Patriarch Athenagoras was born Aristokles Spyrou in Vasilikón, near Ioánnina, Epirus, Greece, on March 25, 1886. The son of the village doctor, his mother died when he was only 13. He attended the Patriarchical Theological School at Halki, Turkey, graduating in 1910. Upon graduating he was ordained to the diaconate taking the name Athenagoras. He served as archdeacon of the Diocese of Pelagonia before becoming the secretary to Archbishop Meletius (Metaxakis) of Athens in 1919. He was raised to the episcopacy as the Metropolitan of Corfu in 1922.
Returning from a fact-finding trip to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America in 1930, Metropolitan Damaskinos recommended to Pat. Photios II that he appoint Metr. Athenagoras to the position of Archbishop of North and South America as the best person to bring harmony to the American diocese. The patriarch made the appointment on August 30, 1930.
When Abp. Athenagoras assumed his new position on February 24, 1931, he was faced with the task of bringing unity and harmony to a diocese that was racked with dissension between Royalists and Venizelists who had virtually divided the country into independent dioceses. To correct this he centralized the eccelesiastical administration in the Archdiocese offices with all other bishops serving as auxiliaries, appointed to assist the archbishop, without dioceses and administrative rights of their own. He actively worked with his communities to establish harmony. He expanded the work of the clergy-laity congresses and founded the Holy Cross School of Theology. Through his capable leadership he withstood the early opposition and gained the love and devotion of his people.
On November 1, 1948, Abp. Athenagoras was elected Patriarch of Constantinople. He was honored to be flown to Istanbul to assume his new position in the personal airplane of the American president Harry Truman. As patriarch, he was actively involved with the World Council of Churches and improving relations with the Bishop of Rome. He died in Istanbul on July 7, 1972.
His meeting with Pope Paul VI in 1964 in Jerusalem led to rescinding the 1054 excommunications of the Great Schism. This was a significant step towards restoring communion between Rome and Constantinople. It produced the Catholic-Orthodox Joint declaration of 1965, which was read out on December 7, 1965, simultaneously at a public meeting of the Second Vatican Council in Rome and at a special ceremony in Istanbul. The declaration did not end the 1054 schism, but showed a desire for greater reconciliation between the two churches, represented by Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I. Nevertheless, not all Orthodox leaders at the time were happy with this Catholic-Orthodox Joint declaration, e.g., Metr. Philaret's 1965 epistle to the patriarch.
- Catholic-Orthodox Joint declaration of 1965
- A Protest to Patriarch Athenagoras On the Lifting of the Anathemas of 1054 by Metr. Philaret of New York (December 2/15, 1965)
- Another Common Declaration of Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I dated 28 October 1967
- Remembering Patriarch Athenagoras
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