NEW YORK – His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America delivered the Opening Address on September 9 at the 45th Clergy Laity Congress which was convened virtually for the first time in the history of the Archdiocese due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The full text follows:
Reverend Hierarchs of the Eparchial Synod and Clergy, Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
If I speak with tongues of mortals and of Angels – but have no love – I would be no more than the clatter of clanging metal, or at best a sounding cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and I know all mysteries and possess all knowledge; even if I possess the whole of faith so as to move mountains – but I have no love – I am nothing! Even if I give away all my possessions to feed the hungry; even if I surrender my body to be burned – but have no love – it does me no good.
So we commence, Beloved in the Lord, with the one virtue, the one grace, the one charisma that is truly needful – αγάπη!
Everything we want to do in the life of our Εκκλησία is only justified, and indeed, is only perfected, by love. The love that compelled our Heavenly Father – if I may be so bold as to use this expression – to send His Only Begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to suffer, and die, and rise again for each and every human person born into this world.
Having just returned from the Σεπτόν Κέντρον – the most venerable Center of our Faith, our precious Ecumenical Patriarchate, I can affirm to each and every one of you the love of His All-Holiness for our Church in America. My days there passed in the presence of our Spiritual Father, and even in the midst of this annus horribilis – the love of our Patriarch, his kind and tender words, and his example of spiritual fortitude, filled my soul with faith, with hope, and above all, with love.
For a Church, a community of believers that has endured so much – and you all know of the grievous loss of Aghia Sophia and the Monastery of Chora to an alien purpose – our brothers and sisters in the Phanar are without hatred, without rancor, without acrimony. Yet their eyes have wept plentiful tears and their hearts have been pained by the open hostility and aggressive pursuit of this cultural misappropriation. They are heroes for the Faith, living martyrs to the truth of Orthodoxy through the ages.
And not only these concrete instances. All of our brethren, whether in Greece, Cyprus, or the Πόλη are deeply troubled by the bellicose stand-off that is now happening in the Aegean. I assured them all of our prayers and our advocacy on their behalf, and on behalf of peace, mutual respect, and the rule of law.
I am glad to be home again, in my American home with you; and not only the Greek Orthodox Community of the United States, but with all our fellow citizens. One of the most wondrous and marvelous things about America is its capacity to embrace diversity and make it part, if you will, of the uniquely American quilt. Not perfect, sometimes a tattered patchwork, but bound together into the fabric of one Nation under God, ever striving “to form a more perfect Union.” As we commence my first Clergy-Laity Congress together – even under these extraordinary circumstances – I want you all to know how proud and happy I am to be your Archbishop.
I think it is safe to say that this has been “no ordinary time.” And I believe that our country needs our Church now more than ever. The COVID pandemic, the social unrest and violence, the cries for justice for all Americans no matter their color, ethnic origin, or religion – all of these have created a very polarized environment from coast to coast. And I’m not just speaking about politics. We see in our ecumenical and religious world, issues of faith and doctrine being hardened into particular shapes and sizes. And if you do not fit in, then suddenly you are not a faithful Christian, or an observant Jew, or a good Muslim.
My brothers and sisters, as Orthodox Christians, we have a responsibility as the guardians of the faith of the Ecumenical Councils, and indeed of the very words and culture of the New Testament. Let us not give in to the language of division and the culture of opposition. Our spiritual heritage “calls all to unity” as we chant at Pentecost.
Our vocation as the Εκκλησία is to be a force for good beyond the boundaries of our Churches. We are called to be the watchmen on the walls, as the Prophet Isaiah says, whose voices call out for the ways of the Lord to be remembered. We are more than an insular society of specific religious and ethnic histories. If I may paraphrase the renowned poet and churchman John Donne, ‘no Church is an island entire of itself, every Parish is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….’
Therefore, my beloved Christians, we all have a responsibility to speak, to take action, to inspire others, and to be inclusive, in obedience to the greatest commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Αγαπ?τε αλλήλους – Love one another.” Let me note here that our Lord did not say “love others,” but “love one another.” This is the true nature of αγάπη. Love is not only sacrificial, but mutual and reciprocal. It does not objectify the other, but incorporates their needs, their happiness, and their benefit into one’s own.
Imagine a world where instead of objectifying and opposing others, we simply loved them, and allowed the transformative love of God to fill their hearts. This, my beloved friends, is faith in action, because we continue to believe that we can become better people, even our best selves in Christ. As we meet over the next two days in this first-ever virtual Clergy-Laity Congress, let us put our love for one another into real and genuine practice.
As the Apostle says:
“Love is forbearing, full of goodness and kindness. Love does not envy; love does not boast; is not puffed up and does not behave unseemly. Love does not seek self-interest, does not become aggravated, does not keep score of wrongdoing. Love feels no joy at injustice, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
Therefore, in this spirit of love, I want to briefly address the three priorities so eloquently explicated by Judge Bozonelis in his introduction of my humble person. He was as gracious as he was accurate as to their importance and scope.
The first priority: The Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine is under construction again and is financially healthy. As the Church, as the Greek-American Community, we could only choose to save this Parish and now National Institution. Think of it, we are the only religious presence at the World Trade Center. As the only House of worship destroyed on 9/11, we have always borne the grave responsibility to rebuild the Church, and not only for ourselves. It was always our duty to those who perished that day, to the heroes who gave their lives, to their families, and to our Country and the world.
