KOLYMBARI (Chania, Crete), Greece – The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church convened June 20, at the Orthodox Academy of Crete after almost 1,000 years since the last such gathering and despite the decision of four Churches not to participate. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presided with 10 Autocephalous Churches present. In addition to His All-Holiness, the following nine Primates of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches and their respective delegations participated: Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria and All Africa, Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem, Patriarch Daniel of Romania, Patriarch Irinej of Serbia, Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus, Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and all Greece, Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania, Metropolitan Sawa of Warsaw and All Poland, Archbishop Rastislav of Czech Lands and Slovakia. Absent from the Council were Patriarchs John of Antioch, Kirill of Moscow, Neophyte of Bulgaria and Ilia of Georgia, primates of their respective autocephalous churches.
In his introductory address, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew expressed his regret and pain for the absences of the sister Churches of Antioch, Russia, Bulgaria and Georgia, “an unpleasant surprise on the twelfth hour,” he said. The Ecumenical Patriarch also said that even though they had sent the lists of their delegations and had fully participated in all the phases of preparation and therefore had every opportunity to put forth for discussion all the issues before they had agreed and signed, they are now using these issues as an excuse for their abstention. “This unprecedented attitude, he said, we are having trouble understanding.” His All-Holiness noted that “by striking at our unity we are striking ourselves.” He emphasized that none of us, none of our Churches can exist in isolation from the rest of the Orthodox Churches. We, Orthodox Christians, are not and should not behave as a federation of Churches. We are one Church, one body and we should resolve all our possible differences in the Synod. This is what we have received from our holy tradition and to that we should adhere to, said the Ecumenical Patriarch.
Speaking about the question of how the abstentions of the four Churches might affect the work of the Holy and Great Council, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said, that in the long history of the Church, there were instances of intended or unintended absences of some members in convened local or ecumenical synods, but that did not at all impede the convening of those councils. The decision to convene the Holy and Great Council was Pan-Orthodox, said His All-Holiness, and it can and will go on with its work.
At the same first session of the Council, the Primates of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches, in turn, addressed greetings to the Council, unanimously expressing their joy and support for being present at this historic event. They reaffirmed their commitment to work together in unity to address the questions facing the Church in the contemporary world and to deepen co-operation in the future. Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus acknowledged the need for regular councils bringing together hierarchs from around the world in order to develop a common response to pressing issues, including bio-ethical and environmental dilemmas. Addressing the mission of the Church in the world, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania underscored the need for repentance, while Archbishop Rastislav of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, emphasized the fact that, in spite of their ethnic differences, Orthodox Christians are one people.
Crete, the people, the island and the Church of Crete welcomed warmly, first Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on his arrival June 15 at Chania International Airport and subsequently the Primates of the other Churches and their delegations. “Crete welcomes you, Your All-Holiness, offering its aromatic herbs dictamnus and thyme, prays for the unity of Orthodoxy and asks for your blessing,” said a verse of the traditional Cretan song, adapted for the welcoming occasion. Responding to the welcome, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew praised the Cretan hospitality, geniality and nobility and said that Crete welcomes and embraces all Orthodox including those who decided not to come.
Welcoming the dignitaries were Archbishop Eirinaios of Crete, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece Yiannis Amanatidis, Gov. Stavros Arnaoutakis of Crete, Chief of Protocol Ambassador Aghi Balta, high-ranking officers of the police, the armed forces, local officials and clergy. The Ecumenical Patriarch upon his arrival expressed his “joy of fulfillment of our historical mission” and urged the Orthodox Church across the world to join him.
The Holy and Great Council, said His-All Holiness, is ‘our sacred mission.’ “Although the joy of the historic events are clouded by the decision of some churches not to attend, “the responsibility for their decision lies with those same churches and their Primates.” The Ecumenical Patriarchate continued, “Just five months ago, at the Synaxis of the Orthodox Primates in Geneva, we made a decision and put our signatures, that we should come to Crete in June and realize this vision held over many years, which all our churches cherish, to declare and proclaim the unity of our Orthodox Church, and to examine and reach a common resolution of the problems that are of concern to the Orthodox world.”
Upon the arrival of the Primates, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece Nikos Kotzias hosted a welcome dinner for them June 16 at the Nautical Museum of Crete in Chania. Mr. Kotzias assured his guests that “The Hellenic State will contribute in every way, focused on unity and love, for the caring of the people and the cooperation of the Orthodox Churches, all the churches and secular people.” “The Orthodox Church is the ark of the pure Christian tradition that offers support and consolation, because Orthodoxy managed to maintain even today…the mystical experience and the experience of personal communion with the personal God despite the explosive technological and scientific evolution,” said His All-Holiness in response. He added, “the Holy and Great Council is of great importance, because it shall offer the opportunity for the unified voice of Orthodoxy to be expressed and shall deliver a single message of true faith, real hope and peaceful reconciliation to our world that is in conflict.”
