Your Eminence, Metropolitan Panteleimon, Representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate,
My beloved brothers in the Lord, Metropolitans and Bishops,
Reverend Fathers and Delegates,
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
"For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I, in the midst of them." (St. Matthew 18:20)
As we commence this 34th Clergy-Laity Congress, I would ask that all of us pause for a moment, and consider this promise of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have traveled from all across the United States, this blessed land of liberty, to gather together in His Holy and Divine Name, a Name that is above every other name, a "highly exalted name," as the Apostle Paul writes in his Epistle to the Philippians . . . in order to do what? What have we come here to Orlando to accomplish?
If we are true to our calling as Christians, if we are justified in bearing His Name, then we must -- above all else -- reflect His presence in our midst.
In the final analysis, this is why I address you as brothers and sisters – because we truly are brothers and sisters. This is no mere formality, some formulaic salutation that we just say for the sake of sounding like Christians. Through Jesus Christ, we are bone of bone, flesh of flesh, and blood of blood. His Divine Blood flows through each of us as we partake of Holy Communion. We share His Holy Flesh and become, not only one with Him, but one with each other. And we are linked and joined together like the bones which make firm the body of the Church. Remember the Scripture, and recall how even on the Cross, not a bone of Him was broken.
And if we are in truth brothers and sisters, members of one family, then I hope and pray that through the coming days, the most pervasive demeanor and most enduring impression will be the love of brothers and sisters for one another.
I know that this Congress faces challenges. I know that there are a multitude of issues and concerns pressing on the hearts and minds of all. But I also know that when all is said and done, only three things will finally remain: faith . . . hope . . . and love. And the greatest of these is love.
Whatever we may accomplish over the next few days, whatever decisions and resolutions, whatever procedures and policies we follow – even if we end up moving mountains the Scriptures speak of – if we conduct ourselves without love, then we have accomplished nothing. Indeed, we have become nothing. For without love, all of our words will become sounding brass and a clanging cymbal.
But think, my brothers and sisters, think of what we can accomplish with love in our hearts and grace flowing from our lips. Think of the witness and the proclamation that can come forth from a Congress dominated by the love of Christ! Think of what this Congress can be remembered for!
For this Congress, my first as your Archbishop, is commencing in a new era for our Church, an era that has its beginning in the emergence of Greek Orthodoxy at the common table of American religious, cultural, and I dare say, political life.
During these years, our Church began its journey flowing outward into the life and pulse of America. Yes, we were an immigrant Church, brought to these shores by the brave and hardworking protoporoi, among whom I am proud to count my own grandfather, who was a priest in the first days of the Archdiocese.
Those early immigrants struggled, built churches and schools, and ultimately fulfilled the role of apostles and evangelists, for they brought our faith with them. It didn’t matter that many of them could neither read nor write. Neither did many of the Apostles. But they knew their Orthodox Faith. They knew what it was to believe in Christ, as has been handed down for nearly two thousand years in the unchanging and unbroken line of apostolic succession. When we consider their sacrifice, their labors and their faith, we can do nothing less than dedicate every fiber of our being to living this legacy of faith, fulfilling their dreams of hope, and following their example of love.
The fact that we are having our 34th Clergy-Laity Congress; the fact that we have so many hundreds of churches; the fact that we have a theological school and college -- which are fully accredited and a member of the Boston Theological Institute, and ready to begin the Fall semester with at least 25 new students in the School of Theology -- with a possibility for 13 more; the fact that St. Michael’s Home for the Aged has just concluded its expansion and continues the needs of elderly; the fact St. Basil’s Academy continues to serve the needy children of our Archdiocese, and with the active support and help of the Philoptochos societies across America, we are continually seeking new children to come and benefit from the loving care that St. Basil’s offers; the fact that the Orthodox Christian Mission Center’s budget continues to grow and the work of spreading the Gospel is being vibrantly carried out; the fact that our faithful, the good people of our Archdiocese, are contributing more generously than ever before to the stewardship ministry of the Church; all of these, are the proofs of their faith, their hope and their love. Now the question for us will be: What will we leave to the generations that come after us?
