Address at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin

Most Reverend Grand Chancellor Archbishop Zycinski, Most Learned and Reverend Rector Dr. Stanislaw Wilk, Esteemed Members of the Senate, Most Learned Professors and Students of the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Your Eminences and Graces, Distinguished Guests, Beloved children and people of God:

We gratefully accept this invaluable honor of being received into the doctoral college of this esteemed Roman Catholic academic institution. We welcome this privilege as recognition of the sacred ministry of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, an Apostolic institution with a history spanning seventeen centuries, throughout retaining its See in Constantinople.

Introduction: The Legacy of Pope John Paul II

The mission of your institution clearly states that: "The memory of our Patron requires from us a constant reflection upon John Paul II's legacy and teaching." For over a quarter of a century, the late Pope John Paul II shepherded the Church of Rome, standing as a symbol of unrelenting stability and hope in an age of widespread turmoil and despair. Undoubtedly, his tenure was inspired by an abiding faith as well as by the difficult circumstances that his home country Poland suffered for so many years under totalitarian oppression. This is an experience of martyrdom, with which the Orthodox Church can easily identify.

This desire for peace led the late Pope to assume initiatives that transcended political, cultural, and geographic boundaries. During his historical visit to the Holy Land in 2000, he potently observed at a ceremony in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial that "to remember is to pray for peace and justice. Only a world at peace, with justice for all, can avoid repeating the terrible crimes of the past."

On the very same day, at a gathering of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faithful, His Holiness pointed out that the monotheistic Faiths rooted in the City of Peace, Jerusalem, share a common view of human dignity and human responsibility. This view is based on their shared reverence for the One God who created humankind in His divine image. It is also grounded on their common pursuit of justice, peace and religious freedom.

Orthodox Theology and Religious Freedom

Christianity challenges the concept of the human person as merely an economic entity or consumer. The Christian tradition insists that every human person is "an animal called to deification" (zōon theoumenon), to use the words of Saint Gregory Nazianzus.[1] We are creatures called to share in God's glory and become "partakers of divine nature." (2 Pet. 1.4) The most important fact about our humanness is that we are formed in the image of God. (Gen. 1.26) We have the capacity and freedom to offer the world back to God in thanksgiving, and it is only in this act of offering that we become genuinely human and truly free.

Of course, freedom is not only personal but also interpersonal. As human beings, we cannot be genuinely free in isolation. We can only be genuinely free in a community of other free persons. To refuse to share is to forfeit liberty. This indeed is specifically what is implied by the Christian doctrine of God. As a contemporary Orthodox theologian expresses it: "The being of God is a relational being: without the concept of communion it would not be possible to speak of the being of God."[2]

And if we are formed in the image of the Trinity, it follows that everything said about God also applies to humankind. We are called to reproduce on earth, so far as this is possible, the same reciprocal movement (perichoresis) of mutual love that in heaven unites the three persons of the Trinitarian God. This we seek to do not only on the level of our interior life of prayer but also more broadly on an economic and political level. Our social program is the doctrine of the Trinity, a God in communion. Every form of community - the workplace, the school, the city, the nation - has as its vocation to become a living icon of the Trinity. Such is surely part of the role of religion in a changing world: namely to promote freedom among human beings as the basis of encounter and communion.

The Initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

There is a symbolical image that adorns the entrance to the central offices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. It is a magnificent mosaic depicting Gennadios Scholarios, first Ecumenical Patriarch of the period under Ottoman occupation. The Patriarch stands with hand outstretched, receiving from the Sultan Mehmet II the "firman" or legal document guaranteeing the continuation and protection of the Orthodox Church and through the period of Ottoman rule. It is an icon of the beginnings of a long coexistence and interfaith commitment.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate has always been convinced of its wider role and ecumenical responsibility. This inspires its tireless efforts for Orthodox unity throughout the world as well as its pioneering efforts for ecumenical dialogue. Some of the highlights of this dialogue include the historic meeting between Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in 1964, which led to the mutual lifting of the anathemas from 1054, and the equally historic visit between the late Pope John Paul II and our predecessor Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios in 1979, which led to the announcement of the theological dialogue between our two churches. The visit of the present Pope Benedict XVI to Turkey in 2006, in response to our invitation to attend the Thronal Feast of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, led to a renewal of that commitment to dialogue.

