I greet you with the opening thankfulness lines of St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, from which also the Biblical slogan for our Clergy-Laity Congress has been taken:
We are bound to give thanks to God always for you, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore, we ourselves boast of you in the Churches of God… (2 Thessalonians 1: 3-4).
Thanks for your faith and love; thanks for keeping the Gospel present and alive among us, bearing fruit and continuously growing.
2. Our Congress in Context
Our 37th Clergy-Laity Congress convenes at a time of significant events and unusual conditions, both domestically and internationally. We are aware of them, and our work here could profit by keeping them in mind as challenges. Allow me to mention two, selected from several: a) the Olympic Games in Athens in just three weeks, and b) the Presidential election this coming November. Both have an easily discernible common element: competition, athletic or political.
But, there is something beyond competition as such, and this is the striving for excellence; excellence in athletic achievements as in the case with the Olympics; excellence in serving the people and the country as in the case of the presidential race. The Athens Olympics and the Presidential election offer to us a strong challenge for striving and competing for excellence in what we are doing as Church. Should we not consider, seriously and responsibly, our present Clergy-Laity Congress as a God-given opportunity for setting a record of excellence, for establishing a model of a truly God-inspired meeting?
There is, however, more than being aware of the constant challenges for excellence, like the above-mentioned. There is the awareness of the huge problems that beset our society, our country, and our world today. We are painfully conscious of them: problems of terrorism, causing insecurity; problems of wars, conflicts, or threatening conditions in the Middle East, the Far East, Africa, even Europe; problems of the deconstruction of institutions like family or religion; problems of rampant corruption, exploitation of the environment, and increasing violations of human rights; problems of an alarming increase of the level of poverty, famine and fatal diseases, especially in underdeveloped countries.
In our meetings at the present 37th Clergy-Laity Congress, we have to remain alert and conscious of the problem-loaded reality in which we live, as well as the challenge for excellence. And we have to remember that we are called to offer, by what we think, say, plan, and do, the Orthodox Christian response to the problems and to the challenges. And this is a real work.
On that issue, the theme of our Congress provides us with some interesting suggestions for relevant work and action. Let us take a closer look at this theme.
3. A Short Biblical Analysis of the Congress’ Theme
The Congress theme reads, “Building Communities of Faith and Love: Orthodox Parishes in Worship and Ministry.” First, note that work and action are being described here with the verb to build. “Building Communities, etc.” It is important that the action be a very positive, beautiful and creative action. When we build, we bring something into existence for a purpose. The action is an edifying one, an enhancing one, not a catastrophic, not a demeaning, not a negative one. But then, what is the object of building? Let us briefly analyze it by using some examples from the Bible, the New Testament.
a) First, communities of faith. What kind of faith? Here is an answer through an example from the Gospel of St. Matthew:
Jesus said to the disciples, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” (Matthew 17:20)
This is the kind of faith that we must build in our communities. It is a faith exhibiting the extraordinary power of God and making our communities places of the revelation and action of God’s power in many ways. This is a faith able to move even mountains, powerful enough to overcome even the barrier of the impossible.
b) The second, next object of building: Communities of Love. What kind of love? This time, let us hear St. Paul as he speaks to the Corinthians:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (I Corinthians 13:1-8)
Can we build this type of love in our communities? We should not even ask the question. We have to build this love, if we believe in a God who is love.
c) The third object of building: Orthodox parishes in Worship. In this instance, we hear the directive of the Lord Himself who declared, God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24). Our communities are communities in worship of a God who is the absolute Spirit and the perfect truth. Therefore, our worship should reflect the highest, strongest, and most refined kind of spirituality, and, at the same time, be permeated by the truth; the whole truth of our being, our life, our community, and our world. This is the true meaning of the phrase, “Building Orthodox Parishes of Worship.”
d) The fourth object of building: Orthodox parishes in Ministry. Here again, we hear the voice of the Lord. It is the commissioning of the disciples by Christ Himself before His ascension:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
The ministry solemnly described here is a ministry of offering both the witness of the Gospel everywhere, and the teaching of the genuine and full way of the Christian life. Both aspects, namely, proclaiming and teaching, involve complex issues, processes, and various forms of ministry, but they are absolutely indispensable to a creative and effective ministry which is in continuity with the ministry of Christ Himself and His apostles.
