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Our Patrimony of Patriarchs

The origins of the Christian patriarchs and their role in the church.

Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem are home to a number of Christian patriarchs, each of whom leads a distinct and proud community dating back hundreds of years. But what are the origins of these patriarchs?

“Patriarch” is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for father or chief of a clan, family or race. The title was reserved for Abraham, the 12 sons of Jacob, and King David. In a more general sense, it refers to many if not most of the great figures of the books of Moses.

In the early Christian period, this title – as with many other Jewish titles – was applied to Christian dignitaries. Many bishops were called patriarchs as an expression of honor; their titles were not official.

After Constantine extended toleration to the Roman Empire’s Christians in 313 A.D., the title of patriarch came to be reserved to indicate a certain rank in the hierarchy of the church. Just as metropolitans were bishops who ruled over their suffragan bishops, so patriarchs became chief bishops who ruled over the metropolitans.

The Council of Nicea, held in 325, formally recognized the patriarchal rights held by the bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Not only were these cities the major economic and political centers of the empire, but they were also connected to the person and ministry of St. Peter.

Rome, the place of Peter’s final ministry and martyrdom, was the capital of the empire. The Bishop of Rome held the highest office in the Christian world. He was not only bishop of Rome, but metropolitan of the province of Rome, patriarch of the Western church and spiritual head of the universal church. Pope John Paul II is the 263rd successor to Peter the Apostle.

According to tradition, it was St. Mark, Peter’s disciple, who founded the Church of Alexandria. Alexandria was the second city of the empire and Egypt was its breadbasket. The Bishop of Alexandria was the chief bishop in Egypt, but his importance declined with the separation of the Coptic Church. In modern times his jurisdiction was extended to all of Africa. Pope Parthenios III, who was elected in 1987, leads this small church of 350,000 believers.

Antioch was the capital of Roman Syria and the guardian of the trade routes to Asia. Peter established the church at Antioch, here the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” The Bishop of Antioch presided not only over the bishops of Syria, but also, for a time, over the bishops of Asia. Today Patriarch Ignatius IV guides more than 750,000 Christians, including a large community in the United States.

As Christianity flourished, believers flocked to the sites associated with the stories of the Bible. In 326, Constantine’s mother, the Dowager Empress Helen, journeyed to the Holy Land and discovered the instruments of Jesus’ passion and death. As pilgrimages increased to the sites associated with the birth, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus, Jerusalem’s bishop was viewed increasingly as a patriarch. The fathers of the Council of Chalcedon (451) officially constituted the diocese of Jerusalem as a patriarchate. Patriarch Diodoros I, the ranking church leader in the Holy Land, leads this community today.

Constantine’s decision to move the capital of the empire from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium dramatically altered life in the Mediterranean world. As Constantinople increased in size and wealth so too did the prestige of its bishop, who thought his see should become second only to Rome. With the support of the emperor and the court, he began to seek patriarchal recognition.

In 381 the Council of Constantinople conferred primacy in the East to the Bishop of Constantinople, following only the Bishop of Rome. The popes, however, refused to confirm this canon of the council.

The Council of Chalcedon cited Constantinople as the “residence of the emperor and the Senate” and established the church as a patriarchate with jurisdiction over Asia Minor and Thrace. It was not until the Council of Florence in 1439 that the Holy See accepted the Patriarch of Constantinople as second to Rome. The present Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomeos I, who studied canon law at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, today shepherds more than 3,500,000 Orthodox Christians, most of whom live in the Americas, Western Europe and Australia.

Since Chalcedon, the church was considered to have five major patriarchates – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – and to some Eastern theologians, this “pentarchy” was seen as essential to the constitution of the church.

The schisms in the early centuries of the church led to the birth of new patriarchates.

The non-Greek-speaking population of the Alexandrian and Antiochene churches (i.e., the majority of believers) had tired of what seemed to them the hellenization of Christianity and the increasing role of the Byzantine emperors in the life of the church. In the aftermath of Chalcedon, the very council that recognized the great patriarchates, three churches broke from full communion, created separate communities and established rival patriarchates.

The first of these, the Coptic Orthodox Church, traces its origins to the Church of Alexandria. The largest Christian community in the Middle East, with several million believers, the Copts are now led by the dynamic Pope Shenouda III.

After Chalcedon, the Christian faithful in the rural areas of the Antiochene church joined the anti-Byzantine movement. The Syrian Orthodox community, today led by Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, spread throughout the Middle East, India and even to China. Of the more than two million Syrian Orthodox in India, roughly half belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church and the other half to the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, which is led by Baselius Mar Thoma Matthews II, Catholicos of the East.

The Armenian nation was the first to adopt Christianity as its state religion around 300. Compressed between the Roman (later the Byzantine) and Persian empires, church, state and language were united as a means of preserving the Armenian identity. Karekin I, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, is recognized by all members of the Armenian Apostolic Church as the spiritual head of this community.

Over the centuries three other jurisdictions emerged. The present Catholicos of All Armenians formerly served as Catholicos of Cilicia with his seat near Beirut. Patriarch Torkom Manoogian guides the Armenian faithful in the Holy and Patriarch Karekin II Kazandjian leads the faithful remnant that once made up the huge Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople.

When in 431 the church fathers gathered in Ephesus for the third ecumenical council, that portion of the Church of Antioch located in Persia, outside the borders of the Greco-Roman world, severed itself from the universal church and set up its own structures. Today this once-isolated Assyrian Church of the East, led by Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV, counts a small number of faithful in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and the United States. A dissident jurisdiction in Baghdad is led by Patriarch Mar Addai.

