Ecumenical Patriarchate | Greek Orthodox Archdiocese | Orthodox Ministry ACCESS

Fifth Phase: The Modern Period

In 1883, after the winning of Greek independence in more of the Greek-speaking areas, a new phase be~an for the Patriarchate, the modern period. Now the Church of Greece, owing to the grave difficulty of existing under a patriarch who sat in the very shadow of a repressive sultan, declared itself autocephalic (virtually independent). Yet relations between the Church of Greece and the Patriarch remained close, much closer in fact than between the patriarchate and any of the many other ("national") branches of the Orthodox Church.

A meaningful event in patriarchal history was the opening by the Patriarch in 1844, on the island of Halki within the city of Constantinople, of a high level theological school for the education of Greek clergy. Owing to the low state of education in the Orthodox East, in particular the desperate need for adequate theological education, this marked the first time since the end of the Byzantine period that such an institution had been establish ed. ( It was in this period that the Oikonomos of Hagia Sophia, Constantine had sorrowfully declared: "The simple reading of the service books, and very badly at that, as long as it was done in a melodious voice, was the sole qualification for the position of Priest, Deacon or Archon.") The school in Halki was to retain its theological importance for the patriarchate until its forced closing by the Turks in 1972. There had of course long existed in Constantinople a few schools for the education of laymen (in particular the Megale tou Genous Schole), which were in many ways directly or indirectly connected with the Patriarchate and which trained such leading modern Greek figures as Adamantios Koraes.

With the more overt, moral support the Patriarchate inevitably began to give the new nation of "Hellas" and, more importantly, with the emergence of a secular Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk in 1921, the position of the Patriarch in Constantinople (soon to be renamed Istanbul by Kemal) became more precarious than ever. The Patriarch's position was naturally affected by the number and condition of the Greek population of the city, that is by the parishioners immediately surrounding him. As late as 1920 there were probably over 100,000 Greeks in Constantinople. But with the end of World War I and especially the debacle of the Greek army at Smyrna in 1922 after the Greco-Turkish War and the Megale Katastophe (destruction of Hellenism) in Asia Minor, the fate of the Patriarch of Constantinople hung precariously in the balance. It was clear that the Turkish government now wished to be rid of the Patriarchate entirely.

In 1923, one year later, as a result of the intervention of the great powers, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, according to which all of the Greeks in Asia Minor and most of the Turks of Greece were expelled. The sole exception to this exchange of population was the Turks of western Thrace and the Greeks living in Constantinople, both of whom were permitted to remain where they were. But most important for the Orthodox Church, the treaty guaranteed the continued presence of the patriarchate in its historic home, Constantinople, unhampered by restraints or restrictions. Not only did Turkey and Greece sign the pact but also France, England, Italy and the United States. It would seem that the future of the patriarchate in Constantinople was henceforth guaranteed. But the Patriarchate soon became a pawn, a hostage, in the political relations that developed between Greece and Turkey. Especially was this true with the emergence to prominence of the thorny Cyprus problem. In order to put pressure on Greece, the Turkish government has found it expedient to subject the Patriarch ate to intermittent, sometimes continual harassment. In 1955, climaxing years of subtle and not - so - subtle harassment, Turkish policy erupted into a wanton attack organized by Turkish authorities on the Greek community in Constantinople, its churches, schools, homes, cemeteries and shops being savagely vandalized or destroyed. This barbarous event, amazingly, passed over almost unnoticed in American newspapers.

The then Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, probably the outstanding Orthodox patriarch of modern times, had long believed reconciliation was possible between Greeks and Turks. So to insure the survival of the Patriarchate in Constantinople, he thought it best to exercise great restraint vis-a-vis the Turks in measures he pursued with regard to the Greek community and Patriarchate. Though his courageous plan with respect to the Turks did not bear the fruit he sought, Athenagoras' visionary policy of achieving reconciliation between the Orthodox and the other great churches of Christendom did open a new and historic chapter in Christian ecumenical relations. Thus in 1964 he and Pope Paul VI met in Jerusalem, in the first meeting of pope and patriarch in over half a millenium. The result was the mutual annulment in both Rome and Constantinople on December 7, 1965, of the historic, mutual excommunications of 1054. (This act, however praiseworthy, abolished only the individual anathemas launched in 1054 but did not actually end the schism.) In preparation for negotiations and the hoped for eventual reunion between the Greek and the Roman Churches, Athenagoras also took the unprecedented step of convoking a number of pan-Orthodox conferences in order to come to agreement in matters hitherto tending to separate the various Orthodox and "dissident" Orthodox Churches such as the Copts of Egypt (Monophysites). the Jacobites (generally Syrian), the Armenians, and others. Athenagoras' bold imaginative steps now forcefully brought the Patriarchate to center-stage in Christian ecumenical affairs.

Unfortunately, despite the guarantees stipulated by the Treaty of Lausanne, the Turks have not ceased rendering the Patriarch's position in Constantinople as difficult as possible. By now many of the Greek churches in the city's Greek community have been suppressed or closed, and the Patriarch and his court have been compelled to endure humiliation after humiliation along with specially contrived constraints. It has been at times forbidden to the patriarchal clergy to go abroad in order to carry out their ecclesiastical duties, to repair patriarchal buildings, and, much worse, the historic theological school at Halki, the pride of the Patriarchate and bastion of its theological leadership, was in 1972 permanently closed by the Turks. Only a few thousand (some 4,000) of the Orthodox faithful now remain in the Phanar, where the l Patriarch resides. Clearly it is one of the most critical times in the entire two thousand year history of the Patriarchate. And yet that venerable institution has somehow managed, as it must, to carry on its mission of leadership over the Orthodox Churches of the world. including the Orthodox Church of America which is directly under patriarchal jurisdiction. All of the world's Orthodox regard it as "the first among equals" among the Orthodox Churches. But to fulfill its high mission properly in these critical times, it requires continuing assistance and ever-vigilant attention to its particular needs.

In the last few years, however, there have been a few signs of x a better future for the Patriarchate. The Turkish authorities have, finally, granted permission for the reconstruction of a new administrative building to replace the wing of the old patriarchal building consumed by fire in 1941. This imposing new structure was dedicated in late 1989 at a ceremony attended by many notables from around the world. Meantime, following in Patriarch Athenagoras' footsteps, the incumbent Patriarch Demetrios I in 1987 travelled to Rome where he was warmly received by Pope John Paul II. At a solemn ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica, the patriarchs of East and West together recited, in Greek, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of the Church as originally expressed without the filioque. Then, for the first time in modern history, Pope John Paul and Patriarch Demetrios, standing together on the outside balcony of the papal apartments of the Vatican, blessed the immense throng of people gathered below them in St. Peter's Square, an unprecedented gesture of respect between the two great hierarchs of East and West.

Let us hope that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, guided by the present Patriarch Demetrios I and by all future successors of St. Andrew the first-called Apostle, may continue in perpetuity to exercise in Constantinople its hallowed, traditional leadership over the Orthodox faithful of the world.

Ecumenical Patriarchate | Greek Orthodox Archdiocese | Orthodox Ministry ACCESS