TGANews - February 23, 2003
Spyridon: Alone and Uncompromising
Interview with Spyridon, Former Archbishop of America
By DESPINA SYRIOPOULOU
Your Eminence, much time has passed since you withdrew from the Archiepiscopal throne of America. Could you tell me how you feel today that, in some way, you are a retired hierarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate?
As a retired hierarch, I spend my days in “peace and quietude” far away from the clamorous centers of diverse dealings. I have at last time for study and meditation. I consider myself particularly privileged to have this opportunity.
I understand that with my next question I touch a sensitive issue, but do allow me to ask you how you felt -on a human level— when the title of Former Archbishop of America was taken away, and not only that…
That was something that did not happen suddenly. I was expecting it for quite some time. Therefore, I had all the necessary time to prepare so as to confront this reality in a composed -I want to believe- and dignified manner. I have learned to live with or without titles. Yet, what I still have to learn is how to live with the reality that there can be such inconsistency between people’s actions and their words.
Given that time and distance offer the opportunity for a cooler analysis of past actions, possible mistakes or omissions during your tenure, how would you assess the past? How would you formulate a constructive self-criticism?
A great deal has been said and written about “mistakes and errors.” Besides, how else could the way have been prepared for all the “quirky” events that subsequently took place? However, time has shown that the developments of that period were by no means determined by particular mistakes or omissions. If I were to criticize myself, I would do it for having placed my trust in the Church establishment. I also regret the fact that I was not able to dedicate more time to consolidating certain initiatives undertaken in that period, such as the promotion of Greek education and the advancement of the Greek-American lobby.
Do you feel disappointed by the human dimension of the Church?
The Church is a divine and, at the same time, a human institution. Therefore, nothing can surprise me with regard to the people who serve within her bosom.
Have there been moments during this long period of silence that you said “God, why have you abandoned me”?
I have been accustomed to living daily under a Damoclean sword, knowing that God never abandons those “who do good.” Despair and exasperation have, fortunately, never knocked on my door. I have always kept away from these unreliable counselors.
Today should the Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, entrust you with another mandate, would you accept? If yes, what would you watch out for? Is there a moral to be derived from your previous experience?
We all must know when the curtain has fallen and when we must step down from the stage. I think that this moment has come for me, definitively and irrevocably.
Reading my colleague Justine Frangouli’s book (The Lonely Path of Integrity), I had the impression that what is being broadly rumored within the Greek American community is after all indeed true, that is to say that financial interests were at the root of your ousting. Is it true, and if yes, could you name these financial interests?
Of course various financial interests played a decisive role. Otherwise, the reins of the Archdiocese would not be today in the hands of those very few people -literally a handful- who played a leading part in a highly expensive campaign to generate perceptions of turmoil and discord. Things speak for themselves…
There are rumors about money being given to the Patriarchate by certain wealthy Greek Americans in order to achieve your ousting. Do you think that something like that could have happened?
Indeed, similar rumors were heard and written during that period. I personally find it difficult to believe that something like this could happen. It would be extremely disappointing, not only to me, but also to every person related to the Church.
Much positive and negative press has been written about you. There are people who still love you; there are others that say you divided the Greek American community and the Church. As you know better than anyone else, your ousting took place in the name and for the sake of “unity.” Would you care to comment on this?
Disunity means that the people have been divided in two parts or, if you like, in large factions. This was not the case. Indeed, if there were such disunity within our people, it would not have disappeared overnight, namely as soon as three or four individuals reacquired their former positions within the Archdiocese administration. All that talk about disunity was simply an expedient device or “red herring,” if you like, in order to consolidate the perception of discord and turmoil, so that the developments that followed could take place. A credible excuse had to be invented in order to justify all the “quirky” events that took place.
Much has been said and written about political interference on behalf of the Greek government, which finally managed to impose your ousting. How true is this?
I cannot adopt and believe these fabricated scenarios. I had a great relationship with the Prime Minister, Mr. Costas Simitis, and with other ministers of his government. The warmth with which I was officially received in Greece in February 1999, only a few months before my resignation, confirms this most clearly. However, it is true that at the end of the play, some politicians of minor importance collaborated in order to garner applause. This always happens.
After your resignation, there were some people –even high-ranking clergy who were part of your administration and who had been favored by you- who spoke of you negatively and offensively. On the contrary, people who had publicly opposed you during your tenure became your supporters afterwards. How would you assess these contradictory behaviors?
