“What can we give to the Lord in return for all that He has given to us? («Τί ἀνταποδώσωμεν τῷ Κυρίῳ περί πάντων ὧν ἀνταπέδωκεν ἡμῖν;») He being God came among us human beings; because of our corrupted nature, the Logos became flesh and dwelled among us; the Benefactor came to the ungrateful; the Liberator to the captives; the Sun of Righteousness to those sitting in the darkness; the immortal on the Cross; the light in Hades; He who is life in death; the Resurrection to the fallen ones. Therefore, let us cry out to Him: glory to You, our God, glory to You” (Hymn from Matins Service of the Grave Third Tone).
This magnificent hymn from our Sunday Matins Service expresses eloquently our feelings at this hour, as we convene our 40th Clergy-Laity Congress, here in Atlanta. We are truly overwhelmed with gratitude to God for His abundant blessings, not only those enumerated in the hymn, quoted just now, but also the many gifts, known and unknown, richly showered on us as individuals and as communities.
We thank God in particular for the fact that this is our 40th Clergy-Laity Congress. Since 1921, when the first General Assembly of our Archdiocese occurred, under Archbishop Alexander of blessed memory, and for 90 consecutive years the faithful people of this Church met 40 times in full Assemblies of Clergy and Laity. This means that three consecutive generations of Greek Orthodox people worked laboriously through 40 Clergy-Laity Congresses and through a life of genuine dedication to God, they brought this Archdiocese to the extraordinary level of progress and achievements, which, thanks to God, we enjoy today! Forty Clergy-Laity Congresses in three consecutive generations for 90 years is something great that calls for an exhilarating celebration!
Let us also thank God for the two years that have passed since our last Clergy-Laity Congress in Washington, DC; two years filled with challenging events, testing events, painful events; but also promising events which offer excellent opportunities for sustained and methodical action: action that rigorously promotes our invaluable Orthodox Faith and our universal Hellenic tradition.
In the following days, in the course of committee meetings and informative sessions, you will have the opportunity to consider and discuss these challenging events, especially in view of their impact on the life of our Church in general and Her parishes in particular.
Let me, therefore, in the first part of my address, limit myself to commenting on six events which could be considered the most significant. Three of them are in and of themselves negative and three are positive. I selected them because they are indicative of the social, cultural, spiritual and religious contexts within which we live and work.
2. Comments on Three Negative Events
1) Soon after our Clergy-Laity Congress in Washington, DC in the Fall of 2008, as we know, a very serious economic crisis hit the United States with disturbing repercussions throughout the entire world. The crisis, as naturally expected, had an immediate impact on our Parishes, Metropolises, National Organizations and the whole Archdiocese in many ways. And even at this hour, as we speak, the financial crisis, domestically and internationally, is not yet over, and the prospects for resolving it present considerable uncertainties of indefinite dimensions. In the Fall of 2008 and the months and years that followed, we were directly confronted with the threat of dramatically diminishing or even suspending vital aspects of our national ministries as Greek Orthodox Church. This same fate befell many not-for-profit, religious and other organizations in the United States.
However, thanks to God’s providence and the astonishing determination and creativity of our faithful, clergy and laity, such a threat did not come to pass in our case. Thanks to gifts given by our generous Orthodox people and with the commitment and assistance of our communities we did not have to cut our ministries. In fact, and despite additional and unexpected financial burdens unfairly imposed on us, we continued the stability and growth of our ministries and financial conditions. How can we thank God for such blessing of growth and progress in the midst of a terrible universal financial crisis!
2) When we met in Washington, DC our country was involved already, for a number of years, in two deadly wars: in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We hoped then that the wars would soon come to an end. Unfortunately, two years later, Iraq and Afghanistan continue to be places of conflict and death. In addition, the problems in the Middle East, relating specifically to the Israelis, Palestinians and Iranians, and most recently Turks, cause grave concern not only to those in Government but also to the average citizen in America. These situations of unresolved wars and conflicts should be present in our consciousness, since our Orthodox Faith is a strong bond of connection with people and countries who live in conditions of suffering and violent death. Any agenda of ours, as Orthodox Church, should include an honest care for overcoming wars and establishing peace and reconciliation on earth.