It is in the biblical spirit of faith and love, worship and ministry, described above, that we meet in this 37th Clergy-Laity Congress.
4. Encouraging Events Between 2002 and 2004
We meet in order to be together and to discuss and plan the dynamic, holy and noble action for building, with the help of God, Communities of Faith and Love, Orthodox parishes in Worship and Ministry. In our God-inspired effort, an effort which continues and intensifies the work done for many years by the faithful people of our Church in America, we are encouraged by some significantly positive events of the past two years. In the period between our last Clergy-Laity Congress in Los Angeles in 2002 and the present one, we noticed with thankfulness to God, among many other things, the following events, indicative of God’s grace and love for us, as well as of the truly dedicated and often sacrificial work of our people and of our communities:
We noticed the continuous activities of several of our parishes throughout our country in building new Churches, new community halls, new school facilities, new summer camps, or in the renovation of existing ones. This constitutes an encouraging activity by our parishes, a veritable blessing.
We noticed the increasing auspicious responses to our call for more priests in order to adequately cover the pastoral and spiritual needs of our communities. This was apparent in the comparatively high number of new students in our Holy Cross School of Theology, for now four consecutive years. It is also apparent in the expanding number of ordinations to the priesthood. In the Los Angeles Clergy-Laity, I reported to you that between the years 2000 and 2002, we have had 18 ordinations to the priesthood. Today, I am in the blessed position to report to you that in the last two years, i.e., between 2002 and 2004, we have had 24 ordinations to the priesthood, with another 5 pending for approval for ordination. These are truly auspicious and encouraging signs.
We noticed during the same 2 year period an increase of the work in the areas of care for the family, care for the youth, care for planning and developing community assisted outreach and evangelism, and care for providing our communities with more assistance through our Website. Here, we deal with issues of vital importance for the Church. I don’t want to tire you with statistics, but I have to say that the initiatives taken in the above mentioned areas are noticeable indeed. We already have encouraging results related to those areas.
We take note of the fact that in a few months after the Los Angeles Clergy-Laity Congress, the creative and open process related to a revised or new Charter of the Archdiocese, reached its conclusion. Since January of 2003, for one and a half years now, we have as operative and fully functioning the new Charter granted to us by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Our Holy Archdiocese of America has been elevated to an Archdiocese consisting of Metropolises and Metropolitans, who constitute the Holy Eparchial Synod. This is a phenomenon unique in the Orthodox Church, since it is only Autocephalous or Autonomous Churches that have Metropolises and Synods comprised of Metropolitans. This is indicative of the love of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for our Church. We have a Charter establishing a definitely enhanced role for our dedicated laity, both in matters of administration of and care for the Archdiocese, and in matters specifically connected with the procedures for the elections of the Metropolitans and the Archbishop. The granting of the Charter gave us the opportunity to proceed, without delay, to the reviewing of the existing Regulations of the Archdiocese, in order to harmonize them with the Charter. After a hard, intensive, and highly commendable work of more than a year by the Archdiocesan Council, a clearly representative body of approximately 80 clergy and lay people, a proposed draft is ready now for discussion and appropriate decisions by the present Congress. I hope, and if I may, I strongly recommend that, after almost five years of intense, diligent, and responsible work related to the Charter and the Regulations, work that consumed enormous amounts of time and energy, we have come to the point of the inescapable need of concluding the process. There are absolutely vital and crucial tasks related to our God-given existence, function, and mission as the Greek Orthodox Church in America, that urgently demand our attention, our time, and, quite frankly, our exclusive focusing upon them. After all, the ultimate, absolute and unchanging Charter and Regulations for us, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ our God and Lord. All the rest is commentary. It is about time now to engage fully in the real work demanded by the Gospel.
