Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras (1886-1972) was one of the most prominent figures in Orthodoxy in the 20th century, as he managed to save the Ecumenical Patriarchate from the introverted tendencies of the past and to give to it international prestige.
Athenagoras, as a man who envisioned peace and fellowship of peoples, worked with great zeal to strengthen the cooperation between the autocephalus Orthodox Churches, as well as the rapprochement of the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church in order to restore the unity of the Christian world.
He was born on April 6, 1886 in the small village Vasiliko, in the province of Pogoni, Ioannina. In 1903 he was admitted to the Theological School of Halki. In 1910 he received his degree in Theology, was tonsured a monk and was ordained a deacon.
He was appointed to the Diocese of Pelagonia, established in Monastery city (Bitola). This was followed by turbulent times of the Balkan Wars and the independence of the region from the Ottoman Empire (which came under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Church).
In 1918 Athenagoras left Bitola having as his initial destination Thessaloniki and then Mount Athos.
In December 1922, he was ordained a bishop and was elected by the Holy Synod Metropolitan Corfu, Paxoi and the Diapontian Islands. In 1930 he was appointed by the Holy Patriarchal Synod as Archbishop of North and South America, a position he held until 1948.
During his tenure he managed to develop excellent relations with the American governments, to reconcile the divided Greek communities, to build new temples and schools, but also to establish a Greek Orthodox theological school in Boston.
His particularly successful term ended in 1948, when Athenagoras was elected Ecumenical Patriarch. His demeanour as the supreme spiritual leader of Orthodoxy was brilliant. With his insight and many years of administrative experience, he managed to get the Ecumenical Patriarchate out of the introversion of the past and to give it international radiance.
He also worked to strengthen the relations between the Orthodox Churches and managed to strengthen the cooperation between them by convening of pan-Orthodox conferences.
His action was not limited to Orthodox Church’s issues. He also focused on the realization of his ecumenical vision, peace and fellowship of all peoples, on the basis of respect for cultural diversity, which he served unwaveringly throughout his ecclesiastical ministry.
Admittedly, the cuts made and the initiatives taken by Athenagoras, especially on the issue of dialogue with heterodox people, have been innovative and groundbreaking.
In particular, regarding the relations with the Roman Catholic Church, he made bold moves, as a result of which he was initially criticized by certain ecclesiastical circles. His initiatives aimed to bridge the gap between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church by building an environment of mutual understanding, trust and cooperation, with the aim of starting a theological dialogue.
Perhaps the highlight was his meeting with Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem in 1964, which led to the mutual Lifting of the Anathemas of 1054. This symbolic gesture paved the way for an honest dialogue between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, for the first time in many centuries.
Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras passed away on July 7, 1972. He is buried in the cemetery of the Ecumenical Patriarchs, in the Monastery of the Life-giving Spring, Balıklı, Constantinople.