Challenging and Fearless Presence

S. Wesley Ariarajah

No one who had met, heard or related to the late Metropolitan Mar Gregorios can cease to be impressed with the depth of knowledge, the clarity of thought and the political acumen he brought into anything that he hadto deal with. Only a few within the ecumenical movement have also had the breadth of experience and formation that the Metropolitan has had from the time, as Fr. Paul Varghese, he entered the ecumenical arena through the Student Christian Movement and the Orthodox Student Christian Movement of India.

I recall my first meeting with him in the fifties, when I, as the newly elected General Secretary of the SCM of Madras Christian College, was asked to organise a meeting for Fr. Paul Varghese to address the students and staff of the college. He was on his way back to India from the Assembly of the Christian Peace Conference in Prague. He held the audience spell bound. No big gestures, and no loud voice; in fact much of the speech was rather low key. But he brought into it such depth of analysis and sharpness of perception that he held the students in wrapt attention.

Since then I have had the opportunity to work closely with him within the wider ecumenical movement, especially the World Council of Churches. He knew the political "East'' and the "West'', and had many crucial contacts within both even during the worst years of the cold war. He also had a thorough knowledge of the "East'' and "West'' in terms of church traditions; born and brought up within the Orthodox tradition, he had his post graduate studies in Princeton, Yale, Oxford, Budapest, Leningrad, Prague and India. He was the President or Chairman of numerous local, regional and international organizations and initiatives, studies and conferences, too numerous to list in this reflection. But what is most significant is that in each and all of them his presence was profoundly ""felt'', and he would leave an indelible mark on the discussions. He had the fascinating capacity to keep himself informed and up dated. Often he was ahead of others more closely involved with the issue simply by having looked up the information on the latest developments on the subject under discussion.

As far as the World Council of Churches is concerned, few, if any, since the late Willem Visser't Hooft, the first General Secretary, have had the width of involvement in the manifold aspects of the Council's life as did Met. Gregorios. In 1962 he became the Associate General Secretary and Director of the WCC Division on Ecumenical Action. During this time he was one of the Observers at the Second Vatican council and was WCC member of the joint Working Group between the WCC and the Holy See.

After leaving the staff position, he made his contribution as a Member of the Faith and Order Commission (68 - 75), Moderator of the Working Group on Church and Society (75 - 83), chairing most ably its most significant world conference on ""Faith, Science and the Future'' in MIT, Cambridge, 1979. During his leadership of Church and Society he gave impetus to study and research on many lively concerns related to a Just, Participatory and Sustainable Society, especially to sustainable development, ecological crisis, disarmament, nuclear non - proliferation and the just use of the advancements in science and technology.

He was a respected and ""feared'' member of the Central and Executive Committees and his long and distinguished career within the ecumenical fellowship was recognized in his elevation as one of the Presidents of the WCC at the Vancouver assembly.

Met. Gregorios was involved with the WCC and the broader ecumenical movement at a time when, despite the participation and outstanding contribution by major theologians like him from the third world, the Council remained predominantly Western and Protestant in its theology and ethos. He was deeply convinced that on many occasions the theological voice of the Asian, African and Latin American theologians and the Orthodox tradition was ""tolerated but never taken seriously''. He was convinced that the western cultural domination of the Ecumenical Movement was the biggest obstacle to the movement becoming truly ecumenical. ""This is all icing'' he once told me when one of the speakers spoke of the need to listen to the voices from the third world, ""Underneath is the solid Western cake.'' During a coffee break in a Faith and Order meeting in the seventies, where I was present as a youth advisor, he came up to me and said ""You are new to this game, you will find out that you are up against an impenetrable fortress of Western thought.''

To the very end he fought what he saw as a Western (theological) and Northern (economic) domination of the WCC and the unwillingness of the privileged to take the others seriously. In this criticism he was sharp and uncompromising and did not fear courting unpopularity and enmity. This side of his personality came out most vividly when he challenged the Prime Minister of Australia, at the WCC Assembly in Canberra, on his attempt to underplay the deplorable plight and status of aboriginals within the Australian Society. With his passing away the Asian and Orthodox churches have lost a challenging and fearless presence of their voice within the ecumenical movement.

After his WCC Presidency ended, he became more involved in the inter-faith movement in which he had always shown interest. He was much sought after in the meetings of the World Conference on Religion and Peace and the World Council of Faiths, where he was given leadership positions. As always he was on top of the subjects given to him to speak on and showed remarkable insight into the faith perspectives of others.

I met with the Metropolitan for the last time at the Parliament of World's Religions at Chicago, held to mark the Centennial of the first Parliament of 1893. He had already had a stroke, and had to move around with a stick and a person to assist him. But when he sat down to speak, his mind was as alert as ever, tongue as sharp and thoughts as clear and insightful.

Andhis audience was as wrapt as my fellow students were when he addressed us forty years earlier as the young Fr. Paul Varghese.

Within the ecumenical movement he was a man for all seasons. There had not been many like him before, nor will be.

(Courtsey: AIACHE News Letter, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, February 1997)

S. Wesley Ariarajah: Deputy General Secretary, World Council of Churches (WCC), Geneva.