THE PLAIN DEALER - August 25, 1996

Greek Orthodox leader excited at homecoming



Greek Orthodox Archbishop Spyridon, an Ohio native who will become the spiritul leader of America's 1.5 million Greeek Orthodox members, in front of his church, St. George, the Greek Cathedral in Venice, Italy.

VENICE, ITALY - For the past five years, Archbishop Spyridon, the new leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, has lived beside one of the 100 or so canals that lace Venice, Italy.

It has been nearly 35 years since he has resided in the United States, and nearly a half-century since he has had contact with Warren, the Ohio city of his birth.

Soon the man who has been the metropolitan, or spiritual, leader of the 100,000 members of the Greek Orthodox Church in Italy will leave Venice and its languid waterways and graceful gondolas for the crowded streets and frantic pace of Manhattan, where he will live and work. He will lead the 1.5 million member Greek Orthodox Church in America.

Spyridon, a soft-spoken man, chooses his words carefully. He has a receding hairline and sports the beard traditionally worn by Orthodox bishops. He is the first American-born leader of Greek Orthodoxy in the United States since the archdiocese was founded in 1922.

"It is very exciting for me to come back to the United States," he said. "My hopes and expectations for the church are high."

One of his main priorities will be the pursuit of church unity between the Greek Orthodox Church and the other Orthodox communities in the United States. The Orthodox Church was united before a split in 1054 between the Eastern and Western rites of the church, and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Spyridon said it is not an option for Christians to neglect ecumenism.

"We are not Christian if we do not take church unity seriously," said Spyridon, who has long been involved in Europe in promoting unity between the Greek Orthodox and other Orthodox jurisdictions, and with Roman Catholics and Protestants.

"You can't be a Christian and say 'I don't believe in unity' and say Catholics or Protestants are something else," Spyridon said. "Christ prayed that we all may be one.

"Practical ecumenism does not always reflect that ideal, but that is the way it should be."

Standing in his 16th-century Venice cathedral, before an icon of Christ brought from Turkey more than 500 years ago, the archbishop looks the part of a shepherd of the faithful.

His religious name, Spyridon, reflects that tradition, He took it in honor of a Cypriot saint said to have lived 1,700 years ago who was revered for his skills as a shepherd.

But this shepherd is adept at using the tools of the modern world to reach his flock. For instance, he said, each member of the Greek church in Italy is listed in a computer so he can easily communicate with them by mail, and he uses e-mail and the Internet almost daily to keep in touch with other church leaders.

Spyridon, 51, was born George Papageorgiou, the Greek version of his family name. His physician father, who died in 1985, just before Spyridon was appointed a bishop, used an Anglicized version of his Greek name, Constantine P. George.

Spyridon said his father, a native of the island of Rhodes, practiced medicine in Warren and later in Steubenville and Mingo Junction in Ohio before moving back to Greece when Spyridon was eight.

The Archbishop said he returned to the United States when he was 15 and lived for two years in Tarpon Springs, Fla, the birthplace of his mother, Clara, and the home of many of his relatives. He attended high school there and played halfback on the school's football team.

He returned to Greece after high school to prepare for the priesthood. He graduated from the Theological School of Halki in Turkey, a renowned Orthodox school, was ordained in 1976 and did graduate work in theology in Switzerland, focusing on Protestant theology. He spent time in a French monastery and served as a delegate of his church to the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Despite those varied pursuits throughout Europe, Spyridon said, "I have missed football, and also food that is typical of an American kitchen, during my long absence."

He will return to the United States on Sept. 19. Two days later, the service of enthronement in his new office as the spiritual leader of Greek Orthodox Christians will take place at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Manhattan. His mother, three sisters, and a brother are expected to come from Greece to attend.

Spyridon said that among his first tasks will be to meet with the members of the staff of the archdiocese, which he expects to remain intact; the eight other bishops who make up the Synod of Bishops of the Greek Church in the United States, and then with the 25 Orthodox bishops who lead other Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States.

