Orthodox Observer - September 1997

The First Year:

An Interview with Archbishop Spyridon

ARCHBISHOP SPYRIDON celebrates his first year anniversary on Sept. 21 as primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Since becoming Archbishop he has logged thousands of miles, met thousands of people, and delivered hundreds of homilies and speeches from one end of this nation to the other. His decisions have affected every facet of church life of his Greek Orthodox flock in America.

Recently, His Eminence reflected on his first year of service and on some of his thoughts about the Church in America.

The following four pages of this issue of the Orthodox Observer offer an in-depth interview with His Eminence on a wide range of issues, including his general impression of the Church's parishes, their role in the Archdiocese, his priorities for the near future, his relationship with his Bishops and the Archdiocesan Council, effectiveness of the clergy, the role played by the Clergy-Laity Congress, and his concerns about the unchurched and the Church's young people, to name a few.

Q.- Your Eminence, September 21 marks your first year as the Archbishop of America. How do you see the Greek Orthodox in America with regard to their faith and awareness of the Orthodox religion?

A.- In the year since I was enthroned Archbishop of America, I have seen much that would tell me that this is a vibrant Church, with dedicated clergy and lay people whose love for the Church knows no bounds. It is a Church eager to maintain its roots which go back to the beginnings of Christianity, proud of its spiritual heritage and is full of hope and expectation for a brighter future based on the missionary zeal of its younger members.

Q.- You have traveled to many parishes throughout the United States since your enthronement. What has impressed you about the various churches? In what areas of parish life do you see a need for improvement?

A.- Although it is difficult to believe, my staff tells me that I have traveled to around 90 parishes. I suppose my deepest and most lasting impression will always be the children of our Greek Orthodox communities; their smiles, their eager expressions, their innocent embrace of our Holy Faith.

If we are to speak of improvements to the life of our Church, we can never have too many when it comes to our children. Our chief goal must always be enriching their lives from the treasury of our spiritual tradition; for in this way, we enrich and replenish ourselves.

It is easy to want to share our material blessings with our children; America provides us with so many opportunities. But we must be diligent and faithful to share the spiritual life of the Church as well.

HIS ALL HOLINESS Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presents His Eminence Archbishop Spyridon shortly after his election on July 30, 1996.

Q.- The Orthodox faithful see you as "the Archbishop," the leader of our Orthodox Church in America. Some may never have the opportunity to meet you. What are some of the things that would describe you as Archbishop Spyridon, the person, the man?

A.- Even though I may never have the opportunity to connect personally with each and every member of the Archdiocese, I yet hope with great expectation that through the Mysteries of our Holy Church, and especially through the Divine Liturgy, we are more than connected, we are united in faith, in hope and most importantly in love.

As for my "human side," it is extremely difficult to speak of oneself, especially if one is trying to offer his services for the good of the faithful. I would hope that the faithful of this Archdiocese, from the Archbishop down to the priest in the tiniest of parishes, with all humanity struggles every day to do what is right, what is true, what is spiritually beneficial for his fellow man.

Q.- Was there a particular instance in your early youth when you decided to devote your life to the Church?

A.- I come from a family that counts many priests going back three generations. My life has been tied to the Church ever since I was a child, as an altar boy, choir member and GOYA president. So my entry into the clergy was, for me, the most natural thing in the world. In reality, when the time came for me to enter the clergy, I had no decision to make. If I'd have to start over again, I would follow exactly the same course.

Q.- You left this country as a teenager and returned more than three decades later as our spiritual leader. What is your impression of the United States today, versus that of your youth?

A.- Of course, I left when I was a teenager, but always maintained my contacts with relatives and acquaintances and from time to time I would come back to visit them. It is extremely difficult to speak of a gap, in this case, and it is equally difficult to speak of specific changes that occurred in this period. The Church is a lively and dynamic body that proceeds from one change to another. I would say that the Church has made great progress during these years, especially from an organizational aspect.

Q.- What are some of the top priority issues that you believe must be addressed?

ARCHBISHOP SPYRIDON and Metropolitan Ioakim of Chalcedon make their way past the crowd on their way to the enthronement at Holy Trinity Archdiocesan Cathedral.

A.- There are three issues that I think must be immediately addressed, and I have already begun to do so. First, the liturgical life of our church. As I have said countless times, in the Orthodox tradition, liturgy is everything. We must strive to enhance, as much as possible, the participation of our people in the liturgical life of our Church.

Second, religious education. The key to the future of our church is the proper and extensive religious education, of our youth and of our adults, but especially our young people, since they will carry the church into the next century.

Third, inter-church marriage. If most of our young generation are marrying people outside the Orthodox Faith -and statistically they are, and in overwhelming numbers- then we must make certain that they know their Faith, and love it, so that they don't leave it when they marry. At the same time, we must encourage a warm, loving environment so that non-Orthodox spouses feel welcome in our parishes, and might freely discover Orthodoxy for themselves. What we must not do is be frightened by this trend, or put up defenses that would keep our children's spouses and even our grandchildren from understanding the Church.

