they no longer know the meaning of life. We Christians ought not to be afraid of anything. We have nothing to ask of others, nothing to impose on them; but we must bear witness that life has a meaning, that life is boundless, that it opens onto eternity. For God exists, God exists; and He, the Unknown, is our friend.”