Greek Orthodox Primate brings message of ecumenism to Fairfield University


 

Archbishop DemetriosIn a warm display of Christian unity and a respect for the religious beliefs of all people, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Fairfield University, on Wednesday evening, before delivering his remarks on the need for greater understanding between religions.

It was a fitting tribute to the Archbishop, the spiritual leader of 1.5 million Greek Orthodox Christians and a leader in the ecumenical movement, who is celebrating his 40h anniversary in the episcopacy.

In his talk, Archbishop Demetrios offered five suggestions for developing interfaith dialogue, beginning with, "The need to unlearn in order to learn." Very often, he said, people enter interfaith dialogues believing "they know well the people of other religions and their beliefs." He said that the need to relinquish our preconceptions "implies honesty, consideration, frankness, a prayerful disposition, and, even the willingness to accept truths which may in fact feel hurtful when they are offered in a genuine spirit of love with the aim of understanding and rapprochement."

Next he said we must remember that "gaining knowledge in an interfaith dialogue might be painful." Quoting from the first chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes, that "he that increases knowledge will increase pain," he added that "in acknowledging the need for reconciliation via dialogue, there follows the implication that at some point in history, there has been a breach in a relationship which must be restored. This involves the uncovering of many painful truths. It also requires that we engage in truly honest inquiry into painful historical circumstances that are understood differently by different people for different reasons. The results of such an honest examination can add significant knowledge, but we should be ready; indeed we must be ready, to accept that our growing in knowledge will entail experiencing levels of pain. But the pain will not be debilitating."

Suggestion three was to "prepare for interfaith dialogue by honestly trying to understand the religion of the other." While Archbishop Demetrios said this may seem to be an obvious principle, "examples of interfaith dialogue in history show that the very purpose of encounters between people of different religions frequently was to disprove the validity of the other faith, with the view toward convincing the other party of the superiority of the religious faith across the table. In such an adversarial context, how could constructive encounters ever begin to move toward anything resembling a genuine rapprochement, and even more toward anything resembling a genuine reconciliation?"

Archbishop Demetrios next talked about the "sacredness and power of the human language." Quoting again from scripture, this time the twelfth chapter of Matthew, he said "Jesus Christ offered a statement of tremendous importance. He said, 'I tell you, on the Day of Judgment people will render account of every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.'"

As a witness to this truth, Archbishop Demetrios pointed to "The amazing work of the Ecumenical Synods, searching unceasingly for the proper language in matters of faith and for the proper interpretation of the Bible." In interfaith dialogue, he said there should be "a deep understanding of the sacredness and power of language. It should not be taken lightly."

The fifth suggestion offered by Archbishop Demetrios is that "Our interfaith dialogue must always be focused on truth." He said, "Truth is not something to be feared. We do not avoid the truth because we might consider its consequences to be negative. Rather, we begin our dialogue with the understanding that Truth is a concrete notion, fulfilled in the very person of Jesus Christ the Lord. We enter into dialogue knowing that the consequences of searching for the truth will ultimately be liberating as Christ Himself said, 'If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'" (John 8:31-32)

In summing up his remarks, Archbishop Demetrios said, "Each of these suggestions: a) being willing to unlearn in order to learn, b) bracing ourselves for some levels of pain, c) seeking first to understand, d) recognizing the sanctity and power of language, and e) focusing on truth, is offered in the hope that we may all continue to grow in our understanding of one another, and as Christians work for the realization of the Lord's will that "we may all be one" (John 17:21), and at the same time enhance our relationship with the non-Christians, no matter what their religion is."

In thanking Archbishop Demetrios, Rev. Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., president of Fairfield University, noted that it was just a year ago that His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians around the world, welcomed His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, the Primate of the Roman Catholic Church, in Istanbul. "In our ceremonies this evening and in your magnificent talk, we are hopefully fulfilling the dreams of these two patriarchs that we of the Greek and Latin traditions can cooperate in love and understanding to spread the message of the One God whom we both serve: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on November 16, 2007

Vol. 40, No. 114