Orthodox Observer - June 1998

An Interview with Archbishop

Following is an interview of Archbishop Spyridon by the Orthodox Observer on major issues of the Church.

Your Eminence, you are nearing completion of two years as head of the church in America. How would you assess the changes you have brought about since your enthronement?

When I arrived in this my native land, the land of my birth, after so many years abroad, I was struck by the success and the achievements of our Greek Orthodox communities around the country. It is rare that any such grouping of people, religious, ethnic or otherwise, should make such advancements within a new society in so few generations. This is surely a testament to their faith and to their perseverance.

Coming to such a dynamic land, particularly after such a long tenure by my revered predecessor, Archbishop Iakovos, presents numerous challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, there is tremendous activity in the communities, which are desirous for growth and expansion -- an expansion that is based on including a wider a wider circle of people who have been drawn into our Church through marriage and a commitment to seeking the true faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, the institution of the Archdiocese had adjusted to a particular style and temperament, which might not have been ready for a fresh upsurge in activity and creativity.

My purpose, as the spiritual leader of this Church, has been to re-invigorate the spiritual dimension of the life of our Communities. This really does not represent change per se, but a re-commitment and re-dedication to an authentic Orthodox Christian witness here in this blessed country. In the process, I have been puzzled that this commitment to Greek Orthodox tradition has been misinterpreted by some people as a negative change, a "roll-back," or backward turning for our Church.

The reality is, despite the inaccuracies of rumors, that our Archdiocese is a diverse body of people united principally by our Faith and our liturgical life. Accepting the diversity of each other, while maintaining the unity of our Faith and our liturgical life, is a challenge that requires flexibility, faithfulness, and ultimately, love.

What has been the greatest success and greatest disappointment you have experienced during your ministry thus far?

In a position like mine, as President Truman remarked --where the buck stops-- one should not speak of successes. But I can speak of where I see the most hopeful signs are for the future of our Church, and this is in the area of education and inter-Church and inter-faith marriages. Not that we have achieved our goals yet, but we are re-orienting the Church to address the burning issues of adult commitment to the Faith and the acceptance and inclusion of non-Orthodox and even non-Christian spouses in the life of the Church.

ARCHBISHOP SPYRIDON reaches out to children on a recent parish visit.

I suppose my greatest disappointment lies in the fact that there is a spirit of fear that has taken hold in some quarters of the Church. There is a fear that as the Church matures and develops here in America, that we might lose some of the essential quality and character of our American experience. I, for one, have no such fear, because I believe that the essential nature of the Church will always prevail, despite our human weaknesses. I hope that as we go forward together to the new millennium, we will all find that there is nothing to fear, but as another American president said, fear itself. And I think that free and open communication, good will, and honest intention are the keys to dispelling fear and renewing hope and confidence.

You recently invited members of the group GOAL to meet with you at the Archdiocese, but they have declined. Do you see any possibility for an open forum at the Clergy-Laity Congress to discuss issues of concern among the delegates?

As Archbishop for all the Greek Orthodox in America, my office door is always open to people of good faith and good will. I am sincerely sorry that the members of GOAL did not take advantage of the opportunity to dialogue, so I have invited them again and do hope they will respond. But I think it is important to remember, that even though someone might identify him or herself with this or that group, they are first and foremost a child of God.

Throughout my travels throughout the Archdiocese, and the literally tens of thousands of people who have reached out to me, I have never asked anyone whether they were a Republican or a Democrat. I appreciate that individuals have concerns and issues, and even band together, but the Church is not composed of parties and lobbies. We are all members of the Body of Christ. I hope that we never forget that.

As for the Clergy-Laity Congress in Orlando, this will be my first as Archbishop, and I am sure that there will be lively dialogue and debate in the committees and forums, as well as the training sessions. The programs have been tailored this year to providing the participants with a meaningful experience, which will equip them to return to their communities and better serve the cause of the Gospel.

A major complaint of these "extra-ecclesial groups" has been that you have diminished the role of laypersons in decision making and leadership positions in the Church. How do you respond to that?

I think what we have occurring in the life of our Archdiocese would be more accurately described as a misunderstanding or a mis-communication. As the Church, the Body of Christ, each member has his or her role, and contributes to the health and growth of the Body through their service.

Historically, the Archdiocese of America has a full complement of lay involvement of lay persons at a variety of levels, all in accordance with the Charter and the Uniform Parish Regulations of the Archdiocese. None of the roles traditionally assigned to lay people have changed. However, we must remember that the first responsibility of every Christian is to be true to his name: Christian. Participation in the life of the Church is preeminently participation in the liturgical life of the Church. The Sacraments, and chiefly the Divine Liturgy, are the principle work of the Church. We all seek to improve the day-to-day management of Church affairs, whether they be on the Parish, Diocese, or Archdiocese level. But the life of the Church is primarily a liturgical experience and reality. Our most important decisions are the decisions we make to love, to forgive, to pray, to worship, to repent, to feed the poor, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick and aged, to bring the light of Christ to its full brilliance in the world.

