An exclusive interview of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew with Ukrinform (16 April 2020)
Question: Your All-Holiness, the greatest Orthodox holiday of Easter is approaching. Would You be so kind to recall times from the history of Christianity when believers could not attend holy ordinances and perform sacraments for objective reasons? How have these obstacles been overcome in the past?
Answer: Easter is indeed the feast of feasts, the night that St. Gregory of Nyssa describes as “brighter than any day.” It is the source of all other feasts and the center of our liturgical calendar, the feast that gives meaning to our faith and life. This is why it is so vital and crucial for Christians all over the world.
There have indeed been occasions in the past when Christians have been unable to celebrate Easter. History has experienced pandemics and plagues. And Christianity has experienced persecution and punishment. We need only think of the periods of oppression and martyrdom – both in the early Christian Church, but also in more recent times. The difference today is that we are aware of science and medicine, which in the case of the pandemic of COVID-19 propose a self-isolation for the protection of our lives.
In the early Church, monasticism was described as “white martyrdom” in contrast to the “blood martyrdom” of the martyrs. Today, our moral decision as human beings in accepting “social distancing” is a way of confronting the virus and caring for our neighbor.
Question: There is much debate now about whether sacraments can become a source of infection. What is the best way now for communion, confession, baptism, church marriage, etc.?
Answer: It is tempting, but also a form of escapism to dwell on the details of sacramental life. In the Middle Ages, scholars and superstition thrived on discussing topics such as the exact moment when the bread and wine were transformed into Christ’s body and blood, and how precisely a confession or baptism was valid or invalid.
As we indicated in one of our addresses to the faithful, what is at stake is not our identity as believers, but only our identity as human beings that “bear flesh and dwell in the world;” Our faith is a living faith, and there is no exceptional circumstance that can limit or suppress it. What must be limited and suppressed in these extraordinary circumstances are gatherings and large congregations of people. Let us remain in our homes. Let us be careful and protect those around us. And there, from our homes, strengthened by the power of our spiritual unity, let each and every one of us pray for all humankind.
Question: In Ukraine, we have examples when some churches and their leaders do not adhere to general quarantine rules, exposing the lives of believers to danger. Is there the responsibility for such actions in the church world?
Answer: As Orthodox Christians, it is important that we remember not simply our personal or pious obligations, but also our communal and social responsibility. The success of those working so hard to respond to and overcome COVID-19 depends on our participation and cooperation. This is an invaluable contribution to all of society, a sacrifice equally worthy of praise and gratitude as those fighting this battle on the front lines.
Question: How should practicing Christians behave during the quarantine? What tips for maintaining spiritual and moral stability can You give?
Answer: We speak of this time as a crisis – from the Greek word κρίσις – which means that we will be judged by our response to the circumstances that we face. This is an opportunity for us to learn life-changing and world-transforming lessons.
All of us recognize that what we previously considered “normal” in our world or “routine” in our life has been shattered and turned upside down. What we were accustomed to, what we have taken pleasure in, has abruptly changed or stopped. No longer can we take even the simplest things for granted. For us as Orthodox Christians, this also applies to our relationship with the church and, above all, with God. We can no longer take traditional or conventional ways for granted – like attending a service, lighting a candle, kissing the icons, singing with the choir, lining up for communion.
In this crisis, then, we have learned that the church is more than just a building. We have discovered that each of our homes and families are called to become and to be what St. John Chrysostom describes as a “small church” (ἐκκλησίαμικρά) – not just in name, but in actual practice. We should all be thankful for this precious lesson to our Lord who assures us: “where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). Indeed, Jesus Christ is closer to us than we to ourselves.
Question: Now we can see many examples of the “transition” of the church to the online mode. Is this a positive practice in Your opinion? Will there be a live broadcast of the festive Easter service from the Ecumenical Patriarchate?
Answer: One of the positive outcomes of this universal challenge is that we must now think deliberately and creatively about our relationships to one another. Working together from a distance, through the diverse means of modern technology, has provided not only the possibility of supporting one another as a means of consolation and survival but also of advancing our dreams and programs as a way of cooperation and progress.
We are deeply encouraged to learn of new ways ventured by churches, which were previously reserved toward such changes. After all, we are a living tradition, and the Body of Christ is an organic, vibrant community. We must always be attentive but never afraid in our use of technology, which must be employed as a means for the benefit of the people of God.
So, we rejoice when we hear of the diverse ways with which churches are responding to their vocation at this critical moment. We are delighted to see how they are uniting their efforts in addressing their faithful and focusing their attention on their pastoral needs.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate will indeed broadcast the Easter vigil from the Phanar, as well as all the services throughout Holy and Great Week.
Question: What lessons do You think we all need to learn from this situation of a common threat to humanity and a common confrontation with it?
Answer: The lessons that all of us have learned will prove indispensable when we emerge from this crisis. We have been reminded that the world is larger than our individual interests and concerns, larger than our jurisdictional parishes and congregations, larger than any single church or religious community.
We have realized that we must always do something more than what only affects our lives or our families. We have admired the doctors and nurses, who sacrifice their lives for the healing of others. We have witnessed those working in grocery stores and pharmacies, those driving trucks and delivering goods, and especially those volunteering their time or donating their money for our more vulnerable brothers and sisters. All these actions of selfless love exude the fragrance of the Resurrection.Ultimately, we have learned what the Scriptures and Saints have always known and declared – that “whoever does not love their brother, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 Jn 4:20).