To climb the narrow staircase, in their understated elegance, which connect the floors of the Building of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, gives rhythm to the clear perception that this place, in itself small, is the spiritual heart of millions of Orthodox Christians worldwide. For 1,700 years, it has transcended a tumultuous history, yet remained constant in its mission of service. Its truly global role unfolds from a historic district of Istanbul where the Phanar, as it is pronounced in Greek, is found. Directly overlooking the Golden Horn, the estuary encroached on by the sea is located in the part of Turkey which is geographically Europe, and which divides the city of Istanbul in two: the ancient Byzantium-Constantinople to the South and the Genoese colony of Pera-Galata in the North. The name Phanar dates back to the Byzantine era and is derived from the Greek word «lantern» as used to assist navigation. After the fall of Constantinople (1453), the district’s neighborhood became home to many of the Greeks who returned to live in the city and also to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The church of St. George, formerly part of a monastery, was elevated to a Cathedral church by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Matthew II, in 1600; here he moved the seat of the Patriarchate, the sacred place «where the Chair of the bishops of this historical martyr Church is, guided by Divine Providence of the ministry of high responsibility to be the First Throne of the Most Holy Local Orthodox Churches», as it was defined by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I .
The Patriarch and the Pope
Ιn late November 2014, Pope Francis traveled to Turkey and
was welcomed «with love and great honor, but also with profound
gratitude» from the City of Constantine’s Church and by Patriarch
Bartholomew’s embrace. After a day spent in Ankara, in fact, he
moved onto the city located on the Bosphorus, entering the Phanar
twice: the first occasion, on Saturday 29 for an ecumenical prayer
in the Patriarchal Church of St. George and then for a private
meeting in the Patriarchal Palace; and once again on Sunday 30 for
the Divine Liturgy in the Church itself and then for the ecumenical
Blessing and the signing of a joint declaration.
The schism between Rome and Constantinople occurred in
1054, and was sanctioned in 1204 because of the Fourth Crusade
with what St. John Paul II defined the «disastrous sack of the imperial
city of Constantinople» by those who «who had set out to secure
free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their
own brothers in the faith». But it was, in actual fact, the churches
of Rome and Constantinople who resumed dialogue of charity with
Paul VI and Athenagoras’ historic embrace in 1964, and whom, in
addition, revoked mutual excommunications of the two Churches.
That gesture was confirmed and extended further in with Pope
Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew’s encounters, first in the Holy
Land, then in the Vatican4 and in November at the Phanar.
These encounters were experienced as a prophetic sign of a long-awaited and desired unity which is today revealing its beauty in a sincere friendship. This is why the Patriarch has expressed his «ineffable joy» caused by «the appropriate honor of the presence of the person of Your Holiness»5 . Bartholomew greeted the Pope by giving a reading of the months of his pontificate: «Your still short path as the guide of your Church has consecrated you into the consciousness of our contemporaries, herald of love, peace and reconciliation. You teach with your speeches, but mostly and mainly with the simplicity, humility and love for all, in the name of those you exercise your high office. You inspire confidence in the incrediulous, hope to the hopeless, expectation for those who expect a loving Church toward all.»6 Many people were moved, in particular, by the Pope and the Patriarch’s embrace, and by Francis’s bowing before Bartholomew with a request to be blessed and to pray for the Church of Rome.7 The Patriarch kissed him gently on his white zucchetto8 . These gestures, along with the sentiments of faith and communion which provoked them, have founded a profound desire for dialogue with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. «I am grateful to the Jesuits, he tells me: I was a student of yours at the Pontifical Oriental Institute.» In fact, of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I’s long and extensive theological training, the five years in which he studied Eastern Canon Law in this institute receiving his doctorate in 1968 should be considered central. His words remind me of the fact that the Pontifical Oriental Institute is just a short walk away from the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where the former student Dimitrios Archondonis - this is the the Patriarch’s civil name - went to pray, just as Francis does today before and after his apostolic journeys.
Your Holiness, our world is changing rapidly. We live in a difficult time in some ways, but the believer knows that the Lord is present and active in the world. What is today the biggest challenge for the life of faith and the proclamation of the Gospel?
A mere glance at global news and social media reveals the unprecedented rapid changes that are taking place all around us. We are, therefore, becoming increasingly faithful and hopeful in God, who alone can stabilize our hearts and all humanity. He is the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was, the same yesterday, today and forevermore. At the same time, however, there has never been a time in history when people can exercise more influence on their surroundings. Our age is unrivalled in terms of our awareness of the connections between our convictions and our conduct, between what we believe and what we practice, between our spirituality and our lifestyle. Never before have human beings been in a position to decide and determine the future of our community and planet. We can literally choose and change the way we live in order to inform and influence the challenges that we face – especially human displacement and climate change, as well as economic inequality and social injustice.