Your All-Holiness, Eminences, Fathers, Sisters and Brothers – Friends,
A story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers sets us an example how to relate to non-Orthodox Christians. An elder known for his life of prayer and his Orthodoxy was once approached by a heretic. It was a Manichean priest, who needed a cup of water and shelter. The elder received him with much hospitality and openness: invited him to share a meal at his table and offered him a place to stay over night. The younger monks in the community criticised the elder for this openness towards a heretic, but he answered that his responsibility was to be open and welcoming to all people with no difference. The story goes on to tell that the Manichean found his way back to the Orthodox faith and the Church.
Dear friends, we are Orthodox Christian young adults from all over the world gathered in conference in Constantinople. We have come together upon invitation by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomaios, and most of us come from parishes and dioceses within the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Our theme is Members of the Church – citizens of the World. This city where we meet has an overwhelming Muslim majority, and it is nowadays generally known by its Turkish name Istanbul. Turkey has a consistent non-religious legislation, and in principle the society is neutral with regard to religion. All of these facts say something important about out theme and ourselves as Orthodox Christians and as members of the human family living in our common world.
The Orthodox faith as an invitation
When we call ourselves Orthodox Christians, we mean that we keep the orthe doxa, the original way of glorifying God. We seek to be faithful to the original Christian faith of the Apostles, and to the theology and spirituality of the fathers and mothers of the Church. In our personal spiritual walk of life we want to follow Christ and we know it is possible together with the Saints who have gone before us on this way and those fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters who share it with us today.
The Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed is one of the most central expressions of our Orthodox faith. In it we state that we believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. We discover this Church every Sunday in the Divine Liturgy of our home parish. As we celebrate the Liturgy together with the others gathered there and receive the Holy Communion, we become the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ, and in it we become members of each other. Just before breaking the blessed bread for communion, the priest elevates it and says: “Holy things to the holy.” Members of the Holy church, we are challenged to be and become holy. We are united with all who participate in the same communion in all places where the same Liturgy is celebrated, and with all the saints who chant in the Heavenly Liturgy. By the ministry of our bishops, we are concretely united with all the other local congregations and churches who share the Orthodox faith and celebrate the Orthodox Liturgy. As the Church always prays for each city and country, we are in the Liturgy also united with all humanity and all God's world through intercession. Thus the Church is Catholic – universal and whole and all-embracing.
The mission of the Church is to witness and serve in the world so that all people will find their way to the freedom and hope granted to all through of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. All people are children of God and called to the light of Christ, regardless of their nationality or their cultural or religious background. We are sent by Christ for this mission, to become Apostles of the Apostolic Church. This mission and service springs forth from the experience and conviction that God is love.
”God is with us”. This is a basic statement of the Orthodox faith. God became human, one of us. He shared our life, so completely that he died with us and for us. The Almighty Creator, Pantokrator become one with his creations, weak and vulnerable, and a victim of injustice and violence. This paradox of the Christian faith is the beginning of the victory of life over sin and death. This faith in a humble God who made himself known to us as “Abba – Daddy” opens up our vision. It speaks to us about love and forgiveness, about hope and new possibilities. It offers to us the blessing of metanoia, repentance and renewal of thought and life, and that blessing is always greater and deeper than we could ever achieve or imagine ourselves. When we learn to love, we shall see that fear fades away.
If God remains distant to us, we might think of him as a far-away observer who is mainly interested in the way we follow rules and moral principles. Often such an image of God leads to the logic that salvation belongs only to “us” who know God’s will – perhaps even better than He does Himself – and all “others” are outsiders and damned. A distant God needs to be represented by human authorities who are closer to us, “gurus” or self-appointed “elders”. In the worst case, they actually take the place of God in a religious community. There is not much space for love or hope in such a situation. In fact, a distant God and his authoritarian representatives on Earth have little to do with the calling to freedom and spiritual growth that are given to us by the Orthodox faith.
Our Orthodox Creed invites us to discover the holiness of the One Church and to realise what it means for our life that this Church, and we as its members, are meant to be Catholic and Apostolic. As young adults in the Orthodox Church, we have the great opportunity to make this heritage our own. We are invited to learn to know the spiritual riches of our Church – the art of prayer, the chanted theology of our church services, the interaction of faith and knowledge in the thought of the Church Fathers, the holistic and balanced lifestyle of the Orthodox family and monastery .
The challenge is to let prayer become the rhythm of our life, to translate the Holy Tradition into our everyday language. Christianity never was a question of opinion, it does not compete among philosophies or ideologies. Neither is it our personal property, which we utilise or consume when we choose to, but otherwise keep hidden and forget. It is not something we have, but rather a call to spiritual growth. Orthodox Christianity is a way of life, ”the Way” as the early Christians called it. Orthodoxy is meant to become Orthopraxy.
We and the others
Many of us live in the so-called Diaspora – countries where the Orthodox Church is relatively new and forms a small minority among other Christians and people of other faiths or of no faith. Also in our traditional Orthodox Motherlands it is healthy to realise that the days of an all-embracing Orthodox majority culture are gone, and in fact the people who participate in the life of the Church are a minority. We should not complain: this situation of minority and this secular age is where God has put us. We need to know and love our countries and cultures and the people we share them with, in order to be able to give them something as Orthodox Christians – to witness and to serve. We are gathered at this conference because of Constantinople, but we should also love Istanbul.
If we take our Orthodox faith seriously, we cannot remain isolated from other people or uninterested by them. Our Byzantine tradition implies an open-minded attitude to the world and to other people. That is why the Byzantine culture was capable of embracing new nations and of sharing the Orthodox faith with them. It seems to me we are often very far from this openness.
