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Patriarchal pilgrimage

When Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I begins a monthlong tour of the United States, faithful adherents of the Orthodox churches in America will be there en masse.

He is the "first among equals" of the 16 patriarchs who lead the 300-million-member Christian Orthodox Church worldwide, described by some as the "Orthodox pope." And he will leave Turkey in mid-October to visit Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta and other cities. Most of Utah's faithful who plan to see His All Holiness, the Patriarch of Constantinople, will travel to Dallas in early November."His visit is wonderful," said Mary DiMante, a member of the Greek Orthodox Community in Salt Lake City. "In all the history of our Orthodox church and our diocese in America, this is only the second time a patriarch has visited us in the U.S. And we hope it will not be the last."

DiMante said that the political situation in Turkey, the seat of the patriarch of Constantinople, where he resides, has made such visits difficult. At times, the Turkish government has reportedly threatened to not allow the patriarch to return.

So what, exactly, is an ecumenical patriarch?

"This is equal to a visit by the pope," DiMante said. "I acknowledge that his holiness is to me what the pope is to the Catholics. He is my spiritual father and my spiritual leader."

He serves that role not only for the Greek Orthodox Church, but for all of the Orthodox branches, which share the same liturgy and beliefs but are separated by language. The Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Antiochan and other Orthodox churches are separated by language but not differences in theology.

A faith divided

Indeed, the patriarch of Constantinople and the pope were at one time on nearly equal footing in a united Orthodox Church.

During the Second Ecumenical Council in the fourth century, a hierarchy was set up among the patriarchs. Rome (now the pope), representing the West, would be "first among equals," followed by the patriarchs of Constantinople (now Bartholomew I), Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Those patriarchs would meet to make decisions, but the ecumenical patriarch would call and preside at the meetings.

Little has changed among the patriarchs and the way decisions are made. Individual churches are still autonomous, united by shared faith and creed. And as new patriarchs were added, they were each assigned a place in the succession.

But the church began to split in the 700s and in 1054, "The Great Schism Between East and West" occurred. The churches of the East, now the Eastern Orthodox Churches, did not believe that the patriarch of Rome (the pope) was infallible.

There was a complete breakdown between what would become the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, with each church's leader excommunicating the other. While church leaders in later centuries rescinded the excommunications, the rift has never been repaired, although both Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I talk of a day when the church will reunite.

Papal infallibility was not the only point of contention. In the creed, the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges that the Holy Spirit emanates from the Father and the Son to form the Trinity. In the Orthodox creed, the Holy Spirit comes from the Father only.

Orthodox Christianity allows priests to marry; the Roman Catholic Church does not. And Orthodox Christians do not believe in the immaculate conception of Jesus Christ.

For Father John Tsaras of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in downtown Salt Lake City, the break was also one driven by geography.

"There were bad feelings that the pope was trying to infringe his authority on other bishops. His title was first among equals, and Rome was the capital of the empire, so that bishop would preside. But the others were geographically closer together. And the problems in the East were different from problems in the West. When something happened in the West, the people might have had to make a decision independently. In the East, it was a lot easier to get the bishops together to discuss matters."

When the break came, most Orthodox Christians probably viewed it as a difference of opinions among bishops, The Rev. Tsaras said. Later, during the Crusades, when Constantinople was ransacked, the split became complete.

"I would say a lot of people would very much like to see the Catholic and Orthodox Church come back together, but fear something might be compromised that is dear to us. It would be wonderful to bring two churches back together, but there's almost 1,000 years of history apart. How do we resolve the different things, like the view of the infallibility of the pope. That's not acceptable to us."

The `Green Patriarch'

His All Holiness was born Demetrios Archontonis on Feb. 29, 1940, on the Aegean island of Imvros in Turkey. When he completed school at Imvros and Constantinople, he studied at the Theological School of Halki and was immediately ordained in the Orthodox Church.

Throughout Europe, he is known as the "Green Patriarch" because of his dedication to environmental issues, believing there is "religious importance in protecting and preserving the environment," according to the biography provided by the Archdiocese of America.

He held a number of positions in the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church prior to being unanimously elected on Oct. 22, 1991, as "Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch," following the death of Patriarch Dimitrios.

A dialogue

Local believers are "thrilled" by their new-found freedom to visit directly with their spiritual leader, The Rev. Tsaras said.

Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios was the first to visit the American Archdiocese, which this year celebrates its 75th anniversary. Before him, the Turkish government did not allow the patriarch to leave because the relationship between the Muslims and Christians "wasn't that great," he said. "There's been progress. This is a chance to visit with our spiritual leader and talk about our concerns. He will address us about his vision of orthodoxy."

That's something American faithful are "anxious" to learn.

American Orthodox churches are grappling with whether they want to unite, leaving behind their ethnic designations of Russian, Oriental, Arabic, whatever.

"As ecumenical patriarch, he carries a lot of weight. If he directs us some way, a lot can be done, because what's happening here in America is unlike anywhere else," said The Rev. Tsaras.