Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

Patriarcat oecuménique de Constantinople
Ikumenikon Patriarhion

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Circa 300, the Ecumenical Patriarchs tracing their origins, according to the sacred tradition, back to St Andrew, the first-called the Apostle, who arrived in Byzantium (subsequently Constantinople) in 36 AD and is considered as the Founder of that Church. Nevertheless, from written sources it is not possible to ascertain the exact year in which Christianity was preached in Byzantium. For the sake of convenience, the history of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople may be divided into 5 broad periods: (1) From 300 to 843 - the founding of Constantinople, to the end of the Iconoclastic struggle, climaxing in the triumph of Orthodoxy in 843. (2) 843 to 1261 - the triumph of the Orthodoxy, to the fall of Constantinople to the Latins, during the Fourth Crusade of 1204, followed by the Latin occupation of Constantinople. (3) 1261 to 1453 - the recovery of Constantinople by the Byzantine Emperor Michael Paleologos, to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. (4) 1453 to 1833 - from the beginning of 'Turkokratia' (Turkish subjugation), to the beginning of the Greek War of Independence (1821) when the Church of Greece declared its autonomy from the Patriarchate and established the autocephalous Church of Greece (1833). (5) Following 1833, there is a new phase of the Ecumenical Patriarchate until the present day.

The early organization of the Church followed the concept of Apostolic ranking so that by the 5th century the great Christian centres were five: Rome in the West, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem in the East. Because of the Arab conquest, by the 8th century, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem diminished in importance. Primacy over the Orthodox East inevitably passed to the capital city, Constantinople. The presence of those other Patriarchates, however, continued to be represented in Constantinople by delegates who were part of the 'Synodos Endemousa' or Synodical Council. This Council dealt with ecclesiastical questions which arose from the various centres of Christendom. The concept of 'Pentarchy' (the five great centres of Christendom) was firmly established by the 8th century when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian drafted his law codes in civil-ecclesiastical matters, also known as 'Nomocanones'. The Ecumenical Patriarch and his canonical jurisdiction extended not only over the entire Byzantine Empire, but even beyond, to the lands where he had sent missionaries in order to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Because of its leading historical role, notably in the formation of Christian dogma and institutions, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, 'Primus Inter Pares', expanded its pastoral activities in other Patriarchates and Dioceses, settling local problems of administrative and disciplinary nature, always with the approval from the other sister Patriarchates. It is for this reason that the 4th Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), giving a definite shape to the organization of the Church of Constantinople, not only confirmed the Patriarchal rank as second to that of Rome, but also granted him the right to consecrate the bishops of "barbaric" nations, by extension, to the present day, bishops of the 'Orthodox Diaspora', or loosely translated, "colonies" of the Orthodox Christians. In the 6th century, the Patriarchate of Constantinople was named 'Ecumenical Patriarchate'.

In the 9th century, Photios the Great (857-867), who was considered the greatest of all Patriarchs, was responsible for the codification of canon law, a new legal code, and for the conversion of Slavs. He dispatched two Greek missionaries, Cyril and Methodios, to preach among Slavs to convert them and to translate the Greek Liturgy into Slavonic. Photios became a great problem for Rome and therefore was declared a heretic by the Western Church since he argued that the Pope of Rome did not have any jurisdiction over the Patriarchs of the East. He was anathematized at the altar of St Peter's by Pope John VIII. In the 11th century, during the Norman conquest of Sicily, they attempted to impose the Pope's jurisdiction over the Byzantine Christians there. Patriarch Michael Cerularios protested the papal intervention in Sicily and this and a series of other events led to the anathema and schism of 1054. In the summer of 1054 a papal delegation deposited a Bull of Excommunication on the altar of St Sophia Church against 'Michael and his followers'. Thus began the great breach between Eastern and Western Christianity which continued to the present day.

One of the great chapters in the history of the Ecumenical Patriarchate during the 'Turkokratia' deals with the subject of how the Greek Orthodox faithful, led by the Patriarch of Constantinople and, by extension, by local parish priests, preserved the Greek (ethnos) and Church (ecclesia) during periods of subjugation and cultural stagnation. This could be achieved since a precedence had existed in the Byzantine period which always conceived the Ethos and Ecclesia as working together so that the cultural heritage along with the Liturgical and Ecclesiastical tradition would be kept intact. Following the Greek War of Independence, and, in particular, following 1833, because of tensions between the governments of Greece and of the Ottoman Empire, the Church of Greece declared itself autocephalous (independent) from the Ecumenical Patriarchate while still remaining as a Daughter Church (in a spiritual and traditional sense) of the Mother Church at the Phanar (Constantinople). This 'spiritual' affinity continues to exist with all the Orthodox Churches throughout the world.