Among the blessings which occurred in the last two years, and more specifically in the last four months, is the very important changing of the composition of the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. By an historic and indeed bold decision, the Synod is no longer comprised of 12 Hierarchs residing exclusively in Turkey. Since last March, the Synod has as its members only 6 Hierarchs residing in Turkey, while another 6 Hierarchs come from all over the world, i.e. Europe, America, Australia, Asia, etc. The percentage, 50%, is remarkably high, and indicative, of course, of a radical change. I have the great honor to be a member of the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, created under the new participatory formula. I have been already in a number of Synodal meetings in Constantinople, and I have to confess that this participation in the very administration of the Ecumenical Patriarchate constitutes an unprecedented honor and an awesome responsibility for our Archdiocese. Please remember that we are going to be there when any matters whatsoever pertaining to our Church in the United States, are going to be discussed.
Let me close the list of significantly positive events and blessings with one more item. This item is the magnificent task of creating a substantive endowment for assistance to our ministries and to our work in general. Under the title, “Faith: An Endowment for Orthodoxy and Hellenism,” a number of 10 gentlemen and prominent members of our Church and true champions of faith, decided to offer, each one of them, one million dollars and up, for the establishment of a strong fund for the Archdiocese. The pertinent commitment has reached so far the amount of approximately 25 million dollars. The objective is to reach, through a quiet effort of the founding members of the Faith Endowment, the amount of 50 million dollars in a first phase, and 100 million dollars as an ultimate goal of the founders. The “Faith” Endowment, a first in our Archdiocese in terms of magnitude, is a blessing and, at the same time, an open invitation to all the members of our parishes for a more substantive participation in the Stewardship of our Church.
5) Focusing on Three Vital Points
“Building Communities of Faith and Love: Orthodox Parishes in Worship and Ministry,” is not an easy task. In view of the conditions prevailing in today’s society, it becomes a formidable task indeed. But also in view of the continuous rich blessings just described that we have been receiving from God, it becomes a task with open, accessible and very promising goals and perspectives. Allow me, in the last part of my presentation, to focus briefly on three vital points related to the truly holy and exciting task of “Building Communities of Faith and Love, Orthodox Parishes in Worship and Ministry.”
Point number One:
The kind of communities which we are talking about and dreaming about, cannot be built without strong, sustained, and in-depth education. Our parishes must be parishes of a multi-level, many-sided, educational activity. There must be in every parish a forum, a school, a seminar of continuous adult Orthodox education. The depths and the treasures of our Orthodox Faith and traditions are waiting to be received, explored, and enjoyed by the adult members of our communities, which then will function as open schools for the teaching of genuine and full Orthodoxy. The parish could be, and should be, a standard resource center of Orthodoxy for its members.
Such an effort should also include the educational component of Hellenism, which is part of our tradition. Let me clarify here that the Hellenism we are talking about and which constitutes part of the title of the new Faith Endowment (an “Endowment for Orthodoxy and Hellenism”), is not a nationalistic, chauvinistic entity. It is a designation of a superb synthesis of the Hellenic language, history, and culture that is transnational, undoubtedly universal, and purely diachronic and timeless. It is a synthesis constituting a vital, inseparable component of western civilization, by offering the principles of freedom and democracy, advancement of knowledge and science, and cultivation of what is beautiful in all forms of art. The Hellenic component, as part and parcel of our educational efforts, is therefore an indispensable component in any education worthy of its full name; it is an indispensable component in building for a lasting future, not the passing, present time.
We speak about the need for an adult Orthodox education because we see a deficiency on that issue. The other side of this issue is, of course, children’s education. It is unthinkable that there might be communities without adequate Sunday School and proper Afternoon School. Certainly, it is not realistic, at this stage, to think of a full Day School for all of our more than 500 parishes. But Sunday School and Afternoon School, offering religious education and the cultural education of our heritage, must be a permanent reality of each and every community of our Church.
I would also strongly recommend that we pay much more attention to our young people, to the adolescent members of our parishes. They need an advanced Orthodox education beyond the Sunday or the Afternoon School.
We have to understand, once and for all, that it is simply impossible to “Build Communities of Faith and Love, Parishes of Worship and Ministry,” without a strong, continuous educational activity for adults, for young people, and for children in every parish. As Holy Archdiocese of America, we will intensify and enhance our efforts to facilitate the relevant work of our communities by providing, more and more, the appropriate tools and resources.
