In an exclusive interview with the “Greek News” Archbishop of America explain this year’s theme “You are the voice of Christ in a changing world”
New York. – Interview with Apostolos Zoupaniotis
The 43rd Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress of the Holy Archdiocese, to take place in Nashville, Tennessee from July 3-8, will be the 9th Congress to convene since the enthronement of Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America noted in an interview with the Greek News that the theme of this Congress, “You are the voice of Christ in a changing world”, was composed in the positive form, not the imperative. “It’s not ‘You must’ or ‘You ought to be’ the voice of Christ, but that you ‘are’ the voice of Christ’, as per the model of ‘I am the light of the world’ (Math. 5,14). And its continuation, ‘οὕτω λαμψάτω τὸ φῶς ὑμῶν …’ (Math. 5,16), i.e., ‘so shine your light’,” said Archbishop Demetrios, “It is, therefore, a given, and this is the first biblical passage that supports it.
But even more support is given it in the other biblical passage, ”As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” (John, 20,21). We are, in other words, the direct continuation of the works of Christ. Those are the two basic ideas from the New Testament, and they cover this: that to be the voice of Christ, it is necessary to know Him, to speak the language of Christ, and to use words that bring results. The theme, “You are the voice of Christ in a changing world” gives us the opportunity to go into this in great depth and to implement it in specific programs, he said.
AZ: Previously the trilogy in Clergy-Laity Congresses had more to do with the family. It’s as if to say that we’ve closed that cycle of how to be an Orthodox family in relationship to the Church and now we’re going out into society. Is this the rationale?
HE: Yes, it is. We are going out as a family, as a parish, as individuals, but we will go out, because the voice of Christ is outside and is especially sonorous there. This is important and this idea will have results for our programs. We want to make an effort that during the interwar years in Greece was named an “internal mission”, which is outward, but there are numbers of our people out there who are not connected. We have four liturgies on Palm Sunday, but where are all those people on other Sundays? If these people do not connect, it is debatable where the next generation will find itself.
What happens in Greece: because Greece is an Orthodox country, when you have a parish of 40.000 people and 800 are in church on Sunday it doesn’t mean that the others aren’t there. They’re there; their children are baptized; there is a continuum. Will there be a continuation here for those who have disconnected? So it is a big issue. They are outside; they are for themselves first and everyone else comes after.
AZ: If you will allow me, in Evangelism and in missionary work it is the Church that goes to the people, not the other way around.
HE: Exactly. There is much in the Bible on this topic. There is a text from the Book of Revelation, where God speaks through messages to the bishops of the seven churches of Asia Minor. In Philadelphians it says, I know who you are and what you do, but I tell you “Behold that I have given you an open door, no one can close it, go out and do your work.” It is the idea of the open door to the outside.
AZ: Which means that living in this society requires that we become more attractive and that we have our door open. Perhaps more doors are needed, since the Church is active in many areas…
HE: The point is that we go out of our “front door” and then we have a huge open space. Certainly we have the great advantage that the mission can be accomplished because we are many; in New York alone we have communities of 198 nationalities in a total of 206. Thus we have the opportunity.
AZ: Therefore, you said that we should make the necessary adjustments in an organized manner so we can respond.
HE: Absolutely. But this also needs relevant training. When you venture to talk about Orthodoxy to a non-Orthodox, you must know what to say. There is easy, cheap propaganda, where someone catches you on the street and tells you, “you believe in Christ; come with us.” And when you ask “who are you?” he says, “a Jehovah’s Witness”. Our idea is to share what we have, which is very great. If the other person does not want it, then “go in health” … But we have something very important to give.
AZ: At a time when efforts are being made toward Orthodox unity worldwide, as we are also doing here in America, there is the issue, for the Greek Orthodox of America, of maintaining the Greek language, culture etc. Perhaps before we do open many doors to the outside there is a need to strengthen our own our national/religious characteristics?
