Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York  

Back to FORDHAM online

Vocation of Love

Vocation of Love
When the leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians came to Fordham last fall, he brought a simple but profound message

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew addresses a standing-room-only audience in the University Church on October 27, after receiving an honorary doctorate of laws from Fordham. During his address, "Discerning God's Presence in the World," he praised the University as a global center for Orthodox-Christian dialogue and the study of Orthodox Christianity. Photo by John Mindala

By Gina Vergel

Dinner gatherings can be dull or memorable, but they don’t often lead to extraordinary events in the history of Christianity and the life of a university. Yet that’s exactly what happened six years ago, when a chance conversation about 1,600-year-old relics prompted two Fordham theology professors to play a key role in helping to heal the centuries-old rift between the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Their efforts positioned Fordham as a global center for Orthodox-Christian dialogue and the study of Orthodox Christianity—and led to a historic visit last fall, when the leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians came to Fordham University Church, where he delivered a moving call for openness and reconciliation.

“The way of the heart stands in opposition to everything that violates peace,” Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew told a standing-room-only audience in the church on October 27, after receiving an honorary doctorate of laws from Fordham. “Unless our actions are founded on love, rather than on fear, they will never overcome fanaticism or fundamentalism.”

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew receives a standing ovation from members of the Catholic and Orthodox clergies, including (from row, l. to r.) Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Joseph M. McShane, S.J., Edward Cardinal Egan and Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis. Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, praised the patriarch’s “devotion to peace and the cause of environmentalism” and described his address as “a primer for the way people of faith should conduct themselves in the world.”

John Doscas, CBA ’80, was one of the faithful who filled the church for the occasion. He was moved not only by the patriarch’s words, but also by the warm welcome he received from Fordham and the Catholic community.

“It showed real caring and a true spirit behind what they were trying to accomplish. We’re all aware of the schism from 1,000 years ago, and the Catholic Church does not necessarily need to reach out in ways like that,” he said. “It gives Orthodox Christians a feeling of hope.”

The Relics of the Saints
The seed that led to the patriarch’s historic visit was planted in spring 2004. Fordham had recently launched its Orthodoxy in America Lecture Series with an inaugural address by Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis, head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. To celebrate the occasion and discuss how the University might deepen its relations with the Orthodox community, Aristotle Papanikolaou, Ph.D. (FCRH ’88), associate professor of theology at Fordham, organized a small dinner with the Rev. Alexander Karloutsos, a trusted adviser to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and several Fordham colleagues, including George Demacopoulos, Ph.D., associate professor of theology.

The hot topic of conversation was a public letter recently issued by the patriarch accepting an apology from Pope John Paul II for “sins of action and omission” by Roman Catholics against Orthodox Christians during the Fourth Crusades—particularly the 1204 invasion of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), when crusaders sacked the Orthodox Christian city, widening the 1054 schism between Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics.

The pope’s gesture and the patriarch’s response were a fine step toward reconciliation, Father Karloutsos said, but wouldn’t it be something if the Catholic Church returned the cherished relics of St. John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople during the late-fourth and early-fifth centuries and one of the most revered figures in Orthodox tradition. 

“No kidding,” Demacopoulos agreed. “And how about the return of the relics of Gregory Nazianzen?” he added, referring to the patriarch, also known as St. Gregory the Theologian, who preceded St. John Chrysostom.

That’s when Father Karloutsos said that the patriarch did indeed plan to travel to Rome to ask for the return of the relics. The priest then surprised Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou by asking them if they would help provide the necessary documentation to support the patriarch’s historic request. Where exactly were the relics, and how—and when—did they get there?

The co-directors of Fordham's Orthodox Christian Studies program, George Demacopoulos (left) and Aristotle Papanikolaou, flank Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Photo by Jon Roemer
The professors got to work. Demacopoulos, a medievalist who thrived in this area, spent an entire day holed up in Fordham’s William D. Walsh Family Library before finding the perfect source.

“There was a study done by an art historian documenting all the shrines in St. Peter’s Basilica and all of the relics that are in those shrines with references in the footnotes to when everything got placed in those shrines,” he said. “We were able to say precisely where they are and what manuscripts held in the Vatican detailed them being placed there.”

Here’s what they found: The remains of both patriarch saints had rested side by side in Constantinople before being taken to present-day Italy around the time of the Fourth Crusade. Eventually, the ancient bones were enshrined under side altars at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Demacopoulos promptly faxed this information to the patriarch, who presented the letter to Vatican officials with his official request for the return of the relics. Pope JohnPaul II agreed, and the rest is history. 

On November 27, 2004, the pope presented the relics to the patriarch during a ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica. Three days later, the relics were transported to Istanbul for a ceremony at the Cathedral of St. George, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. During the pilgrimage, Demacopoulos delivered a lecture on the lives of the two saints and received the patriarch’s personal thanks for helping to facilitate the return of the relics.

“My role is only a by-product of Fordham’s commitment to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox relationship,” Demacopoulos said at the time. “Fordham has historically been a place of cooperation between the two religions, and this sets up Fordham to be the logical foundation for further improvement.”

A Home for Orthodox Study

Fordham has had a long and vibrant relationship with the Orthodox Christian community, particularly in the New York metropolitan area. Generations of Orthodox students have chosen Fordham as a place to pursue a rigorous education that not only respects, but also encourages their faith. From 1967 until his death in 1992, the Rev. Dr. John Meyendorff, a renowned Orthodox scholar and educator, taught Byzantine history at the University. And Stella Moundas, longtime secretary to four Fordham presidents, helped the University strengthen its ties to her faith community while serving as a matron to many Orthodox students.

