New York Daily News - February 7, 2004

Greek Archbishop Healing Rifts

By Charles W. Bell

He asked aides to not make a big deal of the big day, but the word clearly did not trickle down to the faithful in the pews of St. Demetrios, his namesake church in Jamaica, Queens.

There, last weekend, on the eve of his 76th birthday, Archbishop Demetrios, spiritual leader of all Greek Orthodox in the United States, was greeted with long, loud applause and shouts of approval.

There was no official acknowledgment of the milestone at the national headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America on the upper East Side, but there was plenty of quiet celebration there, too.

For one thing, as he approaches his fifth year in office, there are signs everywhere that Demetrios is healing the painful rifts that forced his predecessor out after only two tumultuous years.

For another, Demetrios has begun to move the archdiocese out of the long, smothering shadow cast by Archbishop Iakovos, the nationally celebrated prelate who ruled for more than 37 years until his retirement in 1996 at age 86. Iakovos now lives in Rye, Westchester County, and carefully avoids public interference in current church life.

Demetrios officially turned 76 last Saturday, when his schedule - busier than ever, aides say - took him to Flushing, Queens, for a celebration of Greek culture that turned into another birthday party.

In most denominations, a 76-year-old bishop would already have retired, or have his bags packed and ready to go. In the Catholic Church, retirement at 75 is mandatory, subject to the Pope's approval.

By contrast, Demetrios' term is determined largely by his state of health. And that, aides said, is robust. His schedule includes an impressive number of trips, speeches, liturgies and communal functions. He just returned from a historic six-day visit to Cuba as a member of a blue-ribbon delegation led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew​, leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians.

The highlight of the trip was the handing over - by Fidel Castro​, no less - of the keys to a new church for the island's tiny Greek Orthodox community. It was the first church built in Cuba in 45 years, and although Castro did not say what inspired him, an aide to Bartholomew said it was a gesture of friendship for the Orthodox community at large.

As soon as he returned to New York, Demetrios resumed his round of activities, including an important speech Tuesday night at Fordham University, where he delivered the inaugural address in a series about Orthodoxy in America.

"He seems to be enjoying every minute," said Nikki Stephanopoulos, a longtime archdiocesan spokeswoman.

The public applause and denominational approval signals a remarkable revival for the Greek Orthodox in general - | Demetrios' predecessor, Archbishop Spyridon, was forced to step down in 1999, less than three years after succeeding Iakovos, amid nasty, noisy disputes about his leadership style.

Critics said he was too autocratic and did not understand his American flock, an irony since Spyridon was born in Warren, Ohio, and grew up a self-described "all-American boy."

Demetrios was born in Greece, but he is no stranger to American ways. Four years after his ordination, in 1962, he was sent to the United States to study and carry out pastoral duties in Pittsburgh.

He has a Harvard degree and once lectured at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass., but whether that made him a fan of the Boston Red Sox - like Iakovos - is something he has not revealed.

Most of his energies since his enthronement in New York have been devoted to raising morale, unifying the various factions within the church and dealing with the touchy issue of bringing his flock into the American cultural and social mainstream without losing touch with its own traditions and heritage.

The archdiocese, which includes 540 parishes across the country, about 800 priests and 1.9 million and growing members, faces some of the same problems as other denominations. One is recruiting more priests, another is paying for several new ambitious programs.

"I don't know what [birthday] presents he got," an aide said. "But I know the one he gave us - a little peace and a lot of healing."

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