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A Lesson from Byzantium for Patriarch Bartholomew

Over the last few years many Orthodox around the world have been saddened to see how a graduate of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, who at present occupies the once glorious see of Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew I, has taken ever more steps towards union with the heretical Church of Rome. Furthermore, these steps, and the way that they have been taken, have led many to believe that this is not a unity founded on the truth (all Orthodox wish for this), but just another example of Uniatism, with which Roman Catholics have been tempting Orthodox for over seven centuries.

It is amazing to see how a Local Church, which has especially suffered from the Latins and from bitter experience twice clearly understood the pernicious nature of this path, is once more doing its best to tread on the same rake. First, there was the Union of Lyons in 1274, which brought nothing but popular unrest and the Arsenite schism, which tore the Church apart for decades. Then there was the Union of Florence in 1439 which led to the Conciliar condemnation of Constantinople and its heresy at the Council of Jerusalem in 1444, the loss of the Russian Metropolia, very serious social unrest and the subsequent loss of the Empire.

In the last three years Patriarch Bartholomew has met the present Pope three times. On 30 November 2006 he welcomed the head of the Latin Church to Constantinople. As a result the Athonite monasteries issued a statement, in which they confessed that such events do not comply with the Orthodox teaching on the Church. In their statement they pointed out that the Pope of Rome was welcomed in Istanbul as the legitimate bishop of Rome, that Benedict XVI attended the Orthodox liturgy not as a simple observer, but was fully vested, proclaimed the ‘Our Father’ together with Orthodox clergy and exchanged with the Patriarch of Constantinople the so-called kiss of peace – the traditional rite carried out by clergy during the celebration of the eucharist. ‘All this signifies more than just joint prayer, which in any case is also forbidden by the holy canons. And all this is happening when papism has in no way retracted any of its heretical teachings and politics’, declared the ascetics of Mt Athos.

However, these statements did not in any way deter Patriarch Bartholomew I from meeting Pope Benedict XVI on 6 March 2008 in order to pray with him once again, this time in Rome.

But matters do not stop simply with prayer.

Chaired by the ecumenically-minded Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamos, the International Mixed Commission for theological dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church also exists. The last session, which took place in October 2007 in the absence of the Russian Orthodox Church, agreed on a document which has been sharply criticised by Orthodox theologians.

In particular, Archimandrite George (Kapsanis), Abbot of the Monastery of Gregoriou on Mt Athos, has remarked that, ‘everything is tending towards the union of churches on the basis of the recognition of the primacy of the Pope at the cost of the possible sacrifice of a few papal privileges… There are serious grounds for supposing that ‘the Ravenna Document’ confirms fears that the Orthodox are ceding to papal claims…The Ravenna accord on catholicity and authority does not meet the criteria of Orthodox ecclesiology, which could give a clear basis for further discussions on papal primacy. (

A respected Professor of the University of Athens, Ioannis Kornakis, has examined the accord critically and written: ‘The Ravenna document mostly conceals the papal claims in relation to the Orthodox…The ‘heretics’ and ‘ecclesiologically deficient’ Orthodox must convert from Orthodoxy, renouncing their positions, and fall at the feet of the Pope’! (http://www.rusk. ru/st.php?idar=8995).

In his turn, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin has also pointed out that: ‘Without doubt the Ravenna agreement…in one of its main areas, primacy in the Eastern Church, is closer to the Roman Catholic doctrine. There is a fear that some Orthodox are starting to share this view and would like to reproduce within the Orthodox Church the Roman Catholic system of administrative authority of a supreme world bishop, a system which has never been part of Orthodoxy…For the Russian Church this document does not have any due authority’. ( php?idar=176065).

In the light of these philo-Catholic tendencies, accompanied by the administrative reform of the Patriarchate of Constantinople carried out by Patriarch Bartholomew, with three experienced Metropolitans recently removed and replaced by three young clerics, it seems superfluous to recall that the glorious city of Constantinople has provided examples of a worthier reply to Rome’s Uniat overtures.