What do you hope the Clergy-Laity Congress will accomplish?

I am looking forward to this Clergy-Laity Congress bringing together the family of our Archdiocese in a spirit of unity and united purpose. We have a great opportunity to bond together as brothers and sisters in Christ, and re-dedicate ourselves and strengthen ourselves for the work of salvation.

What changes or new programs do you plan to implement in the coming year?

What I expect to take place is that we will begin building on the foundational work that has been going on for the last two years. This includes reorganization at the Archdiocese, the Institutions of the Archdiocese, and the educational and inter-Faith ministries. It is not enough just to announce a program; it must be implemented.

Is the Archdiocese at the point where you expected it to be at this point in time?

His Eminence greets well-wishers on Greek Independence Day Parade.

When you say, "Archdiocese," if you mean the operation at the national headquarters in New York, I would say that we still have a ways to go, before we have in place an operation system that is functioning at the highest level. However, I am encouraged by the faithful efforts and the hard work that the staff is putting in.

If you mean the Archdiocese as the national Church, I believe that we are still finding our bearings, because our communities are facing many challenges that need to be addressed. A great step is being taken in the recognition that the current generation of Greek Orthodox Christians and all subsequent ones will not be able to rely on the sociological, ethnic and linguistic forces which bound them to the Church. Our people must be Orthodox by choice, not by accident of birth or marriage. Working to make this a reality in their daily lives is the greatest challenge that we all face.

How do you see the Church in America in five years?

Once we cross over the bridge to the new millennium, we will find that many of the challenges we face are the same ones we are facing today. Our Greek Orthodox communities are now part of the mainstream of America sociologically and economically, but our religious impact has yet to be felt. We have been described as the "Fourth Major Faith" group in America, but with this designation comes great responsibility. We have the joyful -- and because of Christ, light and easy -- burden to share this Faith with others. I look forward to the day when we are not only recognized by others for what we have intrinsically, but we offer to the greater American culture.

What administrative changes, if any, are you considering for Holy Cross School of Theology?

As you may know, there is currently a Search Committee actively seeking a permanent president for the School. This is obviously the greatest change, and together with the Board of Trustees, the most important thing we can all bring to Hellenic College and Holy Cross is stability and continuity, something for which the institution longs and is necessary for its success.

What is the situation regarding the deficit that resulted from the Patriarchal visit?

We continue to manage the deficit which was created by receiving the commitments from the various Dioceses and donors, as well as look to additional fundraising to cover the cost. Like anything in life, there are pluses and minuses to any enterprise, and I believe that even though there were cost overruns, the visit of His All Holiness was well worth it for the Orthodox Faithful of America, and the American People as a whole.

What has been your impression of the Church in America that you have gleaned from your visits to the parishes throughout the country?

Earlier, I mentioned the dynamism and diversity of the Greek Orthodox Communities across the United States, and would reiterate here. We are a vast community, much bigger than we may think, and much more diverse than we may assume. We have parishes that use very little Greek anymore, and we have parishes that use very little English. The resurgence in the appreciation of the Byzantine tradition of our Church is now extending beyond icons and architecture to renewed interest in worship and personal devotion. I am encouraged by the openness of our Faithful to the possibilities contained within their own tradition, and I think that now is the time to help make that tradition come alive. I am grateful to the clergy, the lay leaders, choir members and Church teachers across our Archdiocese who are responding to the challenge of sharing our traditions with their brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe that we have the energy, resources and dedication to secure and instill these traditions in our children and hold fast to that which has been handed down to us.

What has been your major frustration over the past year?

I wouldn't speak in terms of frustration, but rather in terms of challenge. The Archdiocese of America is a huge enterprise with many complexities. For one person, the Archbishop, to engage the whole Church simultaneously on every level is a real challenge. I am grateful to the countless lay people and clergy who have offered their time and assistance in order to help me with the work of the ministry, and I look forward in the future to developing better networks of cooperation and communication to more effectively conduct the work of the Church. But I never forget, that all we accomplish is ultimately by the grace of God, as we are receptive to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

What would you advise young men considering the priesthood?

My advice would be to seek God within the depths of their hearts and test the vocation that they perceive. We all know that our need for priests is greater at this moment in the history of our Archdiocese, than it has ever been. But I also believe that God knows our needs even better than we ourselves. If a young man has the calling, God will lead him to fulfill that calling.

[ Orthodox Observer | Vol. 63 - No. 1146 | June 1998 | pp. 6-7 ]