The Hellenic Chronicle - March 3, 1999

An invitation for a moratorium during Lent


For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; ...a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace (Eccles. 3,3).

I have come to "hate" passionately this time of trouble in our Church. Yet, I love even those who have brought us to the brink of despair, and I pray for them. But I can no longer remain silent, and it is because I love – our Church, our Archdiocese and Patriarchate, our spiritual leaders and our people – that I must speak out. I shall begin by asking a simple question: "Who are these defenders of Orthodoxy; these self-proclaimed leaders of our Greek Orthodox Church? Where have you been all these years?" They paint a picture of an Archdiocese in disarray. They would have us believe that the "crisis", which they have so artfully crafted themselves, is an unprecedented event in the life of our Church in America. I should like to ask a few questions, if only for myself:

Where was GOAL during Great Lent of 1970? I was an assistant priest at the Archdiocesan Cathedral in New York. One fine morning the Proistamenos ordered me to chant for a wedding that he was about to perform. I protested and refused, and then I went and changed. How could this happen I asked? I was told that the groom had an "in" at the Archdiocese and a "special" dispensation was given. Ah! but for poetic, if not divine, justice that knows when it is needed. As the Dean was ceremoniously placing the crowns on the heads of the newlyweds, his mind obviously on other matters, he began to chant the refrain, not from the wedding but from the Baptism: "Blessed are those whose wrongdoings have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered." What was I to do? I chose to "disobey" my proistamenos and I sang the proper refrain. Later we shared the humor behind it all.

Where was GOAL on Pentecost Sunday of 1970? We all know that memorial services are strictly forbidden on Pentecost Sunday. This was a particularly difficult time for me. The clergy syndesmos of the New York area was meeting at the Cathedral. Some of the brothers had heard that a memorial might take place at the Cathedral on Pentecost. The Dean was absent; they turned (actually, they jumped on me) and wanted to know if their suspicions were correct. I assured them that no memorial was scheduled. Little did I know that a call would come through from the Archdiocese after the meeting ordering us to schedule the memorial. To this day I feel the sting of those brothers who from then on considered me a liar. The memorial, by the way, was for a wealthy benefactress who for years had been a close associate of the Archbishop.

Where was GOAL when that young couple came into my office at the Cathedral asking to be married, but not in the Church? The groom was Greek Orthodox, the bride a Protestant. They wanted a Greek Orthodox wedding in her church. I knew that a dispensation could be had only when an Orthodox church is not available. I told them that New York is packed with Orthodox churches and a dispensation would be unlikely. I gave them, however, the benefit of the doubt and called the Chancellor. He told me in no uncertain terms that I should know better than to bother him with a request like this. He hung up and I felt quite foolish. A few months later, I received a call from the Archdiocese. I was told that Fr.... would do the wedding and that the couple would come to me for the paper work. I filled out the papers, although I refused to sign them. What happened? Yes, the groom's uncle was a man of substance who knew ... and the dispensation was awarded.

Where was GOAL in the spring of 1970, to defend the rights of a truly honorable priest? My Proistamenos at the Cathedral, Fr. George Papadeas, a member of the first graduating class of Pomfret, is one of the most unflappable men I have ever met. It was a privilege to serve under him, even for so short a time. I had seen him on several occasions in the eye of a storm, but he had a way of controlling himself that I envy to this day. One afternoon he returned to the Cathedral and ordered me into his office. He was on the verge of tears and went on to tell me that he had just returned from a Board meeting at the Archdiocese for Hellenic College/Holy Cross. During the meeting, a group of priests/professors literally burst into the meeting, uninvited and unannounced, and proceeded to trash the School's president, Fr. Leonidas Contos. Fr. Papadeas was incredulous that these fellow priests would speak such hateful venom against Fr. Contos in front of the lay members of the Board. Soon after Fr. Contos was dismissed from the School. Most of us remember Fr. Contos as one of the most distinguished priests of our Archdiocese, especially as he fulfilled his role as translator during the visit of the Patriarch Dimitrios. Of course, by then he had been rehabilitated.

Where was GOAL during the years 1974 to 1982 (Dr. Thomas Lelon was president of the School for part of this time). A colleague of mine was at the Seminary then, and has told me about the serious problem with homosexuality that plagued the School during those years. The crisis was conveniently overlooked until one priest/professor, the late Fr. Nomikos Vaporis, found the courage to speak out. Unfortunately, several of the troubled students were allowed to graduate and some have even been ordained priests.

