The first weekend of 1964 contributed a pair of significant paragraphs to the annals of church history. It marked the first time in more than five centuries that a Roman Catholic pope and an Eastern Orthodox ecumenical patriarch have met face to face. It was also the first pilgrimage to the Holy Land ever made by a Roman pontiff.

Who is the bearded Patriarch from Istanbul whose meeting with Pope Paul VI created such a sensation?

Much is known about the Hamlet-like Roman Catholic pontiff, his childhood in a well-to-do Italian family, his rise to prestige in the Curia, and the “banishment” to Milan which for the liberally-minded prelate curiously proved to be the final stepping stone to the papacy. But what about His All-Holiness Athenagoras I, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, to give his full official title?

The 77-year-old Patriarch, who spent 17 years in the United States, has shown a consistent interest in efforts to secure a rapprochement between Eastern Orthodox and the Vatican. His approach has been careful and considered, however, and sometimes very slow. He knows that he represents the estimated 200,000,000 Orthodox believers around the world only in a limited way, certainly not in the much broader sense that a pope represents Roman Catholics. The ecumenical patriarch is often referred to as “the first among equals,” the equals being the other Orthodox patriarchs.

The first outstanding sign of the Patriarch’s interest in rapprochement with the Vatican was in 1952, when he made a personal call on the late Archbishop Andrew Cassulo, then apostolic delegate in Turkey. Such a visit was unprecedented in the history of the patriarchate. The same year, he was represented ...

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