The Word Magazine January 1983 Page 5-8
INTERVIEW WITH HIS BEATITUDE, IGNATIUS IV,
PATRIARCH OF ANTIOCH AND ALL THE EAST
by Archpriest Antony F. Gabriel
SAIDNA, THE HOLY SYNOD HAS
BEEN CALLED FOR WHAT PURPOSE?
I believe that, the purpose of the Holy Synod is to call each bishop of the Patriarchate to remember what he has signed at his consecration and to confirm this reality to the community of believers by instructing the people in the Faith.
When God calls, that is, through the Holy Synod, He calls us to create a common vision, a common vision of life and work. This is true even on the practical level. How many bishops even know how to make money and to use it properly! This too must be a part of our discussions. Are we not God’s stewards over our entire inheritance?
Before 1979 — the Holy Synod never met formally around a table. Even the minutes of previous meetings were not read. Can you imagine that I was told at my first meeting that “it is not our custom to read minutes”. Also, reports were practically never read. Therefore, I believe that we are equals talking to equals; and here patience is a virtue to be exercised. In the very beginning I would leave the Synod meetings to allow certain problems to be ironed out by the bishops discussing among themselves.
I will not operate from above. We must proceed together with the creation of a common spirit and vision. Most of the bishops are moving with the same mind —but maybe not all at the same speed.
This is the first time the Patriarchal vicars have been invited to the Holy Synod and asked to submit reports along with the voting Metropolitans. We want to preserve the synodal and conciliar concept of the Church. We want all the bishops of the Patriarchate to have the same vision and the same responsibility before God.
I will even hold a special session with the Patriarchal Vicars to define more clearly their roles in their respective vicariates. I do not want everyone operating autonomously. We must have a vision!
The Holy Synod will receive reports for the first time from the Archdioceses, the Balamand Academy, the Vicariates, the Middle East Council of Churches, Syndesmos, etc. Then we will receive suggestions and slowly implement the decisions. In this way, you will find that the Church is a living and youthful Church in “the Old Country.”
Personally, I am sorry that many problems have been let go for so long. We are meeting at Saidnaya Convent to have complete quiet to meditate on the problems facing the church, not each one traveling in his own orbit — concerned only with his own Archdiocese. I am sure that there is a new unity, a new spirit that will manifest itself in our deliberations. Finally, as Patriarch of the Great Church of Antioch — I earnestly desire that we be an existential extension in each hemisphere — and not just an idea or “symbol”. It is my goal to see the Holy Synod of Antioch and the Patriarchate strengthened in every possible way. I hope that we will become conscious of our being and that this will extend to mutual reciprocity. I believe it will.
SINCE YOU BECAME PATRIARCH IN 1979, DO YOU LIKE “THE JOB”?
In a disorganized Church, I did not want nor did I think about ever being Patriarch! However, that is irresponsible. But alas, I had to accept God’s call to this holy office. At the moment of my election, the outside faces came clearly through, both the Christian and the non-Christian. I accepted this position with the idea that God is calling us to have a common mind. We are very conscious of our responsibility and are aware that ORTHODOXY is being “contained” everywhere. Where are the Apostolic Sees? Where is Alexandria, Jerusalem, etc.? We need absolutely all our forces because we intend to be here.
At the cradle of Christianity, the Church of the “incarnation” becomes “disincarnate” without our authentic witness in this land. I described to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Demetrios I, in a recent meeting, the tragedy of Christianity in the Middle East.
I believe God has called us to this struggle here. Also, I feel that I am personally “Nil” — but God is somehow using this earthen vessel for this service.
DO YOU SEE ANY HOPEFUL SIGNS ON THE HORIZON FOR THE CHURCH?
I am sure the Church of Antioch constitutes a major hope. Again, I related this to Patriarch Demetrios I. I firmly believe the Patriarchate of Antioch is called by God to carry the burden of the Universal Church in the Middle East. We are not an extension or copy of anyone. We are still free (while even in the midst of war) to carry forth the Orthodox Faith; to care about the people and to shoulder the awesome responsibilities given by God at this moment in history.
To emphasize and underscore our uniqueness when I met in Istanbul, Turkey and Athens, Greece, with responsible people, I thought it only normal to speak mostly in Arabic. After all, this is the human garment of our Church.
There is a dynamism at work which I wouldn’t like to see minimized by any factor in the See of Antioch. In fact, I wish someone would study the last twenty years of our history. I believe I am correct in saying that very seldom was anything done for the life of the Church. Most of our decisions dealt with episcopal appointments. Today however, church people are talking about the Church of God. Take for example the vital witness of our various representatives in the ecumenical movement throughout the world. I believe that we have the confidence of the people. This dynamism is at work at all levels of our Church life here. Moreover, there are many people who are serious about their work. I am certainly hopeful.
WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION TO THE
LAST YEAR IN SAUDI ARABIA?
As Patriarch of the Church of Antioch I had to show in an Islamic context, that we are Christians of the land and from the land. When asked where did we come from, we responded “from nowhere — we were here and are here to stay”. If a government is Islamic — that doesn’t mean everything. The country is more than the government.
We do speak in the name of Christians in the Middle East because we are the authentic and true Christians who were here even before Roman Catholic and other divisions. We are a living Church — not referring to majorities nor to minorities.
I spoke regarding Jerusalem because of the propaganda raised vis-a-vis the Islamic holy places. Jerusalem belongs to us! It is even more meaningful to us than to anyone else! This is the land where our Master Himself revealed salvation history.
The reaction there was quite positive. We were not a part of any delegation. We were an independent Christian delegation; if fact, we were the only Christians there. We did not purposely sit with any other delegation. We were simply ourselves.
This is consistent with my views of Christianity in the Orient, whether we are dealing with Moslems or Christians in the Middle East Council of Churches where we are the majority. Moslems that we encounter must find us lucid and serene. The country is not the government and the government not the country. We believe in our country, but more than anything, we believe in our Christian Orthodoxy. I am also conscious of our particular role in articulating the truth at all levels of the ecumenical movement. There is no room for compromise or hypocrisy.
Our Patriarchate is not an agent of anyone, and we cannot be used except for the benefit of our country. If there is a war — then our people will be in the battlefield with their brothers — whomever they may be.
We refuse categorically to make propaganda for anyone, this freedom, therefore makes us responsible for everyone. We can better serve the country by being a voice of truth rather than being “cheap” agents.
Recently we were graciously received by President Hafiz-Al-Assad who for over three hours spoke about the tragic events in Zahle. We were straightforward in our position. We were grateful for the opportunity to dialogue on this problem and were pleased when the hostilities ceased from all sides. It was stated during this meeting that we could better serve the country by articulating the views of our Church in a clear, forceful, and truthful way and not by skirting the issues by politicalism.
The world knows that the ancient centers of Christianity are in a sense beseiged by problems. Look today at Jerusalem, Alexandria and Constantinople. Therefore, we of the Antiochian Patriarchate have a tremendous responsibility.
We must press for peace in Lebanon as I said at the Conference. We hope for the continued existence of Lebanon where there is a Christian tincture in that society. At least there is the luxury to discuss and voice opinions freely. We cannot lose this. Jerusalem is the place for “intercommunion” between different religions; Lebanon is the place where this “intercommunion” is a fact. If Jerusalem is the “heart” of the Middle East, then Lebanon is “the free human face” — these are the two poles of our Faith; and let me remind the world, if they disappear, this will be a great tragedy for humanity.
Probably, the mass media will pay little attention to our pronouncements — but they are true. I question why when Zahle was under seige there was so little noise? Let one explosion take place in Israel and the whole world hears about it.
There is a disparity here! These two — Lebanon and Jerusalem are central to our existence.
HOW IS THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH AFFECTED BY POLITICAL EVENTS?
There are pressures all around us from so many sides; even subtle persecution if you will. Many bishops’ lives are threatened daily and there is not much freedom of movement. Many bishops cannot travel to parts of their Archdioceses. Our staying here is a real “martyria”. This area grows through the experience of martyrdom — especially in Lebanon — and we do share in this and so do all our bishops. This is absolutely true. If one takes his “truth” out of the context of our lives, then you will certainly misunderstand our psychology.
Personally, I don’t think that we are heroes — this is merely a factor in our lives. We do not use the language of calculation here — we simply live with the “death reality”. Every day we hear about the death of a loved one. We want the Christians living in the West to know these facts. Something else, in spite of our working and living in the “fire” — we are still the most “liberated” Orthodox Church — with the possible exception of the churches in the Western Hemisphere. We are “free” to speak — and we will continue to do so with every fibre of our being!
Again, I related this to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. We are still free to speak and to speak sometimes in a language that is particular to us. This is why the Balamand Academy is so important to us. It is there that we can and must nurture and develop our identity. From this vantage point our presence in Istanbul and Greece is very strong. We are needed here by all the Churches — yes, the Greek Orthodox of the region need our vital presence; and of course we are ready to serve all!
I am doing everything to stir the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the Pan-Orthodox Conference which will lead us towards an ecumenical council. I refuse categorically to remain at an impasse on this issue; and as importantly, I will refuse to behave as being subordinated to anyone. We are authentically ourselves and we have a mission that requires all our energies. Yes, we exist under pressures of many kinds but we shall emerge victorious. It is this that gives us courage and builds up the Church. This is our witness and “Martyria”.
