The Ecumenical Patriarch is in town

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Orthodox Christian world, is visiting the U.S. and is spending the next few days in New York.

He arrived in New Orleans last Tuesday and has spent the last week talking about the environment, which has become the subject he is most identified with.

4030726836_4d581561dbHe came to New York on Sunday and last night presided over the Ninth Annual Orthodox Prayer Service for the United Nations Community at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral in Manhattan.

Tonight he will be honored by Fordham U at its Rose Hill campus in the Bronx.

Tomorrow, he’ll meet with Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, with Jewish leaders and with Bill Clinton, among others.

Then he’s off to Atlanta before a return to New York.

He was born Dimitrios Arhondonis in 1940 on the Island of Imvros (Gokceada) in Turkey and became ecumenical patriarch in 1991.

As EP, Bartholomew is considered the “first among equals” when it comes to the leaders of the various Orthodox churches. He is the symbolic head of Orthodox Christianity, but has little authority over any Orthodox church other than the Greek Orthodox Church.

I covered him when he came to New York in 1997 and spoke at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in Yonkers. Even then, he focused on the world’s “ecological crisis” and urged religious leaders to unite to save the environment.

At the time, he said: “Ecological crisis does not know borders. Neither should there be borders in our cooperation. . . . In our era, when the planet Earth is becoming a single village, prejudices ought to be resolved.”

Last night he said:

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4046124863_3268d8083dFirst, there is our fundamental conviction that it is our responsibility as human beings, as persons, to be stewards of God’s created order. The Greek term “oikonomos” –resonates beyond Orthodox Christianity. As “keepers/masters of our house—oikos”, we are all called to be sensitive to the greatest risk to the survival of our planet—namely, the dramatic changes in our climate, in our environment. Orthodox Christians understand the meaning of being stewards—oikonomoi—and we reach out our hands to you, diplomats and world leaders—to embrace the richness of this language, and to work together with all the Orthodox Christians around the world to set the example of respecting, nurturing, and preserving God’s created order.

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In the Wall Street Journal on Sunday, he wrote, in part:

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Last week, 200 leaders in the environmental movement gathered in New Orleans for the eighth ecological symposium organized by the Orthodox Christian Church. Participants included leading scientists and theologians, politicians and policy makers, business leaders and NGOs, environmentalists and journalists. Similar conferences have taken place on the Adriatic, Aegean, Baltic, and Black Seas, the Danube and Amazon Rivers, and the Arctic Ocean. This time we sailed the mighty Mississippi to consider its profound impact on the U.S. and its fate within the global environment.

It may seem out of character for a sacred institution to convene a conference on so secular an issue. After all, Jesus counseled us to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Climate change, pollution and the exploitation of our natural resources are commonly seen as the domain not of priests but rather of politicians, scientists, technocrats or interest groups organized by concerned citizens. What does preserving the planet have to do with saving the soul?

A lot, as it turns out. For if life is sacred, so is the entire web that sustains it. Some of those connections—the effects of overharvesting on the fish populations of the North Atlantic, for example—we understand very well. Others, such as the long-term health impacts of industrialization, we understand less well. But no one doubts that there is a connection and balance among all things animate and inanimate on this third planet from the Sun, and that there is a cost or benefit whenever we tamper with that balance.