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Michael Schrom

Where does Orthodoxy Move?


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 1/2009, P. 5-9
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    There is a contradiction between the modern lifestyle and the build-up of reforms in faith and church also in Eastern Christianity. An encounter with the Orthodox Church of Greece.


The violence came overnight, and it came with a force nobody would have believed possible. On Thursday you could get hold of no taxi, because demonstrators had blocked a large traffic artery. That is not unusual in Athens, one of Europe's cities most eager to go on strike. On Friday a handful of students with banners and slogans had gathered near the university. They protested against the planned establishment of private universities. The fear is great that the state education, which has already a bad reputation, could be further devalued. Police watched the scene from armoured buses. Since the bloodily suppressed student uprising of 1973 a law prohibits police entering the campus. On Saturday our group of journalists went back, which through the good offices of the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Austria, Michael Staikos, the Graz theologian Grigorios Larentzakis and the news agency Kathpress had for five days met for talks with politicians and church leaders. In the night to Sunday Athens was in flames.

More than 400 shops and banks were attacked, the goods on display looted or set on fire. Night after night the city endured orgies of violence. The riots were triggered by the death of a Fifteen-year-old who had been - intentionally or unintentionally - hit by a police bullet. But the deeper reasons for the rage and frenzy quickly spreading to other Greek cities still remain a mystery.

Nowhere in Europe is the unemployment of young people as high as in Greece. No country in Europe does more badly in the Pisa test. The salaries for young professionals are so low that it is hardly enough for rent, let alone for starting a family. One sarcastically speaks of the "generation 700". The initial average salary of university graduates comes to that amount. The change from a classical country of emigration to a country of immigration - mainly Albanians, Poles, Filipinos and refugees from African countries expect a better life in Greece - not only creates problems on the labour market but also prepares the ground for nationalist populists.

The country suffers most from its internal stagnation and its incompetence at reforms. High-handed nepotism and party tactical shady tricks are the order of the day. In view of scandals and corruption the disenchantment with politics is dramatically growing. "We offer you daily TV shows which report on renowned politicians' illegal enrichment, on clergymen who quarrel over money, on a judiciary which as a rule serves the rich, and on politicians who have declared arbitrariness to be normality. But we cannot inspire you with confidence and optimism, because we ourselves have long since lost both", the newspaper "Kathimerini" wrote after the riots.

In such an hour of national perplexity and distress it actually is tradition that the Orthodox Church in Greece speaks. In many Greeks' opinion it is still a moral authority, a custodian and protector of the people, the Greek culture and tradition. But it remains conspicuously silent. So many groups are dissatisfied with the State, whereas on the part of the church there seems to be no reason for complaint. Perhaps one does not want to stick one's neck out too far, because the reputation of the National Orthodox Church has arrived at a historic low by some dubious dealings in real estate of Athos monasteries with the state. A minister had already to resign, and the collections in the churches have decreased by half.



In the hierarchy one nevertheless behaves calmly and says that it was a story blown up by left media in order to promote a separation of church and state, which could not be in the interest of the people, the state and the church. Up to now the hierarchy seems little to worry about the fact that many believers in Greece long since internally said goodbye to a religious life and regard the Orthodox rites at high festivals only as pleasant customs or as an appropriate accompaniment. Is one too confident of one's firm embodiment in the people through tradition?

The special role of the Orthodox Church in Greece has historical reasons which go back to the Ottoman rule. The patriarch of Constantinople was the head of the Christian population in the Sultan's kingdom. The church leadership thus got new functions that went far beyond its religious duties. The church became a state within the state, the guardian and patron of the Christian and Greek ethnic identity.

When in 1821 the liberation struggle against the Turks finally produced the modern Greece the church was a fundamental 'obstetrician', even if you cannot, as Michael Andreas Wittig has brought out in the book "The Orthodox Church in Greece", call the revolt a "fight of the Cross against the Crescent". After all almost the entire hierarchy was against the rebellion. It even complied with the Turks' wish to excommunicate the rebellious Christians, and still in 1821 the Patriarch of Jerusalem who resided in Constantinople wrote in a "fatherly admonition" that the Sultan had got his power from Providence in order to protect Orthodoxy from corruption by the West.