Where was GOAL when serious charges were leveled against the previous regime at the Archdiocese over financial misdealings? Is it not true that at least a few of the individuals involved in that mess are now outspoken critics of Archbishop Spyridon? Why now and not then?

Where was GOAL -- these pretentious defenders of the synodal system -- when the synodal system was first instituted in our Archdiocese, ostensibly granting full rights to our diocesan bishops? Do any of our Metropolitans truly believe that they enjoyed full rank and privilege under Archbishop Iakovos? If they did, and if the Archbishop had full confidence in the candidates he himself had selected, then why did they have to wait all these years to submit their request to be made Metropolitans, following his retirement? Why is it that in some dioceses both the Archbishop and local bishop were commemorated, while in others only the local bishop's name was mentioned? Did this practice not create strife between the Archbishop and some of his bishops? Indeed, it did. In fact, the Archbishop's disdain for most of his colleagues is legendary and he never rarely missed an opportunity to display it, even though it was not without humor.

A source close to ... related this amusing incident to me: The Archbishop was attending a meeting in one of the dioceses. The local bishop was also present. Unfortunately, the meeting was dragging on and the bishop had committed himself to another meeting. He had to leave, but as long as the Archbishop remained, protocol called for him to stay. The bishop passed a note on to the Archbishop. It read: "Your Eminence, is it all right if I leave for another meeting?" Under the question the bishop traced out two boxes, one marked yes, the other no. The Archbishop, always quick on his feet and naturally witty, returned the note. He put his mark between the boxes. Needless to say, the bishop stayed put.

Where was GOAL, with all of its "righteous" indignation, when the entire Orthodox population of North America was scandalized during the infamous Carey-Gouletas affair? I am sure you remember, Carey, a widower, was Governor of New York; Gouletas, twice divorced, was a wealthy benefactress from Chicago. We saw them married at the Archdiocesan Cathedral, smack dab in the middle of Great lent. Another one of those "special" dispensations. And some Orthodox have the audacity to complain about Roman indulgences! The only good thing that came of out this unfortunate business, however, was from the Catholic side. Roman Catholics are not allowed to marry divorced persons. The Cardinal of New York issued a letter advising Catholics that Carey was now in conflict with his church, and that Catholics should not attend the wedding. Would that the Cardinal had been an Orthodox bishop. I salute his courage.

While our friends in GOAL distract us with all their sad tales about financial mismanagement, ethical improprieties and administrative crises, where have they been all these years? Why do they conveniently ignore past history? How can they explain away the fact that in one parish people married outside the church are not allowed to approach the chalice, while in others they are admitted? In some dioceses non-Orthodox are allowed to exchange the rings during the Betrothal while in others they are not? Why is the Liturgy celebrated one way here and another there? The point is, that our friends in GOAL are concerned with selective issues of their own choosing, which they exploit, in order to disturb the tranquility of our Church. Meanwhile many other concerns - liturgical, spiritual and pastoral - are conveniently ignored. Why? Are financial and legal matters more important than spiritual and liturgical issues? Will the integrity of the Church be restored by hounding Archbishop Spyridon over issues of money and influence, or by helping him to restore a sense of spiritual, pastoral and canonical balance?

I believe that the greater weight of our problem lies with the so-called men of substance and the intellectual elite who, as we are told, now have the wisdom to support this revolution; while the truth be told, several of these very people have benefited in the past from the lack of uniformity and spiritual/pastoral integrity in the Church. After all, while we priests are explaining to our humble and obedient faithful why they cannot marry during lent or conduct memorials on certain holidays, many of these "special" folk were receiving indulgences and dispensations like kids in a candy shop.

As far as I know, according to Scripture, "God shows no partiality" (Acts 10,34).

Prior to the meeting in Constantinople, GOAL went out of its way to praise Patriarch Bartholomew, his wisdom, leadership and love for our Church. Now that the Patriarch has made it clear that Spyridon is here to stay, they have changed their tune. In the January 27 edition of The Chronicle the GOAL page reads: "From Bartholomew, to Spyridon, to Chaos" According to them, "America cries out for a new Archbishop who knows and loves America." Really?