I can tell you, from my past few days with the Young Adult League, that the expectations of our youth are very high. You should know that they are ready to engage the Church on every level, in the most sincere and genuine way. They are committed! And they expect us to be committed as well. Indeed, it is a very hopeful sign that there were as many delegates to this, their annual convention, as there are to this Congress. This is cause for rejoicing! Our Youth are ready to live as Greek Orthodox Christians in the 21st century, and they are looking to us to bequeath to them an Archdiocese that is spiritually healthy, and prepared to give them their rightful place at the table. Now is the time to open the doors of Archdiocesan administrative leadership roles to the young people of our Church. Now is the time to harness their creativity, their vitality, their inspiration, in order to revitalize and even re-create, if you will, the ministries of our Archdiocese. The day is long gone when we can afford to only teach and instruct these youthful and dynamic members of our Church community. Now is the time let them take their place at the table; to let them show us the way, and to let them lead.
For unlike our grandfathers and grandmothers, who had every expectation that their local "Greek Church" would always be the uniform, homogeneous, and unvaried community that they had founded, we know that our Church is changing in ways our parents never anticipated. But don’t think that they wouldn’t have welcomed newcomers to their table. There’s no hospitality like Greek hospitality.
Today, we know that our Church can no longer be self-understood as an isolated peninsula in the greater culture. We have expanded and embraced a broad and diverse community, precisely because we are Americans. Inclusivity is the American way. And as we face the 21st century and the New Millennium, our goal must be to find a place at the table for all the members of our Church.
Today, to have one half of the pews of a local parish filled with converts to our Faith is not unheard of. They need a full place-setting at the table. This is the reason I have put such an emphasis on adult religious education. We create difficulties for converts when we receive them into our Church without ministering to their needs for knowledge, information, history and teaching. If it is true, as St. John Chrysostom says: ‘that all should partake of the banquet of faith," then we should give them the means to enjoy the bounties of God’s goodness.
The non-Orthodox and the non-Christian spouses of our members need a place at the table. Just because our Church does not practice inter-communion does not mean that we do not extend a warm welcome to all, and so fulfill the law of love. How are we going to sanctify families, if they do not feel welcome in our parishes? Yes, we need inter-faith ministries, and we have established them. But on Sunday morning, my friends, which means more? a pamphlet at the pangari, or a smile and a handshake? Let us not be deceived that these are intangible qualities. We make our churches what they are, according to the measure of faith and grace that we are willing to accept and to practice. Is it really enough for us to wait for them to come to us, or do we take the initiative and reach out to their needs on the local level? If we truly are one family, as we claim to be, we must embrace all those who are even loosely connected to our parishes, and offer them the same place at the table that we would offer our own brother or sister, our own sons and daughters. Recognizing that the spouses of Greek Orthodox Christians are part of our wider family can only enrich our parishes and our Archdiocese.
And what about those whose lives have been broken, or in some sense shattered by personal circumstances? What about single parents, people who have gone through divorce, and the children of divorced and broken homes? What about families that have blended from just these kinds of situations, situations our immigrant parents and grandparents did not expect from their children. Is there going to be a place at the table for everyone in our Church?
The complexion of our Church has changed and is changing still. The table must be ever-widened so that everyone feels welcome and sees themselves as being part, at least in some degree, of the greater whole.
There must be a place at the table for our non-Greek speakers and our non-English speakers. There must be a place at the table for fellow Orthodox Christians from other ethnic traditions, so that they feel honored and respected by their Greek Orthodox brethren. There must be a place at the table for all women who desire to serve the Church. There must be a place at the table for all of our youth, because our future is created in the present.
If we take nothing else away from this Congress, I pray that we shall take away an expanded view of ourselves as Greek Orthodox Christians, who are part and parcel of American culture. And with that expanded self-understanding, comes the willingness and the responsibility to share our faith fully with others, even if they don’t fit into our pre-conceived notions of who should belong to our Church. Let our stamp on American religious culture be the love of Christ, a message of hope that is filled with the content of our faith.
We can and should spend the next few days debating and discussing the process by which all this should happen, but it will never happen unless we demonstrate in tangible ways our love for each other, our understanding of our own Faith, and a vision filled with hope.
I know that this task is not easy. At the end of this month, I will mark two years since my election as your Archbishop. Change, accepting change, and negotiating change is difficult, especially when we all care so very deeply about what we believe.
