“We turned a new page in history, a new chapter in the contemporary history of our Church.” With these words the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I concluded the works of the “Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church.” In five days (from Monday June 20 to Saturday June 25) of intensive work some 290 delegates, representing 10 Orthodox Churches, broadly discussed and amended 6 documents on the agenda and published an Encyclical and a Message “To the Orthodox people and to all people of good will.”
Not everything was easy, also given the complex themes addressed, along with the consequential absence of the Churches of Russia, Bulgaria, Georgia and Antioch, which, at the last moment, announced they wouldn’t participate in the Council. However –Patriarch Bartholomew promptly added – “once back home we can confidently state that we have once again borne witness to our unity in Christ”.
“We are one indivisible Church”, “we have experienced the joy of unity in our diversity.”
It was obviously a closed-door meeting. Every afternoon, at 15:30, the spokespersons of the different patriarchates and Churches reported to journalists on the state of the debates. The Council fathers worked on six preparatory documents. These are: the mission of the Church in the contemporary world; the pastoral care of Orthodox living outside their church’s traditional homeland; how the autonomy of new Orthodox churches is determined; the importance of fasting; the relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world, the rules on marriage celebration. Intensive work on amendments and last-minute revisions were ongoing until the end of the meeting.
But more important than the final deliberations, the Council has been a “meeting opportunity” of fundamental importance.
Patriarch Bartholomew – journalists were told – did all he could to ensure that the meeting took place, and he strongly wanted all those present to share their views.
The various Orthodox Churches met in a Council for the first time after 1200 years. The atmosphere was marked by ‘”mutual listening”, “cooperation”, “brotherly love” since the very start.
Fifteen observers of Christian Churches were invited to follow the works of the Council as observers: representatives of the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation, along with ecumenical bodies such as the Conference of European Churches and the Council of Churches of the Middle East. For the Holy See were present in Crete the president and general secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, Cardinal Koch and Msgr. Farrell. They could participate only in the two opening and closing sessions of the Council and
the Patriarch at the end thanked them for “their patience”, for their presence, and for the “sincere interest” with which they followed all the works of the Assembly.
A final Message and an Encyclical were released at the end of the Council. These are the fruit of the creative and constructive efforts of the leader of the Orthodox Churches to interpret the ever-complex historical pages of our times. Both texts are beautiful and intelligible, rich with references to the urgent problems of contemporary societies such as fundamentalism, the persecution of Christians and religious minorities, the reception of refugees.
A powerful appeal was made to the international community to make systematic efforts to “end military conflicts” in the Middle East;
and while waiting for the establishment of peace in the region, the Churches called upon public authorities, civil society and Orthodox Christians in the Countries of arrival of persecuted refugees to continue offering their support within their limits and beyond.” The document equally mentions the latest scientific developments, the environmental crisis, the family, and politics.
“The Holy and Great Council has opened our horizon towards the contemporary diverse and multifarious world”, the Message states. “The Orthodox Church is sensitive to the pain, the distress and the cry for justice and peace of the peoples of the world.”
Thus Crete ushers in a new beginning. The Orthodox Churches have a patrimony that has always been waiting to be shared with the rest of the world. In the past days they demonstrated that this can only happen through unity and mutual understanding. However, if they keep being stuck in past divisions and territorial defence their message will be watered down, perceived as dated and as lacking credibility. In Crete it was decided to hold the Council every 7 – 10 years. It is hoped that in this period of time t
he Churches of Russia, Antioch, Georgia and Bulgaria will let themselves be conquered by this spirit of communion and that they will also decide to go down in history.