However, even at the cost of defamation for "betraying" the Gospel, we have never restricted such engagements merely to Christian confessions. Standing as it does on the crossroads of continents, civilizations and cultures, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has always served as a bridge between Christians, Moslems, and Jews. Since 1977, it has pioneered a bilateral inter-religious dialogue with the Jewish community (on such topics as law, tradition, and social justice); since 1986, it has initiated bilateral interfaith dialogue with the Islamic community (on such matters as peace, justice, and pluralism); and since 1994, it has organized a number of international multi-faith gatherings for the purpose of deeper conversations between Christians, Jews and Muslims (on such issues as tolerance).

The Importance of Interfaith Dialogue

We hear it stated often that our world is in crisis. Yet, never before in history have human beings had the opportunity to bring so many positive changes to so many people simply through encounter and dialogue. While it may be true that this is a time of crisis, it must equally be underlined that there has also never been greater tolerance for respective traditions, religious preferences and cultural peculiarities.

This does not mean that differences on the level of doctrine are insignificant or inconsequential; for, a difference on the level of doctrine leads to a different worldview and, accordingly, a different way of life. Accordingly, then, we do not approach dialogue in order to set our arguments against those of our opponents in the framework of conflict. We approach in a spirit of love, sincerity and honesty. In this respect, dialogue implies equality, which in turn implies humility. Honesty and humility dispel hostility and arrogance. Just how prepared are we in dialogue to respect others in dialogue? How willing are we to learn and to love? If we are neither prepared to receive nor willing to learn, then are we truly engaging in dialogue? Or are we actually conducting a monologue?

True dialogue is in fact a gift from God. According to St. John Chrysostom, fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, God is always in personal dialogue with human beings. God always speaks: through Prophets and Apostles, through saints and mystics, even through the natural creation itself; for, "the heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalm 19.1). Dialogue is the most fundamental experience of life and most powerful means of communication. Dialogue promotes knowledge, abolishes fears and prejudice, and broadens horizons. Dialogue enriches; whoever refuses dialogue remains impoverished. Finally, dialogue seeks persuasion, not coercion. This is why interfaith dialogue is crucial.

Conclusion: The Imperative of Interfaith Dialogue

Religious leaders bear a special responsibility not to mislead or provoke. Their integrity plays a vital role in the process of dialogue. In the mid-fourteenth century, St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), Archbishop of Thessalonika, conducted theological discussions with distinguished representatives of Islam. One of the Muslim leaders expressed a wish that the time would come, when mutual understanding would characterize the followers of both religions. St. Gregory agreed, noting his hope that this time would come sooner than later. It is our humble wish that now will be that time. Now, more than ever, is the time for dialogue.

We would not be so naïve as to claim that dialogue comes without cost or danger. Approaching another person - or another belief, another culture - always comes with a risk. One is never certain what to expect: Will the other suspect me? Will the other perceive me as imposing my own belief or way of life? Will I compromise - or perhaps lose - what belongs uniquely to my tradition? What is the common ground on which we can converse? What, if any, will be the fruitful results of any dialogue? These questions plague the mind when we approach for dialogue. Yet, we are convinced that, in the moment when one surrenders one's mind and heart to the possibility of dialogue, something sacred happens. In the very willingness to embrace the other, beyond any fear or prejudice, a mystical spark is kindled and the reality of something - or Someone - far greater than us takes over. Then, we recognize how the benefits of dialogue far outweigh the risks. We are convinced that, in spite of cultural, religious and racial differences, we are closer to one another than we could ever imagine.