But these are times of change. As a Church that is composed primarily of Americans of Greek descent, we are in a process of evaluating and coming to judgments about what means to be Greek Orthodox Christians who are part of America. America has been called a melting pot, but this is really not accurate. We want to retain those precious characteristics of our heritage, our language and our history. We don’t want to lose them. But we want them to work in this great and marvelous experiment called America.
And from coast to coast, the circumstances of our Church vary widely, such that what works in a community, for example, in Chicago, might not work in Atlanta. So as we consider ourselves as a whole, we are left wondering whether we will be able to find the means to hold on to the core, the heart of our identity.
If you know the history of our Church through the centuries, you know that this is nothing new. The legacy of Hellenism is something that goes back thousands of years before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. And it took centuries for the harmony between Greek thought and Christian belief to come to pass. Remember how in the early Church, it was often the Greek Christians who felt excluded, who felt that they were being left out of their place at the table.
But God has His own ways of bringing about His will for His children. The Lord said it best: What is impossible for man, is possible with God. As we face the challenges of finding our way in this vast American culture, let us keep our hope in God, Who will always show us the way. Our task is to remain faithful to Him; to our Holy Tradition; and to the life of the Church. This faithfulness to tradition is the very thing that is inspiring so many converts to come to Orthodoxy in recent years. They are yearning for the authentic faith of Christ, as it has been preserved in our Holy Orthodox Church. And this is what our young people are looking for as well. They have benefits that our parents and grandparents never had. But for all our material, educational and social success, our youth still crave the spiritual riches of our Greek Orthodox Tradition. Our responsibility to them; our responsibility to our forebears; and our responsibility to ourselves is to live out our Faith in all its fullness. This wonderful land of America gives us the right to do so, with a freedom unparalleled in the world. What a shame it would be if we sold our birthright, as Esau the brother of Jacob did, for the satisfaction of our own egos. You may remember the story of Esau and Jacob. Esau traded his inheritance to his brother than for no other reason than he was hungry. He felt the need for immediate satisfaction. It was an all or nothing proposition. But the life of the Church, the life of Christ, is a continuous spiritual process. We cannot legislate spiritual maturity for our Archdiocese. It emerges under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. At any given moment, in any given locale, we must do the serious work of the Church, and find the best means to bring all our faithful to the fullness of the life in Christ. And this means we all must change.
For some of you, change brings about new hope and a new sense of pride. For others, it brings disappointment and frustration. For yet others, it brings feeling of insecurity and even fear.
I want you to know that I do understand the difficulty and the complexity of this event of change. For example, the recognition of the vitality and creativity of this vast western hemisphere, and the establishment of new eparchies in Canada and Central and South America by the Patriarchate, has caused some of you to fear that the Archdiocese is being compromised. On the contrary, this is a logical and needful step in the development of these countries, and it is the love of the Mother Church which is expanding opportunity for all Orthodox living in the Western Hemisphere.
How then are we to respond? With fear-mongering? With panic? With forecasts of doom and catastrophe? Rather, as mature Christians, let us keep all these developments in the proper perspective, and not allow ignorance, or agendas foreign to the work of Christ to prevail in the Church. The agenda of the Church is plain and simple. It is not about power. It is not about money. It is about the Christian service of love and ministry of reconciliation that is centered in the transformation of the human person by living the Liturgy in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The same could be said for other issues of the past two years: the elevations of the Diocesan Bishops to the rank of Metropolitan, the changes at the Hellenic College/Holy Cross, the reorganization at the Archdiocese headquarters in New York, the transitions in the National Boards – all of these can be seen from different angles and perspectives. This is natural enough. But what is unnatural is to misuse these changes to create fear and confusion among the faithful. Our joint responsibility, your duty as leaders of the Greek Orthodox communities from around the nation, is to protect and promote the mission of the Church. And that mission is the salvation of the world. That mission is one of love, mercy and forgiveness. That mission is the same mission our Lord gave to His Apostles: "Go therefore into all the world. Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe everything I have commanded you." This mission is not American. It is not Greek. It is not Russian or Serbian, or Bulgarian or anything else. It is Christian. And it can only be fulfilled by people who live, think and act as Christians. For as the Lord said: "They will know that you are Christians if you love each other." We can say whatever we want. We can write whatever we desire. But if love is not manifest in concrete deeds and actions, the world will not believe us.
