An Ear on the Heart of the Eastern Churches

Tomás Surlis


The following article, written by a deacon from St. Patrick’s college, Maynooth, provides a diary-like glimpse into a unique journey to Istanbul in July 2001 undertaken by a group of 50 seminarians and ten priests, members of the Focolare Movement. They travelled to this city, once Constantine’s majestic capital, and still today the heart of Orthodoxy, to place their ear on the heart of the Eastern Churches.

The setting sun cast a golden hue over the stones of the Galata Tower in the centre of the historic city of Istanbul, which straddles the ancient shipping route of the Straits of Bosphorus in the land of Turkey. Fifty seminarians and ten priests, who are all members of the Focolare Movement, had come to the heart of Orthodoxy, the seat of Constantine’s once majestic capital, to place their ear on the heart of the Eastern Churches. Our ten-day sojourn was designed to be an experience of listening to and learning more about the riches contained within the treasure trove of the theology and spirituality of these age-old traditions. We came with an attitude of profound respect and reverence which demanded that we listen rather than speak. The result was one of the most memorable encounters of my life, an encounter that revealed the incomparable beauty of the unity in diversity which can, and to an extent already does, exist within the Church of Christ.

In a message prepared for the occasion, Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, wrote: “I believe this experience will leave an indelible mark on the participants for the rest of their lives.” These words proved to be prophetic as the days of our visit unfolded. The welcome we received from the leaders of the various Orthodox Churches and indeed from our Islamic friends was genuine and warm. We felt the hand of God in each of our meetings and while we recognised the pain of that which divides, we saw too that there is much which unites us under one God, one faith and one baptism. Above all we were struck by the fact that unity is not only an aspiration, it is an imperative; an imperative that will only be faithfully realized through our openness to the will of God made manifest through the power of the Holy Spirit and articulated in the prayer of Christ for unity. In that spirit we united ourselves to the prayer of the late Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I, who longed for the day when Catholics and Orthodox would gather around the one table of the Lord and drink together from the one chalice of salvation. Our visit was one more step towards the moment when the dream of Athenagoras will become a reality.

Our first meeting took place within the peace-filled walls of the patriarchal monastery of Balikli. Before meeting our host we gathered to pray in the cemetery of the Patriarchs and in particular at the grave of the Patriarch Athenagoras. After a short period of silence, a very moving text was read out to the group of seminarians from twenty countries. The text was from the writings of Athenagoras where he wrote: “I no longer fear anything because love casts out fear. I am disarmed of the desire to be right, to justify myself by disqualifying others. I am no longer on the defensive, jealously closed in on my own wealth. I accept and I share.” This was to become the leitmotif of our time in Istanbul, a period of genuine re-discovery of the riches of the Orthodox Church. The monastery’s guardian, the Metropolitan Gennadios of Sasim, reminded us of the Orthodox emphasis on the transfiguration of humanity and the whole cosmos through the death and resurrection of Christ - the saving event which divinised all of creation. A lively dialogue ensued during that the Metropolitan expressed very clearly the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision to overcome the difficulties that have curbed theological dialogue with the Catholic Church in recent times.

Our next port of call was the residence of the Patriarchal Vicar of the Syro-Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Filiksinos Yusuf Çetin. His Eminence resides in Taksim, the traffic-beating heart of modern Istanbul. The Syro-Orthodox Church of Turkey is attached to the Patriarchate of Antioch. During our meeting we felt immersed in the venerable tradition of the ancient See of Antioch where, as the Acts of the Apostles informs us, Jesus’ disciples were first called Christians. The Metropolitan’s openness to ecumenism was stressed by these words: “We all believe in the same Lord. We believe in the same Church, one and apostolic. We believe in the same cross.” His delight at the dialogue that followed his talk to us was evident. “I will always have this picture before me” - he said, looking at the group of future priests from so many nations – “it reminds me of Pentecost.”

On our third full day in Constantinople the group went to visit the once ‘greatest Church in Christendom’ – the Haghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). The present structure, built on the earlier site of a smaller basilica, was constructed by the Emperor Justinian who had ordered that a temple be constructed ‘like nothing that has been seen since the day of Adam or that will be seen in the future.’ He certainly got his wish and when the basilica was finally dedicated in 537 A.D. it was the largest and most beautiful Church in Christendom. It is an awe-inspiring sight of enormous proportions which lift the eye and the heart to heaven. So impressed was the Emperor during the dedication festivities that he drove his chariot into the building and proclaimed that he had surpassed Solomon in building a temple fit for the worship of God. Of course it is no longer a place of Christian worship. Like the majority of other great Constantinopolitan churches, it was transformed into a mosque and in more recent times a museum. However vestiges of its Christian past remain. The most notable image which has survived is that of the Theotokos, the Mother of God. Above and beyond the centuries of disaster, (including the bull of excommunication being placed on the altar of Haghia Sophia by Cardinal Humbertus di Silva Candida in 1054), up in the apse on a golden background the mosaic of the Mother of God watches over all. She continues to show her son Jesus to every one who passes beneath the great cupola as the promise of a future full of hope.

On that same day we had the unusual privilege of gaining access to the Basilica of Haghia Eirene (Holy Peace) which is normally closed to visitors. This is the Church where in 381 A.D. the Fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council clarified the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and so completed the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that still expresses the central nucleus of the Christian faith.

On our fourth day we left the continent of Europe and crossed over into the Asian part of Turkey for the purpose of visiting the town of Nicea. Here we visited another church dedicated to Holy Wisdom near the site of the First General Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. This was the great council that defined the Creed we still hold to this day. It was a truly humbling experience to stand in the same spot where almost seventeen hundred years earlier the Church Fathers had fought so hard to clarify the faith handed on to them from the Apostles.