3) The third negative event refers to the enormous ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, with the oil still gushing from the bottom of the sea and causing unfathomable destruction to the ecological system of large surrounding areas. This event, or rather this unconscionable accident, was in essence the result of human disrespect for the protection of the environment combined with greed unlimited and worship of money as God by irresponsible human beings. As such, it constitutes a warning for all of us. The Gulf of Mexico, and what happened there, is not something disconnected from our lives. Today this tragedy is happening in the Gulf of Mexico; tomorrow something might happen just outside our front door. Our priorities as Orthodox Christians in terms of action and education must speak to the ever present potential for man-made catastrophic events, where there is no way of reversing the horrible damage.
3. Comments on Three Positive Events
1) Even while the Fall of 2008 brought gloom and doom financially, it also brought a bright and uplifting spiritual event, which illuminated new ecclesiastical horizons. In October 2008, at the extraordinary inspiration and initiative of our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, a meeting of all the Heads of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches of the World, representing approximately 300 million believers, took place in Constantinople at the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This Synaxis, as such a meeting is called, was instrumental in enhancing and strengthening the spiritual bonds amongst the Orthodox Churches of the World resulting (a) in the resumption of preparatory work for a Pan-Orthodox Ecumenical Synod, and (b) in the adoption of immediate steps for the solution of the canonical problems in the areas of the so-called Orthodox diaspora to which we as Orthodox in the United States belong. These were indeed monumental decisions that had a tremendous impact on the universal body of Orthodoxy as it became apparent almost immediately. The Synaxis was followed by a five-day Biblical Symposium in Asia Minor, Rhodes and Crete dedicated to St. Paul and his theological and pastoral counsel for the contemporary Orthodox Church. The Symposium was the first of its kind and constitutes a splendid innovation because it offered lectures by top international Biblical scholars specialists on St. Paul to the Heads of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches and their entourage in the very places visited by St. Paul. Our Archdiocese had the great honor bestowed on us by our Ecumenical Patriarchate, of the academic responsibility for this unique important Biblical Symposium.
2) In the Fall of 2009 we had the uplifting spiritual gift and truly great blessing of the visit of our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the United States. As you remember, he started his visit with five days in New Orleans, where he presided over the Eighth Ecological Symposium organized by him, this one related to the great Mississippi River and its pollution problems. Then he moved for one week to New York, where he visited Parishes, met with State and City authorities and with the Secretary General of the United Nations, attended the Archdiocesan Council meeting, attended and spoke at a specially organized concert in his honor, and presided over the Divine Liturgy at the New York Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. At the end of the Liturgy the Patriarch also performed the induction of the new Archons of the 2009 class. Next, we moved to Washington, DC where the Patriarch had the opportunity to meet with President Barack Obama, the Vice President Joe Biden, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In addition, he gave a lecture at the Brookings Institution and at Georgetown University. All of this took place within four days, thus setting a record for any high level official visiting Washington, DC. The Patriarchal visit as an extraordinary event constitutes an enormous blessing for our Archdiocese.
3) Two months ago a very significant event took place in New York. This was the first Assembly of All Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America. A total of 55 Bishops (Archbishops, Metropolitans and Bishops) from the United States, Canada and Mexico participated in a highly meaningful and productive meeting for 3 days. The Assembly of the canonical Orthodox Bishops (one of twelve in various places around the globe) was instituted by the consensus decision of all the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches. This Assembly, therefore, constitutes an officially authorized sacred body which in essence among other functions will continue and enhance the work of SCOBA by assuming oversight of its agencies and activities. Needless to say that our Archdiocese had the responsibility for organizing the Assembly which will convene once a year and always under the chairmanship of the Archbishop as the senior Hierarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America. This Assembly will definitely enhance the relationships and activities of the various Orthodox presences in the United States, promoting coordination and cooperation in common action, thus improving the effectiveness of the Orthodox witness in America, while fully respecting the unique cultural and spiritual characteristics of each Orthodox presence in the USA which is related to a mother Church abroad.
4. The Theme of Our 40th Congress
In the context of the multitude of events that are happening in our world and in our Church, and being mindful and aware of them - we have already noted six of them – let us now turn to the theme of our 40th Clergy-Laity Congress here in Atlanta: “Gather My People to My Home. Come and See.”
