Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon: A Theological Pioneer Who Has Left His Mark on Our Archdiocese and School

Photo: Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon in 1993.  Credit: Peter WIlliams/WCC


Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon: A Theological Pioneer Who Has Left His Mark on Our Archdiocese and School

By Fr. Philip Zymaris

The renowned Orthodox theologian and churchman of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, who taught at Holy Cross in the 60s, passed away on February 2, 2023, the feast of the Meeting of our Lord.

When Holy Cross students of my generation studied here at Holy Cross in the 80s and 90s, Metropolitan John’s great book, Being as Communion, was required reading for our Dogmatic Theology class taught by Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis.  Professor Clapsis, who knew Zizioulas well, initiated us into the profundity of Orthodox theology through his works. It goes without saying that his name already had a legendary ring to it for us. When providence had it that he became my mentor and major professor for my dissertation in Thessaloniki, it was something of a surreal experience for me.  However, despite his position as Metropolitan of the Ecumenical throne, his accomplishments and international renown - he, more than anyone else in the 20th - 21st centuries, has brought Orthodox theology to the international scene -  his pastoral sensibility, humility and attention to the needs of his students was striking. 

Born in Katafygio, a remote mountain village near Kozani, Greece, he finished his elementary and secondary education there and began his theological studies at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the University of Athens. After graduation he did graduate work at the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches at Bossey, Switzerland.  This was followed by more graduate studies at Harvard where he studied under Paul Tillich and Fr. Georges Florovsky - another renowned theologian who once taught at our school. He did much of the research that led to the theology that has made him famous when, as a fellow at Harvard’s Center for Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, he was able to do research in its fabulous library.  It was at this time that Zizioulas also taught at both St. Vladimir’s (1961 - 1963) and Holy Cross (1963 - 1964). His doctoral dissertation, defended in Athens in 1965, Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop During the First Three Centuries, received critical acclaim and has since become a classic in ecclesiology. It has become available to the worldwide audience thanks to Holy Cross Orthodox Press’ English translation and publication in 2001.  After the publication of his Greek dissertation in 1967, he became a research associate at the University of Athens.  Well aware of the theological significance of current events, Zizioulas did not shy from involvement in public discussion. At the outset of the dictatorship in Greece, he wrote an article in the newspaper Kathemerine criticizing the Junta’s arbitrary intervention in ecclesiastical affairs that violated important theological principles.  Because of this he was compelled to leave Greece, a blessing in disguise, because this fostered the dissemination of his work internationally. At the suggestion of another great theologian, Nikos Nisiotes, he was then appointed Assistant Secretary of the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches from 1967 - 1970. 

In the 70s he taught Dogmatic Theology at the University of Edinburgh and Glasgow.  His dream, however, was to return to Greece, and in 1984 he was appointed professor of Dogmatic and Systematic Theology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, a position he held until his retirement in1998.  In 1986, due to the desire of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to have a theological consultant and representative with worldwide clout, according to ancient practice, as in the case of Ss. Tarasios and Photios, Zizioulas was ordained for one day a deacon, the next day a priest, and finally, on the third day (June 17), he was ordained and enthroned as the Metropolitan of Pergamon. He immediately represented the Ecumenical Patriarchate at pan-Orthodox and pan-Christian forums and ecumenical dialogues. From 1989 he also taught at King’s College, London.  He was visiting professor at the Theological School of Balamand, Lebanon, the University of Geneva, the Gregorian College of Rome, and many other universities.  In 1993 he became a member of the Academy of Athens, the highest academic post in Greece, and, in 2003, he became the only clergyman ever to be the president of this academy. In the year 2000 he was appointed the first director of the newly founded Office of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Athens, and, in 2011, he was appointed as fellow at the Academy of Theological Studies in Volos.   

Very important from an international point of view was his role in ecological matters. He proposed at a conference on Patmos in 1988 that September 1 be dedicated as a day of prayer for the protection and preservation of the natural environment.  This proposal was thereafter adopted by the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches, as well as the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches.  His profound theology of creation is expounded in three groundbreaking lectures given at King’s College, London and later published in King’s Theological Review (Vol. 12 and 13, 1989 - 1990), which is presently required reading for our students at Holy Cross.  Starting in 1995, as co-chair of the Religion and Science Committee of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, he initiated a series of international, interfaith, and interdisciplinary symposia on the environment that took place on ships sailing major seas and rivers to raise awareness of the ecological crisis.  All this activity led to the now internationally acknowledged role of the Ecumenical Patriarch as the “Green Patriarch.”  Related to these activities, Metropolitan Zizioulas also served as president of the Inter-Orthodox Committee on the Protection of the Environment and as president of the Inter-Orthodox Committee on Bioethics. 