I want all of you to consider the following. When Saint Nicholas is completed and opened next year, it will become the most visited liturgizing Orthodox Temple in the world – and here is the distinction – by non-Orthodox persons. There are many Churches in the world that would have more visitors, but these are in Orthodox countries like Greece, Ukraine, Cyprus, and Russia.
Only here in the United States, and in a city like New York, and at a location like the World Trade Center, would an Orthodox Christian Church receive such visitation. Our American Parthenon, our Light on the Hill, will be the most significant missionary and apostolic venture of our Church in America.
I want to express publicly my enormous gratitude to “The Friends of St. Nicholas” who came together to literally rescue the Church. Their generosity, and the generosity they have inspired in others, are making it possible to complete the Shrine without burdening our parishes. And they have accomplished this in a time of pandemic.
Now, it is the responsibility of all of us to bring the Light of Christ to our Nation through the Saint Nicholas National Shrine. And we will do so with love, with honor, and in memory of all who perished that fateful day.
Now for the second priority, though it has always been first for me. Speaking of our responsibilities, we must speak of the Pension Plan for our clergy and lay workers across the Archdiocese. When I came to this Eparchy as your Archbishop, and I was given the hard truth that had been buried for years about the Pension Plan, I immediately began seeking solutions. Later this evening, we shall hold an open forum, a webinar on the Pension Plan, which will only be informational in character. I have already met many times with the Archdiocese Benefits Committee (ABC) and the Archdiocese Presbyters Committee on this burning issue. In fact, on August 11th, I met with hundreds of clergy from across the Nation in an online webinar.
The most important thing I can say to all of you is that there is no scenario in which we will abandon our clergy! Whatever mistakes were made in the past … let them stay there. Now is the time to engage with honest principles and the real numbers which do not lie. How can we claim to be the Εκκλησία – the Assembly of God’s Faithful, if we are not willing to be responsible for one another?
I know these have been trying times for all of us; as individuals and families, as Parishes, and as Metropolises, and the National Archdiocese. But our strength together – spiritual, moral, and yes, financial – comes from our common mission, our shared values, and our unity in the Faith. We are called to be wise stewards of the gifts of God, and if you look at all of our Churches added together, you will find capacities and abilities that far outstrip the challenges we face today.
I have made my will perfectly clear. As your Archbishop, I will not abandon the clergy. I stand with my priests. And I will do everything in my power to see that their retirements are honorable and dignified.
I am very happy to announce that there will be a National Committee established to focus on the fundraising campaign for the Pension Plan funding. I have only recently received this recommendation from the ABC, and we will use this committee to develop a formalized structure to shape a comprehensive fundraising plan. That plan, yet to be firmly established, will include all the stakeholders: the Holy Eparchial Synod, the Metropolises, our parishes, our affiliated institutions and donors. Let us remember that the only way we solve our problems is if we solve them together, as one, united Archdiocese.
Finally, I raise the ongoing struggles – to this point successful – to correct decades of neglect at our Theological School. With the wise and prudent counsel of President George Cantonis, we are finally facing the realities of how to run the School without exhausting our resources and pretending there are no problems. This has been, and will be for some time, a painful process of realignment. But make no mistake, we have no other choice if we wish to keep our School open and running, especially in the time of COVID. Sacrifice is a necessary component to any Church, and to any Christian life. We will make the sacrifices that benefit the most and hurt the least, but they will still have to be made.
Two years ago, at the Clergy-Laity Congress held in Boston, all the problems of the School were there for everyone to see, but the proverbial blind eyes were turned. After rushing in to save the institution’s accreditation upon my arrival a little over a year ago, we have to rebuild the foundation of the School, so that generations of clergy and lay leaders may come forth to serve our Church in America.
My Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
I close my address to you today with hope and high expectation for our future. I am completely unwilling to say the best days of our Archdiocese are behind us. In the Light of Christ, the future is always bright. Even in the midst of a global pandemic that has changed our world and our societies, we have found ways to live our life as Εκκλησία. We have been called out, called out to lives of service and mission to one another and to the world. And as the Apostle says: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” And I say these words even as our brothers and sisters in the West are still facing dangerous fires. But that is why we are gathered together in this 45th Congress. To support and encourage one another – to love one another.
Let us then be optimistic. Think of what can happen in the next two years. Think of what is coming in these next two years as we journey to the 46th Clergy Laity Congress.
Next year, we shall open Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero.
Next Year, we shall observe the Bicentennial of Greek Independence, which is dedicated to the Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.
And in 2022, we shall celebrate the Centennial of our Holy Archdiocese, and chart a course for the next hundred years.
My beloved friends, we have so many opportunities to fulfill and so many blessings to enjoy. We live in the most prosperous country on earth. We live in the freedom to act according to our conscience, and the freedom to choose our own destinies. Let us never take these blessings for granted.
As the Lord said, “the harvest is plentiful,” but it is we who have the responsibility to enter into those fields and do the work. And what is this work?
To give of ourselves and expect nothing in return.
To do unto others, as we would have them do unto us.
To love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with our God.
And above all, to love one another.
My dear Brothers and Sisters: Our theme for this Clergy Laity Congress is so eminently simple, and yet is it the hardest labor you will ever do. Loving others requires letting go our egotistical desires and putting others’ lives before our own. But there is no greater fulfillment of one’s own life, even as you honor and fulfill the aims and wishes of others.
Our Orthodox Faith is pure, unalloyed, and without blemish.
Our hope in the Resurrection is the strength of the Martyrs and the glory of the Apostles.
So there remain these three: faith, hope, and love – but the greatest of these is love. Amen.