The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is the Archbishop of Constantinople, ranked as the first among equals among the hierarchs of the several churches that collectively form the Orthodox Church. Within the five apostolic sees, the Ecumenical Patriarch is regarded as the successor of St Andrew the Apostle; with Bartholomew being the 270th holder of this title.
He is widely regarded as the spiritual leader and pastor of the approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. The title ‘Ecumenical’ refers to the universality of the Patriarchate, still based today in the great city of Constantinople, Istanbul Turkey. The Patriarchs in ancient history assisted in the peaceful spread of the ancient original Christian Church, Her Apostolic Tradition and the resolution of doctrinal disputes. In the middle ages they played a major role in the affairs of the Orthodox Church, sharing the faith with the Slavs, often under difficult political circumstances. Bartholomew, continuing this rich Patriarchal tradition of offering, sharing and pastorally guiding his Orthodox Christian flock, represents the Church, and assists in interfaith dialogues, worldwide philanthropic charitable and pastoral work, preaching against violence, persecution, disrespect of the human being’s dignity, and religious intolerance.
Last year on the day of Pentecost, after decades of preparation, the Patriarch Bartholomew led a Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete; in other words a meeting consisting of the main leaders of the Orthodox Christian Church. This Holy Synaxis, led by our Patriarch was not only a significant expression of the Church’ unity and living faith, yet also a bold statement that the Orthodox Church must pastorally promote and share the triumphal, joyful and life-giving faith in Christ to such a broken world of ethical, political, social injustices and crises. Some of the official documents released by the fruitful and productive council led by Bartholomew included the ‘Relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world,’ ‘The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s world,’ and the ‘Sacrament of Marriage.’ In our context of secularisation and moral relativism the Council emphasised the Church’ preservation of the human person’s dignity as the image of God, of family life, and the pastoral nature of the Church’ role in society.
When one is called to serve the Church’ hierarchy, with Christ as our Archpastor and Shephard, pastoral responsibilities increase within this ecclesial structure. I believe that the pastoral spirit of understanding, collaboration, dialogue, respect, and fundamentally love (which is not simply a feeling or state, but sharing in the very person of Christ, the incarnate, crucified and Risen Lord) is truly seen and witnessed in the person of Bartholomew, as our representative and Hierarch of the Church of Constantinople. The pastoral care and responsibility of the Church, as is written in Scripture, is very much grounded within the order of clergy. The Scriptures note that the Good Shephard’ (Jn 10:11) Christ, gives those of us who are ‘temperate, respectable, hospitable, gentle, peaceable..’ (1 Tim 3:1-3) the grace and gift to carry out His ministry, ‘to comfort those who are in any affliction’ (2 Cor 1:14) to ‘feed His sheep’ (Jn 21:17) as members of His body. (Rom 12:4-21)
In my opinion, one of the greatest gifts a clergyman and pastor should cultivate today, and by all means a Bishop such as our Patriarch with responsibility on a worldwide scale, is that of discernment; knowing when to speak out against evil, knowing when to remain silent, knowing when to diplomatically act, while simultaneously remaining faithful to the Church’ tradition and Gospel of love. For me, his all-Holiness certainly cultivates this gift, and is an example not only to every leader, but to every clergyman and pastoral carer. There are several reasons I say this. Perhaps one of the most significant reasons is because of his continuous bold message of the dignity and holiness of the human person (which I’m sure most of us would agree is the very foundation of Christian Pastoral care) as a psychosomatic being who needs and desires the sacramental care, nurturing, and eternal joy in Christ. The human being who is called to be a steward of God’s creation, a carer for the environment, and who is called to commune with our God and fellows.
Through the guidance, blessing and initiative of Patriarch Bartholomew, the Network for Pastoral Health Care was set up in 2008, holding annual conferences consisting of representatives of orthodox churches throughout the world, in order to discuss and implement ways in which the Church as our Mother serves those who are sick. The central objectives are to help those in this particular ministry, promoting a high-quality standard of pastoral health care. This network has led to an increased awareness of the clergy and laity’s role of serving those in need within each Orthodox community worldwide, with the setting up of philanthropic centres, hospices and assigned chaplains responsible for the sick.
Bartholomew himself writes: “Caring for the sick knows no geographic boundaries. It does not distinguish between race, people or language, but is directed without discrimination and without exception toward all human beings who are created in God’s image, as God Himself, the Physician of souls and bodies, did and does.”
The network has discussed topics such as loneliness in life, despair in face of severe psychological difficulties, the importance and role of Confession for those who suffer from psychological illnesses, communicating with the deaf and blind, and ministering to those who are on the wayside of life.
Caring for the sick has been a major part of the Church’s mission since Apostolic times. Throughout the history of the Church, dedicated clergymen, medical and health care professionals have worked together to provide for the physical and spiritual health of all those who are ill. Pastoral care, for our Patriarch, and Orthodox theology in general, is centred on the human being’s whole and complete restoration to health; a full harmony between soul and body. As opposed to secular ideas of health and well-being, Orthodox Theology underlines the importance of spiritual healing ( taking place with our free participation in, and acceptance of, Christ’s salvation) leading to psychosomatic harmony and well-being. Thus pastoral care for Bartholomew is not something separate from the Eucharistic, prayerful life of the Church, but flows from it.
Bartholomew, addressing the European Council of Pastoral Care and Counselling on their theme of ‘the Secular and the Sacred,’ tells us that ‘one who lives a secular life, a life of this world is one who distances himself or herself consciously from the will of the Heavenly Father, pursuing self-deification through the usage, abuse and overuse of the good things that have been granted by God. On the contrary, one who lives within the realm of "the sacred" is one who lives a life of holiness within the grace of Christ, the love of the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit. One who lives a sacred life is in a continual journey toward the Eternal Kingdom of God. In this journey one will find our Lord as a companion, just as His Disciples did on their way to Emmaus. Even though the eyes of one's heart sometimes may be sealed because of everyday stress and anxiety, often obstructing one's journey, our Lord will not forsake those of His flock.’
Thus, he advises all pastors to devote themselves to ‘caring for those who have been entrusted to you, leading them in their journey to the Kingdom.’ In other words, Pastoral care allows us to participate in the sacred presence of God, within His all-embracing Church, known by the fathers as the Hospital for sinners.
While Bartholomew recognises the benefits of contemporary, medical and psychological methodologies in leading fellow men and women out of despair and illness, he emphasises that ‘the essential spiritual expression of continual prayer, humility and denial of our worldly desires allows us to participate in God’s philanthropic grace.’ In doing this we imitate the First and Greatest Pastor , our Lord Jesus Christ Who fully knows all the entities of the human personality and can heal any infirmity.
For our Patriarch Bartholomew, the Church, as Christ’s body and the ark of humanity’s salvation, has to act, by serving humanity in our world of suffering, injustice and conflicts. Tackling poverty, discrimination, victims of war, youth unemployment, and drug use, as well as both mental and physical illnesses is only successful and true when done out of self-sacrificial love found in fullness in Christ’s kenotic crucifixion. His all-holiness Bartholomew, I would argue, has shown throughout his ministry that as Christians in this broken yet hopeful world in which we live, we are called to joyfully feed those who are hungry, clothe those who are naked, visit those who are sick and imprisoned, fundamentally sharing the message and experience of Christ’s triumphal resurrection, eternal salvation and life.