It is for this reason that the Ecumenical Patriarchate also became a leader in the emerging world-wide ecumenical movement. In 1902 an encyclical emanating from the Ecumenical Patriarchate was addressed to the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Jerusalem and the Heads of the autocephalous Churches of Cyprus, Russia, Greece, Romania and Montenegro which dealt with the 'Matter concerning our present and future relations with the two great bodies of Christianity, ie Roman Catholic and that of the Protestant, and the desired union in the present and the future with them, including the Old Catholics'. Later in 1920, another encyclical was issued by the Patriarchate, which is considered the first official Church document proposing the creation of a League of Churches, such as the one which finally came into being through the formation of the World Council of Churches, 1948, Amsterdam (Netherlands). Also, between 1920 and 1945, the Mother Church of all Orthodoxy recognized the independence of the Serbian Orthodox and Romanian Orthodox Patriarchates. The recognition of the independent Albanian Orthodox Church followed and the schism of the Bulgarian Church was healed when it was recognized in 1945 as a Patriarchate. In 1922 the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America was organized. Between 1960 and 1970, the Ecumenical Patriarchate initiated three important pan-Orthodox conferences (1960, 1963, 1964) preparing the ground for a world-wide Orthodox Synod. F-XM5103 - Holy and Great Council, gathering most of the Orthodox churches, met for the first time, Jun 2016.

In 1964, Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI met in Jerusalem for the first meeting of Pope and Patriarch for over half a millennium. The result was the mutual annulment in both Rome and Constantinople, 7 Dec 1965, of the historic, mutual excommunication of 1054. The steps taken by Athenagoras also brought together various Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, such as Copts of Egypt (termed as monophysites), the Jacobites, the Armenian, and others. During the tenure of Patriarch Demetrios I, elected in Jul 1972, in addition to many trips that he has taken to sister Churches, two events were of utmost importance. The first was the visit of Dimitrios and members of the Holy Synod in 1987 to Rome in order to continue the ecumenical encounter between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, for the second time after 900 years of division. The Patriarch also visited the Archbishop of Canterbury following the Rome visit. The second was the consecration and dedication of the new Patriarchal building which had been burned down by fire in 1941. At this occasion, 17 Dec 1989, heads of international religious, cultural and civic organizations and denominations came together in order to give witness and testimony to the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the World Orthodoxy. The Patriarch Bartholomew was elected in Oct 1991 as the 270th Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople - and invested with the ecclesiastical title 'Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch, by the Grace of God' - by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

After the fall of Constantinople many treaties have been formulated within the international community with a view to protect the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Some of these treaties were: Treaty of Kutschuk-Kainardji, of Jul 16, 1774; Law of Hatt-I Humayun, of February 18, 1856; Treaty of Berlin, Jul 13, 1878; Treaty of Sèvres, August 10, 1920; Treaty of Lausanne, 1922.


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The Ecumenical Patriarchate, or the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, is also referred to as the Great Church of Christ. It is the spiritual centre of the great Orthodox Christian Church worldwide and the official headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarch, the highest spiritual authority of Orthodoxy, first among equals, of all the other Orthodox Patriarchs. The mission of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is to bear witness to the mystery of Orthodox unity. Its primacy among the Orthodox is a "primacy of service" and never one of authority over the other Orthodox churches. The term Eastern Orthodox Churches relates to three main groups: (a) Orthodox, composed of the patriarchates and churches mentioned under 'Members' (see below), which recognize each other and are recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who is considered the keeper of the 'canons' of Orthodoxy; (b) Churches which have authentic Orthodox roots and adhere to Orthodox doctrine but which are historically estranged; (c) Ancient Oriental Orthodox, commonly referred to in the past as Monophysite (Copts, Nestorians, etc). U-XE2923 - Commission orthodoxe européenne represents the Patriarchate with the institutions of the European Union and the Council of Europe.


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