1 December 2015
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Constantinople receives Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome, at the Phanar, Istanbul, in November 2014. (photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)
The Patriarchal Church of Constantinople — the Ecumenical Patriarchate — ranks as primus inter pares, “first among equals,” in the worldwide Orthodox communion of churches. The present incumbent, Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, exercises no authority over other Orthodox churches or patriarchs. Yet his prerogatives include second in honor after Rome among the ancient sees of the church; the right to hear appeals between clergy if invited; and the right to ordain bishops outside defined canonical boundaries.
Not all accept this status. Some canonists, particularly those associated with the powerful Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, challenge the ecumenical patriarch’s leadership. They assert the medieval claim that “Two Romes have fallen. A third — Moscow — yet stands. A fourth there shall not be.” The Turkish government rejects any global role of the ecumenical patriarch, citing only his leadership for the few thousand Orthodox Christians who remain in Turkey; most live in the city that is today called Istanbul.
The Great Church dedicated to the Holy Wisdom of God, Hagia Sophia, was the seat of the ecumenical patriarch until its conversion to a mosque in 1453. Today it serves as a museum. (photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
Bartholomew I, nevertheless, enjoys international stature. He exercises varying degrees of authority over some 3.5 million Orthodox Christians in Turkey, northern Greece and those scattered beyond the traditional canonical boundaries of the ancient patriarchates, including the Americas, Oceania and Western Europe. And environmentalists have nicknamed him the “Green Pope” for his advocacy of and commitment to environmental conservation.
Tradition attributes the apostle Andrew as the founder of the church of Constantinople, which is commemorated every 30 November, the feast of St. Andrew, with liturgies in the humble patriarchal church of St. George in the Phanar neighborhood of Istanbul. But the see’s eventual link to the Roman caesar would catapult it to prominence within Christendom, rivaling even Rome.
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