Although I do not know to whom you are exactly referring in the first case, I am not surprised by the ability of some people to change their views and stance overnight -this is sufficient to characterize them. As to the second case, I believe that time acted beneficially on their confused views as to what was taking place in that period, providing them with the necessary distance in time to understand everything that was impossible to believe and comprehend during those times. I also think that the biography authored by journalist Justine Frangouli, played a decisive role in the process of demystifying these fabricated perceptions by shedding light on the facts and the backstage power plays during that period.
Much has been written and said about what occurred behind the scenes either before your resignation or after. Would you like to refer to some of these facts?
So many things have been said and written that they suffice as such for everyone to comprehend what really happened behind the scenes. If I were to refer to all these events now, I would be simply repeating what already has been sufficiently understood.
Do you think there are persons who implicated you in certain “adventures” through their advice or interference? If yes, who could these persons be?
It is a typical phenomenon, when it is not possible to directly blame the leadership, to accuse the counselors and those close to their leader. The accusers are –who else?– those who have been put at a distance and who would like to be nearer to assume some important role. These types of superficial accusations are usually fabricated to enlarge one’s “bill of indictment” and especially targeted for consumption among those incognizant of the facts.
In Mrs. Frangouli’s book, it appears very clearly that the Ecumenical Patriarchate let you down in the end. How do you feel about this today?
When someone accepts to assume a higher post, he ought to include in his calculations, as much as this is possible, every eventuality and be ready for any development. The two go hand in hand.
Do You feel betrayed?
This term sounds very dramatic. I do not have the luxury to feel even “let down.” Today, more than ever, I feel satisfied that during my tenure in America I did not give in to pressure or to cheap dilemmas.
How did the situation evolve so negatively for you in spite of the continuous assurances by the Ecumenical Patriarchate that you were here to stay? Moreover -and this is more important- you were the most passionate supporter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, faithfully adhering to the decisions of the Phanar, and the beloved child of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Today you find yourself quite distant in the most unfortunate way…
It’s simple! The Ecumenical Patriarchate preferred to follow its para-institutional friends in America. For its own reasons, just as in the case of my predecessor, the Patriarchate closed its ears to the canonical Church authority, which is the Archbishop. I believe that the leadership of our Mother Church ought to be mature enough to chart the reality as it is and not as the “enticing sirens” are inclined to present it.
How is your relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarchate today?
It is that of a retired hierarch with his Mother Church.
Is there a possibility that you might meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch in the future? Do you look forward to such a meeting?
Man was born for dialogue and encounter. Therefore, such a meeting is never to be excluded.
If the Ecumenical Patriarchate were to ask you to again serve the Church from another post, would you accept?
As I already mentioned, “I have finished the race.” I have stepped down from the stage with a clear conscience vis-à-vis my Church and my people.
How was your relationship with the former Primate of America, Archbishop Iakovos, in reality? Do you think he was involved in the aforementioned events?
My revered predecessor never made a secret of his opinions about his successor. And his actions were always consistent with his opinions.
Do you have any communication with the current Archbishop, Dimitrios? If not, why haven’t you attempted to do so? Would you like to entertain some contact with him to the benefit of the Church?
Communication between people is a gift from God. However, such communication is difficult to maintain when even the issue of canonical permission to liturgize is a problem for one of the interlocutors.
Several people say that the issue regarding HC School of Theology proved fatal for your tenure in America. Some even say that this issue was “confused and suspect” from the very beginning. What would you say after such a long time?
It is certain today that the issue of HC School of Theology was fabricated so that it could be utilized as yet another lever to overthrow yet another Archbishop. Well-known protagonists of this fabricated scandal have recently revealed in writing that the whole story was forged to “victimize” Spyridon…
I do not know whether you are aware of the long letter (September 27, 2001) Metropolitan Methodios of Boston sent to Fr. Nick Triantafyllou, President of HC/HC. The Metropolitan referred to negative aspects of the School and mentioned certain facts and situations that you probably had attempted to confront yourself. The Metropolitan more or less vindicated you and justified your actions aimed at improving the overall situation at HC. He concluded by saying that “the majority of clergy and laity throughout the Archdiocese agreed with Archbishop Spyridon's decisions, but not with the way he enforced them.” Do you have any comments on this issue?
This is not the first time that the Metropolitan of Boston has taken such a stance. This honors him, of course. However, at this point there is a problem given that the Metropolitan had formulated dissimilar views on other occasions. As you can easily understand, this causes a great deal of confusion... This is precisely the “inconsistency” of which we spoke earlier.
Another very sensitive issue is the Archdiocese’s financial situation. When you began your tenure there was a huge deficit, according to press articles of that time. Recently, the Barbagallo committee in its report referred to yet another huge deficit under Archbishop Dimitrios! What’s true at least with regard to your tenure?