The same goes for this Clergy-Laity Congress. It doesn’t matter how many resolutions we make. You cannot legislate love. So remember, my friends, when you are trying to persuade your neighbor over the next few days, and convert him or her to your own way of thinking, think about converting your own heart. If we demonstrate our love for each other, then and only then, will we have the certainty that the will of God has been performed.
As I consider the period of change, both as your Archbishop and as a person, I readily admit that is has been difficult and complex for me. When I arrived in this blessed Archdiocese, I quickly learned that the expectations of some, were not the expectations of others. I realized that the hopes and dreams of the faithful of this Church spanned the whole range of their own personal experience. I have been challenged every day by the innumerable expectations of so many, to find the means to meet the needs of all. I know that what is pleasing to some, can be disappointing to others. I know that change can be painful, because I too have experienced this pain.
But I must tell you that as I have traveled the length and breadth of this Nation, I have been encouraged by the faithful who attend Church every Sunday, who minister to our youth, who instruct our children in the faith and in our heritage, who sing in the choirs, who support with their time, their talent and their resources the ministries of their local parish, their Diocese and this Archdiocese. When I have embraced these people, and looked into their eyes, and witnessed their faith in action, and seen that they truly believe in their Church, I am strengthened. I am renewed and I am refreshed. The prayers, the encouragement, the support, and the love of the Greek Orthodox People of America has been my greatest joy during these past two years. Whenever the administrative burdens of this Church have weighed heavy on my shoulders, it has always been the good, humble, decent Greek Orthodox Christians of this Archdiocese, who have inspired me to carry on.
You see, I hope that each one of you who is here at this Congress understands that it is the hundreds of thousands of Greek Orthodox Christians who make up this Archdiocese that are the real reason we are here – all of us. We don’t represent them, for we are not a government. We serve them; for they are our family. They are our brothers and sisters.
As Archbishop, I am also grateful to the members of the Archdiocesan Council for their service; but I must tell you, no more grateful than I am to the thousands of parish council members who give so willingly of their time, their talents, and their resources to serve our Church every day.
I am grateful to the members of Leadership 100 who have given our Archdiocese a bountiful endowment, but no more grateful than I am to the yiayiades who live on Social Security and never miss a tray that’s passed in Church.
I am grateful to the committee chairs and members, but no more grateful than I am to the youth workers, the Greek and Sunday School teachers, the choir members and altar boys, who every day offer of themselves to make our parishes work together for the glory of God.
This is the meaning of liturgy – the people’s work, and throughout our Archdiocese, there are people who strive to make the St. George’s and St. Nicholas’ and St. Katherine’s places where anyone can feel welcome, and find a place at the table of our Church.
I am grateful to the National Board of Philoptochos and the Boards of our national institutions, for their sacrifices for these invaluable national ministries. But I am no more grateful to them, than I am to the tens of thousands of faithful Philoptochos women who have been the backbone of our communities for decades. And as much as I value the contribution of the Trustees of our National Ministries, I value the employees of these same institutions, and all the volunteers who do so much to make them what they are.
I stand here before you today, as your Archbishop, full of gratitude and full of hope for the future, because I see in your faces the limitless possibilities that God wants us to have. We can accomplish great things together, for the sake of our faith and the sake of our precious children, but I say again, only if love guides all of our deliberations and actions.
During the past two years, it has been my utmost desire to be a responsible steward of the offerings of the faithful of this Holy Archdiocese. A faithful steward is a steward not only of financial resources, but of the deeper treasures of the human heart.
We are called to be good stewards of the unity of this Archdiocese. The spiritual, administrative, and canonical unity of this Holy Archdiocese of America must be preserved, enriched, and passed on to a generation yet to be born. We are called to be united in faith, in good works, in fellowship – in, by and through love. As vast as our Church in America is, as diverse as the personal experience of each one of us, as complex as the character of our communities, we are one, united, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America!
We are called to be good stewards of the faith that has been passed down to us. Religious education has been given the charge and is creatively producing materials to meet the needs of young and old alike, those born Orthodox, those who are embracing the faith every day, and those who have not even heard of the Good News of Orthodox Christianity. Religious Education is a priority today, and into the New Millennium.
