Magazine 'Politika Themata' (English)
Interview with H.B. Petros VII,
Pope & Patriarch of Alexandria & all Africa
by Andreas Loudaros
Published in the Magazine “Political Themes”
14th January 1999
H.B. Petros VII, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa is the second-ranking Patriarch of the Orthodox world. Despite the eminence of His Throne, His Beatitude prefers to be close to his flock, which He is pleased to serve with love and devotion. H.B. Petros is particularly unpretentious and, on account of his spontaneity and easy humour, belongs to that group of clergy and Church Leaders who are especially well-loved, whilst at the same time He preserves the authority of the Throne of Saint Mark upon which He sits. In this, his first interview of the New Year, His Beatitude spoke with “Politika Themata” on many topics: His relations with the other Church Primates and the World Council of Churches, as well as the recent decision to ask forgiveness of Saint Nektarios for all that he suffered whilst a member of the clergy of the Patriarchate of Alexandria. As for Archbishop Christodoulos, His Beatitude considers him to be "an exceptional Church figure" and calls Him "one of the leading members of the Orthodox Church". Taking care to preserve the equilibrium between the other Patriarchates, His Beatitude comments upon the relationship between Constantinople, Athens and Moscow, stressing the inviolable nature of the Autocephaly of the Churches. Should you ever have the chance to visit the Missions of the Patriarchate in Africa, do not expect to find His Beatitude there in some grand mansion, for He prefers the humble shack. Even for the Patriarch himself, a prime example of true service and humility, in such places the highest of honors is no more than to witness someone of another faith being baptized as a Christian as a result of your own teaching!
Q. Your Beatitude, in recent years the Patriarchate of Alexandria has been somewhat reminiscent of a ‘sleeping giant’. Since Your election to the Throne of Alexandria, however, the second-ranking Orthodox Patriarchate has been flourishing. In Your opinion, what is the reason for this?
A. It is evident that, by the grace of God, and through careful decision-making, we have ensured that the vacant posts of Metropolitans and other clergy have been filled by capable individuals, devoted to their mission and the work of the Church. These individuals work in close cooperation together, with their Patriarch and the Patriarchate, and it is this which has brought about the flourishing activity of the Church of Alexandria. We have Missions in most African countries. The Orthodox Church invites all the African nations to embrace the true Christian message, which answers their spiritual search. It is also well known that our Church has never attempted to colonise the countries of the Dark Continent. Our native African brothers know and respect this, and that is why they want us near them. It is their experience that our aim is to help them both spiritually and materially. It is a combination of all these things which lift our Patriarchate up in the awareness, not only of the nations of Africa itself, but even farther afield.
Q. Recently You met with H.B. Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, during His official visit to the Great City of Alexandria. The subsequent official joint statement suggests that the two Churches enjoy close cooperation without friction or problems. To what degree is Alexandria dependent upon assistance from Athens and how has the relationship developed between the two Churches since this last meeting?
A. The Churches of Alexandria and Greece have always enjoyed and maintained good relations. There is no reason for a breach between them. This unity is the command of our Saviour Jesus Christ. He who causes scandal and division is answerable to the Saviour of the world, who stressed this saying: “ but woe to that man by whom the offense comes” (Matth. 18:7). The Church of Greece over recent years has contributed to the enormous and significant task of our Patriarchate, mainly in the Missionary work and the staffing of our Church with suitable clergy who serve the spiritual and religious needs of the Greek Orthodox Communities throughout the continent. Following the official visit of His Beatitude Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, the relationship between the two Apostolic Thrones is, of course, even closer. As Primate of the Ancient and Apostolic Throne of the Evangelist Mark, I expressed to His Beatitude the current problems which we face at the Patriarchate of Alexandria. We were in full agreement on the problems and proposed programmes for solving them.
Q. What is Your opinion of Archbishop Christodoulos? Is He, in Your view, the regulatory element in the international ecclesiastical scene?
A. His Beatitude Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, is an exceptional Church figure; a man of great learning and eloquence who understands how to approach the contemporary problems of mankind, and in particular of youth, with an open mind. I pray that God may grant Him health and fortitude, so that He might confront the concerns facing the Church in Greece in the most appropriate way. As Primate of the Church of Greece, His Beatitude Christodoulos is one of the leading members of the Body of the Orthodox Church. His contribution towards dealing with international ecclesiastical problems does, of course, play an important role in the common decisions and common line which the Body of Christ, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church follows.
Q. It is well known in ecclesiastical circles that Your relationship with the other Churches, and even with other dogmas, is extremely good. As Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, what moves have You made to come closer to the other Churches?
