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Interns at Ecumenical Patriarchate

04 December 2005

28 November - 4 December 2005

Acknowledgements
The WCC young staff participating in the visit would like to sincerely thank His All Holiness Bartholomew I for making a very precious contribution to their ecumenical learning and spiritual growth. We are grateful not only for the opportunity we were given to visit an ecumenically committed church and to meet a world-wide known ecclesial and ecumenical leader but also for the interest and care of His All Holiness for the younger generation.

  • We are also grateful to all those who, with the blessing of His All Holiness and on His behalf, made our visit an extraordinary event: His Eminence Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima who planned and co-ordinated the visit, surrounding the group with a lot of attention and care, offering his time, sharing his vast knowledge and experience, making us feel welcome.
  • His Eminence Apostolos of Moschonision with the brethern of the Holy Trinity Monastery on Chalki Island for the generous welcome in their community.
  • Prof. Vasilis Stavrides who not only skilfully guided us through the corridors of the Chalki Academy but also took us on a fascinating journey through the history of the school and of the ecumenical movement.
  • Fr Dositheos Anagnostopoulos who shed light on the history of the Patriarchate and its contemporary situation. Best regards go also to his wife who we had occasion to meet.
  • Dn Ioachim and Dn Maxim - two young clergy who accompanied us throughout our visit with great friendliness and attention.
  • Mr Paul Gikas who led us on the trip to Nicea and provided valuable assistance throughout our whole stay in Istanbul. We also thank his wife Sophia for inspiring conversations we had together.
  • Mr Panayotis - our irreplaceable guide to the magnificent city of Istanbul and its history.
  • Mr Christos Triantafilides - the fearless driver of the Patriarchate who took us everywhere swiftly and safely. Greetings and thanks go also to his wife who welcomed us at their home.
  • Mr George Lemopoulos who as a member of his church and a child of the "City" proved to be an invaluable mentor, guide and a friend throughout the whole trip.

Once again, we would like to thank His All Holiness wholeheartedly and express our deep appreciation to His Eminence Metropolitan Gennadios who prepared and coordinated the visit, surrounded us with affection and care throughout our whole stay. Thank you all for making this visit a life experience for us.

Gustavo Bonato, Iren Kaulics, Jose Lopez-Vazquez, Lukasz Nazarko, Faautu Talapusi, Thomas Yonker, Naveen Qayyum

Introduction
Every year the WCC Internship Programme gathers several ecumenically committed young Christians from different parts of the world for a year of work in Geneva. Apart for fulfilling the assigned tasks, the community of interns participates in an intentional process of ecumenical learning through living, working and praying together, as well as through meetings, workshops and visits.

The visit to the Church of Constantinople enriched the Internship Programme already for the second consecutive year. A group of WCC interns has had an invaluable opportunity to experience the life and witness, the difficulties and hopes, the dreams and struggles of the centuries-old Church of Constantinople, to learn about the ecumenical commitment of the Patriarchate and to visit the historical places of vital importance for worldwide Christianity.

Participants

1. Mr George Lemopoulos
Turkey, WCC Deputy Secretary General
2. Mr Gustavo Bonato
Brazil, WCC intern
3. Ms Iren Kaulics
Hungary, WCC intern
4. Mr Jose Lopez-Vazquez
Mexico, WCC intern
5. Mr Lukasz Nazarko
Poland, WCC Youth Consultant
6. Ms Faautu Talapusi
Samoa, WCC intern
7. Mr Thomas Yonker
USA, WCC intern
8. Ms Naveen Qayyum
Pakistan, WCC intern

The programme

Monday, 28th November
We arrived to Istanbul at 2pm. We were warmly welcomed by the Representative of His All Holiness, Deacon Joachim. Close to the Patriarchate we settled in our conformable accommodation in Daphnis Hotel. At 4 p.m. we attended vespers in the church of the Patriarchate. Soon after we had an introduction on Orthodox liturgical space, structure of the liturgy, veneration of saints in Orthodox Church by George Lemopoulos. The next highlight of the day was exploring the Phanar district, wandering around, tasting some local sweets. Then we had dinner at the Patriarchate. We closed the day with an evening walk by the Golden Horn.