On the following day, the Lord’s Day, it was fitting that we should visit the heart of the Orthodox Church which is the Ecumenical Patriarchate situated at the Phanar. We were there to participate in the Divine Liturgy presided over by His Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Because Turkey is a secular state which avows the philosophy of its founder Ataturk, the buildings of the Phanar, and especially the Cathedral of St. George, lie behind high outer walls. The Liturgy lasted for almost three hours and the crowds (mostly Orthodox visitors from abroad) in attendance were too large for the Church that houses the throne of the first Patriarch, St. John Chrysostom. At the end of the Liturgy His Holiness distributed blessed bread to those present and this was the opportunity for our first informal greeting.

That afternoon at the Phanar there was a dialogue meeting with Deacon Maximos who is completing a doctoral thesis in London on the theme of the primacy of the Pope in the teachings of the First and Second Vatican Councils. The intense dialogue which followed concluded that the future of both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches will be immensely richer because of the growth of our unity in diversity.

The following morning in the already blazing heat the group boarded a boat at the port of Eminönü which took us across the Sea of Marmara to Halki Island, one of the famous Princes’ Islands, on which is situated the monastery of Haghia Triada (Holy Trinity). This was the venue for our informal meeting with His Holiness, Patriarch Bartholomew I. The Patriarch, who arrived earlier than expected, told us that we “should feel at home.” In an unscripted speech he said: “I simply want to express our sincere satisfaction, our true joy in having here fifty Italian, German, French, Irish, South American, African and Asian seminarians … from all the oikumene, seminarians who belong to our Focolare movement, so beloved and appreciated.”

The Patriarch expressed his conviction to us that after a slowing down in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue in recent years, “now there is a new hope.” He concluded: “Unfortunately, we still cannot celebrate and have communion from the same chalice but we work and pray for this. As Athenagoras used to say, that ‘great and glorious day’ will come.” The day continued with a festive lunch, hosted by the Patriarch and afterwards we visited the monastery which for 120 years was the Theological Academy of the Patriarchate. It ceased to function as such in 1971 on account of changes in Turkish legislation. It has a large library full of ancient manuscripts and its classrooms stand ready for the much hoped for re-opening.

This memorable day concluded with vespers presided over by the Patriarch. In an unexpected and much appreciated change in format, His Holiness switched from the usual Greek at the moment of the Our Father and the assembly prayed the Pater Noster together in Latin. Finally, in saying farewell the Patriarch said: “We must repeat these meetings in order to get to know each other better, to love one another more so that we can journey, work and pray together for that great and glorious day that we all look forward to.” It is difficult to describe the emotions we felt upon meeting this Spiritual Head of the Orthodox world and finding him so open to dialogue and so loving in attitude and bearing. As we left we were all unanimous in our comment: “We really felt at home.”

Two days later we had another privileged encounter with one of the Eastern Churches in the person of His Beatitude Mesrob Mutafyan, Patriarch of the Armenian Church in Constantinople and all of Turkey. This young and energetic Church leader spent over two hours with us, answering our questions and telling us of the history of the bitterly persecuted Armenian Church in Turkey. Like the Greek Orthodox Church, their numbers have been dwindling in recent decades. He spoke in perfect English with a definite hint of an American accent. He told us that although the Armenians only accept the first three councils as being truly ecumenical, they do believe in Jesus Christ as true God and true man. He painted a picture for us of a community anchored in her very ancient tradition, (Armenia was the first kingdom to accept Christianity and was therefore, the first Christian country), and is searching for new ways to pursue the Christian mission in changed circumstances.

There is also a small Catholic presence in Istanbul. We ourselves stayed in the Dominican Convent near the Galata Tower and we had the opportunity to meet Fr. David Vezoli, the secretary of the Turkish Episcopal Conference. Fr. Vezoli told us that because of the exodus of so many Christians in recent decades, new forms of witness are necessary today. In the past pastoral ministry was concentrated on the large numbers of non-nationals resident in Istanbul but today that ministry focuses more and more on dialogue with Turkish society and people. The small but vibrant community of Christians in Istanbul is looking to the future with confidence in the providential hand of God. A concluding celebration at the Focolare Centre attended by both Catholic and Orthodox proved this to us at first hand.

Our final two days afforded us the opportunity to learn more about the religion of the vast majority of the citizens of our host city – that is, Islam. To that end we visited the fabulous Topkapi Palace, home of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. We also spent time in the exquisitely ornate Sülemaniye Mosque that towers over the banks of the Bosphorus. Both visits were guided by an Italian woman named Emmaus who had spent many years in Istanbul living in the Focolare community there. Together with Şermin, a well-known Turkish sculptress who is a Muslim friend of the Movement she gave us a rapid but substantial introduction to the life of Islam and to the world of interreligious dialogue which was truly fascinating.

The ten days I spent in Istanbul in the midst of the humidity and oppressive heat of mid-summer were among the happiest and most memorable of my life. The irony of this reality was not lost on us. To us it proved the perennial Christian truth that it is where the Body of Christ suffers most that we find the greatest amount of life and hope. Thus the Christians of Constantinople today live within the resounding echo of the great event of the cross. Our encounter with them was a unique opportunity to place our ear on the heart of the Eastern Churches and the strong beat we heard there affirmed for us that there is more to unite than to divide us and the growth of our unity in diversity is a mutual enrichment that speeds us towards the day when the prayer of Christ will finally be answered: “May they all be one.” (Jn 17:21)

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