The 46th Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America meets in New York between July 3-7. Next to its regular business sessions the Congress will commemorate its establishment one hundred years ago. As the Congress’ website mentions “[we] will embrace and honor our past while at the same time plant the seeds for the next 100 years.”
To properly honor its past the Congress should take note of another anniversary. The last day of its proceedings, July 7th coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. It was Athenagoras, as Archbishop of North and South America between 1931 and 1938, who made the Archdiocese what it is today.
When Athenagoras became Archbishop the Greek Orthodox Church in America had experienced a decade of constant infighting and its future was uncertain. The first Archbishop, Alexandros, had struggled mightily to establish the authority of the Archdiocese over all Greek Orthodox parishes in the United States against the background of a deep division among supporters of King Constantine of the Hellenes and Eleftherios Venizelos, Greece’s leading political figure. Greece’s so-called ‘national schism’ had created polarizing feuds within the country and among the Greeks abroad.
Athenagoras managed to unite the faithful and build a powerful and influential Archdiocese. Athenagoras was backed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Church of Greece, and the Greek government and was welcomed by the leading Greek American organizations and newspapers. This itself would have been enough for him to gain the acceptance of the Community and its loyalty. He was also helped by his imposing appearance that was immediately noticed by the big crowd that welcomed him as he set foot on the pier at the port of New York on February 24, 1931. He was six feet tall, was said to weigh 200 pounds, and possessed a sonorous deep voice. Those characteristics coupled with his natural sense of authority made him look as well as act a leader. The Greek Orthodox community, weary of all the power struggles, rallied to the side of their new Archbishop.
Athenagoras introduced radical changes to the life of the Church. He brought the Archdiocese closer to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and made the local parishes free themselves from the control of the community organizations which in the past had infected the local churches with the polarized royalists-versus-venizelists politics. The parishes took over the running of the Greek schools and continued the philanthropic work of the Ladies Philoptochos societies under the close supervision of the Archdiocese. And in the 1940s Athenagoras was the national chairman of the Greek War Relief Association that did so much to offer aid to Greece during the Greco-Italian war of 1940-41 and also during the harsh years of the Axis occupation between 1941 and 1944.
Athenagoras established close relations with three presidents, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. The Ethnikos Kyrix newspaper reported that when FDR met Athenagoras for the first time in March 1933 the Archbishop offered encouragement to the president and praised his plan to help America go forward, while FDR expressed the same sentiments upon hearing the changes the Archbishop was bringing to the Church in America. But it was with Truman that Athenagoras had the closest relationship, and the president was instrumental in Athenagoras’ election as Ecumenical Patriarch in 1948. It was thought at the time that a strong-willed Patriarch had to be installed to eliminate any possible attempts by the Soviet-controlled Russian Orthodox church to influence the affairs of the Patriarchate.
Athenagoras did not disappoint as Patriarch and continued to display his leadership. He held firm in the wake of the horrific anti-Greek Orthodox pogrom in Istanbul in 1955 and the harsh anti-Greek measures the Turkish government took in 1964 that included shutting down the Patriarchate’s orphanage and its printing press. Undaunted, Athenagoras continued his duties and embarked on a mission to achieve reunion with the Catholic Church, holding three historic meetings with Pope Paul VI. After their first meeting, Athenagoras said, “when Pope Paul and I met, instinctively we embraced each other…It was a meeting of love, a brotherly encounter. That, finally, will be how reunion will be accomplished.”
As Ecumenical Patriarch, Athenagoras never returned to the United States, but he followed the affairs of the Archdiocese in America closely. And the Greek Orthodox in America retained a special affection and respect for ‘their own’ Ecumenical Patriarch.
It was during the 21st Clergy Laity Congress held in Houston that a visibly emotional Archbishop Iakovos interrupted his speech to announce Athenagoras’ death. It was met by open displays of sorrow and the Congress cut short the proceedings. That day was July 7, 1972, and its fiftieth anniversary is a moment to recall Athenagoras’ greatness.