Point Number Two:
No matter how strong and well functioning the infrastructure of a community may be, it cannot be a community of Faith and Love, Worship and Ministry, without strong and healthy families as its constitutive parts. The building blocks of a parish are its families. What the cells are for a living organism, the families are for a living community. The care for the family is a priority in building true Church communities. Here, we talk about care for the endangered family, for the dysfunctional family, for the healthy family, for the family at the brink of divorce, for a single parent family, for the priestly family, for the beginning family. Of paramount importance is the care for the so-called intermarried family, since in this case we face not only the basic needs of an ordinary family, but increased needs, especially catechetical needs and additional relational challenges.
The care for the family is a priority imposed not only by our faith, but also by the terrible crisis surrounding the family. Listen to some randomly selected recent statistics:
Number of unwed births of children:
In 1960 = 224,300 In 2000 = 1,374,043
In 1960 = 439,000 In 2000 = 4,736,000
50% of marriages starting today are projected to end in divorce.
Children in single parent families:
In 1960 = 5,829,000 In 2000 = 19,220,000
This set of data explains why, in a Gallup Poll of January 3, 2003, the Family was ranked number one in importance among the most important aspects of life with a response of 97%, followed by a 90% for health, 73% for work, 67% for money, 65% for religion, and 59% for leisure. The emphasis on the importance of the family is astonishing.
We are going to dedicate the next year to the family, with an elaborate number of specific measures and happenings. But the care for the family should constitute a permanent activity for the Parish, and toward that end we will try to assist our communities by offering all possible means. The goal is to make the families Churches at home, kat' oikon ekklesian (Romans 16:5). The Center for the Care for the Family has been diligently and methodically working, in spite of the lack of the necessary funding for its full development. We already had, last Saturday, an opportunity to see part of the work of the Center for the Care for the Family in an extensive, all-day educational program. We will see and hear more during the present Clergy-Laity Congress. The important thing is to be aware of the priority of the family in the effort of building Communities of Faith and Love.
Point Number Three:
I close this address with a third, vital point. A Community of Faith and Love, a Parish in Worship and Ministry, cannot be built without having a steady experience of outreach, of evangelism directed lovingly towards those outside the Church. The theme of this year should be interpreted in the spirit of the theme of our Clergy-Laity Congress in Los Angeles: “Offering our Orthodox Faith to Contemporary America.” This offering is a fundamental function of the parish. It is the parish that has the possibility to reach out to the non-connected with the Church. There are thousands of people, nominally Greek Orthodox, who have been disconnected, who have been lost in the turmoil of modern life, who might have been disappointed. It is totally unthinkable and unacceptable to have parishes with only one thousand members when they are surrounded by thousands of unchurched Orthodox people. Our communities must look for them, extend a helping hand, bring them to the life-giving embrace of the Church of Christ. This is the way we build communities of ministry.
When St. Paul the great Apostle of Christ was with St. Luke the Evangelist in Troas of Asia Minor, he had a dramatic vision. The relative narrative in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles is a moving and far-reaching text. I read this text now:
And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing, beseeching him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the Gospel to them. (Acts 16:9-10)
Paul went to Macedonia, to Greece. This started the conversion of Europe to Christianity. We do not need to have a vision like St. Paul. There are plenty; there are in essence millions of people symbolizing the Macedonian of the Pauline vision. And they repeat the same plea: “Come over to our place and help us.”
I am sure that we hear the pleading voice and we see the extended hands. It is God’s voice Who is calling us to help them, to share the Gospel of Love and Truth with them, to build, with Christ, Communities of Faith and Love, Orthodox Parishes of Worship and Ministry! What a stimulating vision; what a fascinating, creative action! And what a noble mission of excellence and an opportunity for a great achievement for our 37th Clergy-Laity Congress!
May the Lord bless us and keep us. May the Lord make His face to shine upon us and be gracious to us. May the Lord lift up His countenance upon us and give us peace (Numbers 6:24-26).