Ailing Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Christodoulos passed away on Monday at 5:15 a.m. (3:15 GMT) after battling cancer for the past seven months. Earlier, his attending physicians, close associates and numerous clerics hastily assembled at the Archbishop’s official residence in the upscale Athens district of Paleo Psyhico, as Christodoulos had declined to leave his home for a hospital in his last days.
His body will lie in state for a period of three days at the Athens Metropolitan Cathedral, while a funeral with head of state honors will follow after three days of national mourning.
The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece held an extensive meeting on Monday following the death of Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Christodoulos earlier that morning, during which they also set a date for electing a new archbishop.
The session, which ended late in the afternoon, discussed details of the four-day mourning period, during which the archbishop’s body will lie in state at Athens Metropolitan Cathedral, and decided that the funeral that will be held on Thursday at 10:00.
Christodoulos will be buried at the Athens 1st cemetery immediately after the funeral procession, while the Holy Synod has begged those wanting to send a wreath to instead make a donation to some charitable cause or foundation.
Thessaloniki’s metropolitan Anthimos announced that the election for the new head of the Greek Orthodox Church will be beld on February 7 at the Athens Metropolitan Cathedral.
In a statement issued shortly after news of Christodoulos’ death was announced, Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said the Orthodox Church leader’s “candour, simplicity, tenacity and love for Greece offer valuable lessons for our Church’s faithful”.
Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Christodoulos was born in the northeastern city of Xanthi in 1939 and baptised as Christos Paraskevaidis. He studied law and theology, obtaining a doctorate in theology, in fact, along with degrees in French and English. A young Christodoulos was ordained as a deacon in 1961 and as a presbyter (senior priest) in 1965.
He served as a homilist (preacher) at an influential parish in southern Athens (Paleo Faliro) for nine years, before holding the important position of Holy Synod secretary for seven years.
At the age of 35 in 1974 Christodoulos was elected as the Metropolitan of Dimitriada, the bishopric based in the central Greece port city of Volos, where he served until his election, in 1998, as the head of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Greece. He was also the youngest ever primate of the Greek Orthodox Church at the time of his election.
Christodoulos was a prolific writer and columnist, penning numerous scholarly articles in both church publications and periodicals around Greece and abroad. His best-known works include “Hellenism Proselytised: The Passage from Antiquity to Christianity”, “The Soul of Europe”, and his opus “Historical and Canonical Consideration of the Old Calendarist Issue During its Emergence and Development in Greece”, which was his doctoral dissertation. He also participated in missionary work overseas.
Christodoulos’ presence in the predominately Greek Orthodox nation of 11 million was immediate, as his rhetorical skills and amiable personality were employed as potent communication tools to reinvigorate the Greek Church’s venerated but often uninspiring role in the country, and especially its emphasis to reach out to younger generations.
The influential Christodoulos’ call towards teenagers to “come as you are, even with your earring” and his frequent visits to schools caused his popularity to soar in his first years on the Archbishop’s throne. Along with an emphasis on reaching out to younger people, Christodoulos was also credited with establishing and further strengthening Church-affiliated charities, including ones aiding people on society’s fringes, such as drug addicts, unwed mothers and battered women. The culmination of heightened philanthropic efforts under Christodoulos’ tenure came with the establishment of the Greek Church NGO “Allileggii” (Solidarity), which quickly engaged in humanitarian relief efforts on a global scale.
As the “cyber era” exploded throughout most of the world in the late 1990s, Christodoulos cast aside the Church’s usual cautiousness vis-à-vis modernity to eagerly embrace new communication technologies, promoting the establishment of the Church’s first-ever website, a digital library available in nine languages that includes art and music archives, as well as a portal for cultural news in Greek and English.
Heading towards the dawn of the new millennium, Christodoulos became even more outspoken in his views – whether from the pulpit or in statements at well-attended events — regarding the Church and its relations with the state and society, with reactions ranging from jubilant enthusiasm, by the Orthodox faithful, to cries of obscurantism by his secular critics in the country.
Two major clashes punctuated Christodoulos’ tenure as head of the Greek Church: his quarrel, often taking on a personal tone, with the Simitis government, shortly after the general election in 2000, over the issue of a religious affiliation listing on police-issued ID cards; and, in 2004, a “chill” in relations between the Autocephalous Church of Greece and its spiritual elder, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul, the world’s most ancient Orthodox Church. The latter dispute was ostensibly over canonical jurisdiction in a number of northern Greece bishoprics.
The socialist government more-or-less ignored heated Church protests and proceeded with the removal of the religious affiliation from ID cards and essentially ended the controversy, whereas a full rapprochement between the “sister Churches” of Greece and the Ecumenical Patriarchate was achieved in late 2004, following mediation by the education and religious affairs minister at the time, Marietta Yiannakou.
