Letter from Thessaloniki

Portraying family life as facing a mortal threat, Fritz Lang relates much of the violence as occurring offscreen in his film-noir work «The Big Heat» (1953). Needless to say, in those virulent times «The Big Heat» had a metaphorical meaning. A film critic once specified that «this classic can be read as a warning, a pessimistic message true to the noir sensibility.» Nonetheless, noir or multicolored, in our days the current pessimistic message comes not from the film world but from the lips of the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity, Vartholomaios, the ecumenical patriarch of the ancient Mother Church in Constantinople – now Istanbul. Let’s face it: The Earth is heating up. The early warning signs of global climate change are in heat waves and warmer weather. With the ice caps melting, sea levels rising, and global warming dictating our winter wardrobes, this is no environment for a fictitious disaster movie. Ten years ago, His All Holiness Vartholomaios, archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and ecumenical patriarch, the 270th successor of the 2,000 year-old local Christian church founded by St Andrew (as the complete title goes), declared that the reckless destruction of nature was a sin, as were the actions that caused the extinction of species, altered the climate, stripped the world of its forests and polluted the air, soil and water. Countless sermons and initiatives aimed at boosting environmental awareness have not only earned him the title «The Green Patriarch» – they have also led a rather reluctant Orthodox Church back onto the world stage. Although Vartholomaios is the head of a faith with a well-founded practice of non-involvement in politics and other worldly affairs, the spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians has always expressed openly his criticism urbi et orbi (that is, «to the city and to the world»). Sorry, this expression is actually the preserve of the leader of the other great – even bigger – faith of Catholicism. While pursuing his green agenda, His All Holiness Vartholomaios has established unprecedented dialogues with several leaders of other faiths. He has hosted muftis and cardinals, Anglican archbishops, Jewish rabbis and Lutheran bishops. As a citizen of Turkey, Patriarch Vartholomaios’s personal experience provides him a unique perspective on the continuing dialogue among the Christian, Islamic and Jewish worlds. Since ascending to the ecumenical throne in November 1991, Vartholomaios has widely traveled to so many of the world’s environmental hot spots – usually as part of a series of shipboard symposia between religious and scientific leaders. Last summer, in his opening address of Symposium VI, in Brazil, titled «Amazon, Source of Life» he deplored: «If we are guilty of relentless waste, it is because we have lost the spirit of liturgy and worship. We are no longer respectful pilgrims on this Earth; we have been reduced to careless consumers or passing travelers.» In the same inspired address, he also stressed: «Every product we make and enjoy (from the paper we work with, to processed meat and the soy beans that sustain its industry), every tree we fell, every building we construct, every road we travel, definitively and permanently alters creation. At the basis of this alteration – or perhaps we should characterize it as abuse – of creation is a fundamental difference between human, natural and divine economies. In the Orthodox tradition, the phrase «divine economy» is used to describe God’s extraordinary acts of love and providence toward humanity and creation. «Economy» is derived from the Greek word oikonomia which implies the management of an environment or household (oikos), which is also the root of the word «ecology» (oikologia). Let us consider, however, the radical distinction between the various kinds of economy. Our economy tends to use and discard; natural economy is normally cyclical and replenishes; God’s economy is always compassionate and nurturing. Nature’s economy is profoundly violated by our wasteful economy, which in turn constitutes a direct offense to the divine economy. The prophet Ezekiel again recognized this abuse of the natural ecosystems when he observed: «Is it not enough to feed on good pasture? Must you also trample the rest with your feet? Is it not sufficient to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?» Last week Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios visited Paris where he addressed an international ecological conference titled «Citizens of Earth.» On the sidelines, green issues contributed to overcome various fractious relations among Orthodox churches. It is an open secret that relations with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexy II, have been and remain tense. A scheduled trip to St Petersburg has been canceled. Another not so well-guarded secret is that in certain parish churches, mainly in Greece, there is inflexible resistance to all that movement of fraternization from conservative priests. At any given moment, public opinion is a chaos of superstition, misinformation and prejudice. Yet it is always possible to make things better – as well as worse. Older priests, such as Ioannis of Pergamon, one of the chief theologians at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, admit that they «don’t feel that this is part of their work.» Therefore the Patriarchate is considering bringing environmental education into the theological seminaries. «Our hope is with the newcomers, with the new generation of priests,» he has said. Although a Green Society is more easily attained in rhetoric than in fact, a good first step in this direction might be the global environmental movement which has gained a new ecumenical leader who sees environmental protection as «God’s work.»