Arianna Online - September 23, 1996

How Many Divisions Has The Archbishop?

NEW YORK -- Until the new archbishop spoke, it was a moving but predictable ceremony.

Over 3,000 faithful had gathered in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York to celebrate the enthronement of Archbishop Spyridon. He was succeeding Archbishop Iakovos, who retired after 37 years as the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in America.

The Cathedral was packed to the rafters with Greek priests in solid black, religious leaders from around the globe, including a sprinkling of Catholics in bright orange and fuchsia, and emissaries from the political world, like George Stephanopoulos and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, in blue suits.

For Archbishop Spyridon, this was not just an enthronement but a homecoming. Born in Warren, Ohio, 51 years ago, he has studied and served as a priest all over the world, most recently in Italy.

When he spoke, with passion and ringing clarity, he brought to what he said not just the authority of the office but the authority of the man: "I approach this throne today not as a podium from which to dictate but as a platform from which to define, with your help, a vision for our church in America."

His message was built on the theme of renewal: "Only by renewal do we grow, only by renewal do we improve, only by renewal do we become more worthy of our Father, in whose image we were made." He quoted St. Paul: "Be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man who was created in the image of God."

Looking at the political leaders in the congregation, and thinking of all those doggedly soldiering on the campaign trail, I could not help reflecting on how hard renewal is under the relentless glare of the political spotlight.

The archbishop spoke of the need for a "refuge from the anxiety of modern, materialistic life." But he spoke as a man of his time. "There are two places where he feels completely at home," a close aide told me. "First and above all at the altar and then on the Internet." He even had a home page for the Holy Archdiocese in Italy.

Completely at home in modern America, Archbishop Spyridon radiates a peace and a strength that are not of this world but that our world, confused and out of joint, desperately needs.

On Saturday morning, he spoke not just to the million and a half members of his flock but to all those whom he called "weary of life and afraid of death." In the deep silence that fell over the congregation, he struck a chord that went far beyond the powerful ritual of the occasion, beyond the solemn chanting, the church music and the bell ringing.

When he spoke of fighting the "forces of bigotry and intolerance that burned African-American churches in the United States," he pointed to the mosaics that adorned the church walls as a symbol of the American mosaic of many faiths and many cultures. And he had no qualms about raising a controversial issue: marriage outside the orthodox faith. "It is not so much a problem," he said, "as it is a promise of things that can be. A church that is open to all people is a church that grows."

He ended by contrasting a vision of spiritual security against a transient life where nothing can be fully trusted and nothing fully depended on.

Outside the cathedral, the street was blocked to traffic. It was like a wedding scene from a Greek village, with friends and strangers embracing each other. "It is to enact a ministry of love that I fully commit myself," the new archbishop had said. And that feeling spilled out onto 74th Street, in the heart of a roiling, unquiet city.

"How long will it last?" Rep. Charles Rangel asked me outside the cathedral. "How does this feeling stay with us?"

It is a central question for our time. How can we keep with us the recognition of what is ultimately -- spiritually -- important? How do we find the balance between soul and the world?

At the lunch that followed, the established political powers paid tribute to the new spiritual leader. "You have returned to these shores," Gov. George Pataki said, "at a time when America is yearning to restore a sense of goodness."

"How many divisions has the pope?" Stalin mockingly asked. But as we are reaching the inescapable conclusion that what can be achieved through politics is less and less relevant to the real problems facing us, those who can move hearts and minds -- and awaken souls -- have more real power than Stalin could have ever realized.

I asked the archbishop's mother, with her strong, no-nonsense Greek face, her white hair all pulled back, if she was proud.

"I'm grateful," she replied.
She is not alone.

[ Arianna Online
   September 23, 1996 ]