Over the past two years we have had an intense focus on our sacred calling and duty to gather God’s people to His home. Through reflection on the nature and goal of this calling and through application of this theme in our Metropolises, Parishes and in our national ministries, we have helped many to find healing, peace, meaning in life, and a warm spiritual home in the Orthodox Church. This became particularly noticeable in the case of the increasing number of young adults gathering to God’s home, especially during Holy Week. Many people of our Archdiocese, both clergy and lay, strongly suggested that the theme “Gather My People to My Home,” because of its vital importance, should continue its function and become also the theme of the present 40th Clergy-Laity Congress. This suggestion has been well received. We should continue the emphasis on the gathering the people to God’s home. However, we attached to this theme an additional concept that enriches the original theme and enlarges its scope. The addition is a short phrase coming from the Gospel of John and consisting of three words: “Come and See” (John 1:46).
The actual circumstances, in which this brief phrase was used are worth remembering. What happened is this: At the very beginning of His ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ, after calling James and John to follow Him and become His disciples he also called Philip to follow Him. Philip immediately rushed to his friend Nathaniel and said to him: “We found the Messiah in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.” Nathaniel reacted with a certain hesitation and a clear expression of doubt. At that exact point Philip said to him: “Come and see.” Nathaniel’s acceptance of the invitation led him to an encounter with Jesus and a resounding proclamation of faith to Him with the words: “Rabbi you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel” (John 1:49).
With the addition of these three small but significant words, our theme of the present Congress reads: “Gather My People to My Home. Come and See.” Our theme now has two significant parts and two distinct voices. The first part is the voice of God, calling us directly to the work of going out and gathering His people to His home. The second part of the theme is our own voice as we address those whom we want to bring to God’s house with the words “Come and See.”
But what precisely was the way Philip used the words “Come and See?” Philip was absolutely convinced that he did not need long theoretical discussions in order to persuade Nathaniel that Jesus was Christ the Son of God. An encounter with Christ would be more than sufficient. Behind the invitation “Come and See”, was a clear and strong faith on the part of Philip. In our case, in order to “gather God’s people to God’s home” beyond any theoretical arguments and discussions, we need to be able to say to people “Come and See”. The question is, if we are to follow the story of Philip and Nathaniel how strongly convinced are we about our action when we do extend the invitation “Come and See” to the people in need of finding a home in God; and then when our “Come and See” is accepted how do the invited people encounter Christ in our parishes and in our lives.
5. A Further Analysis and Application of the Theme in the Life of Our Church
1) Let us start our further analysis and application of the theme of our Congress with a reminder of what was strongly recommended in our Congress of 2008 in Washington, DC about the theme “Gather My People to My Home.” Then, it was recommended and I quote, that:
“Any serious application of the theme must begin with a changing of mentality and attitude. We must change from an exclusive and all absorbing focusing on our parish to an awareness of the existence of people outside of our Parishes. People who have the right to know what we know as the truth of God, to taste the joy of participating in our ecclesial community, and to experience the blessings we experience to be with God as we are by being Orthodox Christians. The area of our focused action should gradually be enlarged by including those who are outside, by being concerned with those who are waiting for the brother or the sister who will bring them home. Offering the shelter of God to the homeless souls should be part of the care and action of our parishes, should be indispensable part of our mentality, attitude and vision, and also should definitely be a central item of the basic education cultivated by the Church.”
Then it was also strongly recommended that each parish must appoint a committee which will have the duty of creating a list of the Greek Orthodox people who reside in the vicinity of the parish but are not connected with the Church. The committee should organize the means of contact by using personal visits, phone calls, e-mail, notices of Church events and distribution of the appropriate printed or electronic material. What is our report on this issue? What were the results? Did our communities appoint the appropriate committees?
Along the same lines, special care should have been taken for the interfaith families which are not connected to the Church, for the youth and for the “unchurched.” Here again what has been our harvest?
We must note, however, that considerable progress has been made in the areas of the youth ministry. The strength and growth of summer camps all over the country and in the Ionian Village is a good example. Also, we should mention the fact that never in the history of our Church we have offered the considerable amounts and the high quality of scholarships and fellowships to young students as we did in the last years. In addition, there has been a remarkable effort for an expansion of the knowledge of the Bible through a creative cooperation with the American Bible Society. As a result, a series of special editions of the Bible was produced for young people serving in the Army, for children, for campers, etc. We also should not forget the important achievement of publishing the first level of books for learning the Greek language, written exclusively for our children here in America. The books were produced through a very generous donation by the Faith Endowment for Orthodox and Hellenism and were distributed gratis to the thousands of children of all our Day and Afternoon Schools.
