The New York Times - September 21, 1996

Greek Orthodox Prelate Enthroned Today


A new era for Greek Orthodox Christians in the United States begins today, when Archbishop Spyridon, the first American-born prelate appointed to lead them, is enthroned in New York City.

Although the new Archbishop of the United States, who turns 52 next Tuesday, was born in Warren, Ohio, and graduated from high school in Tarpon Springs, Fla., he has served his church in Europe for the last three decades and remains a largely unknown quantity to Greek Orthodox here.

But hundreds of priests and thousands of lay faithful are expected to welcome him at the ceremony, to be held at the principal church of the Archdiocese, the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit on East 74th Street in Manhattan, where he will also be greeted by scores of local and national political figures and by leaders of other Christian churches.

"Everyone is enthusiastic," said the Rev. Emmanuel J. Gratsias, pastor of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Resurrection in Glen Cove, L.I. "The clergy are especially optimistic."

As head of the largest group of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the United States -- the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has 550 parishes and estimates its membership at 1.5 million, although active membership may be considerably lower -- Archbishop Spyridon has the daunting task of stepping into the shoes of Archbishop Iakovos, who retired in July after leading the church for 37 years and establishing Orthodoxy as an important force in American religious life.

Archbishop Spyridon's appointment also comes at a time of complicated crosscurrents and rivalries in Orthodox Christianity, which, freed of Communist repression in Eastern Europe, is rapidly gaining adherents and rebuilding its institutions.

Archbishop Iakovos's retirement followed a period of tension with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, whose ancient post, in what is now Istanbul, gives him a pre-eminent position of honor among all Orthodox Christians as well as direct control over the American church.

Patriarch Bartholomew promptly named Archbishop Spyridon, who was Metropolitan of Italy, to succeed Archbishop Iakovos. However much the Greek Orthodox faithful in the United States regretted Archbishop Iakovos's retirement, they now appear eager to begin afresh with a new leader who, even if long absent from the country, is American-born and -bred.

The new Archbishop, born George Papageorgiou, entered the Ecumenical Patriarchate's seminary on the island of Halki, near Istanbul, in 1962. Before that, he had attended elementary school and high school both in the United States and on his father's native Greek island of Rhodes.

When he was ordained a deacon in 1968, he took the name Spyridon, for a fourth-century Cypriot saint, a shepherd who turned his rustic simplicity into holiness and was chosen to be a bishop.

Spyridon later served at the Ecumenical Patriarchate's center near Geneva, where he worked with the World Council of Churches. From 1976 to 1985, he headed the Greek Orthodox parish of St. Andrew in Rome. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop in 1985, and in 1991 was appointed the first head of the newly created Archdiocese of Italy.

Reached by telephone on Wednesday at the Constantinople Patriarchate, Archbishop Spyridon said he hoped his experience could make him a bridge between Greek Orthodox on both sides of the Atlantic.

Unity with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in fact, was the dominant theme of Patriarch Bartholomew's charge to his new appointee in July. Paraphrasing St. Paul's famous hymn to love, Patriarch Bartholomew said that if a bishop "does not have unlimited devotion and blind loyalty and lifelong gratitude" to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, then "he is but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."

Patriarch Bartholomew's language must be understood in the context of his difficulties with Archbishop Iakovos, said Father Gratsias, a frequent commentator on Greek Orthodox affairs.

" 'Blind loyalty' doesn't sound right to American ears," he acknowledged, but he warned against making too much of such phrases. "Let's just wait and see," he said.

Patriarch Bartholomew, an energetic and, at 56, relatively young leader, has made his ancient bishopric a platform for asserting the rights of a reviving Orthodoxy. But some Orthodox have called his style "neo-papal," and he has clashed with Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow, a city historically a rival center for Orthodox leadership in the Slavic world.

For Archbishop Spyridon, those rifts have reverberations in the United States, where various ethnically based branches of Orthodoxy, including those that enjoy greater independence of Constantinople, have been trying to unite.

Two years ago, speaking as Patriarch Bartholomew's representative to a Greek Orthodox congress in Chicago, Spyridon himself urged such unity in strong terms. Since then, Bartholomew has signaled opposition to any steps that might diminish the role of Constantinople. Nonetheless Archbishop Spyridon, in the interview on Wednesday, gave his backing to an important organ of Orthodox unity, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, known as Scoba and led by Archbishop Iakovos since 1960.

"I see Scoba continuing and contributing more to Orthodox unity," Archbishop Spyridon said.

The new leader has already begun to assume Archbishop Iakovos's mantle of leadership, sending birthday greetings to President Clinton and protesting Turkish actions toward Greeks in Cyprus.

Meanwhile, Greek Orthodox are beginning to assemble a profile of their new Archbishop, exchanging anecdotes about his youth and reports that he is a bit of a computer nerd (church publications say "computer expert") who created a Web page for the Archdiocese of Italy.

The American archdiocesan paper has printed the recollection of Constantine Caras of Wilmington, Del., who played cops and robbers with the young George Papageorgiou when George accompanied his father, a doctor, on house calls to the Caras home in Steubenville, Ohio.

"I'm sure I was the robber," Mr. Caras said respectfully.

[ The New York Times - September 21, 1996
[ The New York Times - ]