I remember a conversation with a colleague shortly after Archbishop Spyridon was elected. One of the "selling-points" for the new Archbishop, he claimed, was that he was born in America and knows about the Church here. I still believe that my answer to this claim remains valid. I told my friend, I don't care where he was born, as long as he has an Orthodox phronema! What is it that the Patriarch and the Archbishop don't know or understand about America? It is too much to attempt to discuss here some of the "unique" aspects of our so-called "American" church. But let me ask this: Why is it that in the Greek and Antiochian churches certain innovations have been encouraged and tolerated, that are clearly contrary to proper Orthodox practice, while in the Slavic churches in America such innovations have never been allowed. This and similar questions need to be discussed in a rational and scholarly way. They have to be studied from a historical/cultural, spiritual/pastoral and moral/psychological perspective. That will take time, but perhaps it can be done soon. In the meantime, we are only deceiving ourselves when we suggest that Archbishop Spyridon took a perfectly healthy church and turned it into a suffering cripple. On the contrary, he inherited an Archdiocese with a lot of problems that his predecessor, by the sheer force of his personality and lengthy rein, was able to mask or keep under wraps. With the departure of Archbishop Iakovos all hell broke lose, because too many people saw the opportunity to advance their own agendas.

Lest your think, dear reader, that I dislike Archbishop Iakovos, let me be quick to add that I think he was a good leader. He did what he believed necessary in order to elevate our Church and Archdiocese from a provincial and parochial institution to a meaningful force in American life. While I may not agree with all he did, I am sensible enough to know that greatness is not always flawless. In time some church historian will gather all the information from the Iakovian period and write a history, objectively and fairly, that will help us to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of that era. Until then, we need to remember that Archbishop Iakovos had his detractors, both amongst the clergy and laity. When he arrived in America he too had confrontations with his bishops, as well as with some lay folks who thought they knew how better to run the Church. It took him several years to consolidate his power base and implement his programs. But, alas, he was fortunate. The apocalyptic beast - i.e., advanced media technology - had not yet reared its troublesome head. Back then people thought twice about hammering out an article on a typewriter, or paying for postage to send out wicked, unsigned letters. Now, not only is mass communication easy, but we are living in an age where people actually believe that they have a "right" to their opinion, no matter how ill-informed and sterile it might be. We are living in an age where ignorance is celebrated and, responsibility for what we say or write in short supply. Oh! for the days of ancient Athens, where citizens had a right to speak but not to be heard.

What do I want? Quite simple: get off the Archbishop's back Give the man a chance, a second chance if you will; call it what you may. In the 30 years that I have served the Archdiocese, I have made mistakes like any other human being. I am in no position to crucify others for their imperfections; I am too busy trying to crucify my own passions and failings. Is this too much to ask, especially of the "distinguished" priest/professors, who feel they have been slighted? I should like to answer them: when you preach about humility and forgiveness, do you tell the people that saints, like Nektarios, Maximus and Chrysostom, sought to justify themselves? Or, that they accepted their suffering, unjust as it was, with patience and humility? Are you, dear brother, certain that you have been dealt an injustice?

Now, I have a special request, I would like to issue this invitation for a Moratorium: "All parties in the bitter dispute that has threatened the peace and scandalized the faithful of our Holy Archdiocese, are called upon during the period of Great Lent and Pascha, to cease and desist, either through the medium of print or the spoken word, from any attempt to discuss any of the issues that have brought us to the brink of despair. Rather, all Greek Orthodox faithful will use this opportunity to pray for peace, wisdom, humility, love and divine guidance. At the end of this period, an effort will be made to re-assess the pertinent issues in a spirit of mutual forgiveness, obedience to authority and renewed commitment to the harmony and progress of our Church in America."

Why the need for a moratorium? The late prime minister of Greece, Constantine Karamanlis, was once asked by a reporter for his opinion about an issue that was sharply dividing the government. Karamanlis said he had nothing to say, "Because when everyone is speaking, " he opined, "no one is listening."

Great Lent offers us the opportunity to listen - to the voice of God. It holds out to us a fitting occasion for repentance and reconciliation. It challenges us to put a stop in this sinful and unprecedented attack on the legitimate authority and leadership of our church and Archdiocese. Pray God, we do not allow sinful pride to rob us of this blessed opportunity. Kali Sarakosti!

Fr. George A. Alexson, a native of Cambridge, MA is the priest at St. Katherine's Church of North Virginia.

[ The Hellenic Chronicle - March 3, 1999 - pp. 1 and 4 ]