Tuesday, 29th November
This being the first full program day of the exposure trip we started by seeing some of the major sites in Istanbul to help establish ourselves in this complex city of immense history. The activities on the agenda included a trip to Hagia Sophia and the Church of Chora. We were very lucky to find time in the schedule to make a visit to the famous Blue Mosque. After lunch at the Ecumenical Patriarchate we met with Fr Dositheos who was kind enough to give us an overview of the history of the Patriarchate in relation to the Turkish state. In the evening a very busy day was capped off by an audience with His Beatitude Armenian Patriarch Mesrop followed by a reception. 

Wednesday, 30th NovemberWednesday was the day of St. Andrew, the patron saint of the Patriarchate. Therefore, a very important celebration took place in the cathedral of the Patriarchate. It was more than three hours long, and had a large attendance, including a delegation from the Vatican, headed by Cardinal Walter Casper. We came in contact with the most elaborate and rich example of liturgy. After that, we had a lunch at the Patriarchate, we went with Deacon Ioachim to the Grand Bazaar, where we could practice the art of bargaining. Afterwards we enjoyed a walk in the area around Taksim Square. To end the day we went with Fr. Dositheos and his wife to a restaurant. This was the time when languages other than English could be used in the conversation.

Thursday, 1st December
We were taken to Nicea at 07:30 by Paul Gikas and George Lemopolous by bus and a ferry later. Church of Saint Sophia and archaeological sites of Nicea were visited and George Lemopolous explained the history of the place and its ecumenical importance and answered the questions asked by us. Lunch was taken in Nicea around 13:00 after which we went back to Istanbul. In the evening we had a visit to the Holy Monastery of Valouki where we visited the church, the miraculous spring and had dinner with Metropolitan Gennadios and the nuns of the monastery. At the dinner we had an informal chat with the metropolitan and received gifts and souvenirs offered by him and the nuns.

Friday, 2nd December
We visited the Holy Monastery of St Trinity that is located at the top of a hill called the Hill of Hope, on the island of Chalki, one of the Princes Islands. It's approximately one hour by boat from the shores of Istanbul. We met professor Vasilis Stavrides, who has been teaching the History of the Ecumenical Movement for more than 50 years. He explained us a little bit of the roll of the Orthodox church on the Ecumenical Movement. The professor also took us to the Chapel of the monastery and the academy and explained to us the Byzantine frescoes and icons that are located in the place. He also showed us the huge library of the academy. In the Afternoon we had and encounter and a delicious lunch with the Abbot of the Monastery H.E. Metropolitan Apostolos of Moschonision. We went back to Istanbul on the evening.

Saturday, 3rd December
On this day, we were accompanied by the very knowledgeable and delightful Mr Panayotis from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. We started our visit at the Archaeological Museum which is a complex of building housing different collections of artefacts. These came from ancient Greek, Roman and other Anatolian civilisations dating back to the 6th century BC.

The group was then taken to see the extravagant Topkapi Palace. We did not have adequate time to see and appreciate the Palace but it seemed like a "mini-city". Its kitchens were built to hold 500 cooks and the Imperial Treasury held eye-popping jewellery notably the massive diamond called the Spoonmaker's diamond which was supposedly found in a rubbish bin.

It also displayed various relics important to the Christian and Muslim faiths. Some remains of Saint John the Baptist are displayed here. Relics of Prophet Mohammed were specially placed in a chamber. We then had lunch at a restaurant nearby which had an unbelievable view of Istanbul.

Our day's highlight however, came in the evening when the Ecumenical Patriarch His All Holiness Bartholomew I received our group and gave us an inspiring message. He stressed the importance youth have in the life of the ecumenical movement and encouraged us to continue to strive for Christian unity.