2) The theme of this Congress, however, has the additional component in the phrase “Come and See” which introduces a very important item. When our efforts to those not connected to the Church culminate in the invitation “Come and See” and when the people decide to come to the house of God, what do they see? Or, rather whom do they see? Do they see Christ as did Nathaniel when he responded to the invitation of Philip “Come and See?” Do they encounter God in His home? These questions have specific applications in the areas of worship, teaching, pastoral care and philanthropy.
Our worship must be a unique opportunity for an encounter with Christ that is both personal and communal. Is it that way? If not, what are the measures to be taken? The teaching activities of our parishes in the forms of catechesis, Sunday School or religious education, must also be centered on Christ and reveal Him. The pastoral care exercised by the parish must be permeated by the healing spirit of Christ, so that those who join the Church they can see Christ the unique healer as did Nathaniel. The philanthropic ministries of the parish, and especially those exercised through our Philoptochos sisterhoods, must be offered in more than just a spirit of humanitarianism; these ministries must represent Christ as the only true benefactor of mankind. All the above constitute exciting challenges for us and they will be centers of strong systematic activities for our Archdiocese in the coming years.
3) The theme “Gather My People to My Home. Come and See, “ however, is not limited to our own Archdiocese with her Metropolises and parishes. This is a pan-Orthodox call and duty. After the very important Assembly of all canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America last May, new avenues are available for action. We as Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America have been granted the initiative and an increased responsibility for making the gathering of God’s people to His Home a dynamic reality for all Orthodox in America.
4) In our sacred task for gathering the people of God to His Home and for inviting every human being to “Come and See” and so eventually to encounter Christ, we have a superb model in the ministry of our Ecumenical Patriarchate. This heroic Patriarchate has for seventeen centuries invited people of all ethnicities, cultures and languages to gather to God’s Home, vividly remembering the solemn declaration of the Lord Jesus Christ treasured in the Gospel of John: I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; and I must bring them also; and they will hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:16). ( Καί ἄλλα πρόβατα ἔχω, ἅ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τῆς αὐλῆς ταύτης, κἀκεῖνά με δεῖ ἀγαγεῖν, καί τῆς φωνῆς μου ἀκούσουσι, καί γενήσεται μία ποίμνη, εἷς ποιμήν.)
With the present 40th Clergy-Laity Congress we enter into a new period of challenges. Challenges that are created by the domestic and the international conditions of increased uneasiness and anxiety related to social, financial, cultural, spiritual, environmental and religious problems that torment the entire humanity.
These conditions of uncertainty, pain, confusion and hopelessness necessitate vigorous, real and practical action on our part. Such action should be guided by and focused on what St. Peter the great Apostle emphatically said to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem: There is no salvation in any one else, and there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved except for the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:10-16).
This is in essence our faith proclamation to a tormented world. As Orthodox Christians we believe that today, there is no other possibility for salvation of the world except in and with Jesus Christ, Who is the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6), and the light of the world (John 8:12).
Therefore, our efforts related to the theme “Gather My People to My Home. Come and See,” must be Christ oriented, intensely and passionately focused on Him as the only salvation under heaven. This must be projected to the society and the people surrounding us by every and all possible means. And here we are confronted with a serious challenge: Do we know what we should know about Christ? Are we focused on Him, centered on Him, being serious about our relationship with Him? Are we translating into visible and palpable action our faith in Him? Are we finally thinking action and not easy talk?
Furthermore, are we offering to our adult members of the Church as well as to our young adults and our children the proper education to help them grow in the knowledge and grace of Christ (2 Peter 3:18)? The challenge is truly exciting. And we have to answer it with action, honestly and effectively.
I have no better way to close my presentation except by using a beautiful verse from Psalm 132 (Septuagint 131) slightly paraphrasing it: I will not enter my house or get into my bed; I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place of the Lord for all my known and unknown brothers and sisters who are thirsty for Him.
It is time for action. Time to gather the people of God to His Home. Always with Christ as His co-workers in sowing the truth, in spreading healing and in promoting life. This is the time for salvation of the world!