Q.- You have spoken of the need to reach the lapsed Orthodox Christians and the unchurched in general. How do you intend to do this, given the fact that the Church may not have been a priority in their lives to begin with?

A.- Outreach to lapsed Orthodox Christians and the unchurched should be of major concern to all of us. The Church must undertake every possible effort to reach out to these people through pastoral care, religious publications and with Christian love, never allowing the contact with the unchurched to fail. Carrying out this important ministry, we must never forget that, although many of our faithful may be non-practitioners of our faith and tradition in their daily lives, they are in fact sincere believers.

Q.- How do you view the parish's role in the Greek Orthodox community?

A.- The parish offers the place where the eucharistic community gathers in order to partake of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and to thus bring the Church to Her realization. The eucharistic event must then be expanded and brought into every aspect of the life of those who compose this community.

Q.- How do you perceive the relationship between the parish priest and the parish council?

A.- Ideally, the interaction of the priest and the parish council should be modeled after the relationship of Christ with His 12 apostles. The parish priest, who has the unique mission of serving the Eucharist in the name of his bishop, is assisted by the parish council in broadening the eucharistic event and bringing it into the lives of all parishioners.

Q.- Do you consider our parish priests as able and trained to deal with the more serious problems people in our society face every day; problems such as drug abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse, among others.

A.- The parish priest's responsibility, based on the Eucharist, is to minister Christ's message to the faithful and to the whole world. This message calls us to love God "with all our heart, our souls, and all our minds... and love our neighbor as ourselves." Thus, when dealing with the more serious problems of our society, the priest in like manner, must offer genuine and unconditional love in every situation. In addition to encouraging an individual to seek solace and redemption in the Church, he may also refer them to a clinical professional who is more knowledgeable in treating a particular ailment or abuse, provided that this recommendation has been thoroughly reviewed and made certain of its credibility.

Q.- What is your relationship with the new Archdiocesan Council? How do you view its role?

A.- I consider my relationship with the Archdiocesan Council as very satisfactory and one that is characterized by friendship with the members, and sharing similar goals and dreams.

The role of the council is a very important one in that it assists the Archbishop and Synod of Bishops in the administration of the Church on various issues. Its input is of extreme importance in carrying out the administrative affairs of the Church.

Q.- Do you see a need for changes in the role and function of the Clergy-Laity Congress?

HE HOSTED the clergy of the New York-New Jersey Dioceses and their families at a family day picnic July 1 at St. Basil Academy.

A.- The Clergy-Laity Congress, as the Regulations of the Archdiocese state, is a body of clergy and lay representatives that deal with matters affecting the life of the Church, i.e., its institutions, finances, administration, etc.

The institution of the Clergy-Laity Congress has contributed enormously in shaping the administrative structure of this Church and has vitalized the body of our faithful by making them active participants in the life of the Church. This institution has been deeply appreciated throughout the Orthodox world and today we witness its introduction into the organizational structures of other Orthodox archdioceses, metropolises and jurisdictions throughout the world.

Therefore, we must all work together to keep this precious institution as vibrant and dynamic as possible for it can only enhance the life of the Church.

Q.- Anyone having the opportunity to observe you around children and teens notices a very warm, paternal and genuine affection toward them. Based on your conversations with them, what are some of their concerns? How can the Church address them?

A.- Our children and young people are concerned with how they can live their Orthodox faith in a world where there are no moral absolutes and the teachings of their own Church are diametrically opposed to what they hear and learn in school and our society at large.

The Church must always reach out and embrace the youth where they are, as they are, and to challenge them to become more than they are. This can only be done by a constant outreach of love.

Q.- Is Greek parochial school and Sunday school enough to instill in the youth a genuine awareness of our religion and traditions? What is the parents' role in bringing up their children Greek Orthodox?

ATTENDING HIS first Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs, Fla., the Archbishop flings the cross into Spring Bayou as dozens of teen-age boys prepare to retrieve it.

A.- The purpose of our religious education programs and Greek parochial schools, whether they take place on Sunday or other times during the week, is to help build up the Church, the Body of Christ, by nurturing our youth in the life of personal communion with the Holy Trinity. Through the dedicated ministry of lay workers, we seek to instill in our children the essential elements of their faith and a noble sense of pride in their culture. But it is preeminently the role of parents to teach children by the example of their own lives. Whether it be through lighting the candeli, the burning of incense in the home, teaching children their prayers, how to venerate icons or how to prepare for Confession and Holy Communion, parents are the prime source of children's knowledge of their faith and culture. It is the parent who imparts to our children the skills and knowledge they need to navigate in our pluralistic society, teaching them that by holding fast to the doctrines of their faith and the values of their culture, they will be able to encounter and prevail in the world we live in.

