NEW YORK.- By Apostolos Zoupaniotis
In an exclusive interview to GreekNews, on the eve of the 37th Clergy Laity Congress, Archbishop Demetrios lays down his vision for our Church and the emphasis needed to be given in our parishes in order to become stronger in faith, love, worship, and ministry.
The Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America sees the parish as center for developing healthy families and a spirit of sharing what we have, which means both missionary and philanthropic work. Demetrios reports progress in our ecclesiastical affairs, adding that this atmosphere of peace and stability contributes in the continuous growth of our communities.
As examples of the progressive process he mentions the School of Theology and the increased number of both students and ordinations of new priests, the doubling of the membership of Leadership 100, during the last four years, as well as the establishment of Faith Endowment for Orthodoxy and Hellenism.
The new Charter of the Archdiocese is considered by Demetrios as an other element of progress. His Eminence comments on the Corona parish situation, the proposed UPRs and the recent crisis between the Fanar and the Church of Greece. And he insists his decision to sign the declaration for cutting the communication with Archbishop Christodoulos was not only correct, but it was proven as such.
Q. Your Eminence, thank you for giving me the opportunity. This is going to be your third Clergy Laity Congress, what progress can you report in the affairs of our Archdiocese since your enthronment?
A. Many things have been happening. We are in a continuous development, in a continuous progressive movement, as it happens always with a living church. To be specific, we could first talk about a condition of more stability, peace, and opportunity for positive work that has been established. Secondly, we have been experiencing during this period a continuous growth on the level of the communities in building or renovating churches, community centers, and schools. It’s a tremendous activity on that level. Thirdly, we could also talk about a progress observed in the Hellenic College and even more in the Holy Cross School of Theology. This is important because we need more priests. We could say that there is a steady increase in the number of students. At this moment we have 120 students in the School of Theology, the majority of whom are candidates for the priesthood, and that is quite a significant event, if one takes into account that today many of the non Orthodox theological schools and seminaries face difficulties in the numbers of new students. Also during these years we have an increasing number of ordinations to the priesthood. For instance, between the years 2000 and 2002 we have had 18 ordinations to the Priesthood, whereas between 2002 and 2004 the number of ordinations became 24 with 5 more pending. Then we could talk about a fourth item, and this is the new Charter of our Archdiocese. We have been working for one and a half year now with the new Charter and the regulations that are related to it. These regulations are going to be the object of the upcoming Clergy Laity.
I would further mention the progress in terms of substantial cooperation among the members of the SCOBA, promoting inter-orthodox unity.
There are also strong elements of progress in some areas like the Leadership 100, where we have a dramatic change during the last five years. From the number of approximately 300 members in 2000, we now have approximately 600. This is a phenomenon showing confidence, showing trust to the Church. Then, there is also a very new thing which is the “Faith Endowment for Orthodoxy and Hellenism”, which is a very important event because we have already a commitment from a limited number of people, in the vicinity of $25 million. These are some of the items I could mention, omitting much more.
Q. What is the main issue you would like the delegates to focus on during the Congress?
A.The theme of the Congress is “Building Communities of Faith and Love: Orthodox Parishes in Worship and Ministry.” It is obvious here that the emphasis is on the parish, the community. What we would like to see, is the community, the parish becoming stronger and stronger in faith, love, worship, and ministry. Now, the community is an entity that in order to really function properly needs basically three things: One, a strong component of education. There is a need for education. By education we mean religious education, and we mean also education in our Hellenic tradition which is language, history and culture. In other words, Hellenic tradition in its international, universal, diachronic, timeless elements that are just the basis of the western civilization, in terms of democracy, freedom, science, wisdom, arts, etc.
Truly, there is need for our parishes to be centers of a strong education. And I’m talking about not Sunday schools or the children, I’m talking about time to develop very strong opportunities for adults. So that’s the first thing. The second basic need is the care for the family. The parish is comprised of individual units which are the families. So, we should like to have the parish as center for developing healthy families. A center that deals with the non-functional family, with the family at the brink of a divorce, with the family of problematic children, with the single parent family, with the family of the priest.
The third basic need that we would like to see the parishes covering is the developing of a spirit of sharing what we have, as faith, as assistance of any kind, which means both missionary and philanthropic work. We have to seek out, first of all, our own people who are somehow disillusioned, disappointed or for one reason or another are out of the Church. After all, we have as a given a big number of intermarriage families, and there you need very much to reach out to the non-orthodox member by all means. So, this sort or missionary sharing what we have is a third element that we would like to see developing in our communities.
ON THE CORONA CRISIS
Q. I just take the opportunity to ask if this is the main issue, and those are the elements.
What went wrong to one of the communities, in the case of Corona, and we have a big problem there and people complain that for 7 or 8 years the Archdiocese sticks with one priest and changes presidents.
