'Following the Holy Fathers':  Fr Theodoros Zisis' escape from the Babylonian Captivity of Ecumenism

"Formerly I was a disciple of the ecumenists, but I have become a disciple and follower of the Holy Fathers.  And I glory in this fact!"
- Fr Theodoros Zisis.

1. Introduction.

Recently a number of texts written by the well-known, and now retired, Professor of Patristics, Protopresbyter Theodoros Zisis, have 're-emerged', reaching the English-speaking Orthodox faithful via the internet.[1]  Originally published in the 1970's, these texts, particularly one entitled 'The Ecumenical Patriarchate and Archimandrite Justin Popovich', speak glowingly of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and of Patriarch Athenagoras,[2] and are critical of the recently recognized Serbian saint, Justin Popovich.[3]  One might wonder, what renders the 'rediscovery' of these old texts particularly newsworthy?  It would seem to be the fact that Fr Theodoros is now, some roughly thirty years later, a leading light in the Orthodox world, calling on the Orthodox faithful - hierarchs, clergy and laity alike - to uphold the Tradition of Church as expressed in the writings of the Holy Fathers and the sacred canons, in the face of the pan-heresy of ecumenism.  He is, in other words calling on us to follow in the footsteps of Saint Justin Popovich, thus checking the uncanonical, ecumenist practices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. 

A number of possible motivations emerge when considering why these now-thirty year old texts are being circulated, then.  Might this be an attempt to discredit Fr Theodoros' witness to the contemporary Church; to create the impression that he is somehow inconsistent?  Could it be an attempt to disappoint those who have seen in him the light of Christ, the light of Truth, by showcasing their leader as a former ecumenist?  One need look no further than two great Orthodox confessors, Saint Mark of Ephesus and Gennadios II Scholarios - both much loved by Fr Theodoros himself - to discover that these precise tactics have been used throughout history against those who have dared oppose false unions.[4] 

Whatever the motivation for calling attention to these texts, God has allowed it to become an opportunity for our spiritual benefit.  As the Righteous Joseph said, consoling his brothers after their great betrayal:  "[Y]e meant evil against me; but God meant it unto good".[5]  As a result of these recent events, Fr Theodoros came to the decision to describe his journey from the ecumenist mindset, or what he has called, "the Babylonian captivity currently gripping the Ecumenical Patriarchate", to that freedom which is obedience to the Tradition of the Orthodox Church.  In what follows I will provide a summary of this path as he himself described it in a public confession which, as of 12 April 2011, has reached the internet only in video format.[6]  It both clears up any confusion surrounding the history of the texts in question and provides an important witness to the contemporary Church.
2. Early Education.
That Fr Theodoros was at one time in his career a 'philopatriarhikos' is far from secret.[7]  In his recent discussion of this issue he has suggested that, while the young man who 'rediscovered' these thirty-year old writings felt "he had discovered America", a quick scan of his biographical details reveals these early inclinations to any who cares to look.  A student at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki between 1961 and 1965, Fr Theodoros was enveloped within a theology faculty which did not boast a single anti-ecumenist on staff.  The faculty was not only entirely ecumenist; it was enthusiastically so, drawing inspiration from the Ecumenical Patriarch, Athenagoras.  Patriarch Athenagoras was projected as a prophetic figure to the impressionable youth, an idea reinforced by the images of the Patriarch who looked like a new Moses with his long beard, meeting and enveloping the Pope with outstretched arms when the two met in Jerusalem in 1964.  Fr Theodoros' advisor at the university, the well-known Patrologist Panagiotis Chrestou, was himself close to Athenagoras, having been appointed director of the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies at the Patriarch's behest.  Having breathed the air of such an environment throughout the initial years of his education, it should be no surprise that Fr Theodoros was initially enamored with both ecumenism and the Patriarchate.  Thus, prior to 1976, all of his works were purely theological - largely studies of the Fathers - and none were written against ecumenism or the Patriarchate – many, like the writings in question, even reflected positively on these. 
3. A First Glance through the Clouds.
As a young professor, having graduated with top marks and possessed of a great love for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it is perhaps not surprising that the name 'Theodoros Zisis' became closely associated with the Phanar.  He soon became "the chosen one" of the Patriarchate, writing hundreds of speeches and other documents for Patriarch Demitrios.  This relationship would soon become uneasy, however. 
Between 1978 and 1980, Fr Theodoros undertook an in-depth study of Gennadios II Scholarios, the first Patriarch of Constantinople after the city's fall in 1453, in the hopes of producing a monograph.[8]  He has described this decision as being the product of "divine intervention", and "divine illumination", since he had never really considered taking up the theme previously and it was this very study which brought before him for the first time the whole of the Church's tradition as it relates to Papism, the events of the Council of Ferrera-Florence, and the struggles of Saint Mark of Ephesus.  Through this study he learned many things that had been hidden from him in his prior university studies.  Comparing the path he was currently on to that which his recent studies had opened up before him, Fr Theodoros began to realize that he had been mistaken.  Thus began the process of re-orientation.
4. Ordination.