For instance, at the demand of his son-in-law, Emperor John V Palaeologos, and the Patriarch of Constantinople and a series of hierarchs, in 1367 the former Emperor John Cantacuzene, who until then had been in retirement, began official conversations with the Latin bishop Paul, whom the Pope of Rome had appointed ‘Patriarch of Constantinople’. The Roman Catholic ‘Patriarch’ declared that he had arrived, sent by the Pope with the task of negotiating the union of the Churches

To this the Emperor, a spiritual friend of St Gregory Palamas and a major theologian of the age, replied: ‘Not a single man - neither from our Church, nor from the Roman – can say that he has striven for unity more than me. Ever since I first came into the world and saw the light of the sun, I have been gripped by the ardent desire to see Church unity. If this has not happened, I suppose it is because the whole time – ever since the division of the Church became general and to this day - you have approached the question of unity not as friends and brothers, but as mentors and despots, as if you were lords. You have declared that neither we, nor anyone else, can have views that differ from or contradict those that the Pope has or will have, for he is the successor of Peter and says the same as Christ, and we must listen to his words with care, bowing our hearts and heads, as if those words came from Christ Himself. So know, prelate, that as long as you all hold such an opinion, it is impossible to unite the Church.

As we can see, over the last six centuries Rome’s position on unity with the Orthodox has not undergone any fundamental changes. Sadly, the position of senior figures in Constantinople has changed a great deal!

The Emperor indicates the only way in which unity can be attained in truth: ‘A Council of the whole Church must be held and hierarchs must meet in Constantinople, both those who are under the authority of the Oecumenical Patriarch and those who live near and live far away, such as the Metropolitan of Russia and his bishops, the Metropolitans of Trebizond, Alania, Zikkhia, and also the other Patriarchs, of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, and as well as them, the Catholicos of Georgia, the Patriarch of Trnovo and the Archbishop of Serbia, - a Council to which the Pope would send his representatives, according to the order established of old. And when they have gathered, they would have to examine with love for the All-Holy Spirit and with a fraternal disposition the basic reasons for the conflict between ourselves and yourselves. And if this happened, I am sure that God would not conceal from us His holy will and the truth. If this did not happen in the way that I now counsel, but unreasonably, in the way that you are attempting at the moment, then not only will there not be any unity, but there will begin a schism even worse than before’.

It is noteworthy that even over six centuries ago Constantinople understood that the question of restoring unity cannot be discussed without Russian Church participation, and John Cantacuzene even mentioned the Russian bishops in first place. Now the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the person of the Metropolitan of Pergamos prefers to arrange for the removal of the Russian delegation from the dialogue with the Roman Catholics.

O, if only today’s Patriarch of Constantinople and the hierarchs close to him were to show his fellow-believers, his Orthodox brethren from Russia who during the long centuries of the Turkish yoke supported his predecessors and his flock, even half the love that he now pours forth on heretical Rome, from which for the last thousand years he has seen nothing but evil!

Prepared to make concessions to Rome, the Patriarch of Constantinople is implacable in his dealings with his brother in Moscow, in whose parishes he has uncanonically interfered and which he has ravaged on three occasions (in Estonia, Hungary and England). Having met four times and prayed two times with the Pope of Rome, the Patriarch of Constantinople is in no hurry to meet the Patriarch of All the Russias. A frequent guest at the Vatican, he has not visited Moscow once.

Furthermore, perhaps the removal of our delegation from the meeting in Ravenna is for the best. Thanks to it, the Russian Orthodox Church remains unstained by participation in the dubious games played by Constantinople, which have taken an alarming direction - towards the betrayal of the faith and a new dose of Uniatism.

At the same time the actions of Patriarch Bartholomew and the decisions taken under the chairmanship of his representatives and the whole contemporary process of dialogue between Orthodox and Roman Catholics seem to contradict his own words. These were said only five years ago when, commenting on the calls of John-Paul II to unity, he declared that for Church unity to be restored, the Vatican must ‘renounce all the novelties that it has introduced since the schism - papal primacy and infallibility, the filioque and Uniatism’.

Returning to the words of John Cantacuzene, we find them just as relevant to today’s situation as if they had been said in our own times: ‘If it happens, as has been said (that is, unity in truth in a general Council – Y. M.), then all will be well. If not, then among both those who live far away and those in Constantinople, there will be a schism, so that some will flee to foreign countries, others will submit themselves, others will resist unto death itself’.

This is what happened in the following century under Emperor John VIII Palaeologos, who forced the Church of Constantinople into Uniatism with Rome and so lost his soul and his Empire.

As we can see, the history of Constantinople provides examples of both a right and a wrong approach to the question of restoring unity to the Church of Rome that fell into heresy. Let us hope that the Lord will keep the present Patriarch of Constantinople from error.

In light of the tensions in his relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, we now have a special view of the idea of the Oecumenical Patriarch Jeremias II, who in 1589 proposed transferring the see of Constantinople to Moscow. We cannot know, but perhaps if this had happened, there would today not be this senseless confrontation that can hardly be pleasing to God.

Yuriy Maximov,

Moscow, 16 April 2008

Translated by Fr Andrew

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