The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is the spiritual leader and representative of the Eastern Orthodox Church (also called the Orthodox Catholic Church). In this context, the word ecumenical means “universal” or “worldwide,” patriarch means “head of a church,” and Constantinople refers to what is now Istanbul, Turkey. This city was the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire from the 4th through the 11th centuries and the center of Eastern Christianity. There are about 300 million Orthodox Christians who look to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople for guidance and spiritual care.
The official title of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is “His Most Divine All-Holiness the Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch.” He is seen as the successor of Andrew the apostle, who visited areas along the northern part of the Black Sea. According to Orthodox tradition, Andrew reached Kiev on his missionary journeys. Later, Princess Olga of Kiev converted to Christianity, and eventually her grandson, Vladimir the Great, made Byzantine Rite Christianity the official religion in Kiev. This marked the birth of what became the Russian Orthodox Church, part of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
There are thirteen self-governing (autocephalous) churches within Eastern Orthodoxy: the British Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church of Finland, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Church of Alexandria, the Church of Jerusalem, and the Orthodox Church in America. Each of these churches has its own head bishop. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople holds the honorary title and is the closest thing to a counterpart to the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople does not exercise the same authority as the Catholic Pope and has no power to interfere with the twelve other Orthodox communions. He is known as primus inter pares (“first among equals”). Eastern Orthodox churches maintain that Christ is the head of the church.
In recent decades, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has used his position as the primary representative of Eastern Orthodoxy to meet with world leaders, host inter-faith conferences with Muslims and Jews, and promote various causes including environmentalism, human rights, and religious freedom. The current Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew I, received a Congressional Gold Medal from the United States in 1997.