Sunday of Pentecost
Coincidentally, June 19 was the date that the First Ecumenical Council met in Nicaea in 325 AD. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew noted the fact that, as on June 19, 2016, the Holy and Great Council of 2016 AD commenced with the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy concelebration of the Holy Feast of Pentecost - calling all in unity. His All-Holiness posed the question: Coincidence or divine providence? Many bishops who participated in the Council answered unequivocally they felt it was God’s will and felt the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
His All-Holiness presided over the concelebration of Pentecost with the Primates of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches at the Cathedral of St. Menas in Heraklion, Crete’s largest city and capital. President of the Hellenic Republic Prokopis Pavlopoulos, along with many other dignitaries and officials, were in prayerful attendance. “A joyful day has now dawned,” said the Ecumenical Patriarch, at the opening of his Homily and said “today is a day of unity, as we are all united in the faith and the sacraments of our Church,” adding, “the unity of the Orthodox Church and its faithful represents our mission. Our ecclesial unity does not take on the form of a federation, nor does it stem from the congregating around some mere human. It proceeds from and is made complete by our common faith, which is synonymous with salvation, with eternal life.”
Following the Divine Liturgy and the Vespers of the Holy Spirit, Archbishop Eirinaios of Crete hosted a reception at the offices of the Archdiocese of Crete. The same day, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, at an official luncheon hosted for the Council by the President of the Hellenic Republic Prokopis Pavlopoulos, thanked the beloved people of Greece for their prayerful presence and support to the work of the Holy and Great Council, promising that Orthodoxy shall fulfill her historic duty and responsibility. “Orthodoxy constitutes a real and permanent place of peaceful coexistence and stability in the modern – torn – world, a true source of peace for all people. The word of the Orthodox Church is essential, because it proclaims the necessity of charity, love, and unity of mankind, as well as, the necessity of peaceful cooperation between the peoples of the earth, regardless of the religious faith of each,” said His All-Holiness.
President Pavlopoulos, welcomed the convening of the Holy and Great Council in Crete, and called the Synodical System, “the irreplaceable guarantee of the unity of the Orthodox Church.” He also said the mission of the Holy and Great Council acquires universal dimensions, “since Christianity, with Orthodoxy as its epicenter, is called to defend besides everything else, the principles and values of European culture and western civilization in general, with emphasis on those of peace, democracy, freedom and justice.”
Open and honest deliberations In the six days the Holy and Great Council was in session, it considered and deliberated on the six Pre-Conciliar Documents in the agenda. It was said that the coming together in Council is the only way to prevent differences from escalating into divisions. This coming together was extraordinary in itself. The Primates and individual Hierarchs proposed various suggestions and clarifications and extensive discussion on the pre-conciliar texts took place. “The Council was a great achievement. It was an experience of absolute freedom of expression of views and opinions without limits or hindrances of any kind. It was an honest and open discussion on very difficult and complex issues and relentless and merciless work on the pre-Conciliar texts”, said Archbishop Demetrios about the Synod’s work.
His Eminence also emphasized the manner in which Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presided at the Synod; “It was a great achievement mainly because of the grace of God, but also due to the exquisite, attentive and elegant way, with which our Ecumenical Patriarch fostered an atmosphere of freedom and unity. He did not interrupt any speaker and in many instances gave the floor to the same speaker two or three times. He had the patience to listen and the intelligence and agility to intervene, explain and provide true information.” Archbishop Demetrios led a contingent of eight hierarchs from the United States, as members of the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and in addition to the Archbishop included: Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver (GOA), Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta (GOA), Metropolitan Nikitas of the Dardanelles (director of Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute), Metropolitan Nicholas of Detroit (GOA), Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco (GOA), Most Rev. Metropolitan Antony of Ierapolis, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox in the USA, and Bishop Gregory of Nyssa, head of the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox in the USA.
The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church concluded its deliberations on June 25. Sunday of All Saints, June 26, in the Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul in Chania, the Primates, together in unity, concelebrated their second hierarchal and patriarchal Divine Liturgy and issued the Council’s Official Message, read at the end of the Liturgy. “No other Council proved as global,” said Archdeacon Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, who served as the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s spokesman, as he discussed the importance of hierarchs meeting and their facing and talking with each other. “No other Council in the history of our Church generated as much attention around the Orthodox world, but also around the world in general,” he continued noting that everyone became involved one way or another, even those who disagreed and fought the convening of the Council.
Archbishop Demetrios concludes in a statement after the completion of the Council: “It became apparent now that this is the first of a series of Councils, which will follow. The completion of this Synod confirms the ecclesiological truth that the Orthodox Church is synodal, it is conciliar. The Church is thinking, deciding and acting on a conciliar basis rather than in an authoritarian manner.” “Conciliarity is the door and the way to unity and this door, said Fr. Chryssavgis, has been opened and the way has been paved, leading to a new era of Pan-Orthodox cooperation and a new chapter in modern Church history.”