We are called to be good stewards of the preaching ministry of the Church. New initiatives are taking place and must be further developed to preach Orthodoxy, to live Orthodoxy, and offer Orthodoxy to this great country of America. Home Missions is a priority today, and into the New Millennium.
We are called to communicate the Faith using every means at our disposal through the incredible advancements of our Information Age. For this reason, the Communications Department of the Archdiocese has been empowered to use the Internet, to use the Orthodox Observer, to employ a revitalized Publications effort, to expand our video ministry through GOTelecom, to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to our own people and to the world. Communications is a priority today, and into the New Millennium.
We are called to be good stewards of our most precious resource – our families. For this reason, new initiatives are taking place and must be further developed to reach out to our non-Orthodox spouses, to our venerable aging parents, to our children, to single parent families, to the neediest amongst us. Families are a priority today, and into the New Millennium.
The Lord said that a good steward is one who brings new treasures out of old ones, and we have an ancient and awesome heritage, the legacy of Hellenism. For this reason, new initiatives are taking place, not only to enrich our faithful with the treasures of the Greek language, but with the whole panoply of Greek culture, philosophy and learning. The legacy of our forefathers is a priority today, and into the New Millennium.
We are called to be good stewards of the material blessings that God has showered upon us in this great land of America, and that the faithful entrust to the Church out of their own gratitude and love for God. For this reason, every effort has been made, and will continue to be made, to offer the faithful of this Archdiocese, the most comprehensive and exhaustive procedures, audits and a fully open and disclosed program of financial accountability. That which is offered to the Church, is offered to Christ Himself; therefore, it is not any law that requires accountability, but rather our Lord Who demands it, and we shall be faithful to His demand. Financial accountability is a priority today, and into the New Millennium.
Finally and most importantly, we are called to be good stewards of our Parish Communities. The life of every Parish begins at Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Holy Cross is the pride and joy of this Archdiocese of America. I know in my heart that Holy Cross is the key which will open the gates to the New Millennium of Orthodoxy in America.
This Clergy-Laity Congress must make a commitment and take a stand to ensure that every young man and every young woman, who aspires to the priesthood or a life of service in the Church, has the opportunity to fulfill their calling. For it is these young men and women who will be serving us today and our children tomorrow. As an Archdiocese, it is our holy obligation to ensure, that as we enter the new Millennium, every Parish will be ministered to by a devout, well-educated, well-trained priest. It is our sacred responsibility to encourage and nurture vocations to the Holy Priesthood within our families, within our local parish, and throughout the Archdiocese.
At this moment, I would like to thank all of the retired clergy of our Archdiocese, who after four and even five decades of faithful, dedicated service, continue to minister to the needs of those parishes that at times do not have the resources to maintain a full-time priest.
The dawn of the New Millennium is no time to speak of scaling back the ministry of this Archdiocese, of consolidating parishes for lack of priests, of closing parishes which have sanctified the faithful for generations. At the dawn of the New Millennium, is it even conceivable that we will preside over the closing of churches which our parents opened? Do we honor the sacrifice of our forefathers and the blessings of God by retreating from the two thousand year old mission of the Church? Saint Paul never closed a church. St. Peter never closed a Church. St. Andrew never closed a church. In America, the land of liberty, of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, do we even have the right to consider closing a church?
The Vineyard of the Lord, Which His right hand has planted, our beloved Archdiocese of America, has a single root -- Hellenic College and Holy Cross. The fruit of this vine is what feeds and sustains our faithful all across this great country. I want to take this moment, to thank my beloved brother in the Lord, Metropolitan Isaiah, for the love and the care with which he has cultivated this vine over the past year. All of us who have gathered together for this Clergy-Laity Congress can do no less, than to offer our very best: our prayers, our talents and our resources to ensure that Hellenic College and Holy Cross continue to be the light set on the Hill, that will illuminate our way into the New Millennium.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, truly we have gathered in His Holy Name. Let us rejoice in His presence among us. Let us rejoice in each other. Let us set about our work in the knowledge that He is with us through His grace, love and His infinite mercy. Amen.