Jewish, Anglican and Catholic leaders paid tribute to Patriarch Bartholomew as he was about to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his enthronement as spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. Pope Francis was scheduled to participate in a celebratory luncheon for the patriarch on September 20 in Assisi.
The Assisi celebrations on September 18-20 were organised by the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, the Diocese of Assisi and the Franciscan friars.
In a formal meeting hall at the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi on September 19, the leaders praised Patriarch Bartholomew as an ecumenist, theologian and leading religious defender of God’s creation.
Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury presided over the tribute to the patriarch, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, gave the main talk, highlighting how “with great tact in difficult situations” the patriarch “always helped to overcome complicated twists and turns with the grand dexterity of a ‘pontiff,’ that is, a builder of bridges.”
The unity Christians hope and pray for, he said, will not be the result of “any absorption, or watering down or homogenisation, but a unity in reconciled diversity.”
Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told participants, “There is an understandable but regrettable tendency among those who are deeply rooted in a religious tradition to be insular and exclusive in their world outlook. While on the other hand, all too often those who are more open to engagement with those different from themselves reflect a superficiality lacking substance.”
The biblical model of excellence, though, is of “a luxuriant tree,” the rabbi said. It is the image of “one profoundly rooted within his own heritage and yet whose branches reach out as widely as possible providing fruit for all.”
Saying that Patriarch Bartholomew is such a man, Rabbi Rosen praised the patriarch’s leadership in condemning all violence in the name of religion and in addressing the issue of climate change and care for creation.
“His leadership in the environmental movement, long before it became fashionable, is a reflection of his sincere and genuine care for the cosmos as a whole,” he said.
Saying he was humbled by the tributes, Patriarch Bartholomew jokingly told the crowd present, “Don’t believe everything you hear!”
The patriarch said that while he was touched by the words of those he has collaborated with and admired, his work “resembles only a drop of water in an ocean of human pain and global suffering.”
“We do not rejoice without at the same time recalling and sharing in the suffering of others. And, at the Ecumenical Patriarchate, we certainly never experience joy without remembering that we embody a tradition that has known both glory and martyrdom through the ages,” he said.
The celebration serves only as an affirmation “that the bishop, too, is a child of God and a son of the Church,” the patriarch said.