There are many who share the faith in Christ and want to be his followers, but who do not belong to the Orthodox Church. We know it is against Christ's will that his disciples should be divided. Divided and quarrelling Christians cannot be witnesses to God's love. Christians have inflicted many wounds on each other, much injustice and persecution has been done by Christians to other Christians. The Orthodox Christians have in many situations suffered at the hands of their Western Christian brothers. Also the Orthodox are guilty of similar attitudes and acts towards others. We have let our Orthodox faith be exploited and trivialised by nationalisms and political ideologies. We need sincere forgiveness and reconciliation between Christians. Our Orthodox faith itself challenges us to overcome the enemy images which we may have inherited from history or which we may have created ourselves.
The basic question of our ecumenical involvement is whether we are able to see our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters as disciples of Christ. If we can recognize the basic features of our own Orthodox Christian faith in the Protestant and Catholic Christians we meet, we are compelled by the will of Christ to seek unity with them, and ecumenical encounter and dialogue is possible. In this way, being ecumenical belongs to the realm of my faithfulness to Christ. Ecumenism is a matter of conviction, not church diplomacy or bargaining about the faith.
The Orthodox in the Ecumenical Movement
The holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church have throughout the centuries been keen to heal the divisions between Christians. They have engaged in theological dialogue and argumentation in order to tell the difference between heresy and difference of opinion. They have seen the beauty and truth in the spirituality of other Christians, despite theological controversy. They have been ready for interim solutions for the purpose of re-establishing Church unity.
It is in line with this concern for Christian unity that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has involved itself in the Ecumenical Movement already since the 19th century. One of the important early events of this movement was the Assembly of the World Student Christian Federation in Constantinople 1911. In 1920, the Ecumenical Patriarchate sent a letter to ”all Churches of Christ everywhere” proposing the foundation of an international council of churches. This idea became reality when the World Council of Churches was founded in 1948. In the 1920s and 1930s several Russian theologians, who were involved in the Patristic renewal of Orthodox theology and who had fled the Bolshevik revolution to the West, contributed greatly to the early direction of the Ecumenical Movement.
There are many things which we as Orthodox have learned from our ecumenical contacts. Probably we must admit that our own relationship to the Bible has become more profound and active because of Protestant challenges and influences. Many developments in the Roman Catholic Church have informed our thinking, for example in the area of episcopacy and the relationship between the local and the universal Church, but also with regard to the Church’s preferential option for the poor. We have received many ecumenical influences in the educational sphere – from Sunday Schools to academic theology. Also the way we do missionary and humanitarian work has benefited from ecumenical cooperation. Neither should we forget the brotherly assistance many Western churches continue to give to our Orthodox churches, in the form of humanitarian aid, project funding, scholarships etc.
The basic task of the Orthodox in the Ecumenical Movement is to witness to the authentic Apostolic faith and to the life of the Church as Communion. We can see some concrete contributions the Orthodox have been able to make to the life of other Christians. Many Protestant friends have been helped to see that the Bible becomes alive as it is chanted in the church. Monasticism as a radical Christian lifestyle is a discovery many Western Christians make with Orthodox monks and nuns. They also have led many to see that it is possible to really follow the Apostolic exhortation to “pray always”, and to know ourselves in the depth of our mind and soul. I think we can also say that Orthodox contribution has helped the other Christians to see that the Cross belongs together with the Resurrection, and that salvation through the Cross and the Resurrection involves all His creation. The centrality of the Church as the Body of Christ and how it becomes real in the Liturgy and the Eucharist is also something where the Orthodox presence has given something important to the life and teaching of other churches.
Dear friends, ecumenism is not an idea separate from our Orthodox Christian faith. It is possible only if we discover our own Orthodoxy and let it change us. It implies respect and interest in other Christians, and truthful knowledge about their faith and life. It will not work if we try to deny the real differences between the churches and fail to see how we can enrich and support each other with our particular gifts as Christ’s disciples.
Challenges for the churches and the world
One of the original ideas of the Ecumenical Movement is to give a joint Christian witness to the world. This is always demanding, because of all the political and cultural complications of humanity, which we are a part of. However, some recent international examples where Christian witness has made a difference can be mentioned. The change from brutal racism to a developing democracy in South Africa, which against all odds happened peacefully, was to a great extent the result of a long Ecumenical effort of prayer and solidarity of all churches world-wide. The campaign “jubilee 2000” that engaged the richest nations to cancel the debts of the poorest nations was started ecumenically by churches, and although it did not change the unjust global economic setup, it left a mark in world politics and continues to be practiced.
An important challenge that the churches need to face together is the hopeless vicious circle of violence in the Holy Land – Palestine-Israel and the other Bible countries. It starts by listening to the Christians of the region – most of whom are Orthodox – in order to see what the task of the churches could be in bringing peace to this area that has great global importance. This task is also linked with the need to encounter people of other faiths with respect, first of all Jews and Muslims, our closest relatives in the Abrahamic family. Our conference in this city has something to do with this challenge, because the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the most important international Centre of Orthodoxy, lives in the City and shares its everyday life with its Muslim neighbors.
Our Patriarch Bartholomaios is playing a central role also in another area of decisive importance for all humanity. He is called “the Green Patriarch” because of his numerous initiatives and interventions with regard to the ecological catastrophe, our relationship to God’s creation. This is a task for all of the human family, where the Christian churches have a role to play together, ecumenically. We as Orthodox Christians can draw from the very sources of our faith and spirituality, in order to w