Odyssey - September/October 1996

The Torch Is Passed

Archbishop Spyridon's Challenging Mission

As Archbishop Spyridon entered Holy Trinity Cathedral on the morning of his enthronement, he did not go straight to the altar. Instead, he edged a few steps to his left so that he could embrace his 85-year-old predecessor, Archbishop Iakovos. The gesture elicited a cheer from the 2,000-strong congregation of dignitaries, priests, and lay people who had assembled in the 650-seat cathedral and were spilling out onto East 74th Street in Manhattan. It did not erase all traces of the discord engendered by Iakovos's contentious resignation last year, but the symbolism of Spyridon's gesture was not lost on the many Greek Americans who, while eager for a new era to start, were afraid it would be overshadowed by intra-Church strife.

Gregory A. Maniatis

"Our vision must encompass more of our world than our own relatively narrow circumstances sometimes tempt us to allow. Otherwise, we would end up living our Faith in the sectarian isolation of an ethnic ghetto."

One hour later on that sun-drenched Manhattan morning—before the likes of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Senior Presidential Advisor George Stephanopoulos, Senators Paul Sarbanes and Al D'Amato, and dozens of other political and religious leaders—Spyridon accepted the archpastoral staff of his office from the Ecumenical Patriarch's representative. Thus, on September 21, 1996, he became the fifth Archbishop of America. Spyridon, who turned 52 three days later, is the first American-born hierarch in that post.

"I approach this throne today as a pulpit from which to preach the Faith; not so much as a lectern from which to instruct you, but as a seat from which to learn about your concerns, dreams, and expectations," Spyridon said in his nationally televised enthronement speech. "And 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."

New World Order
Spyridon's down-to-earth tone, coupled with his relative youth and American accent, have generated a substantial buzz of excitement in the Greek-American community. He must harness that energy in order to successfully confront the challenges Orthodoxy faces in the New World.

In a series of speeches during his first two weeks as archbishop, Spyridon laid out an ambitious agenda: Among his top priorities are finding ways to appeal to younger generations; transforming inter-marriage into a positive force; promoting the Greek language and Hellenic culture; and spreading Orthodoxy's message to the American public at large. He also urged the faithful to follow in the footsteps of their forefathers who, despite being poor, built 65 percent of the Orthodox churches in the US. "We have much to accomplish to match their achievement," he said.

In addition, he decried the virtual disappearance of Byzantium from the cultural legacy of Greek America: "One of the most puzzling developments in the 20th century is that we Greeks, in our search for an identity, have perhaps skipped over the largest portion of our history and have chosen the legacy of ancient Greece as that which alone defines us," he said. "Only by balancing both legacies do we honor our true cultural heritage."

E Pluribus Unum
One theme, however, dominated all others: that of unity among Orthodox denominations in America. "We must now move forward toward that bright new day when all the Orthodox in this country —Greeks, Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Arabs, and all the many others— must be united," Spyridon asserted. There are 13 separate Orthodox Churches in the US, the most prominent of which are the Greek Orthodox Church, with over 1.5 million faithful, and the Orthodox Church of America, with huff-a-million members.

Archbishop Spyridon has long been a vocal advocate of unity. At the 1994 Clergy-Laity Congress in Chicago, he urged Greek Orthodox faithful in the Americas to "show the way to Orthodox unity" and to cut the "Gordian knot of nationalism." In December of that same year, in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, bishops of 10 Orthodox denominations in the US effectively declared they were one Church and vowed to move toward "administrative ecclesiastical unity."

It was Archbishop Iakovos's leading role in Ligonier, however, that led to the precipitous decline in his relations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who thought Iakovos was seeking to centralize his power and ordered him to abandon the Ligonier agenda. At the time, Spyridon's stock as a potential successor to Iakovos also fell, since his pro-unity stance seemed at odds with Bartholomew's wishes.

Archbishop Spyridon with Patriarch Bartholomew in Constantinople.

But the Ecumenical Patriarch appears to have accepted that, sooner rather than later, the movement toward a united Orthodox Church in America will become irreversible. By selecting the strong-willed, American-born Spyridon as archbishop, Bartholomew apparently hopes to lead the Americanization of Orthodoxy in America, rather than be left in the movement's wake. In addition to being named archbishop, Spyridon was also appointed the Ecumenical Patriarch's exarch (or "extraordinary envoy") —a title Iakovos did not hold and which gives him special authority to liaise with all the Orthodox Churches in America.