During the years 96-99 the Archdiocese, for the first time in its history, came out of its red deficit, according to the financial data presented at the Clergy-Laity Congress in Orlando. Until August 1999, there was only one financial item pending: the expenses to be paid for the Patriarch’s visit to America at the end of 1997, which, by the way, had its own separate budget. However, even this particular deficit was covered later through personal donations.
In any case, it appears odd that a member of my Executive Committee was reappointed as such and assumed the treasurer’s post, which he holds to this very day. How can trust be placed in a person who supposedly had failed during his previous mandate?
I am afraid that the reasons for today’s huge Archdiocese deficit should be sought elsewhere. It is only natural that there is again a huge deficit today, when, for example, $150,000 is spent for a video recording of only one event, and when the budget of the Clergy-Laity Congress (L.A.) is overburdened with traveling expenses for almost the entire Archdiocese staff.
Be that as it may, only those in charge of the Archdiocese’s financial administration can provide an exhaustive answer to your question. These are basically the same people who were in charge until September ’96.
In her book, Mrs. Frangouli often refers to various power structures active during your tenure. Do you believe that the same power structures are at work today as well? If yes, who is responsible for tolerating this situation? What are their aims?
It is always the same power structures and exactly the same persons. The Mother Church, in order to maintain her own prestige and authority, should have long isolated these persons, considered “Patriarchal friends.” She should also enhance the position of the local canonical ecclesiastical authority which is the Archbishop himself, if the stagnation of which certain hierarchs of America and prominent figures of the current Archdiocese administration often speak, is to be surmounted one day.
I believe you know that the people here in America never stopped loving and thinking of you. You “touched” them as a person, as a hierarch, as a Church leader! The years of your tenure were tough and it is only natural for them to want to know more about you, on a human level. Ordinary people who had believed and still believe in you are now asking many questions. They worry about where you live, how you maintain yourself financially and what you do on an everyday basis, since you no longer have an active role in the life of the Church.
After I resigned as Archbishop of America, I sought the solitude and quietude I always missed in my long thirty years and more of tempestuous ecclesiastical ministry. I found the little I was looking for in Almada, Portugal, where an old friend, an Italian convert to Orthodoxy, put his resort at my disposal. I lead a frugal and simple life, dedicating my time to prayer and church going, to study and meditation.
The Archdiocese should have never made a major issue of your pension. Are there any further developments with regard to this issue?
The issue, for various reasons that are easy to guess, is still pending. I don’t think I need to comment further…
Do you keep up with events and developments that take place within the Archdiocese of America?
Thanks to the Internet, I communicate frequently with many old friends. I also closely follow the developments in the Church of America. However, it is difficult to figure out in what direction the Archdiocese is heading today. Furthermore, many questions arise as to the possibility of overcoming the overall inactivity and stagnation that, according to hierarchs and prominent laymen, seems to exist in the Church.
How do you assess the outcome of the recent Clergy-Laity Congress and the new charter granted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate?
The recent Clergy-Laity Congress of the Archdiocese in Los Angeles in essence rejected the Archdiocese charter proposed by the Patriarchate and asked that the Archdiocese of America be given a status of semi-autonomy. Meanwhile, the Patriarchal Synod did not consider the resolutions of the Clergy-Laity Congress, ratified its initial draft and granted it, as a new charter, to the Archdiocese. The difficulty now lies in the fact that, in compliance with the Archdiocesan charter hitherto valid and approved by the Patriarchate Synod in 1977, no charter modifications can be made without the approval of the Clergy-Laity Congress. And there has been no such approval to this day. I now hear that reactions to the procedures followed in this case are slowly but surely growing. In this effort, the OCL, the well-known para-cclesiastical organization which played a major role in rejecting the Patriarchal draft in Los Angeles, is again a protagonist. Today, this organization is active in sensitizing the Greek Orthodox communities on the issue at hand, while at the same time it continues to systematically promote autonomy. The situation, as you can see, is becoming precarious once more.
How do you view the future of the Greek Orthodox Church in America?
The future of the Greek Orthodox Church in America is in God’s hands. However, from the human perspective, I cannot see how anyone can be optimistic if the situation continues as it does today. Hundreds of thousands of Greek Americans have left the embrace of the Archdiocese over the past decades. You can count the true friends and supporters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the fingers of your hand. In order for the situation to be reversed, many profound changes will need to be made. And I do not know who will accept to pay the “political” cost for the reforms required, starting from the issue of a clergy uniform scale of salaries to theological education at Holy Cross.