But the ordinary priests and priestly monks with their close relationship to people, especially to those who suffered most under the yoke of Turkish rule, thought differently. They were those that run secret schools and handed down the Greek culture. They lived among the ordinary people and were able to mould the parish. Where the village had an exclusively Christian population religion merged with the national freedom movement. It was a revolution from below, which was only later taken up by the upper class. Since that time in Greece nationalism is closely connected with Orthodoxy.

In 1850 Constantinople confirmed the Greek Church's autokephaly [independence], after it had in 1833 already been unilaterally declared. Owing to its merits in the freedom struggle and its enormous landed property - about a quarter of the land of the new state belonged to the monasteries - the church decisively paved the way for the new state. "What has this state that he has not got from the church?" the Metropolitan Michael Staikos asks self-confidently. Synallilia is the technical term for the special relationship between church and state. It means the sincere and loyal mutual cooperation. From the Orthodox Church's viewpoint it is the only correct form of relationship between these two organizations founded by God, which are mutually to support and help each other in their respective autonomy.

The preamble of the Greek Constitution begins with an invocation to the "sacred and indivisible Trinity equal in its nature." Religious and national holidays often coincide. The Constitution expressly states: "The dominant religion in Greece is the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ". Far-reaching privileges are derived from it. But the close link between nation and church may also prove to be a curse, especially if narrow-minded, nationalistic provincialism is spreading. This was "a wound and a nuisance," Staikos sighs.


Like Turtles among Giraffes

Athens, once a village of about 20 000 inhabitants, became the capital. Today nearly half of all Greek citizens are living in the five-million-metropolis. The small church of Hagia Dynamis from the 17th century in the heart of the city still reminds of the time of the freedom struggle. At that time the church was a kind of munitions factory. During the day one had to work for the Turks, at night cartridges were manufactured for Greek rebels and in the first light of the day smuggled out under the waste. Today a six-storey, faceless skyscraper on stilts towers above the tiny church, and it seems as if the modern business world gives a small shelter to the church - for reasons of nostalgia.

The University Church too appears, surrounded by skyscrapers in the central shopping street, like a small turtle among giraffes. The small but numerous houses of God - there are more than 600 churches in Athens - appear modest and agreeable. They are, so to speak, to people's eye-level. Visitors time and again light a candle, it smells of incense, and grandmothers hold up their small grandchildren, so that they can kiss the icons. On the other hand the number of those who go to church is even on holidays not particularly great. In the Orthodox Cathedral dedicated to the Annunciation of the Lord, on a Saturday morning only fifteen people attended at the liturgy for the feast of St. Nicholas. The dean tells us that in former times, even twenty years ago, on Sundays and church holidays people stood up to the forecourt. Today, on Sunday two to four hundred faithful come to the service. The reason for it is not only that many people move from the city to the cheaper accommodations of the suburbs. At most twelve percent of believers in Athens attend at the Sunday service, on the country there are some more. But 97 per cent of Greeks are baptized in the Orthodox Church, 98 per cent are married in church. The divorce rate, however, is nearly fifty per cent. In contrast to the Roman the Greek Orthodox Church knows the possibility of a "church divorce" as well as the permission for a second and third marriage. With later marriages in liturgy a penitential ceremony precedes the marriage ceremony and they are not as solemnly as the first marriage, but they are regarded as full sacrament.

The Austrian Ambassador Michael Linhart invited to a reception in his residence in the elegant embassy district. Just behind the entrance a large photo shows him with Pope John Paul II. At the then Archbishop Christodoulos' invitation he had visited Athens in 2001. With diplomatic tact and great cordiality Linhart welcomes the Orthodox dignitaries as well as the Catholic archbishop of Athens, Nikolaos Foskolos. Everyone knows that in Greece the situation is not easy for religious minorities. The ambassador therefore hopes that this evening with wine and cookies may help to "deepen the ecumenical contacts and to make acquaintances".