In recent years, Fordham’s relationship with the Orthodox community has grown even stronger. With support from the Office of Campus Ministry, the University established a chapter of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship, a student group, in 2004. Three years later, the Orthodox Christian Studies Program was born. 

Under the leadership of Papanikolaou and Demacopoulos, the program—the first of its kind at a major university in the United States—hosts the annual Orthodoxy in America lecture and gives students an opportunity to earn an interdisciplinary minor in Orthodox Christian studies. In addition, Papanikolaou and Demacopoulos are co-editors of Fordham University Press’ Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Thought Series. The publication of the first book in the series—In the World, Yet Not of the World: Social and Global Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew—coincided with the partriarch’s visit last fall.

“It’s the century where the Orthodox Church is really trying to rebuild its intellectual tradition, and Fordham is being recognized as becoming a part of that,” Papanikolaou said. “The fact that the patriarch came to Fordham was huge. It is absolutely a validation of what we are doing here.”

The program has also received considerable and growing support from individual members of the Orthodox community. Thanks to a generous gift from Michael and Mary Jaharis, Fordham established an endowed professorship—the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture. The Jaharises also have supported the Orthodoxy in America Lecture Series since its inception, in 2004. That same year, 
Solon and Marianna Patterson were among those who traveled to Istanbul to witness the return of the relics. It was on that pilgrimage that they met Demacopoulos and learned of Fordham’s role in the historic exchange. They later attended a Fordham conference on “Orthodox Readings of Augustine.” Sensing the potential of such academic gatherings to foster Orthodox-Catholic dialogue and understanding, they made a generous gift—and issued a challenge grant—to help Fordham establish a triennial conference examining Orthodox-Catholic relations.

Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou hope to continue to develop the program’s offerings, eventually establishing a center for Orthodox Christian studies at Fordham that might provide scholarships for students, fellowships for faculty and a study abroad program.

“We also want to provide a model that could be replicated at other institutions,” Demacopoulos said. “It can be done, if it’s done right.”

Indeed, the patriarch praised Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Program during his address in the University Church last October.

“This program,” he said, “demonstrates a practical synergistic spirit, modeling for Orthodox and Roman Catholics everywhere a shared common purpose based in truth and love.”

Referring to both the nonviolent principles of Mahatma Gandhi and the civil rights activism of Martin Luther King Jr., the patriarch went on to say that the most “provocative message is loving our enemy and doing good to those who hate us.”

Moving words when one considers the unsteady state of religious freedom in Turkey, where successive governments have closed the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s schools and seized almost all of its property. Yet he continues to work to advance reconciliation and understanding among Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities. 

“The patriarch is convinced that dialogue is a divine mandate, the only way forward in a world of division,” said the Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, theological adviser to the patriarch on environmental matters and editor of In the World, Yet Not of the World.  “No tension or crisis seems to overwhelm or crush him. Every hurdle or barrier is an invitation to encounter and dialogue.”

The patriarch’s commitment to promoting dialogue and action on environmental issues is just as vigorous as his commitment to advancing religious tolerance. Each year, the “Green Patriarch,” as he has come to be known, leads a symposium on Religion, Science and the Environment. Just days prior to his Fordham visit, he was in New Orleans, where he led a large and diverse group of theologians, scientists, policymakers, environmentalists and journalists in a five-day symposium titled “Restoring Balance: The Great Mississippi River.”

In his Fordham speech, he described the international, interdisciplinary conferences as “an effort to raise awareness on regional ecological issues that have a global impact on our world.”

“After all,” he said, “we are convinced that recalling our minuteness in God’s wide and wonderful creation only underlines our central role in God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world.”

The Ecumenical Spirit

The patriarch receives the Bartholomew Rose from Anne Neuendorf, president of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at Fordham. Photo by Jon Roemer
It’s a message that resonated powerfully with Fordham students. Shortly after the patriarch arrived at Fordham on October 27, he held a private reception in Walsh Library for Greek Orthodox students, who presented him with gifts, including a Fordham sweatshirt, a Fordham baseball cap and a rose developed in his honor.

Fordham College at Rose Hill sophomore Anne Neuendorf, president of the Orthodox Christian Student Fellowship at Fordham, had the honor of presenting the patriarch with the Bartholomew Rose. Created to commemorate the patriarch’s visit to Fordham and to honor his commitment to environmental protection, the flower is designed to thrive in many harsh climates without the use of chemical pesticides.

“The fact that he took the time to single us out really meant a lot,” Neuendorf said. “Sometimes it can feel a bit isolating being an Orthodox Christian—especially when you grew up in the Midwest like I did. Meeting the head of the church made me feel connected.”

Evangelos Tsevdos, a sophomore in Fordham’s College of Business Administration, said meeting the patriarch was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Just his presence here was unbelievable,” Tsevdos said. “I liked his sense of humor—putting on the Fordham baseball cap that we gave him, for instance. It’s not something you’d expect to see from someone in such an esteemed position. It was amazing.”

The patriarch’s visit also struck a powerful chord with longtime members of the Fordham community, including Constantine Katsoris, GSB ’53, LAW ’57, the Wilkinson Professor of Law at Fordham.

“That entire night, I got the feeling that there was one God and one church,” Katsoris said. “That’s how ecumenism should be.”

—Gina Vergel is a staff writer for Inside Fordham.

Site  | Directories
Submit Search Request