A milestone in Christodoulos’ tenure came with the unprecedented official visit of late Pope John Paul II to Athens in 2001, a visit that had appeared unthinkable decades before.
The Archbishop brushed aside heated protests from within the Church’s more zealous quarters and lent his support for the pontifical visit, personally taking the podium at a Holy Synod session to win over the Greek Church’s sceptical bishops.
With a gracious Christodoulos at his side, John Paul II expressed the Roman Catholic Church’s historic apology for past wrongs, a defining moment in recent ecclesiastical history, and one that essentially allowed for a genuine thaw in 21st century relations between the Churches of East and West. Christodoulos reciprocated in 2006 with an official visit to the Vatican and an audience with new Pope Benedict XVI.
The Archbishop’s life was forever changed on a sunny Saturday, the 9th of June, 2006. Christodoulos fell ill while preparing for a visit to the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Immediate medical tests revealed that he suffered from advanced cancer in the large intestine and an unrelated malignant growth in the liver.
A first operation to remove the intestinal cancer was deemed successful, while consultations amongst his attending physicians finally led to a decision to seek treatment in the United States, and specifically at an internationally acclaimed clinic in Miami, Florida.
Initial despair with the news of the cancer turned into guarded optimism after the first operation and quickly manifested into a strong conviction amongst the public opinion and Christodoulos’ close associates that the Archbishop was on the road to a full recovery with a pending a liver transplant in America.
Christodoulos departed Greece on Aug. 18 aboard a state executive jet, headed for Miami and Jackson Memorial Hospital, where Greek-American transplant specialist Andreas Jackis waited.
Fifty days later Christodoulos is quickly prepared for surgery when a donor match is found, only to be whisked from the operating theatre without the hoped-for procedure taking place – a dejected Jackis merely announces to waiting cameras that the liver cancer has spread, making the transplant impossible.
The inevitable occurs on the last Monday of January 2008, a chilly morning in the Greek capital and several months after the initial diagnosis.
Condolences pour in for late Archbishop Christodoulos
The Ecumenical Patriarchate expressed its deep sorrow for the death of Archbishop Christodoulos, stressing that his life was dedicated to the Church and efforts to bring the faithful closer to Christian teachings.
“His brave stance during the course of his illness has set an example,” a statement by Ecumenical Patriarchate read, concluding that with God’s help his successor will be a competent ecclesiastical leader.
Condolences were sent by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who underlined Christodoulos’ contribution to interfaith dialogue in Europe.
Education and Religious Affairs Minister Evripides Stylianidis expressed his deep sorrow over the loss of Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. Stylianidis described the late Archbishop as a supreme example of a spiritual leader.
“All Greeks throughout the world mourn the loss of the late Archbishop of Athens and all Greece Christodoulos,” Minister of State government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said.
Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria and All Africa, in a letter of condolences addressed to the Greek Church’s Holy Synod, underlined the self-sacrifice, prudence, dedication and love displayed by Christodoulos during the past 10 years at the helm of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Greece.
From Cyprus, the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Cyprus announced that Archbishop Chyssostomos will attend Christodoulos’ funeral in Athens, with the former also expressing his grief and condolences.
“The blessed Archbishop will live forever in the hearts of all the Greeks of Cyprus,” Chyssostomos
News of Christodoulos’ passing also touched the ethnic Greek communities of Australia.
Archbishop of Australia Stylianos, who in the past had criticised Christodoulos’ rift with the Patriarchate, informed the clergy and Orthodox communities in Australia over the loss, calling for a minute of silence in respect to the Greek Church’s leader.
Stylianos also announced that there will be held a memorial service for the late Archbishop at the main Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Sydney.
The Holy Synod of the Autocephalous Church of Crete expressed its condolences and announced that Archbishop Irineos will accompany the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the funereal procession.
World Council of Hellenes Abroad (SAE) President Stefanos Tamvakis expressed the organisation’s sincere feelings of grief and sorrow for the death of the Archbishop.
The US embassy in Athens and the consulate general in Thessaloniki on Monday issued a press release expressing sincere condolences, on behalf of the American people, for the death of Archbishop Christodoulos.
Former Greek president Κostis Stephanopoulos referred to people’s widespread support for Christodoulos during his long and painful illness.
Prime minister pays respects to late Archbishop
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis arrived at the chapel of the Athens Metropolitan Cathedral shortly after 14:00 on Monday, accompanied by his wife Natasha, to pay their respects to the late Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, whose body has been laid out in state within.
Christodoulos passed away early on Monday morning after a seven-month-long battle with cancer. The prime minister and his wife viewed the body and bid a final farewell before departing.
Their example was followed by a number of politicians and prominent figures of the arts and letters but mainly by crowds of ordinary Orthodox faithful that formed long queues outside the Church, defying the cold, for a chance to pay their respects to the body of the archbishop.