Sunday, 4th December
In the morning we participated in the Divine Liturgy celebrated by Metropolitan Gennadios at the Church of 12 Apostles. This was the third time during our visit when we had an opportunity to "taste" the Orthodox worship and the first time to worship outside Phanar. Compared to the celebrations of the St Andrew feast on 30 November at the Patriarchate, the Divine Liturgy this time was shorter and more modest yet very solemn and festive. The worship ended with the blessing of bread, wine and oil to mark the feast of St Barbara, Iren's patron saint. After the service we were welcomed at the parish hall where the community's philanthropic organisation held a small celebration. We also had an opportunity to talk with the members of the community about their life in the church, the challenges and struggles of the Greek minority in Istanbul. In the afternoon we took (unfortunately the last...) lunch at the Patriarchate after which we thanked Metr. Gennadios for preparing our visit, for the care and the extraordinary hospitality which he had offered to us. At 15:00 we set off from hotel Daphnis to the airport. This is was the beginning of our travel adventures on the way to back Geneva…

Personal reflections

Gustavo Bonato, Brazil - intern in the Assembly Office
The first thing to say about this trip is that I felt really comfortable and "at home", even though I was in a very different city, among people from a very different denomination. I think this "home" feeling came because of the huge effort of the people in the Patriarchate to welcome the group, treating us extremely well and gently, and answering any question and request we had.

The presence of Metropolitan Gennadions and Georges Lemoupolous was crucial, to explain from simple to complex things, in the most comprehensive way. Their knowledge and ability to interpret things in an ecumenical way are very impressive.

The trip was the best introduction possible to Orthodoxy and history of the early Christianity.

When I was listening about the frescos in the Chora church I was suddenly stricken by this perception that all those things are also part of my history. Even though I am Lutheran (a denomination with few hundreds years old), I carry two thousand years of faith, devotion, struggle, suffering and witness with me, because, first of all, I'm a Christian.

Regarding the Orthodox church, maybe there couldn't be a better place to learn more about all the concepts, symbols, beliefs and ways of being church. From the configuration of the church and the altar to the history of the saints and icons or the hierarchy among the clergy, everything made a lot of sense. I may not agree with many points of views and practices, but after all this experience I respect even more the Orthodox churches. I also recognise that for these churches, with more strict and unchangeable rules and uses, it demands a bigger effort to be part of the ecumenical world, in comparison to the protestant churches. This effort must be recognised.

Iren Kaulics, Hungary - intern in the General Secretariat
The study trip has been a remarkable learning experience and even more than that: an unforgettable pilgrimage. The trip also provided us with an excellent opportunity to tighten the bonds of friendship and care within the interns' community especially since it was our first trip all together.

First of all I would like to thank to our great host Metropolitan Gennadios for his warm welcome, attention, care and openness. I will never forget the late evening dinner with him in the Patriarchate when in the middle of a very jolly discussion unofficially and surprisingly we first met His Holiness Bartholomew. I would like to thank our colleague George Lemopoulos for his presence. His interpretation of Orthodox Church and Ecumenical Movement, his explanations, his knowledge on Byzantine and Ottoman history helped us to have a clear understanding of the complex reality we faced in Istanbul. In the same time

Apart from having the chance to visit, touch and see main historical Christian monuments, holy places, the heritage of all Christians the highlight of the trip was that I really felt at home in the Phanar and I felt I can share with my fellow interns "my" Church. Since most of the time in Geneva we are in a predominantly Protestant environment for the future of ecumenical movement and for deeper discussions, understanding and work it is especially important to have such exposures of the Orthodox Church; not only for the interns but for other staff as well.

Attending with my fellow interns the festal patriarchal liturgy on the St Andrew's feast and on Sunday a simple parish liturgy was a great joy for me; liturgy is the space where the time stops and we unite ourselves in prayer.

I am very grateful to our organisers that we had the opportunity to meet a great variety of people working in the Patriarchate, starting from the friendly driver, through the multilingual priests, the enthusiastic deacons, the knowledgeable lay people, the famous cook nuns to the hospitable patriarch. Besides formal lectures and informative chats the most popular way of communication was the Socratic style question-answer dialogue which always kept the discussions vivid.

After a week in Istanbul obviously there are still many question unanswered about Orthodoxy but this gives us all motivation to carry on with our church and ecumenical involvement.

Some recommendations:
1. I missed the presence of women in the Patriarchate. It would have been good to have the opportunity to have meeting with women theologians or lay persons who are deeply involved in Church life. I felt that we should have spent more time with the nuns in the Monastery of Valoukli.
2. Once we were in a largely Muslim country it would have been good at one point to have an hour introduction on Islam by a Muslim.
3. Looking at the importance of the study trip it could be planned for a bit earlier stage of the internship programme.