Q.- How do you view the role of women in the Greek Orthodox Church? There exists a Women's Christian Organization whose aim is to advocate for women as spiritual leaders in the Church. How do you feel about this?

A.- Women have always played an extremely important role in the life of the Church. I need not mention that our Church has hundreds, if not thousands, of women saints. They have always displayed a most significant role in maintaining the Faith.

They are very active in philanthropic ministries and in the governance of the parishes as parish council members and officers, and I can't but admire the participation of young girls in our youth movements.

I believe that in the specific case of our Church, women have contributed enormously to its growth and the Church is now calling them to even greater service, whether it be monastic, educational, catechetical, or theological scholarship.

Q.- The issue of monasticism has been a hot topic of discussion over the past few years and it is known that during your service as Metropolitan of Italy, you reintroduced Orthodox monasticism to that country. Is there a need for monastic improvement in the United States? How do you see monasticism developing here?

ARCHBISHOP SPYRIDON views the Greek Independence Day Parade in New York in March.

A.- The rise of monastic communities within the Archdiocese in the past few years should give us all reason to rejoice. The monastic life is a timeless tradition that looks to the coming kingdom of God. It is our hope that they will contribute significantly to the enhancement of the spiritual life of our Church in America.

This developing monastic life must always adhere to the traditions and canons of the Church. Monasticism is intended for the celibate and even the married. For the celibate, the monastery is the place where he or she may dedicate his or her life completely to the Gospel, and strive to lead a life of complete obedience to God. For the married person, the monastery is a temporary refuge where they may from time to time refresh themselves spiritually. As the parish life is perfected by the monastic presence, so the monastery is perfected by those who live in the parish communities and who struggle daily to live the life of Christ in the world.

Q.- How do you view the working relationship between the Diocesan bishops and clergy with the Archdiocese?

A.- The working relationship between the dioceses, both bishops and clergy, and the archdiocese is a good one. We all have to see that we are one Church, and that only in unity can the Church really thrive and be what it should be. As we grow in love and faith, I am sure that our mission and divine purpose will be enriched for the betterment of all.

Q.- What is your assessment of Hellenic College-Holy Cross School of Theology? What changes, if any, do you feel are needed?

A.- Our School has a great mission: to be the source for a faithful, well-trained, responsible clergy and to provide our Archdiocese with dedicated and pious lay leaders. We feel the School is on the right track and in the future we shall witness even greater accomplishments of spiritual and academic excellence.

Q.- How are plans for St. Basil Academy progressing?

A.- One can find all the answers in what has recently been published in the Orthodox Observer, which is more or less the Church's position in this regard. I would urge all of our faithful and clergy to refer to what has been officially published on this issue, if specific information is needed.

Q.- What is your opinion about how the Church's National Ministries are financed? How can the method be improved?

A.- Along with our Total Commitment Program that is our parishes' stewardship to the Archdiocese, we are planning a new emphasis on "LOGOS" (League of Greek Orthodox Stewards). Through this means, we may increase our support to the Holy Archdiocese substantially which, in turn, strengthens our varied ministries. Also, through the permanently restricted Endowment Fund of the Archdiocese, Leadership 100, we continue to receive the benefits of generous faithful who assist not only in cultivating the National Ministries, but assure the vitality for the future.

Q.- What will be the main focus of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew's visit next month?

HIS EMINENCE reads from the New Testament at the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service in January at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington as part of the inauguration events for President Clinton and Vice President Gore, who along with their wives, were in the audience.

A.- His All Holiness Bartholomew's visit to the United States is pastoral in focus. It is his first pilgrimage to this country as Ecumenical Patriarch and therefore it is his first opportunity to spiritually embrace the 5 million Orthodox Christians of his American flock. For Orthodox Christians, his visit offers an affirmation of the profound spiritual fulfillment and joy that is available through Orthodoxy's beautiful, powerful and traditional teachings and practices. To non-Orthodox Christians, his visit represents a precious opportunity to experience Orthodoxy, the first and oldest Christian church. Orthodox Christianity is one of the fastest growing faiths in the United States, for Americans are turning to Orthodoxy in record numbers. His All Holiness hopes to further shed light on the role our unchanging faith plays in the modern world. Accordingly, he will strive to open a dialogue with Americans of all faiths on matters of global concern, particularly human rights, religious freedom, and the protection of the environment, the latter of which he has shown tremendous personal leadership.

Q.- What special thought or message do you wish to convey to the faithful upon the first anniversary of your enthronement?

A.- This is the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Archdiocese. It has truly been a remarkable 75 years. Our parents and grandparents toiled to make our Church what it is today. Let us honor their memory and deeply respect the legacy they have left to us. Let us build upon that legacy, and build rightly, so that our right belief, our ortho-doxia, may flourish in the years to come, in the lives of our children's children.

[ Orthodox Observer - Vol. 62 - No. 1133 - September 1997 - pp. 1, 15-17 ]