SAIDNA, WHAT IS YOUR
VISION OF THE FUTURE?
I think that being a minority everywhere, we should go into the depth and look for genuineness. We can exist if we constitute a quality — therefore, in the Holy Synod we are concerned with the education of our youth and the “re-baptism” of our institutions. I ask myself continually — “why are our institutions, which originally were constituted by the Church, for the Church, no longer producing men and women for the Church?” One of my foremost objectives is to change this, therefore, I have personally assumed the directorship of all schools. My new policy will be to ask every bishop and pastor to assist me in the renewal of vocations among our young people.
Personally, every good priest is one who discovers his personal depth, or quality if you will. Our pastoral “eyes” must be directed towards sanctity — it is this holiness that will inspire our youth and breathe a fresh spirit within our institutions. We must be serious about our Faith.
I recently made a study of the Church of Greece regarding people who have been “anointed” with sainthood. Note if you will, the following:
One Saint was recognized in the 11th Century
Four Saints were recognized in the 15th Century
Five Saints were recognized in the 16th Century
Seven Saints were recognized in the 17th Century
Thirteen Saints were recognized in the 18th Century
Eleven Saints were recognized in the 19th Century
One Saint was recognized in 1920.
Is it possible that the Holy See of Antioch produced no saints since the seventh Ecumenical Council in the eighth Century?
It appears to me that we have no identity if this is true. Can it be that the whole interest of the Church has been mysteriously kept out of the community of believers? It simply is not true that there are no holy people. The authorities in the Church looked not at the center but elsewhere. There has not been a single study on the real life of the Church of Antioch. I have been urging everyone — even our institutions of higher learning to encourage such a study. I will personally put everything at the disposal of such an endeavor. We have to take Orthodoxy out of the ground because it is buried there! Our real concern is to express the See of Antioch as ONE, therefore, I want to do more for the Archdioceses that are situated in other continents. We need to be more open to our oneness and to be better organized.
I know for example, North America is highly organized having had the inspired leadership of the late great Metropolitan ANTONY of Thrice Blessed Memory, and today under the careful stewardship of Metropolitan PHILIP. I also know that South America needs a great amount of work. I will travel there as soon as it is expedient to help. But my central idea is that I want the organizational life to be in conformity to our Antiochian life and traditions; and not scattered. I will not accept the face of separation. We are not for the division of Archdioceses but for the proper organizational life in each hemisphere that corresponds with the canonical structure of the Patriarchate. For the sake of unity we need to make as many expressions of our Faith but properly structured. I mean this especially for the many vicarates abroad. We must study very carefully the diaspora. In this regard, I intend to be serving, emphatically serving, the best interests of the Patriarchate. To the Bishops and to Antiochian Christians everywhere, I ask that priority be given to taking Orthodoxy seriously; secondly, to understand the Holy Synod not as an authority “ad extra”, but a responsibility; thirdly, that we restore dignity to the Church; fourthly, that no one be despised; fifthly, we have a common vision; sixthly, there be concern for the See of Antioch; seventhly and finally, we work for a strong united Holy Synod.
These points are the cornerstone of my vision for the future! In this way, we shall be strengthened from within our depths.
I want everyone to know that we are a very young Church in the “Old Country”. Regarding what is commonly called “the youth movement”, I prefer to say, the youth are moving towards the Church. I take this ministry very seriously.
Today, more than ever before, we are present. Our materials are printed in bookstores everywhere and the newspapers and mass media take the Church more seriously. Our Church, I hope is a living one. People feel that the faithful are being cared for. With the spirit of service, priests are committed to their flocks. I insist that we serve the people. The whole orientation of the Holy Synod is towards the deepening of service to the whole Church.
Again, our Balamand Seminary, the monasteries and the schools are engaged in service to the people. We pray that our “Saints”, our holy ones, will once again reveal their faces in the land.
In the past, our divisions were used as propaganda against ourselves. We will not permit this to happen again. The state of separation is a loss to us, but unity is a state of gain, therefore, we have been energetically pursuing the course of consolidation and solidarity —even sometimes in the face of criticism, but I believe that we exist not for man’s sake but for God and His Church. You will ultimately see by the decisions taken in the Holy Synod that we take this matter most seriously and it is our prayer that the world knows that there is renewal in the Patriarchate of Antioch, abiding in the love of God and in the spirit of service.
ONE FINAL WORD
FOR NORTH AMERICA
My message is this: let us truly love one another and express this love concretely so the world knows that we are one. Let it also be known — that SAIDNA PHILIP is the dearest expression of love for us by his many worthy deeds and most especially to you.
I extend to all the faithful of the Archdiocese my apostolic blessings to continue in your holy work. God be with you always.
Father Antony is pastor of St. George Church in Montreal, Quebec. This interview was taken after Synod ’81.