Jose Lopez-Vazquez, intern in Justice, Peace and Creation team

It was a great opportunity for all the interns to visit the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. I hope the next interns also attend and enjoy this visit. The opportunity to know other ways of praying and understanding God is also an opportunity to understand my own beliefs and religious identity in a better way. Coming from a protestant background I felt the challenge of reconciling two different understandings of praying.

Lukasz Nazarko, Poland - consultant, Youth Programme
My overall impression of the visit is excellent. Interns' visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate is one of the highlights of the yearly WCC internship programme. It broadens and often transforms participants' perspectives on Christianity and equips them with a better understanding of Orthodoxy, its identity, history, theology and its place in the ecumenical movement. This educational and transformational aspect is especially valuable since WCC interns will most likely assume positions in their churches and will be the ones carrying the ecumenical movement into the future.

There are several points I would especially like to underline:

  • Warm reception and extraordinary hospitality
    From the very moment of our arrival to Istanbul to the last minutes of our stay in Turkey we were treated with a lot of care, generosity, attentiveness and patience. Metropolitan Gennadios' successful efforts to make us feel welcome gave an entirely new dimension to our stay in Istanbul and enhanced the process of learning, discovering and experiencing.
  • Diverse programme
    The 7-day programme was very well planned, balanced and embraced diverse methods of learning. Visits to historical sites, meetings with the staff of the Patriarchate, clergy, nuns and laity, participation in the liturgical life, informal discussions with our hosts - all those elements formed an "ecumenical learning package" that was very rich, educationally effective and had a lasting effect on us.
  • Presence of George Lemopoulos
    George Lemopoulos' accompaniment was very helpful and enriching. We benefited from his knowledge, experience and the ability to interpret Christianity, Orthodoxy and the ecumenical movement in a clear, yet non-trivial way.
  • Strengthening and deepening of our community
    I have a feeling that the visit has had a very positive influence on our community. Being together for a week in an out-of-WCC context has cemented the friendship and understanding among us. The trust we have developed helped us to face together, with openness and sensitivity, issues on which we had divergent opinions. This for me is a sign that we have matured in our relationships, we are serious about ecumenism and we know it is not easy.

Faautu Talapusi, Samoa - intern in the Pacific Desk
When we arrived in Istanbul, we were met by the smiling and warm face of Deacon Joachim who instantly made us feel at home and so began a wonderful trip into history, tradition, culture and learning.

Throughout the trip my feelings about the different experiences and events varied from one extreme to another, but in a very positive way. The first thing I observed was the hospitality and generosity shown to us by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, especially by Metropolitan Gennadios. It reminded me a lot of the Pacific and I found it very comforting and familiar. George Lemopoulos, an invaluable member of our trip, introduced us to the Orthodox tradition by explaining the significance of Church of St George - the Patriarchate's cathedral. I found this fascinating and was in awe of a tradition that seemed the total opposite of my own Protestant tradition.

While visiting Hagia Sophia, a sadness came over me when I saw the destruction of Christian mosaics and icons and could only imagine its splendour and grandeur before the fall of Constantinople. However, I was also very much encouraged by the natural juxtaposition of Muslim writing and icons of Mary and Jesus. After much reflection on this image, I felt a sense of peace because it showed that different faiths can and are living in harmony.

Over the week, we were given an intense and sometimes overwhelming amount of information about the history of the Orthodox Church. Yet, this also gave me a reflection about myself and my own tradition. The differences and similarities between us imparted on us a sense of how urgent and important the ecumenical movement is for Christian unity.

This experience is an unforgettable highlight in my ecumenical formation. It made me appreciate who I am and the history of my Christian identity. And as George Lemopoulos said to me when I compared my 175 year old church with the 2000 year-old Orthodox tradition, "It doesn't matter, what matters is our faith is centred on our Lord Jesus Christ".

