Friday, January 08, 2010

Meeting with the Patriarch of Jerusalem

About 6:30 the next morning, my dad and I headed to the Patriarchate. Weaving our way through the maze of buildings, we finally came to the chapel dedicated to Sts Constantine and Helen, where they were just finishing Orthros (Matins). Around 7:00, they started Divine Liturgy, with just one priest serving, the Patriarch sitting in his throne, and the church occupied by about 12 bishops and priests, several nuns (including our new friend Gerontissa Melania) and maybe 3 lay people. You can see the entrance to the chapel in the photo above. The dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in the background.

It was a nice, peaceful Liturgy, and afterwards my dad and I were invited to have coffee with the Patriarch and the clergy. Everyone drank and ate a snack in silence before the Patriarch headed out, telling me to come visit him in his office later.

Gerontissa Melania told us that the best time to visit him in his office would be around 9:30 or after, so she decided to take us to see a few things in the meantime. The first stop was the church (in one of the many former monasteries in the Old City) built on the spot where Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Christ's cross (Mt 27:32 & par.) You can see my dad at that spot in the photo above.

Afterwards, we went to what remains of another ancient former monastery, St. Euthymios, which now houses just one nun (see photo above). Many of these monasteries are tucked into hidden corners of the Old City and, we were surprised to learn, actually now have people's homes inside their grounds. Former monastic cells and buildings are now people's homes, all within the monastery's compound! Meanwhile, a handful of monastics try to live their lives there and at least preserve the monastic church.

At St Euthymios, the gerontissa received us gladly and showed us the ancient chapel dedicated to St. Euthymios, before treating us to coffee and a snack. We had a very nice discussion -- like so many there and here in Greece, she (a Greek) was fascinated to hear about the converts to Orthodoxy in the US.

Finally, we headed back to the Patriarchate. In the photo above, Gerontissa and I are headed into the compound. (Can you believe that the Patriarch's car actually drives in this alley to come pick him up?)

We were quite fortunate to meet Patriarch Theophilos III after waiting just a few minutes, and without making a prior appointment. And then he was quite generous with his time, spending about a half an hour with us. His English is excellent, so--to my dad's great relief, no doubt--we spoke in English. The main topic of conversation was the previous day's events in Bethlehem.

Apparently, every year before Christmas (according to the Old Calendar, Jan 7), the Orthodox (who are the main proprietors of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem) do a thorough cleaning of the church in preparation for the feast. This means bringing out ladders to clean on top of things, etc. Well, this day was the day before we met with the Patriarch, and he was there in Bethlehem that day to supervise. Apparently, some of the Orthodox clergy and monastics came too close to a small corner that has been taken over by an Armenian Orthodox group, and violence ensued. One of the Armenians shook the ladder on which one Orthodox monk was standing, and when another Orthodox came to support the ladder, he was hit in the head with some kind of iron implement like a crow bar and sent to the hospital (where he underwent surgery), along with two others from the Orthodox party.

When we asked the Patriarch about this situation, which was all over the news that morning, he was clearly quite distressed by what he had seen. He said he could no longer keep quiet about the insanity there and wanted the world to know how the Orthodox were suffering in the Holy Land.

Having now been there (albeit just for a few days), I have a somewhat better appreciation for just how highly charged and complicated the political situation there must be, and I can only imagine how difficult it must be to be the patriarch.

My dad and I were both very impressed by the patriarch's humility and friendliness. I presented the patriarch with two books -- one published by our Western American Diocese's press, featuring icons and essays of Fr. Stamatis Skliris, and another from my metropolis in Volos, Greece, detailing the history of one of its historic churches.

I was honored and humbled when the patriarch personally presented me with a pectoral cross from the Jerusalem Patriarchate (see above). Although this is probably something he gives to all the priests, it was still a highlight of the trip for me. He also gave me permission to serve Liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre (!!), which will be in a forthcoming post.

Below you can see my dad got in on a photo with the patriarch, who also presented my dad with several gifts, including an icon.