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It was a special privilege for me to attend the formal publication of the green encyclical by Pope Francis on June 18, 2015. Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home was jointly released in the new synod hall of the Vatican by His Eminence Peter Cardinal Turkson of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and His Eminence Metropolitan John [Zizioulas] of Pergamon, a senior bishop and theological spokesman of the Church of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Theologians and environmentalists, politicians and pundits have interpreted the encyclical in numerous ways, often—as Cardinal Turkson would say—reading into the text more than even the drafters envisaged. However, I would like to offer some personal insights into the ecumenical context of this important papal statement, which is not just destined for the followers of the Catholic Church and indeed not even for Christians alone.

Communion: An Ecumenical Context

Permit me to tell you about a lesser known aspect of the papal encyclical; to offer a glimpse into a less obvious dimension of this document; to provide some insight into a very important relationship: namely, the connection between a pope and a patriarch.

Almost exactly one year ago, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew traveled together to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the historical visit there in 1964 by their predecessors, Paul VI and Athenagoras.

Next December marks another milestone, namely the fiftieth anniversary of what is known as “the lifting of the anathemas,” namely, the eradication (by the two same prelates, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras) from the memory of the Church of the tragic excommunications that led to the unfortunate estrangement between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches—the division between the Western and Eastern Churches known as the “great schism”—almost one thousand years ago in 1054.

Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras broke a long and painful silence of ten centuries in their vision and dedication to fulfill Christ’s final commandment and fervent prayer that His disciples “may be one” (John 17:21). For five hundred years, the leaders of our two churches had neither spoken to nor even communicated with one another. When Paul and Athenagoras met in Jerusalem, it was the first time that a Roman pontiff and an Eastern patriarch were meeting face-to-face since the Council of Florence in 1438.

More recently, when in March of 2013 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew personally attended the inaugural mass of Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square, it was the first time that the leader of either church had ever taken part in such an event.

And yesterday, June 29th, marked the patronal feast of the Church of Rome, where once again Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was officially represented at the Vatican by Metropolitan John of Pergamon for the solemn celebration of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Above and beyond the theological dialogue that commenced in 1980 on the island of revelation, Patmos, this tradition of formal exchanges between our two churches began in 1969.

What I would submit to you, therefore, by way of providing further background for the Papal Encyclical on Creation Care is that it has long been anticipated not only from an ecological perspective, but also in the context of ecumenical openness between two contemporary religious leaders, who are profoundly and steadfastly committed to restoring communion between their two churches—which Constantinople likes to characterize as “sister churches” and Rome is fond of describing as “two lungs breathing together.”

Compassion: An Ecological Context

If commitment to communion is what attracts Francis and Bartholomew to a joint witness in a world otherwise divided by political and economic tensions, as well as by religious and racial conflicts, responsibility for compassion is undoubtedly what impels them to a shared concern for the exploitation of people and of the planet as the body of Christ.

For twenty-five years, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has emphasized the spiritual dimension of the ecological crisis and even introduced the revolutionary concept of ecological sin by way of expanding our understanding of repentance from what we have hitherto considered an individual wrongdoing or social transgression to a much broader, communal, generational and even environmental abuse of God’s creation.

And since his election, the Pope assumed the name of St. Francis of Assisi as an unmistakable indication of his priority for and sensitivity to the marginalized, the vulnerable and the oppressed in our global community. This is why, in his recent encyclical, he prays: “O God, bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it. . . . Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor of the earth.”

Preserving and Serving

What the papal encyclical has reminded us so powerfully and permanently is that preserving nature and serving neighbor are inseparable; they are like two sides of the same coin.

In this regard, I believe that it is indeed providential that these two bishops are leading their respective churches at this critical moment in time. And it is also a unique blessing that they relate so comfortably and confidently with each other. There is no doubt in my mind that the favorable reception—but at the same time I would also venture to add: the adverse reaction to and harsh criticism—of their advancing and advocating for the care of God’s creation is arguably the greatest testimony and evidence that they are most definitely on the right track. For this reason alone, they deserve our prayer and praise, while their enlightened example and instruction deserve our attention and promulgation.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

John Chryssavgis is Archdeacon and theological advisor to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

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