HE: The “before” has passed because we have been here for years. Last year we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first formal community, in New Orleans. We are not newcomers. If we didn’t do it up to now, we’ll never do it; it should have happened already. The theme of the Congress says, “You are the voice of Christ”; you cannot be the voice of Christ unless you present Christ whole and complete.
AZ: Let me put it differently. These elements go together, because there is always the fear of the loss of identity. You personally have spoken many times about the “eighth wonder”.
HE: And I call it urbi et orbi… The complete and genuine Christ is automatically the organic inherent element in the long history of the Church. The fathers of the Church spoke mainly Greek. All of these are organic elements, not additions. If we’re true they go together in a balanced state, not as a kind of delirium of the Δωδεκαθειστον.
AZ: During your tenure as Archbishop, you have set a number of goals for our Archdiocese. Two current goals are St. Nicholas and St. Michael’s Home. At the same time, we are seeing intense activity in the Philoptochos chapters throughout the entire state, with offerings outside the community, as well. Are you satisfied with this?
HE: Many significant things were accomplished even before St. Nicholas. A large number of new churches have been built, and it is important that parallel to the construction of churches is the construction of a community center with individual spaces for a school, and cultural and educational activities. There have been many in our region, in Port Washington and Southampton, etc.
Simultaneous to this, as you mentioned, we now have a very dynamic Philoptochos which offers everything and more. Saint Nicholas is a breakthrough in many aspects. We have gone through a difficult, fifteen-year struggle to reach the point where the church is being built.
We have made significant progress regarding the higher level of education among the omogenia. At this moment we have official data that 47% of our population has at least one university degree. Also, we are at the top, together with the Jews in the number of teachers, researchers, and staff we have in universities. This was not the case 30 years ago.
Secondly, we have made significant progress in the level of prosperity. 45% of our population has an income of over $100,000, which makes it second among major communities nationally, after the Jews but before the Catholics, etc. This shows our strength, as does the visibility of our people who are very successful in purely professional fields, such as entertainment, technology, investment, etc.
Whether this is in step with substantial spiritual advancement is very difficult to measure. One criterion could be our clergy supply level. During these years there was a clear decline in the number of candidates for the priesthood in large non-Orthodox denominations. Not in ours. In contrast, the last 20 years we have had a very steady course and the arrival of young people to become priests has been stable and likely is increasing.
AZ: I observe, however, that our seminarians study almost free, thanks to grants and donations. But also that the salaries of our clergy are higher than other denominations. Indeed, some communities are burdened because they have to pay the priest $150. 000.
AD: Generally, it isn’t so and we’re not comparable to some “rich” non-Orthodox parishes. But we have made this progress. There were large seminaries, one of which (Catholic) was built in the 1930s to house 300 priest candidates. Today there are 30. We do not have such a phenomenon and I consider it objectively as exemplifying spiritual progress.
Many times many and varied things are said, but among our young priests there are excellent examples of really dedicated individuals. They don’t consider monetary remuneration and are 100% occupied with the work of the Church. This is a very encouraging phenomenon and when these priests are in a community the image of the community changes immediately. It changes numerically—because people start to regroup, saying, “With this priest here, I’ll go to church.”
ON GREEK SCHOOLS
AZ: Since we have so many who are rich and generous, how is it that we are losing Greek schools? Three closed in recent years.
HE: To a certain extent those were schools that had no children. Of course, there would be ways to provide solutions. For example, in the New York area we see schools merge because they may not have a sufficient number of students. That must be under the pressure to survive. Could 4 schools, for example, become a prototype? Keep in mind that most students were not from the neighborhood and used some means of transport to get there. But this raised objection from the local residents.
AZ: But there was no central plan from the Archdiocese for these issues. The Clergy-Laity Congress is held, but in the presentations there has never been a recommendation for the needs of each parish. That is, a plan from the Archdiocese.
AD: There was an attempt, but unfortunately it encountered a major difficulty with the closed parish mentality. However, as long as you present it like this, I have the impression that it can—and should—be done. A plan that can be persuasive even to those who are most difficult; those who cannot think beyond their own parish. And in some cases, due to its members’ place of origin, a parish has a parochial nature. With a rational approach using statistical and correct accounting data, it could be done. With so many successful professionals in our omogenia why would we not be able to have that too?