A. We follow the commandment which our Lord Jesus Christ gave us; that of love. If we are to love one another as He loves us, then this commandment should govern and direct our relations, not only towards the other Sister Orthodox Churches, but towards all heterodox Christian Faiths. We respect the faith of other dogmas, as people who seek God. But we bear witness to the true Christian Orthodox Faith within various inter-Christian conventions, our sole aim being to bring others to know the True Faith. This is why the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa supports and takes a serious part in international inter-Orthodox and inter-Christian dialogue. We follow the line of the ancient Fathers and Teachers of the Church of Alexandria. We bear witness to the truth and do not accept the slightest deviation from Apostolic Tradition. We would wish that all men, subject to their own freedom of choice, be members of the Body of the One Church of Christ.
Q. The World Council of Churches recently held their General Assembly in Harare. What is Your view of the WCC? Do You consider that it serves the purpose for which it was founded?
A. The Orthodox Church should take advantage of the World Council of Churches as a means to communicate the message of Orthodoxy. We should not approach the WCC with reservations or fear. Besides, Orthodoxy is not afraid to proclaim the truth, as its course through history proves - it is a course packed with holy-martyrs, martyrs and great-martyrs of the Orthodox Church, who decorate the firmament of the Church of God like bright stars. Naturally, when we take part in this type of dialogue, we should not expect that everyone will agree with us, or that they will accept Orthodoxy immediately. It is our duty to confess our Orthodox faith before the religious leaders of the world, whether they agree with us or not. Dialogue which is carried out in the spirit of love and honesty will win others over. But this takes a great deal of patience and hard work.
Q. Some criticise the WCC as an “ecumenical movement”. What is Your opinion?
A. We Orthodox Christians must not rest in the fact that we are Orthodox. We must pass on the light of Orthodoxy to all those around us, near and far. And how are we to do this? How are the peoples of the West to come to know Orthodoxy if we do not take part in international inter-Christian dialogue? Many of us are afraid that those who take part in the WCC are betraying Orthodoxy. I assure you, that in reality, exactly the opposite is true. Every Orthodox Christian who takes part in these discussions bears witness to the truth of Orthodoxy. There are Orthodox who have the courage to stand up, so that the voice of Orthodoxy be heard. It is they who face the attacks from those of contrary opinion with prudence and orderliness. The Ecumenist movement, inasmuch as it is defined as the demolition of the true Teachings and Apostolic Tradition, is completely unacceptable. No Orthodox Church will agree to partake in such dialogue. Our participation in the WCC is within the meaning of the ecumenicity which the Orthodox Christian message holds. Our contribution, by the Grace of God, becomes fruitful and constructive for all who accept the truth. Besides, the Orthodox Church does not search for the truth, because it is in itself the Ark of the Truth, as the Body of the Resurrected Christ.
Q. How do You view the relations between Constantinople, Athens and Moscow? Do You consider them to be satisfactory, or is greater effort required from all sides in order for them to come closer?
Á. I believe that the relationship between the Autocephalous Churches of Constantinople, Greece and Moscow are excellent. There is unity of faith, and that is more important than secondary organisational matters. Often organisational concerns in particular give the impression that they carry some breach of canonical order. There have been many such problems in the past. It is only human. What is important, though, is to maintain unity and love.
Every Orthodox Church is Autocephalous and interference or disturbance by another cannot be allowed. Any such action is counter to the order of the Church and comprises an uncanonical action. Without exception, all the Autocephalous and Autonomous Churches should respect the ancient tradition of the One Indivisible Church.
Q. A few months ago, You surprised everyone: As Primate of the Church of Alexandria, You visited the island of Aegina and asked forgiveness of Saint Nektarios. What urged You to make this move?
A. It is our Christian duty to ask forgiveness for mistakes which we have made in the past. As Primate of the Church of Alexandria, together with the members of the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa, we decided to restore canonical order and ask Saint Nektarios, Bishop of Pentapolis, for forgiveness for the injustices against him performed by our predecessor, Patriarch Sofronios IV. Saint Nektarios is one of the most beloved saints of the Orthodox Church. He has become known in the Greek conscience as “the Saint of our Time”. By expressing the true sorrow and regret of the Patriarchate of Alexandria for the unfairness which was shown him, we not only asked for forgiveness, but also declared that the year 1999 be dedicated to the honour of the Saint. Within the framework of the celebratory events in honour of Saint Nektarios, various events have been arranged throughout the year 1999, in Cairo, as well as in Alexandria. Representatives of various Orthodox Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches, as well as distinguished speakers, have been invited to honour the Saint of the Throne of Alexandria with their presence. I believe that Saint Nektarios, who so loved the Patriarchate of the Evangelist Mark, will pray to the Lord for the Church of the Alexandrians, the Patriarch and holy clergy, for the Greeks who remain in the Great City of Alexander and who continue to hold the torch of Orthodoxy and Hellenism high in the hospitable land of the Nile. May the grace of Saint Nektarios be always with you and with us all. Amen.