After his doctoral dissertation on the unity of the Church, Metropolitan John authored many books and articles. One of the highlights of his huge oeuvre would be Being as Communion (1985), mentioned above, which is considered by many to be the most significant theological work of the late 20th century. The article “From Mask to Person,” included in chapter one of this book, is surely a classic in the theology of the person.  This was followed by many others, including Communion and Otherness (2006), which deepens the dialogue between Orthodox and Western theology. His yet-to-be-seen magnum opus on eschatology, most of which had been finished prior to his death, Remembering the Future: An Eschatological Ontology, thankfully will be published posthumously. 

More than 200 dissertations and books have been written on his work.  Highlights of this unique genre would include Paul McPartlans The Eucharist Makes the Church (1993), which projects Zizioulas as the foremost Orthodox theologian in the world and sets up a dialogue with Henri De Lubac, considered to be the foremost Roman Catholic.  Another well-known work, which is connected to our school, is Being With God (2006), by Aristotle Papanikolaou, a graduate of Holy Cross and co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.

So many things can be said about his theological contribution, which has truly changed the way we do theology today.  The depth of his thought and creative writing style facilitated the effortless spreading of his work across confessional lines. His work on the structure of the Church was instrumental in making the 20th century the so-called “century of ecclesiology.” He showed how the Eucharist, as the Body of Christ constitutes the basis not only for the catholicity of every local Church, but also for the unity of local Churches on a worldwide basis.  In all his works he cogently presents the unity of the Church around the Eucharist and the bishop, as well as the pneumatological/eschatological orientation of the Orthodox Church. His articulation of the theology of the person is also an unsurpassed contribution to today’s theology.  For Zizioulas the development of the theology of the person by the Cappadocian Fathers is their most valuable contribution to today’s search for an authentic self, and he re-gifted this precious inheritance to us today through his lucid articulation of this theology in modern terms.  His work also emphasized the anthropological and existential ramifications of biblical and patristic theology, and it generated a fertile dialogue between theology, philosophy and science. 

His accomplishments as representative to the Ecumenical Patriarchate are also difficult to list for their number.  A major contribution was his role as president of the 4th and 5th Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar consultations held in Chambésy (Geneva) as preparation for the Holy and Great Council which convened in Crete in 2016. His work at these consultations brings us to yet another connection with our school.  As is evident from a well-known picture (taken either 2009 or 2010) with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Metropolitan Zizioulas worked at these meetings with Holy Cross Professor of Church History Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald.  

Despite all these accomplishments he was beloved by those who were blessed to know him as a friend and mentor due to his accessibility, profound humility and pastoral sensitivity. I can speak for myself and others who experienced his teaching style and attention to the needs of his students during the 80s and 90s in Thessaloniki. He truly saw his teaching responsibilities as a holy ministry.  Despite the fact that he lived in Athens, he flew faithfully and conscientiously to Thessaloniki every Wednesday to give his theological lectures. His lectures were packed because, besides the theology students present, many people who had nothing to do with theology or even the university would drive from as far as Katerini to listen to his lectures.  He welcomed them all, and they all left somehow affected by what they had heard.  Despite his lofty responsibilities and busy schedule, he always had time for his students.  I had the honor to pick him up at Thessaloniki airport multiple times and even visited him at his village in Katafygio. I will be eternally grateful for the theological discussions we had during these meetings and the time and care he took in guiding me through my dissertation.  At Katafygio I served a liturgy with him in a tiny chapel when I was a newly ordained deacon.  He gave a sermon that amazed me for the way he was able to express the same sophisticated theology found in his books to the villagers present in their own idiom. Not surprisingly, they all left the church with a transfigured glow in their faces. A friend from that era, Vaso Nevrokople, an author of children’s books from Thessaloniki, expresses well what we all felt when interacting with the Metropolitan: “The conference had just finished, most of the people had gone, and we were left. I greeted him and we spoke for only two minutes. That tiny slice of time, however, was tantamount to an eternity….we spoke as if we were friends for years, it was an unforgettable moment…..Great and important people might differ in many details, but they always have one thing in common: a  sense of wonderment and the simplicity of a small child.”

Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and our Archdiocese have been blessed to be influenced by his work in many unexpected ways, directly and indirectly.  May his work continue to enlighten us and may his memory be eternal!

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