In Greece there are no ecumenical or even inter-religious dialogues on an official level. In practice, however, the situation can be very different, Foskolos says.



Through immigration and refugees the number of Catholics in Greece has greatly risen in recent years, to about 300.000. But despite many promises, the improvement of the Catholic Church's legal situation still takes its time. The European Union has at least quashed a law that demanded the consent of the local Orthodox Metropolitan to the building of non-Orthodox Christian churches. It nevertheless remains difficult to build a Catholic church. Catholic youths had to endure teasing remarks and disadvantages up to the time within the army. Sometimes the Catholics are colloquially called "Franks", in allusion to the destruction of Constantinople by the Franks in the year 1204.

Then Bishop Andreas Foskolos talks about the feast of Saint Andrew in Patras. Two Andrew parishes are there: an Orthodox and a Catholic. Every year on occasion of the feast of the patron saint the mayor invites to a reception and banquet. But last year the Orthodox dignitaries demonstratively refused to get round the table with the Catholic bishop. This year he was from the outset placed on another table. He did not want to compare the situation of Catholics with the situation of Christians in Turkey, Foskolos says, but there were certainly structural similarities if you consider the mechanisms of a way of thinking nationalistically excluding other people. Whether a new church law, which is currently worked out by a mixed commission, can put things right? "Let's wait and see", Foskolos says.


Only a Phenomenon of the West?

Below the Acropolis in garden-like grounds the Areopag with its impressive ruins is located. Here the Apostle Paul once preached the Gospel to the Athenians and experienced various rejections. "About that we want to hear you another time", the Athenians said to him when he talked about the resurrection of the dead and the revelation of God (Acts 17, 16-34). In the hectic bustle of the five-million-metropolis the Areopag radiates a fascinating peace. Only a few tourists are strolling through the pillars, a camera in their hands.

It takes you only a few minutes from the Areopag to palace of the Orthodox archbishop. There Hieronymos, the head of the Autocephalous Church of Greece welcomes us. He enjoys a good reputation because of his reconciling character and his deep devotion. He does not see an estrangement between church and people, neither by the obvious secularization nor by the scandals of recent times. The apostasy from the Christian faith as a result of Enlightenment, modernization and emancipation was not an Eastern but a Western phenomenon. In Central Europe a stone had been thrown into the water, the waves unfortunately reached gradually also Greece. But people would harm themselves, when they turned away from the church. The church could even survive when only two upright, holy people belonged to it. But atheism was not filling anybody. Hieronymos compares the stock market crisis with the story of the Tower of Babel. The collapse of the financial system could help people to become aware again of God's significance.


Is Turkey to Enter into the EU?

Two issues primarily preoccupy the Archbishop. For one: How does the Orthodox Church succeed in becoming again a spiritual place and in being not regarded as a ministry for religious affairs? Secondly: How can the ascetic and charitable dimension of faith be strengthened? You may see those wishes as some course correction to the highly politicizing and polarizing era of his impulsive predecessor, Christodoulos. Hieronymos also wants to improve the relations with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which had greatly suffered under Christodoulos because of various disputes. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is in a special way dependent on the support and the solidarity of the numerically strong Autocephalous Orthodox Churches in Russia and Greece. But in the past those two churches have not infrequently given themselves a clearer image at the expense of Constantinople. For this reason too Hieronymos emphasizes the ranking of the early church, in which Constantinople as the mother church of all Orthodox churches deserves a special priority.



The membership of Turkey in the European Union, which Patriarch Bartholomew wants because he expects an improvement in the situation of Christians in Turkey, Archbishop Hieronymos sees under two aspects. "As a Greek I must consider what consequences that membership has for Greece and what problems it brings with it for us." Because of a Greek-Turkish past burdened with wars there is a lot of mistrust and distance between Athens and Ankara, and not a few Greeks doubt whether Turkey is internally ready truly to open to the European culture. As a priest Hieronymos would like to experience rather today than tomorrow Turkey's membership, "because thus we would get back what we have lost through the enforced separation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The wound of separation could heal."