Combined with his study of the Orthodox tradition, his unease continued to grow the more time he spent representing the Orthodox Church at Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogues.  Having undertaken this task initially in 1985 at the request of Metropolitan Dionysios of Neapoleos and Stavropoleos who complained that there were no representatives of the Theological School at Thessaloniki included in the Orthodox delegations, this experience painted for him a picture of what the word 'dialogue' truly meant in the context of modern ecumenism.   
Despite his growing unease with the ecumenical stance of the Patriarchate, in 1991, at the relatively late age of 49, Fr Theodoros accepted ordination.  He was ordained at the Patriarchal Monastery of Saint Anastasia the Pharmacolitria just outside of Thessaloniki.  For the event Patriarch Demetrios sent the highest ranking bishop of the Patriarchate, Bartholomew of Chalcedon,[9] to perform the ordination.  At this point, Fr Theodoros suggested that he had been willing to live with his misgivings about the orientation of Constantinople vis-à-vis ecumenism with the understanding that as a clergyman inside the Patriarchate he might possibly affect some positive change. 
Shortly after his ordination, however, Fr Theodoros was faced with an event within the context of the dialogue which proved particularly shaking:  the condemnation of Unia at Freising.  In 1991, the Orthodox and Catholic delegations had both signed a condemnation of Unia.  Fr Theodoros had played an instrumental role in drafting the documents and brokering the agreement between the Orthodox and the Vatican representatives.  Before the related documents became widely circulated, however, Metropolitan Stylianos of Australia visited his home in the presence of his Presvytera requesting that Fr Theodoros help to cover up the already signed documents.  Here a clear victory for truth had been achieved - a victory for Holy Orthodoxy - and he was being asked to make sure it passed unnoticed!  Within two years, through the Vatican's great influence, the documents were made to vanish and a new consultation was held at Balamand, Lebanon which cleared Unia's reputation, pretending that the condemnation at Freising had never occured.[10]  Fr Theodoros wrote a critique of the Balamand agreement - a document which would prove to be the beginning of the end of his co-operation with the Patriarchate.
5. The Ascension of Patriarch Bartholomew.
During the period between Freising and Balamand, Bartholomew of Chalcedon ascended to the Patriarchal throne of Constantinople.  Soon after his ascension, the new Patriarch called Fr Theodoros into his office.  He had a question:  "Will you work for me - writing speeches, etc. - as fervently as you worked for my predecessor?"  With that the Patriarch had offered to make Fr Theodoros his official logographos.[11]  In his discussion of these events, Fr Theodoros describes "going cold" while sitting in the Patriarch's office; knowing that co-operation was becoming increasingly difficult based on what he now understood.  In addition to the offer of a position, the Patriarch said that he was planning a trip to Germany for an ecumenical event and that he wanted Fr Theodoros to come with him as an expression of thanks for all that he had done for the Patriarchate.
In 1993 they made the trip to Germany.  At the ecumenical event the Orthodox delegation vested and engaged in a clear instance of joint prayer with heretical groups.[12]  Not believing his eyes, Fr Theodoros stood to the side by himself.  This fact was noticed by the future Metropolitan of South America, then a deacon, who asked him:  "Fr Theodoros, will you not come up and join the group?"  He now knew that the charges that the Patriarchate and the Orthodox ecumenists were engaging in joint prayer with heretics had been true all along; that this had not been slander as he had originally thought.  His mind was decided:  "I cannot work for a church that does not follow the Holy Canons."  Upon returning home Fr Theodoros received a call from someone telling him that the Patriarch needed him to produce several documents for him.  Fr Theodoros refused, ending his co-operation with the Patriarchate.
6. The Coming Storm.
Fr Theodoros' critique of the Balamand agreement, his refusal to suppress the decisions of Freising, his actions at the ecumenical event in Germany, as well as his general change of mindset, were all duly noted by those in places of importance.  The Vatican, displeased with the condemnation of Unia and its chief architect, expressed its displeasure to the Patriarch, who, after also seeing Fr Theodoros' open criticism of the new Balamand document, sent a letter stating that Fr Theodoros Zisis was no longer to be used by the Orthodox Church in the dialogues with the Roman Catholics.  This, however, was only the beginning.
Soon after, he received another letter from the Patriarchate.  This time he was asked one simple question:  "To which Metropolis should we send your papers?"  In a matter of a few short years, Fr Theodoros notes that he went from being the "chosen one" to a persona non grata at the Patriarchate, simply for changing his mind about ecumenism on the basis of academic research and experience.  These events left Fr Theodoros in an awkward position since he had not particularly expected them.  The repose of Metropolitan of Thessaloniki, Pantelemon, added further complexity to his situation since it would be impossible to request a transfer until the new Metropolitan was elected.  He thus replied to the Patriarch accordingly, suggesting that he could do nothing until a new Metropolitan was chosen.  With no immediate solution in view the matter was forgotten for a period.
This peace did not last for long, however.  When the Patriarch received the Pope at the Phanar, Fr Theodoros again responded writing an article entitled:  'Far from the Path of the Holy Fathers' in which he described the meeting and the mindset that lay behind it.[13]  This time a second letter was sent and the Patriarch's request was fulfilled; Fr Theodoros was accepted and registered as a clergyman of the Holy Metropolis of Thessaloniki, officially ending his association with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
7. Saint Justin Popovich.
Having discussed how his worldview changed from the time when he originally wrote the articles in question up to the present day, Fr Theodoros turned directly to the matter of his relationship to Saint Justin Popovich. 
Fr Theodoros suggested that if one reads the articles in question for oneself, he will clearly see that although he disagreed with the great Serbian elder at the time, he still bore the utmost respect and love for him.  Although he disagreed with Saint Justin's remarks about the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its active promotion of ecumenism, he was always impressed with the Saint's spiritual caliber and was conscious of the fact that he was relating to a spiritual giant of our times.  When he wrote his article entitled, 'The Ecumenical Patriarchate and Archimandrite Justin Popovich', however, the two were travelling on different paths; they belonged to different circles.  Fr Theodoros openly confesses that he believed the defense of the Patriarchate he wrote at that time, but within a few years of writing those words things had dramatically changed for him.
Subsequently during his talk, Fr Theodoros took the opportunity to publicly ask the Saint's forgiveness.  "I have repented (metanoesa) in the true sense of the word."  He confesses before the world to have 'changed roads' and that he now strives to follow the path laid down by the Saint Justin. 
7. Conclusion.
What took the contributor to the website Amen ten minutes to 'find' has helped uncovered a much larger and more important story; one which may otherwise have gone a long time without being told in detail.[14]  Yes, Fr Theodoros Zisis was once high in the Patriarchate and was its enthusiastic defender.  Yes, this meant that at times he defended ecumenism.  Yes, he once disagreed with Saint Justin Popovich.  However, God, Seeing his personal struggle and erudition, and his great love for the Holy Fathers, reached through an opening in the clouds of deception and rewarded him with Truth.  This struggle has cost him dearly; both in terms of that which he had to give up in order to embrace the truth he encountered, and in terms of the wrath he faced for the inconvenience this truth represents to others.  May God, in His rich mercy, continue to grace us with such souls, who, seeing truth for themselves, become beacons unto others.
Lazarus Saturday
16 April, 2011

