It has been 50 years since Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras came together in a historic meeting that forever changed the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Now, on May 25, Pope Francis will meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the Old City of Jerusalem to commemorate that event—and Father Alex Karloutsos, head priest at the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons in Southampton, is entrusted with planning the pilgrimage. The ecumenical patriarch himself asked the priest, who is in charge of handling patriarchal trips in the United States, to organize it.
Father Karloutsos has been assigned to take care of security matters and interviews with the news media; curate financial gifts from Orthodox Church members throughout the world to pay expenses; prepare speeches and church services; and arrange dinners and plane arrivals. He has also been in contact with the offices of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about their involvement with the trip.
“I was quite excited about it, but a little fearful … of the awesome responsibility” that came with it, said Father Karloutsos, who also serves as an assistant to Archbishop Demetrios of America, the highest-ranking bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in the country. “You’re dealing with the two most important [religious] leaders.”
The multi-day event will commence Thursday, May 22, and carry on through Tuesday, May 27. The itinerary includes several meals, receptions and doxologies leading up to the big day where the pope and ecumenical patriarch meet at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. There, the two religious leaders will hold a prayer service before they sign a joint declaration that expresses their mutual love and support for the ministries of Christ.
“It’s momentous,” said Father Constantine Lazarakis, another priest at the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons. “It’s historical. It gives us hope for the future of churches. I find it very inspiring.”
But Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will use this meeting to do much more than pray and sign a document. According to Father Karloutsos, they will also address issues that are affecting people all over the world. Climate change, along with the ongoing unrest in the Middle East that has lead to thousands of Christians fleeing that region of the globe, are among some of the topics to be discussed.
“We live in a world that’s constantly being threatened,” Father Karloutsos said.
And the significance of this meeting is just as grand as the one that took place 50 years ago. In 1054, the Catholic and Orthodox churches officially split, causing a rift that was strong enough even to prohibit people from either religious community from marrying each another. Then, 910 years later, the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964 mended that relationship. Sunday’s gathering only further seals the recently-made bond that has brought them back together.
Accompanying the Patriarchal Delegation to Jerusalem is a separate party of Orthodox church members who will be present to witness the historic events. Southampton ophthalmologist Dr. Peter Michalos is making the trip, as well as former New York City mayoral candidate and seasonal Hamptons resident John Catsimatidis and his wife, Margo. Muhtar Kent, chairman of the Coca-Cola Company; journalist and talk show host Charlie Rose; and Dean Spanos, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Chargers, among others, will also be in attendance.
“It’s an honor to be able to go on such a trip … and to get to meet the new pope,” said Dr. Michalos, whose office is located on Hampton Road. He is a medical adviser to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew when he visits and he has also met the last two popes. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The 1964 meeting opened doors and “a lot of hearts and minds,” as Father Karloutsos said. It encouraged members of the Catholic and Orthodox churches to live in harmony and converse freely with one another. And now, with this similar meeting almost underway, there is hope and confidence that the two religious communities will continue to maintain this mended relationship.
“We don’t want to just take the ashes of yesterday,” Father Karloutsos said. “We want to take the fire.”