A. Well what is the problem here is human nature. Human nature is a factor here that is important. Human beings are tremendously unpredictable, volatile, very much susceptible to manipulations, or other conditionings. Therefore, one has to be ready and the Church has been ready to face very difficult situations. You mentioned the specific case of Corona. How come that you have only one or two or ten communities, out of 500 plus, having this type of problem? That means there is a particularity in this case, there is something special that may be the cause. These might have been the administrative elements of the community, the personality of the priest, or both. And I can tell you that in the Corona issue we have used enormous amounts of time and care. But we don’t really mind spending time in order to find the best solution, and a lasting solution.
Q. What is the main problem we are facing as a Greek Orthodox Church in America?
A. I thing that we should not talk about main problem, since there might be more than one and maybe a differentiation from lets say area to area. For instance a community in Astoria might have a certain type of problems which is not at all the case with a community in the mid-West, and totally unknown in the West and vice versa. In one instance you might have a problem of adaptation: A difficulty on the part of some new immigrant to really be able to feel at ease with the American environment and therefore develop normally on both levels, on the level of keeping the identity and at the same time becoming part of the general community. This is not the problem for the second, third or fourth generation at all. But it is for the first generation. Then there is a problem of the needs in terms of what is considered an Orthodox way of life, Orthodox spirituality involving worshiping, involving time, even time for the family which is part of the Greek-Orthodox understanding. You might live in conditions that this kind of time and the conditions of life don’t allow for the family to function properly. Then you have the more general problem of how you combine the very deep, the very elaborate Orthodox spirituality with the very technocratically and materialistically determined society. You have in addition the problem of being able to cope with non-orthodox Christian strong presence in some areas. You might have a very small Greek-Orthodox community, ghetto style sometimes, in the vicinity of a very strong non-orthodox Christian communities. That might create difficulties of how you confront them, how do you move as a minority of a minority within a strong heterodox environment.
And let me just put an end to this list of problems by mentioning the whole issue of the education and growing of the children. How I can describe the difficulty, the anxiety of parents seeing their children going into a public school and, therefore, feeling that they are in no position to control their development, their growing and their Greek Orthodox education. This is quite a serious issue, we try, as far as it is possible, on the one hand to provide the parents with the proper tools for educating their children and on the other to help the children through Greek and religious education in the parish.
Q. Your Eminence, some people criticize you for not keeping your promise to the delegates in the Philadelphia Congress on the charter issue, is it true? I know it’s been a long process coming to an end, but do you think you promised them something you didn’t deliver there?
A. Could you remind me what I promised them?
Q. You told them don’t insist on voting because I see your resolution and I will respect that, I will work towards that direction. What was it about, do you remember?
A.Well, they asked to have the text of the draft of the Charter. That was the request in Philadelphia. And I answered them quite clearly: I, as a responsible Archbishop, can not give you a text which is a draft that is going to be transformed tomorrow and after tomorrow because it’s in the process. I will give you the text when it reaches some basic form that could be then the basis of a discussion. This was my promise in Philadelphia. A process followed involving many people, clergy and laity, involving a large committee, the mixed committee of the Patriarchate and the Archdiocese and the Archdiocesan Council. Finally, when the Charter got into a draft that was in a more stable form, we presented it as a proposed Charter to all the communities, all over the country to all of our people not only to the delegates of the Clergy-Laity Congress. So, my promise to the delegates was not only kept, but extended far beyond the original request. In addition, we sent the proposed Charter not only for simple information, but for solicitation of opinions, comments, etc. We received many answers, we prepared a list of them and we distributed the list to all the delegates of the Los Angeles Congress in 2002. We had an open discussion there and we sent to the Patriarchate, first the text; second all proposals, suggestions, decisions of the Congress; third all proposals, responses of the communities. Even the smallest piece of paper with an opinion on the Charter was sent to the Patriarchate. The Patriarchate never had such a full picture of the entire issue on the Charter. In addition, the full transcript of seven hours of pertinent discussion in the Los Angeles Congress. Therefore, as you see, I kept my promise, and, furthermore, I made sure that everyone would be part of the process related to the Charter.
Q. Maybe the UPR’s should follow the same process, some people also complain that there is not enough time to study; it was only presented a month ago?
A. The UPR is a good text. There are some modifications and some additions that have been dictated by the new charter. But the preparatory work by the Archdiocesan Council has been so thorough that there will be no serious problem in the Clergy-Laity to deal properly and conclusively with the UPR.
Q. And a final question on this organizational matters. An issue was raised in the legal dispute, having to do with the Canonical Church that we are, the role of member of the Archdiocese and something that by using this term, not accepting this term as Archdiocese trying to avoid the law to check on matters, the legal system to check on matters of the Archdiocese.
A. There is nothing mysterious about that. This is not an invention that has happened now, it is a purely legal thing related to the initial act of the Archdiocese recognized as a corporation back in the 1920’s. So there is a definition of the member in legal terms and there is a definition in ecclesiastical terms. In other words the Archdiocese today as a Church has 1,5 million members but as a corporation defined under the New York State laws falls into a totally different category of membership. But, I repeat, this is a purely legal matter for which full explanation will be given shortly.
Q. What I don’t understand though is that when the election of a Metropolitan or even the Patriarch, and the election of an Archbishop in Greece are subject of the law of each country, why such an issue can not be a matter of the law of the United States?