And what about the relationship with Rome? After all, his predecessor, Christodoulos had received the pope against massive resistance from his own ranks. The Synod of Greece, however, ordered that he wasn't allowed as head of the Greek Church but only as archbishop of Athens to welcome the pope. But the Pope's visit in Greece has probably not found great reverberations. "In Greece the pope is hardly more known than the Dalai Lama", the Austrian Metropolitan Staikos suspects.


We have already been further ahead

Hieronymos knows Benedict XVI from the period of study in Regensburg, when he heard Joseph Ratzinger's lectures. At his introduction as archbishop of Munich Hieronymos was just as present as at the ecumenical Vespers in the Regensburg Cathedral on the occasion of the Pope's visit to Bavaria. He was "deeply moved" and "filled with respect" for the head of the Roman Church. But then he turns to the discussion of a problem that runs like a thread through all complaints of Orthodoxy: The uniate church of the Byzantine rite that has full communion with Rome. Only about two thousand uniate believers admittedly live in Greece, who came into the country only by the "population exchange" of 1923 and neither proselytize (entice away believers) nor are they otherwise somehow or other conspicuous. But the fact that Pope Benedict XVI has now appointed a new bishop for that group - and not "only" an apostolic administrator, as demanded by the Orthodox Church - was a "painful wound" and an "agonizing thorn", even though the united Bishop Demetrios had made a great contribution to Orthodoxy and is a personal friend of the archbishop. "The Uniate Christians are the proof that Rome is ready to make all possible concessions in liturgy, church discipline and ecclesiastical law, if only you accept to be subordinated to the Roman primacy of jurisdiction", Staikos says. The legal decision of the pope's weakened his position against the anti-ecumenical forces in the Greek Orthodox Church, Hieronymos tries to make understandable his own ambivalent attitude and asks "How honest are the Catholic-Orthodox dialogues meant?"

In that matter one had actually made more progress in the past. How open and generous appears in today's gloomy light the enthusiastic and inspiring ecumenical climate in the time of the Council and the immediate years after it. What seriousness, what will to overcome the great church schism of 1054! On 7 December 1965, in the last public meeting, the Council and the Patriarchate of Constantinople at the same time in Rome and Istanbul declared "that they regret the insulting words, unfounded accusations and reprehensible acts which moulded and accompanied the sad events of that era on both sides, that they let the sentences of excommunication ... erase from the memory and the centre of the church and let them sink into oblivion". With it the mutual excommunication of more than 900 years was lifted. In 1967 mutual visits of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras followed. In the church the enthusiastic call "Axios" ("right and proper") rang out as an expression of the people's consent. On 25 July Paul VI wrote, it was necessary to "promote and implement the already existing, albeit still imperfect full communion"; here the biblical warning had to be applied that one "does impose no additional burdens ... but only the necessary things". And in a telegram to the pope Patriarch Athenagoras reaffirmed, "Now we are called to make progress. It is the hour of Christian courage."


When the Pope Kissed the Feet

Ten years later one also simultaneously celebrated the anniversary of the lifted excommunication in the Sistine Chapel and in Church of Saint George (Phanar), the official residence of the Ecumenical Patriarch. In Rome on that occasion the pope spontaneously kissed the feet of Metropolitan Meliton, the envoy of the patriarch. An incredible symbolic act of utmost importance in view of the fact that in history the kiss on the feet was the sign that one recognized the papal dignity and submitted to it. Pope Paul VI stressed in his speech that "the Catholic and the Orthodox Church are united through such a deep communion that only little is missing



to reach the fullness that allows a joint celebration of the Eucharist". In the book "The schism between Eastern and Western Church" the Munich theologian Peter Neuner writes: It seems that the pope was convinced that the theological differences were not separating the churches. "And with regard to the claim to primacy it seems that he was ready to be satisfied when the East would not interpret the Western development up to the First Vatican Council as apostasy, even though it would not take over for itself any canonical consequences from it." A position that still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith shared, "Regarding the doctrine on primacy Rome does not need to demand from the East more than what was formulated and lived also in the first millennium."