After that, he said, the work of meeting with priests and members of the 550 Greek churches in the United States will gain his attention.

Spyridon was elected to his new post July 30 by the 12-member Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, headed by Bartholomew I of Constantinople, in the center of world Orthodoxy in Istanbul.

Spyridon succeeds Archbishop Iakovos, 85, who resigned effective this summer after 37 years in the post.

Spyridon dismissed as untrue news reports that the Greek-born Iakovos, the fourth leader of the archdiocese, had been forced to retire because of fears by Bartholomew that he was attempting to make a Greek Church in the United States more independent of Constantinople.

Spyridon said he regards Iakovos as a "friend and brother," and will seek his advice in his new office.

"The archbishop is a very worthy man who has done very much for the church in the Americas, and for the Greek-American community," Spyridon said.

Spyridon said he supports the division of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America into four jurisdictions, a move announced by the Synod at the time of his election. In addition to the United States, the other three dioceses created in this significant restructuring are Canada, headquartered in Toronto; Central America and Mexico in Mexico City, and South America in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The move, Spyridon said, recognizes that the social, cultural and even legal realities are different in Canada and Latin America than in the United States.

The divisions, he said, will help the Greek church to better serve the people in the three areas that were broken off, as well as those in the United States. He said similar divisions have taken place in Europe.

On the matter of church unity, Spyridon said he will be active in the National Council of Churches, as was Iakovos.

Asked about the possibility of creating one unified Orthodox body in the United States, he cautioned that the process must not be rushed because of the danger of errors, and that faith, canonical (legal) practices, and other rules of administration and tradition must be respected.

He said he favors cooperation among the Orthodox churches of the United States, which include the Orthodox Church in America and Serbian, Antiochian, Bulgarian and Armenian churches.

Such cooperation, including the creation of a single Orthodox jurisdiction or Christian body, has been under discussion since 29 Orthodox bishops, including Iakovos, signaled support for such a move in December 1994 at a meeting in Ligonier, Pa.

Spyridon did not comment directly on what appears to some ecumenical observers to be a pullback by the Greek church from that proposal, but his plan to meet with other American Orthodox bishops who were part of the Ligonier meeting indicates he wants to discuss the matter further.

"Much has been done in the past few decades to construct a stronger unity among the Orthodox jurisdictions," Spyridon said. "We feel we have reached a very satisfactory level of cooperation." He said further areas of cooperation should be explored in developing Orthodox charities, publications and religious education.

But he cautioned, "the unity that we would like to achieve in church practices does not mean each group should or would abandon their cultural Identity, or their liturgical language or traditional customs."

"I intend to explore precise possibilities that could exist to promote the cause of unity in America," he said, "I don't feel that there is a limit to cooperation among the Orthodox in America."

Such a commitment from the leader of the Greek church likely will be seen as significant by other American church leaders because the Greeks are the largest Orthodox body in the United States. The second-largest is the Orthodox Church in America, with 600,000 members. It includes members from several Eastern Orthodox nationality groups that merged to form one church body nearly 30 years ago.

The church, the archbishop said, "is always in transition and the faith is always the same, whether in Europe or in the pluralistic society in America."

But the message of the Gospel does not change, he said. "That means our task is to bring the Gospel of God's love for man into every level of our people and our society," he said.

That means working for racial and human justice and for world peace, he said.

Such endeavors have a better chance of success in a liberal, pluralistic society such as the United States because of its tradition of freedom, Spyridon said.

He also said spiritual renewal is necessary in the church. "Renewal means not taking things for granted," he said. "We may be used to praying in a certain way, without being conscious of what we are really praying for. Renewal means being committed to the mission of the church, and it means bringing ourselves closer to Christ himself and discovering values we take for granted."

In his first pastoral letter, sent last week to the Greek church in America, Spyridon said he comes to the land of his birth to "an active ministry of love that I fully commit myself [to] without reservation, without apprehension, and without distinction."

And, he said, "where there is love, there can only be unity."

[ THE PLAIN DEALER - August 25, 1996 ]