In a speech at his enthronement luncheon, held in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Spyridon highlighted the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. "Yes, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is unique in the Orthodox world," he asserted. "But it is also part of the Orthodox world. And here I most specifically refer to its intimate connection with Orthodoxy's Mother Church: the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople." Earlier, he had announced that Bartholomew would conic to America in the fall of 1997 for an extended visit to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Archdiocese.

A Delicate Balancing Act
Spyridon was eloquent in articulating the need for the Greek Orthodox Church to broaden its reach: "Our vision must encompass more of our world than our own relatively narrow circumstances sometimes tempt us to allow," he said at the Waldorf luncheon. "Otherwise, we Greek Orthodox Christians in the US would end up living our Faith in the sectarian isolation of an ethnic ghetto. And I don't think that is something any of us want."

Spyridon is conscious of how awesome his task is, and that he must somehow reconcile the seeming contradictions that were apparent even in his enthronement speech. For instance, he said he would like to reach out to the broader American public while simultaneously promoting the Greek language and Hellenic culture. Such hopes recall the often fierce battles in earlier decades over what liturgical language would be used, English or Greek. Spyridon seems keenly aware of the sensitive ground on which he treads: "The unity we would like to achieve in church practices does not mean that each group should or would abandon their cultural identity, or their liturgical language or traditional customs," he cautiously told one reporter in August.

Spyridon said he believes the US is an ideal laboratory for the experiments Orthodoxy must conduct in coming years. "America is a source of renewal for 'Orthodoxy, a place where the Greek Orthodox Church can flourish as a beacon for Orthodox Christians throughout the world."

Although Spyridon's US birth has been touted as one of his great strengths, it is his experience abroad that will probably contribute the most to his tenure.

"While it may seem that this frenzied metropolis is anything but holy," he said on arriving in New York, "I know there is great faith, love, and compassion in this city, and I look forward to seeing it become the center of a new, vibrant, and embracing Orthodox Church."

From a childhood that saw him move between Greece and America, to an adulthood in which he has lived in four European countries and mastered five languages, Spyridon has been forced to adapt to several cultures and to reconcile the many facets of his identity—challenges familiar to most Greek Americans and others of immigrant background. Even the technological development that most baffles his generation, the Internet, is second-nature to Spyridon, who has been promoted as something of a computer hack. ("There are only two places he feels at home: First and above all at the altar and then on the Internet," a close aide told Arianna Huffington for her column in the New York Post.)

Spyridon was born in Warren, Ohio, in 1944. His physician father, Constantine Papageorgiou, was an immigrant from Rhodes, and his first-generation mother, Clara, hailed from Tarpon Springs, where her parents had settled in 1905 after coming from Fournoi in the Dodecanese. When he was 8, Spyridon, his parents, and five siblings moved to Rhodes, where his mother still lives and where his father died in 1985.

At age 15, Spyridon left Rhodes for Tarpon Springs, where he graduated from high school in 1962. While there he developed a passion for football, languages, and literature (he is a devotee of Camus and Dostoyevski). Gus Tsourakis, a cousin from Florida, recalled that Spyridon talked about being a doctor like his father, but he did not want to deny his father's wish that he study theology. In doing so, he continued a tradition of having a priest in the family that goes back five generations. Spyridon has said of his choice: "I discovered that this was one way I could go to feel happier, better about my life."

NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani chats with Spyridon al the enthronement luncheon.

Over the next three decades, Spyridon embarked on a whirlwind theological career: He graduated with honors from the famed Halki Theological School in 1966, and then did graduate work on the history of protestantism at the University of Geneva from 1966-67, and on Byzantine literature at Germany's Bochum University from 1969-73. After being ordained as a priest in 1976, he was appointed dean of the Greek Orthodox Community of St. Andrew's in Rome, and in 1985 was named an auxiliary bishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Austria and Exarchate of Italy. When the Venice-based Archdiocese of Italy was created in 1991, Spyridon was chosen to lead it. He has also played a pivotal role as a liaison between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches.

Long Time Coming
When Spyridon last resided in the US, John F. Kennedy was president; so it was not surprising that on arriving at New York's JFK airport on September 19, Spyridon echoed the words of the 35th American president: "The torch of Orthodoxy is being passed to a new generation, born in this new land, and we are committed to see its flame burn brightly in the new millennium."

And, almost in unanimity, Greek-Americans seem excited about where their first new Archbishop in 37 years will lead the Church. Said Bishop Methodios of Boston characteristically: 'My greatest hope is that his leadership will be good not only for the Church, but will be good for America."