Naveen Qayuum, Pakistan - intern in the Public Information Team
Trip to Istanbul was one of the very positive ecumenical exposures in terms of learning, introduction to the Greek Orthodox Church and the historical heritage of Christianity in general. It brought us the realisation about the uniqueness of the Orthodox Church, its deep rooted historical and cultural significance and its strong presence in a Muslim majority country. Visiting the patriarch and meeting the people provided us with an opportunity to observe the life of the Church closely and learn about the place and Church with a more personal perspective. The formal environment of meeting the leadership of the Church was simultaneously accompanied by the warm hospitality and informal socialisation with the staff working at the patriarch and Church leadership. It gave us an opportunity to ask the questions to the clergy as well as to know and understand each other. Liturgy at the St George Cathedral opened a door of an insight to the Orthodox Church and brought us to very interesting discussions including appreciation, critiques and comparisons with other churches. It made me respect and appreciate the diversity of Christian Churches and added to my wish of knowing more about the Orthodox Church, its history and life. It also brought a sense of belonging and Christian unity to me as well as emphasised the vastness of ecumenism by showing the diversity its Churches has.

Visits to the historical places and museums was one of the very high points during the entire trip since it added a lot to our knowledge and understanding of the history of the region, Christianity, churches and the influence of Turks and Islam. The presence and guidance of Mr George Lemopoulos was one of the major factors which brought a very positive learning experience to the group and made us know more of the historical contexts in the life of the Church connected with the history of the country. Visits to places like Hagia Sophia, Nicea and the Blue Mosque were the guided tours by him where his explanations and interpretations made it easier to understand and comprehend the complex histories.

Personally this trip brought a lot of identifying similarities to me as a Pakistani within the political, historical and cultural contexts and church life. Such as Christians as minority in a Muslim majority situation, the struggle for the existence and survival of ones' religious identity, heritage, culture and institutions, Islam and Christianity together in the same context despite of the history of conflicts and violence and examples of religious coexistence. It made me ask more questions about the interreligious relations and dialogue as one of the major areas of concern in the ecumenical movement and how it works differently in different political contexts. It added to my interest in the field and provided me with an opportunity to observe things in the daily life at more real and practical level. It was surely a positive addition to the otherwise theological, theoretical and conceptual understanding of interreligious relations and dynamics of majority-minority situations.

It was a great experience to be in Istanbul. The excellent guidance and support Metropolitan Gennadios, an opportunity to meet the leadership of the Orthodox Church, visiting the historical places, the great supportive presence of the WCC community and the warm hospitality of the Patriarch makes this experience unforgettable.

Thomas Yonker, USA - intern in Faith & Order team
Like most experiences in my life, I am awed and overwhelmed by them most when I try to explain what happened to those who were not part of the experience. The realness and worth of certain experiences become more acute after the fact; after all is said and done and the whirlwind has passed.

But in the case of this once in a lifetime opportunity that was so graciously made possible to us, latter reflection should in no way diminish the value of a hands-on and different experience of history, church and culture such as we had in Istanbul. On the contrary, the value of being able to be among a living history of more than 2000 years is without match. Indeed, being able to visit all these places of such importance helped me to visualise and solidify in my mind a large part of church and world history with which I normally have no contact.

But a city is not just buildings, a city is the people. The side of Istanbul that we were fortunate enough to witness is a rare one. Seeing Istanbul through the eyes of the Greek, Christian minority is most definitely an experience which will stay with me my whole life and it's one that cannot be duplicated simply by going to Istanbul. The people we met, our guides, our hosts and others all opened their city and their lives to us from a very different perspective. I realise now that this unique perspective was their gift to us, and to me, it has become a new light with which to view my own Christian faith. I suppose some of my fellow non-Orthodox interns in their reports will say that they now feel a part of something larger; a wider Christian history which links us all to a common root. I feel this way. I feel I have gained nearly 1000 years of Christian history which I realise now that I was overlooking, or I simply was ignorant of.

The hospitality, graciousness and warmth of Metropolitan Gennadions and the people who hosted us at the Ecumenical Patriarchate cannot be overstated. This includes our many knowledgeable guides and our faithful and fearless driver, Christos, whose skill and prowess behind the wheel is unmatched in all of Istanbul. Throughout the entire experience, the presence of George Lemopolous was indispensable. He cannot be praised enough for taking the time to be a teacher, leader and friend to us along the way.

Most especially, it was a joy for me to see the men of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at home and at peace as they went about working and praying, taking strength and power from the very ground they stood on. It was clear to me directly from the beginning that we were among people who exude such an air of hospitality and warmth that the environment in which they work and live is saturated with grace, humility and love. I can only hope to have absorbed some of this devotion to honest living.

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