Intra-Christian strife and the rapid rise of Islam compelled many followers of St. Maron, a late fourth-century Syrian ascetic, to migrate to the remote mountains of northern Lebanon. By the eighth century the Maronites developed a distinct identity as a church and elected one of their own as the Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites. In 1182 the Maronite Church confirmed its union with Rome. Today the church is led by Patriarch Nasrallah Cardinal Sfeir.

The Church of Georgia, centered in the Caucasus mountains, was first established in eastern Georgia in the fourth century. Initially dependent on the Antiochene patriarchate, it was declared independent in 467. Western Georgia adopted the Byzantine form of Christianity and in 1008, when the two kingdoms were united, a catholicosate was established. Under the leadership of the present Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II, a renewal of this community – once persecuted by Soviet communism – has begun.

The Christians of the Middle East suffered even more when Arab tribes, inspired by Islam, conquered most of the region. Christians and Muslims prospered side by side, but gradually suspicion replaced tolerance. The various patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were reduced in size and wealth, their existence subject to local law and custom.

In order to restore the Holy Land’s sacred sites to Christendom, large numbers of Europeans embarked on the Crusades. These Latin Christians were often hostile to the local non-Roman hierarchy – the bishops of Rome and Constantinople had excommunicated one another, resulting in the schism of East and West. The Crusaders erected their own Latin patriarchates in Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. These endured only while the Latins controlled the territory, although the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, today led by Archbishop Michel Sabbah, was revived in 1847.

In the Western church the title of patriarch was sometimes used as a distinction of honor rather than in its true sense of a bishop with special jurisdiction. The archbishops of Venice (since 1457), Lisbon (since 1716) and Goa (since 1886) are called patriarchs.

The councils of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1437) attempted to heal the schism between the Western and Eastern churches. Although full communion was not established, several Eastern Catholic churches were organized and later new Catholic patriarchates were established corresponding, in part, to existing Orthodox patriarchates.

In 1553 the Holy See recognized a reluctant Assyrian monk as the “Patriarch of the Chaldeans.” His successor, Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid, leads an estimated 635,000 Chaldean Catholics.

The Melkite-Greek Catholic Church, which originated in Antioch in the 18th century, unites the Byzantine faithful of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. Patriarch Maximos V Hakim, who resides in Damascus, Syria, guides this church of more than one million.

Although communion between the churches of Armenia and Rome was reestablished in 1198, it later deteriorated. The Armenian Catholic patriarchate, presently directed by Patriarch Jean Pierre XVIII Kasparian, was created in 1742.

Established in the 17th century, the Syrian Catholic Church, which is shepherded by Patriarch Ignatius Anthony II Hayek, is the smallest Eastern Catholic patriarchate.

The Coptic Catholic Church, today led by Patriarch Stephanos II Ghattas, is the most recently erected Catholic patriarchate. Pope Leo XIII reestablished it in 1895.

After the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, many Muscovites believed that the torch of Orthodoxy passed to Moscow. As Moscow’s power increased, so too did the power of the church. The Patriarchate of Moscow and All Russia was officially established in 1589, but was abolished by Peter the Great in 1721, thus subjugating the church to the government. After the abdication of the tsar in March 1917, a synod met in Moscow and elected Tikhon as patriarch. Soon after his election, the Bolsheviks took power and persecutions began.

The current patriarch, Alexei II, leads a church of more than 50 million which plays a principal role in post-Soviet Russia.

The fate of the Serbian Orthodox patriarchate has been linked to the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Originally established in 1346, it was suppressed by the Turks in 1459, restored in 1557, and suppressed again in 1766. After the creation in 1918 of the Yugoslav kingdom, which united all Southern Slav Orthodox Christians, the Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized the Serbian Orthodox patriarchate. Patriarch Pavle I, who has consistently called for a cessation of hostilities in the former Yugoslavia, directs this eight-million strong community.

Unlike the Serbian and Russian patriarchates, which had medieval predecessors, Romania’s patriarchate was created in 1925. Patriarch Teocist I leads the Romanian Orthodox Church, which is second only to the Russian Orthodox in size.

In the 10th century Constantinople recognized the Bulgar king as emperor of the Bulgarians and his senior archbishop as patriarch. However as Bulgarian power waned, so too did Byzantine support. The Bulgarian patriarchate was revived in 1235 but was abolished yet again when the region was subdued by the Ottoman Turks. The patriarchate was only revived in the 19th century with the rise of Balkan nationalism and was finally recognized by Constantinople in 1961. Patriarch Maxim, Metropolitan of Sofia and Patriarch of All Bulgaria, shepherds this church of eight million.

Although Christianity in Ethiopia dates back to the fourth century, Ethiopia’s first native bishops were elected only in 1929. Until then, Ethiopia’s bishops were ethnic Egyptians, who were appointed by the Coptic Orthodox patriarch. In 1951, an ethnic Ethiopian was elected metropolitan and in 1959, the Coptic Orthodox patriarch elevated the Ethiopian Orthodox metropolitan as patriarch. Abuna Paulos, the current patriarch, guides this church, which makes up more than half of Ethiopia’s population.

Modern divisions within some of the ancient Eastern churches may again increase the number of patriarchs. The newly autocephalous Orthodox Church in Eritrea, once a part of the Ethiopian Orthodox patriarchate, may be raised to a patriarchal church. In Ukraine the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church has erected its own patriarchate.

The patriarchs, most of whom remain unknown to many Western Christians, are a significant part of the rich patrimony of the church.

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