"I Am One of the Children of America"

Excerpts from Archbishop Spyridon's Enthronment Speech

Concerns, Dreams & Expectations
I approach this throne today as a pulpit from which to preach the Faith; not so much as a lectern from which to instruct you, but as a seal from which to learn about your concerns, dreams, and expectations; and 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....

This Archdiocese stands at the forefront of an extraordinary history. Indeed, both the Church and her children have come a long way since we arrived on these shores more than a century ago, as "strangers in a strange land." The Church that we inherit was built with love, faith, and great sacrifices by our parents and grandparents who emigrated to this land of hopes and dreams.

Often uneducated, they worked from sunrise to sunset until they could save enough money to bring over a brother, a sister, a wife, a child, or a cousin. The little they earned put bread on the table for themselves and for those still back in the homeland. But as good Christians, they also knew that "man does not live by bread alone." And so, hard-pressed though they were, they made sure to build a home for the faith of their fathers and mothers —a Greek Orthodox Church that would protect and preserve that rich spiritual heritage and convey it to their children born in a new land.

Those early immigrants built 65 percent of the Orthodox churches in America while they were among the poorest communities in the country. We have much to accomplish to match their achievement now that their children have been blessed with material wealth....

It Is No Betrayal to Join Ourselves to a New Nation
Together we have created a new community that is partly Greek, partly American, and yet completely Orthodox.

It is no betrayal to join ourselves to a new nation. But it would be a grave failing not to provide for the fruit of that union —the children of Orthodoxy in America. The time has come to think earnestly about our legacy to them. What kind of Church will we leave to our children, and to our children's children? If we take our faith seriously, we know that their salvation tomorrow depends on how well we answer that question today.

I see one of my primary roles to be an advocate for those children—after all, I am one of the children of America....

1 read in a newspaper not too long ago that the greatest problem we face today is that the majority of our people in Amerca marry persons not of the Orthodox Faith. I was shocked, not that they are a majority, but that anyone would regard this solely as a problem II is not so much a problem as it is a promise of things that can be. It is an opportunity. Let us take advantage of it, for a church that is open to all people is a church that grows....

Let us inspire our young people with the Faith that inspired their mothers and fathers, so that when the time comes for the sacrament of marriage, the Church is their first thought, not their last resort Let us welcome and embrace their non-Orthodox spouses with love, and :et us tell them about our Faith with joy....

Ancient and Pure

There is a brotherhood of believers in America, and we must take care to build bridges to each of these communities of Faith, even as we nurture and develop our own community. The mosaics that adorn our churches bring together parts that are different and turn them into a vision of beauty. So it is with the American mosaic, and we must respect that. Yes, we have a unique gift in the Tradition of our Church —we have preserved something beautiful and fulfilling, something ancient and pure, and kept it safe so that others may share in it. As the Orthodox Patriarchs wrote in a joint letter in 1718, "We preserve the doctrine of the Lord uncorrupted, neither adding anything nor taking anything from it." That doctrine is called "Ortho-Doxia," or correct belief. But let us be sure to follow Ortho-Doxia with Ortho-Praxia —to follow correct beliefs with correct action. We must love even those who are different from us....

We read in the Bible that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor freeman, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." But what we see all too often —not only among Orthodox, but throughout the world— is a destructive politics of identity in which there is only Jew or Greek, only male or female, only black and white....

We Need to Do More to Preserve Our Culture and Language
Western civilization arose within the womb of Hellenism. We would be foolish to squander that rich legacy, or to forget who we are and where we came from.

I believe that those newer arrivals who still feel strong ties to the country of their birth and to their mother tongue are a bulwark of our Church in America, I believe we need to do more to preserve the culture and the language to which they, and we, are bound. It will be one of my goals to expand the teaching of the Greek language, the language of the Gospels, and of Hellenic culture. And I intend to reach out to all philhellenes and friends of Orthodoxy who recognize the vast contributions that Hellenism has made to Christianity and the world....

Where Others See Death, We Have a Vision of Life
But my concern is first and foremost with our spiritual identity....

We must recapture the daring spirit of the great Patriarchs of Constantinople —Chrysostom, Gregory, Photios, Athenagoras, and Dimitrios— as well as the dreamers who left their homelands, the pioneers who established our Church in America. And we must share the Good News. Where others see death, we have a vision of life, Amid sorrow, we have reason to rejoice. In an untrusting world, we have something we can depend on, something that has remained true to us for the last 2,000 years, and will remain true to us for the next 2,000 and unto the ages of ages: the salvation of the cross and the promise of the empty tomb of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

[ Odyssey - September/October 1996 - pp. 31-34 ]