Spyridon ... The Legacy

The Value of Greek Letters to the Greek Community of America
Address delivered at the "Greek Letters Day" Luncheon in New York
( January 31, 1999 )

Reverend Clergy Learned and Most Honorable Educators, Distinguished Assembly, We are all here today to honor, to assess and perhaps even evaluate our work on Greek Letters and their promotion in our schools and our parishes. It is the 11th anniversary of this occasion in our Archdiocese, an occasion traditionally celebrated on the Feast of the Three Hierarchs: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom. The tradition, which considers these three wise men and holy Fathers of our Church to be protectors of Letters, dates back many centuries, to sometime near the end of the 11th century. The selection of these great Fathers of our Church is not a random one. The hymnography of our Church sings their praises as “ecumenical teachers.” Scholars who have studied in depth their life and works tell us that:

  • St. Basil the Great embodies the educational message, inviting Christians to draw all conceivable benefit from the cultured Greek logos («ὅπως ἂν ἐξ ἑλληνικῶν ὠφελοῖντο λόγον”).
  • St. Gregory as indicated by his appellation, the Theologian, is the religious thinker and writer par excellence among the great Fathers of the Church.
  • St. John Chrysostom principally embodies the social message of Christianity.

It is precisely the synthesis of the spirits of these three Fathers that represents the core of Greek Orthodox education and culture taught in our Greek schools, whose solemn mission is to educate our youth in keeping with our people’s traditions, ideas, values and centuries-old way of life. Christian Humanism, therefore, is its quintessence. As the philosopher Aristippos (435-355 BC.) declares, ”It is better to be a beggar than an illiterate for the first needs money while the latter needs humanization” (“ἄμεινον ... ἐπαίτην ἢ ἀπαίδευτον εἶναι οἱ μὲν γὰρ χρημάτων, οἱ δ' ἀνθρωπισμοῦ δέονται” - Diogenes Laertius 11,8,70). Hellenism as daily experienced is the embodiment of our ecclesiastical Orthodoxy. Our ancient Greek heritage would have remained but a utopian ideology, or at best a theory relegated to discussion in academic institutions, without reference to its historical evolution in the ecclesiastical dramaturgy of the Divine Liturgy, the poetry/hymnology, iconography, sacred music as well as the art- and wisdom-loving patristic thought. This religio-cultural possession of ours is bountiful, and at the same time enduring and beneficent, especially in times of confusion and moral chaos:

  • when justice may be considered inequity,
  • when evil may be considered virtue,
  • when violence may be considered a legitimate means of achieving civil rights,
  • when forgiveness may be considered weakness,
  • when overcoming hatred may be considered betrayal,
  • when immorality may be accepted as morally permissible (the word ευήθης, one having good morals (ευ+ηθος), the virtuous at heart, the unassuming and the guileless, have come to mean the fool—the moron, the idiot, the imbecile).

In the recent celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Proclamation of Human Rights, our society seems to have rejoiced in a half century of hypocrisy, forked-tongues and unabashed discrimination.

UNICEF data published in the press reveal that approximately one billion people living in the developing nations will enter the third millennium of Christianity unable to read or write. And this is true at a time when the money spent on cosmetics in the United States or on ice cream in Europe or one tenth of the worldwide expenditure on military equipment would be enough to ensure that 130 million children receive the priceless gift of basic education.

Even in industrialized nations, around 20% of the children leave school without the requisite skills for enjoying a decent life.

We also read that in the universities in this country, every two hours, one student between the ages of 15 and 24 commits suicide. At least once during their studies, four out of ten students consider ending their lives. According to statistics, 5% of them actually attempt suicide.

The question is inevitable: What sort of education do we provide our children and how do we prepare them for life?

Again statistics indicate that in this country, our Greek-American community ranks first in education, and second per capita in terms of financial success.

Today, many of our fellow Greek-Americans hold high and enviable political positions at the state and federal levels. Many excel in science, trade, industry, advanced technology, the humanities, the arts, and any other sector you could imagine.

Very many of them studied in our parochial schools and got their first glimmer of knowledge and education there. They are proud of this and of the intellectual skills they acquired there as well as the spiritual preparation for life they received.

Let’s look at the figures: our Holy Archdiocese numbers 19 Greek-American Parochial Schools, with approximately 4,500 students, and 277 afternoon schools, with approximately 20,000 students. Their education is entrusted to 850 educators of all ranks. The Archdiocese Department of Education, providing the data, reports that the two high schools and 17 junior high schools need $11 million annually to function properly.

Of course, though the total Greek-American population in the United States is unknown, we must not be satisfied with this number of schools and students. Certainly, more students could be enrolled in our schools. Rather than closing schools, we should be seeing how we can open more, especially since more than half of our parishes don’t even have an afternoon school!

Particularly today when modern technology greatly facilitates our daily communication and contact, not only with the language of Greece, our mother country, but also with the vast range of Greek society, learning and consolidating the Greek language as well as living our religio–cultural heritage should by inference be much easier.

When we were at school, we who are now the elders could never have dreamed of such well written and well illustrated teaching handbooks, or such things as television, internet, video, CD-ROMs!

Of course, family is and will remain the primary and fundamental source for learning the Greek language. Then come the day care centers, kindergartens, elementary schools, Sunday Schools, and the rest of the community schooling activities, along with the greatest school of all, that of regular church attendance and the participation of children in the celebrations and other events in each community.

Our will to promote, preserve and perpetuate the Greek language and Greek education in general is at the heart of the whole issue.

“I want” means “I can”! The ways and means follow. Thus, first the parents, along with the priests and teachers, are the ones who will guide the young students.

Their active and reliable participation on community education committees, and other committees helps guarantee the future of Greek letters that can inspire and enlighten the children of other ethnic groups as well. Our aim should be to make our schools models worthy of emulation.

This is one of the aims of today’s festive assembly. Greek Letters can be promoted under the shelter of the Church. Our Holy Archdiocese invests considerable time and effort to ensure that its future priests and its lay educators can reap the benefits of higher education. St. Basil Academy in Garrison, New York, reopened as an educational establishment, and Hellenic College/Holy Cross School of Theology in Boston are institutions endowed and supported by the Archdiocese. Scholarships must be provided so that our future priests can pursue their studies unfettered by financial woes and devote themselves to the theological and spiritual preparation required for the duties they will undertake after they graduate.

Therefore, we need the Greek-American community’s moral and financial support to make certain that our children—our future spiritual leaders—receive a proper education. This is the best investment anyone can make for the future of our Greek-American community and its traditions.

Assuming the expenses of one or more students in our Theological School, for example, is a way of building a lifelong bond between sponsor and student.

In closing, I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to our educators for their marvelous contribution to the efforts of our Holy Archdiocese to reorganize Greek education in this country and for their invaluable help in promoting the Greek language and Greek Letters in general.

Finally, I thank all of you, who so willingly came to this gathering, honoring our traditions and once again solemnly demonstrating our firm and irrevocable resolve to preserve Greek Letters in this blessed, hospitable and free country.

[ Translated from the Greek original ]

[ Spyridon, Archbishop of America (1996-1999), The Legacy, Athens 2005, pp. 298-301 ]