A. Why? You should know the answer. It has to do with the special relationship between the Church in Greece and the State which is not the case in the USA. It is the famous phrase, that in Greece you have «την νόμω κρατούσαν πολιτείαν”, i.e. the State having the authority through the law, that’s why. Tell me, what have the laws of the New York State to do with the election of a Bishop, an election that is determined by the tradition of a Church of 2000 years?
THE BATTLE OF CHURCHES
Q. Your Eminence is the crisis between the Patriarchate and the Church of Greece finally over?
A. The specific issue, I think, has been resolved and it has been resolved in its final stage and therefore the answer will be yes. There are perhaps items that might some time create a difficulty but this is normal in the life of the Church.
Q. Did you have any fear that there was a possibility of this crisis to spill over in the United States?
A. At some time I heard some voices coming from various environments pointing to that kind of danger. Since I try to be objective and to have the full data, I listen to everything and I concluded that, if there was some reaction there was not of the dramatic dimensions that it had in Greece.
Q. The question of signing that decision for “akinonisia” with Christodoulos, you still think that was the right decision?
A. Absolutely. There is not even one per thousand doubt about that. And I am explaining to you why. The so called major Synod of 41 Hierarchs, i.e.the Patriarch, two Archbishops and 38 Metropolitans was not a court. It was a Synod convened in order to find ways to cope with a difficulty that has been created, especially after the election of the three Metropolitans by the Church of Greece for the so-called New Lands. That in essence created a real cutting of the communion. Now here comes the Patriarch and says we face an actual cutting of communion, therefore we have no other choice but to make it official on the part of the Patriarchate. This decision was an administrative measure, not a punishment. People who wanted to take advantage and exploit the issue for their agendas talk about punishment, condemnation, etc. No! I repeat that it was an administrative measure in order to just help get out of the crisis. The decision was of a temporary nature in the strong hope of a very quick correcting of the mistake on the part of the Church of Greece. This happened on May 28th when the Hierarchs of the Church of Greece recognized as valid in its entirety the so-called Praxis of 1928. Within six days the major Synod, of the Patriarchate convened again, restored the communion and recognized the 3 Hierarchical elections. Signing the 2 Synodal Praxes of the major Patriarchal Synod, as I did, constitutes a very responsible participation in the efforts of the Church to bring viable solutions, peace and unity at a time of crisis.
A CALL FROM GOD
Q. Was any instance during these five years you have been living here, that you would say “I would rather not take the responsibility not to accept the proposal and come and become an Archbishop in America?”
A. Not at all, although there have been five very hard years with intense work, with a tremendous effort to build spiritual bridges, to construct spiritual roads, to define goals and targets. A non-stop work was needed, a task that absorbed any minute of the day or the night.
For me to be here serving the people is a real call from God. I was drafted, by our Ecumenical Patriarchate and from God, I said: this is not me, therefore I cannot refuse the call no matter how difficult it is. It is difficult but it is very extremely challenging, it is demanding but extremely rewarding. It is extremely rewarding in terms of what I saw here. Once again, although I was familiar with America since 1964, I saw in the people of our communities and astonishing human quality as I was now working with them, visiting the communities all over the country. You know Mr. Zoupaniotis, various people who visit us here they say that they see difficulties here that are serious , but on the other hand they say if there is a strong possibility for a strong Orthodoxy in the new world this possibility is here. In this Church in this Archdiocese. This is a tremendous opportunity given to us by God.
Q. And the final question your Eminence. How far do you think is the date that we would have a united Orthodox Church in America?
A. Mr. Zoupaniotis, I am an Archbishop and a New Testament scholar, but I am not a prophet. I can not really engage in speculation about time. So I can not say much in this case except that we are working we are progressing, and we are already having something in SCOBA, the Standing Conference of the Orthodox Canonical Bishops of America, are perhaps not known to the large public. We have already a tremendous common work as Orthodox in this country. I don’t mean in general the witness that we offer as Orthodox I mean specific things especially in two areas. One is the IOCC an organization under SCOBA which offers a philanthropic, charitable work all over the world. That is one thing and that involves quite a significant philanthropic assistance. I can’t tell you how much I was moved when I visited Moscow a few years back, for the consecration of the new cathedral there and then before we left, we had the opportunity to visit a big hospital of more than 2000 patients. Visiting the kitchen of the hospital, we passed through a corridor with doors leading to storage rooms. The Director, who escorted us, opened one of the doors. Behind it were boxes with sugar rice and milk from our IOCC in the heart of Moscow in a big hospital! That was the work of all Orthodox of USA.
The other thing is OCMC, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, under SCOBA again. At this moment we have approximately between forty and fifty people who work outside of America; Africa, Asia, Albania, Africa, etc. This is OCMC. We provide tremendous assistance to our indigenous Orthodox priests in Africa. We provide quite a significant assistance, otherwise these people wouldn’t survive. This is a pan-Orthodox effort that we do and I am happy to say that with the help of God our Archdiocese is quite a significant component in these efforts.