“A Visit with a Patriarch,” Ensign, May 1971, 53
Some of us are fortunate enough to have experiences that are so impressive that they leave an indelible mark. I shared that kind of an experience with a group of American educators touring the Middle East. We had spent seven remarkable days in Greece, visiting ancient historical sites and becoming acquainted with warm, generous Greek villagers.
At the next stop, Istanbul, Turkey, we were given the opportunity of visiting with the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It turned out to be a unique and moving experience.
How strange, I thought, that the leading official of the Orthodox Church lives in a country that is almost entirely Moslem, whereas Greece, which is almost entirely Orthodox, has no patriarch. It is not so strange, however, when one realizes that Istanbul is the modern name for the ancient city of Constantinople, historically a city of great religious significance.
There may be as many as 150 million believers in the Orthodox faith; and, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which is presided over by one, the Eastern Orthodox Church is presided over by several who are equal. There are patriarchs in Jerusalem, Alexandria, Moscow, Belgrade, and Syria. The patriarch of Constantinople is designated as the first among equals and is a most important and influential religious leader.
An audience with the patriarch was arranged, and as the appointed hour approached, we arrived via taxis and gathered in a narrow street outside a garden gate. The walls surrounding the garden were high and extremely old. Once admitted inside, we discovered a beautiful garden, and directly ahead was an outside staircase that ascended to the third floor of an ancient building. As we climbed to the top of the stairs and waited, we asked the attendant the name of the patriarch and learned that it is Sayain Patrick Apenagoras Rum Paprikhnesi. The door was then opened and the patriarch stood by his desk just inside the room, where he greeted each man in our group by embracing him and kissing him on the cheek. Each lady he greeted with a handshake. He was an alert, kindly man, tall and very straight, dressed in a flowing black robe and a cap, and he had a white flowing beard. I judged that he was about eighty-five years old.
The patriarch conversed with us in excellent English, recalling with delight the years he had lived as a young man in the United States. He asked several persons where they were from. One named a city in Georgia, and the old gentleman recalled the main highway leading into the city and also the major landmarks in the area.
Speaking of the contributions of the United States in world affairs, he said that America was the hope of a multitude of free people throughout the world. As he continued, I found myself seeing the United States for the first time from a distance and from the point of view of one who was not an American.
Soon an aide entered with some refreshments that were appropriately simple. The patriarch was a highly capable and unpretentious man. He sat behind an old desk piled high with books and papers. All of the furnishings in the room were modest. The beverage placed in my hand consisted of what appeared to be a spoonful of powdered sugar submerged in a cup of ice water. I lifted the spoon and ate the sweet refreshment, and the aide collected the cups. The patriarch continued to talk earnestly about America and the need for peace in the world. He then took the hand of the person next to him and said, “Why can’t we live in peace in the world? We must live in peace! The world needs peace!”
We thanked him for his graciousness and told him that we felt that we should not take any more of his time. He appeared to be a little hesitant and then said, “It has been a long time, but would it be possible, do you think, for you to sing before you go? Could you sing ‘God Bless America’?” We replied that we would be pleased to sing for him. As we sang, he leaned back in his chair and, with a pensive look, listened with deep appreciation. The song over, we asked if it would be possible for him to come into the garden with us so we could take some pictures. He quickly consented, arose from his chair, took a lady on each arm, and, with his robe flowing behind him, left his office and effortlessly swept down the stairs into the garden.
After the pictures were taken and as he bid us good-bye, he again shook hands with each of the ladies and embraced and kissed each of the men. One man in the group was a bit reluctant and attempted to pass by the patriarch by just shaking his hand. But the tall man reached out with a powerful arm and pulled the visitor close to him, and the American educator, who was much shorter, was nearly buried under the patriarch’s expansive beard. Leaning down, he kissed the man and released him from his grasp.
The patriarch asked that we wait at the bottom of the stairs. Then he turned and in a stately manner ascended to the topmost step. Turning around, he raised his arm, and I thought he was going to give us a blessing.
After a lengthy pause, he said in a quiet voice, “Before you go, would you please sing ‘God Bless America’ for me again?” We began to sing, and he partially led us by occasionally waving his arm. Tears were in his eyes as he thanked us. It became apparent that he was going to bid us farewell from the top of the stairs, so we waved and disappeared through the door in the garden wall. Over the wall and through the trees I could still see the stately old gentleman standing as though transfixed. Physically he was in Istanbul, but it seemed that his mind and heart were tuned to the freedoms represented by America.