Monasteries Against Ecumenism

Compared with that, how faint-hearted sound today the separating speeches on internal affairs of the church, the constant talk about giving oneself a clearer image and about differences. There are no longer any grand gestures, any forward-looking courageous words. As Pope, Benedict XVI has not publicly repeated and confirmed his previous reflections on a stronger synodal constitution of the Church. On the part of Orthodoxy the reserve is even greater. "Some say, 'The going down on his knees of Pope Paul VI was the deed of a saint'. Others say, 'It was the deed of a hypocrite'", Staikos says rather evasively.

Athens, however, was already at that time a stronghold of resistance against the ecumenical course of Patriarch Athenagoras. At a synod he was sharply criticized for it. The Athos monasteries crossed the name of the patriarch off the intercession lists and thus symbolically ended the full communion with Constantinople. Two professors at Athens' theological faculty published books in which they explained why according to their opinion ecumenism was a heresy.

Today Bishop Kyrollos is Dean of the faculty of theology in Athens. He receives us in the Moni Petraki monastery, in that place where in 1965 monks were on a prayer vigil in order to prevent even at the last minute the mutual lifting of the excommunication. Bishop Kyrollos studied in Strasbourg and did his doctorate in Freiburg / Breisgau. As a pastor of many years of the Greek Orthodox community in Stuttgart he very exactly knows the situation of faith in the West. The anti-ecumenical tirades of that time are today no longer of importance, he says. The students were ecumenically open-minded; the anti-ecumenical forces are rather to be found in the monasteries, which play, however, an important, influential role in the Church of Greece. The young Bishop is conscious of the fact that the secularization is increasingly spreading also in Greece. Although there is, as a result of the priests' permission to get married, no dramatic shortage of priests, at least not in the cities; but the modern wives do not find it up-to-date when their husbands go about dressed in robes, he reported.

The number of three hundred students each semester starting studying theology in Athens is impressive. But you are to take in consideration also the Greek educational system. Of those who have taken their Abitur an examination is required that only a few pass. It is like a kind of numerus clausus. The choice of the subject of study depends on its outcome - together with the previously accumulated marks. For many who actually want to study law, philosophy or medicine it is then at the most sufficient for theology. They therefore study this subject, but without enthusiasm, inner conviction or personal closeness to the church. After one has taken a degree in theology one can more easily study the subject that one originally wanted. Also job hunting is easier than with the Abitur alone. Since the religious education is given by pastors, only a few lay people are employed for it, just about forty each year.


Liturgy and Perfumery?

"In the youth work the East could learn a lot from the West", Bishop Kyrollos says. Divine services for students, youth groups, and pilgrimages he sees as a valuable addition in order to get the young people into contact with the church. But he is sceptical about proposals to translate the Church Greek in which the liturgy is celebrated into Modern Greek. Some bishops experimented with it, but it did not go down well with the people. It was also not primarily a question of understanding the liturgy but rather of diving in it. In order to describe the active-passive participation in the worship Metropolitan Staikos uses the image of a perfumery. Those who enter it come out fragrant. A liturgical reform is therefore not necessary. But what is when that "perfumery" is no longer visited because the sense of smell has changed?

Bishop Kyrollos is still young. But he does not think that he will see the unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Church. That connects him with the Catholic Archbishop of Athens, Nikolaos Foskolos. Perhaps it would be good today to remember Patriarch Athenagoras. In 1966, on occasion of the first anniversary of the lifted excommunication he wrote, "The contemporary man and the world do no longer tolerate the luxury of a separation for reasons of worldly calculations and reserves and comfortable, endless academic discussions. They are in need of an answer. And that is: The quick appearance of the one Christ through the one church."


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'