50 years have passed since that first quiet meeting which would produce unimaginable openings between the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church ad the Focolare Movement. His Eminence Metropolitan Gennadios Zervos, Archbishop of Italy and Malta of
the Ecumenical Patriarchate, put it in this way: “Up until today the full importance of that encounter has not yet been appreciated”. We can have some sense of the vital force of that seed when we consider the first Honorary Doctorate in Culture and Unity that was conferred on Patriarch Bartholomew by Focolare’s Sophia University Institute in Loppiano, Italy, last October 2016.

That led to a project that is now a reality and enriches the formative offerings of the Institute with a permanent Chair for dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, named after Patriarch Athenagoras and Chiara Lubich. On June 13, the actual anniversary of their meeting, several Focolare members gathered spontaneously at the Orthodox Patriarchate in Fanar. In front of the beautiful icon of Mary we concluded the day with the Magnificat, our song of thanksgiving: “The Mighty One has done great things…Holy is His Name.”

But it was also a golden anniversary at the local Mariapolis held in Istanbul. Just as Pope Francis had visited the Mariapolis in the city of Rome last year, this year Patriarch Bartholomew honoured the citizens of the Mariapolis in Istanbul by his presence and he was received joyfully. The School of Theology on the island of Halki with its splendid park provided the backdrop for an unforgettable celebration.

On Sunday, June 25, the Mariapolites who hail from a variety of confessions, nationalities and languages, went up to the hall where Patriarch Bartholomew gave his speech: “We are now talking about a story that is 50 years old, of a very strong bond between the Greek Patriarchate and the Focolare Movement. And by now we can call it a tradition, because our predecessor Patriarch Demetrios had continued the relationship with Chiara and the Movement.

We have continued and developed that tradition for 26 years. We are quite happy and it is a cause of great joy for us that the greater part of the years of this tradition were spent with us.” It’s not the first time to hear such expressions of affection and esteem from the Patriarch, but he always manages to surprise us.

His joy because of the part he played for 26 out of 50 years is no formality, he told us! Then speaking off-the-cuff he added: “But already before being patriarch, working beside my predecessors, I lovingly served this relationship. He went on to say: “I see that the good God has blessed you, because your number and your service have grown, because with the life and testament of Chiara that you have embraced, you give service to all humanity with the same pure heart, with the same faith, with the same love and with the same industriousness [as Chiara]. Like the blessing of Pope Francis, so too our blessing and our prayer is with you always that you might sow seeds of peace and of love in people’s hearts. May God always lead your steps toward good works.”

His speech was followed by an exchange of gifts, which included a framed photo of Athenagoras and Chiara during one of their meetings. Everyone then joined a song in several languages, including Greek, the Focolare song entitled

“Love and you’ll understand” which was a favorite song of Patriarch Athenagoras and describes the essence of the Mariapolis: the light that comes from loving.

The Patriarch invited everyone present to an exquisite lunch in the adjoining dining room and the morning concluded with official photos, selfies and conversations with him.

“Golden is the inheritance left us by Patriarch Athenagoras and Chiara, the protagonists and initiators of the ‘dialogue of Love,’ great creators of the dialogue of the people (…) initiators of the new ecumenical Era; they taught peoples, giving them courage, strength, patience, and fidelity, as well as willingness, love and unity”, Metropolitan Gennadios Zervos summed up.

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