[1]    Originally posted here in Greek:  http://www.amen.gr/index.php?mod=news&op=article&aid=5198.  This was translated into English and posted here:  http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/03/fr-theodoros-zisis-responds-to-st.html.
[2] Patriarch Athenagoras (March 25, 1886 - July 7, 1972) was Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople from 1948-1972 and is widely recognized as one of the most important Orthodox ecumenists. 
[3] Saint Justin Popovich (April 6, 1894 - April 7, 1979) was canonized by the Church of Serbia on May 2, 2010.  He is perhaps best known in the English-speaking world for his book The Orthodox Church and Ecumenism, which is renowned for its articulate critique of Ecumenism in its various aspects.
[4] Scholarios' life provides us with startling examples of this behavior.  Consistent efforts were made on the part of those who desired a compromised union with the Pope to sow discord amongst the anti-union leadership.  For further details see Kyriakos Papakyriakou's book Gennadios II Scholarios and the Union of the Churches.  These attempts are described in the final four chapters.
[5]    Genesis 50:20.
[6]  See http://www.impantokratoros.gr/ptheodoros_ekklhsiastikh_epikairothta.el.aspx

[7]  'Philopatriarhikos':  A Greek term meaning one who loves the Patriarchate.

[8]  Zisis, Theodoros.  Gennadios II Scholarios:  Life-Writings-Teachings (Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies:  Thessaloniki, 1980).  [In Greek].

[9] On November, 2, 1991 Bartholomew of Chalcedon would ascend to the Patriarchal Throne of Constantinople, becoming the Ecumenical Patriarch.

[10] Father Theodoros has published these now very difficult to find documents in his book Unia:  Condemnation and Exoneration (Ekdoseis Vrenios:  Thessaloniki, 2002).

[11] One who writes official documents and texts for speeches.

[12] Joint prayer with heretics is clearly prohibited by the Canons of the Ecumenical Councils.  See a full list of the applicable canons in Gotsopolous, Anastasios.  Joint Prayer with Heretics:  Presenting the Canonical Practice of the Church (Thessaloniki, 2009), 26-29.

[13]  See  http://www.impantokratoros.gr/8AC792C1.en.aspx for a translation of the article.

[14]  Fr Theodoros has said that he has long wanted to publish something regarding what he has spoken of in the last few days; however, restraints on his time have always prevented him.  He does hope that in the future he will be able to publish a paper including the documentation involved with the events he has mentioned.

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