AZ: For many years, when Greek officials from the Ministry of Education visited the issue of teachers was discussed. But with minor modifications it would be very easy for the Archdiocese, which allocates to Hellenic College, to have an academy that trains teachers. Perhaps combining that with administrators from our communities.
AD: You will remember that for years St. Basil’s Academy operated in a special way, as do the 2-year pedagogical academies of Greece. These academies produced very good teachers, and I don’t believe that the changeover to a 4-year curriculum improved the level of the teachers. This was a clever plan, because it offered free education, primarily for young girls. At some point, this moved to Hellenic College, making it a college curriculum. Here we have the problem.
Now, if we look at things objectively, the individual completing such a 4-year program may not have full employment as a teacher because not all communities have a complete school. Of the 550 communities, those having complete schools are very few.
What then, is the graduate going to do? Out of necessity he will go to a complete school. A plan was advanced to create a two-year program at Hellenic College which would use the faculty of the college together with professors sent from Greece so that the job would be done correctly.
The plan had progressed, but the Minister of Education, Mr. Stylianidis, was changed, and it stopped. I had discussed the matter during Simitis, but he told me that he could not make a promise to me at that point because of the Olympic Games.
AZ: Why, though, do we need Greece today?
AD: We do not need Greece. We needed Greece in order to close the matter. But since they were willing, they would have helped us individually. This was not done. We have to return to the idea. America has the huge advantage of flexibility in types of study. In the so-called Old Europe, for centuries we have had the university diploma followed by the post-doctoral. America put the so-called Master’s degree in the middle. In the field of Theological Studies, after the university degree is a 3-year Master of Divinity for the priesthood, the two-year Master of Theology (THMs), PhD in Theology (Th.D.), the STM, etc. There are also so-called Certificates. There is flexibility for such programs and that is our goal.
AZ: The old teachers simply retire. Greece doesn’t have the capability to break away, so it is imperative to start sometime. When will this happen?
AD: I won’t give you an answer ready to hand. It is under study.
AZ: One of the issues that you had to confront at the beginning of your tenure were many legal fees from lawsuits and actions against priests for matters of a sexual nature. With the exception of some isolated cases, not much has been heard recently. Should we assume that the measures taken (seminars, psychologists, etc.) have performed and that to a great degree the issue has been addressed?
AD: It’s not an assumption but a certainty. Whatever exists now is very limited, and are old cases in which essentially we either have no responsibility, or our responsibility is limited because they referred to times when certain things weren’t functioning.
The measures we have now are very strict. As one of our successful programs is the camps—a sensitive issue that requires caution—with a large number of children, the measures are very strict—and were suggested by the people who themselves are responsible. Even the camp’s cook is to be investigated. We hope that this works. However, we are always dealing with the phenomenon called man, an unpredictable kind, and you can never know what he will do.
There were cases where no one could imagine that such a problem would arise.
AZ: Is there “zero tolerance”? And not only talking about misdemeanors of a sexual nature! We see, for example, a priest convicted of embezzlement punished with a year’s suspension, and an elderly priest, a widower, who was formally married, to be defrocked.
AD: In this example, one year is relative to the year of the court. It does not mean that the case is closed. It walks alongside the court case. The other is of a type which…
AZ: For sexual crimes, however, there is zero tolerance…
AD: Indeed. As it stands and as it is applied.
AZ: What is the reason that the Clergy-Laity Congress will be longer this year?
AD: The Congress always began on Sunday with the liturgy. Because priests basically always begin on Mondays, many could not be present despite the fact that Sunday there will be some important events. All the years the Congress lasted until Thursday night, which was the Grand Banquet and Friday morning was always the meeting of our priests. This changed only in the last two Congresses. But we saw that there was pressure on the process and we came back to what had always been done in in order to cover some things better.
**** Translated by Vicki James Yiannias