The uniqueness of the Athenagoras – Chiara Lubich International Ecumenical Chair can be gauged by the special warmth with which both Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I saluted the event. Their messages were received at the opening ceremony on Thursday 14th December 2017, along with those of Sophia Chancellor Card. Giuseppe Betori, of Vice-Chancellor Maria Voce Emmaus and of Fr. Cristiano Bettega, who is the director of the C.E.I. national office for ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.
In his message, Pope Francis recalled the encounter between Chiara and the Patriarch, fifty years ago, which inaugurated a luminous and fruitful path of friendship and collaboration. With the far-sightedness he is known for, he then wished for Sophia to “continue being a place for dialogue and encounter among different cultures and religions”, “according to its charism”.
Patriarch Bartholomew I recalled his visit to Sophia in 2015, during which he received the honorary Doctorate Degree in Culture of Unity, “with nostalgia”. He, too, used words of extraordinary beauty to describe “the prophetic encounter between two outstanding pioneers of the present-day ecumenical movement”. That encounter “did not happen by coincidence” and it “sealed” a communion of love, authentic friendship and collaboration that lives on to this day.
Card. Betori reaffirmed that, as the Archbishop of Florence, he feels invested with the responsibility of committing to ecumenism, in order to continue the “unfinished business of the Council of Florence”, which remains “an invaluable gift to Florence, to Italy in particular and to the Catholic culture as a whole, because Orthodoxy introduced us to the East and gave us the chance to have a fresh and more profound look on the Eastern world and its life, its way of thinking and its culture”. Thus, “Western humanism was able to connect with its Christian roots, drawing new inspiration from classical and theological sources”. Today, the Athenagoras – Chiara Lubich Chair represents the redemption of “what could have been and was not”.
Metropolitan Gennadios Zervós delivered a fascinating opening lecture, in which he gave voice to the prophecy hidden in the steps that have led to the present day: Patriarch Athenagoras’s first encounter with the Focolare experience in the 1950s through an article, probably by Igino Giordani, which had been translated into French for him. Then in 1962 a Conventual Franciscan Friar named Angelo Beghetto told the Patriarch about Chiara Lubich, and the first encounter between the two took place in 1967, exactly fifty years ago. Lubich, who travelled to Constantinople seven more times and had twenty-seven talks with him, was like “an extremely powerful and stable bridge, sustained by divine grace”. “With her spirituality and her marvellous personality”, she played an important role in paving the way for the historic encounter between Paul VI and Athenagoras. Athenagoras and Chiara – whom he called ‘Tecla’ because of her missionary spirit, similar to that of St Paul Apostle’s collaborator – were “the protagonists and initiators of a new ecumenical era”: they “opened a door that no one shall close: all that remains for us to do is enter” – declared the Metropolitan.
Metropolitan Zervos witnessed that Athenagoras was “a focolarino in spirit”. The friendship between the two, in which “mutual love mitigated the regret of not being able to participate in the common Eucharist”, showed that ecumenism needs to be experienced through life and through the heart, and this is at the root of “the shift that has occurred in the situation and atmosphere between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church”.
Because of that, “we do not need to start something new” – said President Piero Coda – “rather, we need to remain on the path that we have taken, which has already brought forth abundant fruit” – like the specific lines of research on ecumenism at Sophia, the collaboration with the Faculty of Theology of Cluj, Romania, and the friendship with the Community of the Children of God, whose centre is in Florence. Athenagoras once told Chiara Lubich that after ten centuries of dogmas and ten centuries of division, the third era, our time, is the time of love, and “this is the era we want to advance into” – affirmed the President – “moving forward together with commitment and determination, open to the surprises of the Spirit”.