Although they did not manage to convince all the Orthodox churches to send representatives to the Great and Holy Council in Crete, participating Orthodox leaders supported the idea that the council should become a regular institution and meet every seven to 10 years.
In the final message from the June 19-26 gathering, more than 200 bishops from 10 Orthodox churches affirmed their full unity with one another and with the four Orthodox churches that refused to attend.
“The key priority of the council was to proclaim the unity of the Orthodox Church,” the message said. “Founded on the Eucharist and the apostolic succession of her bishops, the existing unity needs to be strengthened and to bear new fruits.”
The 14 autocephalous, self-governing Orthodox churches are not “a federation,” but one church, the message insisted. Its unity is expressed through and strengthened by conciliarity, which is why participants urged a regular convocation of pan-Orthodox councils.
The Orthodox Church had tried off and on for some 50 years to organize the meeting that, in the end, was held in Crete. The Russian, Bulgarian, Antiochian and Georgian Orthodox churches did not send representatives. Each of the four churches cited reasons ranging from unresolved disputes with other Orthodox churches to objections over the procedures adopted for running the council.
Speaking to reporters a few hours after the close of the council on June 26, Pope Francis said the Crete council was a “positive” development for the Orthodox Church.
The churches took “a step forward,” he said, “not with 100 per cent” participation, but it was still a move toward a greater expression of unity.
The four churches’ motivations for not attending were “sincere,” he said, and with time can be resolved. Although they did not go to Crete in the end, the four were part of the planning and wanted a council.
“You take the first step in the way that you can,” Pope Francis said. Learning to work more closely together is like learning to walk; it starts slowly and hesitantly.
“Just the fact that these autocephalous churches gathered in the name of Orthodoxy to look each other in the eye, to pray together and talk — maybe making some quips — that is extremely positive, and I thank the Lord,” he said.
In their final message, the bishops meeting in Crete reaffirmed the obligation of Orthodox Christians to spread the Gospel and engage in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.
“The oil of religious experience must be used to heal wounds and not to rekindle the fire of military conflicts,” the bishops insisted.
Participants condemned violence, terror and persecution, particularly against Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, and they urged their governments and their faithful to continue welcoming and assisting refugees fleeing war and oppression.
The bishops’ message and the longer, more spiritual “Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church,” insisted on the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman.
“In contrast to the contemporary approach to marriage, the Orthodox Church regards the indissoluble loving relationship of man and woman as ‘a great mystery… of Christ and the church,'” the message said.
Following the leadership offered for decades by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, both texts also insist that pollution and climate change have “spiritual and moral causes,” not just scientific and economic ones.
The roots of environmental destruction “are connected with greed, avarice and egoism, which lead to the thoughtless use of natural resources, the filling of the atmosphere with damaging pollutants and to climate change,” the message said. “The Christian response to the problem demands repentance for the abuses, an ascetic frame of mind as an antidote to overconsumption and, at the same time, a cultivation of the consciousness that man is a ‘steward’ and not a possessor of creation.”