Many Orthodox of different nationalities live in America today. Do you think that the creation of a new institutional framework to include all Orthodox is the proper solution? Or does the present ambiguous status suffice to fully express Orthodoxy in a multi-religious country, such as America? The Holy and Great Synod has also dealt with the issue and, if it ever takes place, will make a final decision.
The presence of all Orthodox of various nationalities under one supranational -namely American- autocephalous institution, has been mainly a dream nourished by the Russian and Arab Orthodox in America. However, many Greek Orthodox clerics and laymen, especially the Greek Orthodox OCL, aspire to an autocephalous status. This solution would lead each Orthodox group to hastily rid its national characteristics and to form a fully Americanized entity without any national references at all. Personally, I do not think this solution can be regarded as very promising. Equally, I cannot consider the disruption of relations between the Archdiocese and its Mother Church as beneficial. The option proposed by the Holy and Great Synod seems to be more realistic and achievable. At the same time, it maintains –among other aspects- the role of the Patriarchate as the highest ranking Church in the diaspora.
Overall, how do you view the future of Orthodoxy in America (SCOBA, OCA, Antiochian Archdiocese etc.)?
The future of all Orthodox in America is more or less common. All have a common denominator: the problem of how to survive in the religious medley that is America by sensitizing their members as to the difference and uniqueness of their faith. A titanic task! Observing from a distance the Orthodox ecclesiastical situation in America, one has the impression that all Orthodox without exception are trying to defend their Thermopylae, being unable to break the ring of their religious ghettos, to make a dynamic presence in American society and to be part of mainstream and decision-making America. The challenge is there for all: how to overcome religious marginalization and assume a creative role in their broader environment. Without this opening, Orthodoxy in America will continue to stagnate in her isolated waters.
How do you view the role of Orthodoxy worldwide? Recently, after 9/11, the Orthodox Church has been upgraded in the eyes of many analysts (historians, theologians, politicians, etc.) for various reasons. The initiative taken by the Ecumenical Patriarch to organize an inter-religious conference in Brussels, certain meetings in Washington as well as a number of other Patriarchal activities indicate that apparently the Ecumenical Patriarchate may be able to play a decisive and historic role during this difficult period in which Islamic Fundamentalism has intensified. Would you like to comment on this?
Certainly, many important and praiseworthy initiatives are being undertaken today within the Orthodox Church. However, the subject is not exhausted by these initiatives as such. Our Church must also make sure that these initiatives will be further developed and brought to the attention, not only of the West, but of the whole world as well. Above all, she must ensure that they will have an impact on the rest of the Christian world. In other words, I am afraid these initiatives have a firework effect that vanishes at the end of the celebration itself. In any case, it is certain that these initiatives are still far from having even the smallest impact on Church and State authorities, which is not the case, of course, with similar initiatives taken by the Roman Catholic Church.
Finally, I would like to conclude this interview with a few words about the new Foundation that bears your name, the “Archbishop Spyridon Foundation for Hellenic Education and Culture.” What are its perspectives and plans for the immediate future? I will also ask you to comment on what is being propagated by certain individuals who interpret the existence and activities of the Foundation as a threat to the unity of the Greek American community and as a clear attempt to undermine the task of the Archdiocese and that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The danger for the Greek American community of losing its Greek consciousness, identity and language is a given. In 1999, the well-known Rassias report stressed that "unless significant remedial action be taken immediately, Hellenism's survival in the American diaspora will be at risk." The report’s most dire prediction, based on the evidence it had accumulated, was that "Greek identity may well be lost in less than a generation.” This disappointing phenomenon prompted some perceptive friends in America to establish a foundation for the promotion of Hellenic education named after myself, as I had been active in the field of Greek Education.
The specific character of the new foundation lies in its aim of promoting Hellenic culture by sensitizing all Greeks abroad as to the need to preserve their Elliniki Paideia. Beyond the issue of learning Greek, our range of vision should include a broader picture: that of the conscious reference by Greek Americans to their cultural roots. Our efforts will focus on activating all channels available so as to achieve a realistic approach to the issue of Hellenism’s preservation.
The activities of such a foundation are to be considered as yet another effort to maintain the unity of the Greek American community, a unity that as of late has been receiving one blow after the other. Given that its goals are noble and sacred, I am sure that the new foundation will contribute decisively to the preservation of this unity that is indispensable for the survival of Hellenism in the diaspora. The new foundation, together with other known foundations dedicated to parallel activities in America, will struggle to achieve one and only goal: to maintain the pride of being Greek in times of absolute barbarity.
[ TGA News
February 24, 2003 ]