NEW YORK – The auditorium of Keating Hall at Fordham University was filled October 5 for the inaugural lecture of Dr. George E. Demacopoulos as the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies.
Demacopoulos joins Dr. Aristotle Papanikolaou, who was appointed Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture in 2013, as holders of endowed chairs at Fordham, where they are founding co-directors of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.
The evening was also the occasion for honoring and thanking Solon and Marianna Patterson, for their gift of $2 million which endowed the chair, and to honor the memory of Fr. John Meyendorff, the renowned scholar who pioneered Orthodox studies at Fordham.
His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon and clergy and laity of the OCA were also present for the tribute and the guests were touched when Fordham President Fr. Joseph McShane, SJ asked Matushka Meyendorff to rise after saying “I don’t speak Russian, but there is a Greek word for your husband in the eyes of all who knew him: Axios.”
Fordham’s VP for Development and University Relations Roger Milici served as Emcee and invited Archbishop Demetrios of America to offer the invocation, a prayer, the latter explained that “declares our dependence on God,” in all things and for the success of all great endeavors.
The Archbishop quoted Psalm 127 spotlighting the Faith that motivates Papanikolaou and Demacopoulos: “If God doesn’t build the house, the laborers work in vain.”
Provost Dr. Stephen Freedman, Associate VP and Dean Dr. John Harrington also addressed the guests, praising the honorees and echoing Demetrios’ praise for all who contributed to the Center, which has become a force for deepening Orthodox-Catholic relations and Christian unity.
After he was bestowed a medal by Fr. McShane, who also presented citations to him and the Pattersons, Demacopoulos declared that his appointment to the chair “is a profoundly humbling honor…because my scholarly achievements will never match the achievements of Fr. Meyendorff,” and because the chair bears the Patterson name.
He said in the decade he has known “I have learned more about genuine Christian love and stewardship from the Patterson’s than I have from any other source.”
The inaugural lecture, titled “War, Violence, and the Feast of the Holy Cross in Byzantium,” demonstrated how advanced Orthodox scholarship can illuminate contemporary events thereby foster Christian unity.
Demacopoulos traced the evolution of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross through changes in the content of the Church’s hymns, from the Fourth Century to its late Byzantine manifestation. He pointed to the turbulent reign of the Emperor Heraclius, when first the Persians and Slavs and then the Arabs threatened the existence of the Empire, as the point when “an emerging sacralization of state-sponsored violence…which had lasting consequences for Orthodox political theology and relations with the West.”
After the 7th century, hymns associate with the Feast “conspicuously reflected Byzantine Imperial concerns.” At times the Cross as a divine weapon against the enemies of the Empire overshadowed the soteriological significance of the crucifixion of Christ.
Demacopoulos cited current research about the power of music, which he said “impacts memory and thought structure more substantially than other forms of cognitive input.”
The most striking example he cited was the Feast’s dismissal hymn, “Soson Kyrie ton Lao Sou – Save your people, Lord,” with its aggressive phrase “bring victory to the Emperor over the barbarians.”
There was an opportunity to point out Fr. Meyendorff’s great contribution to the study of Church-State relations in Byzantium. Despite the trends outlined by Demacopoulos, so called Ceasaropapism as a model for those relations, and the ideology of Euseubius, whom he said was essentially a propagandist for the Emperor Constantine, was constantly challenged Fr. Meyendorff demonstrated.
Nevertheless, “short, bold, and catchy hymns like Soson Kyrie” gave authority to notions of “divinely sanctioned violence,” and “reflects and reinforces an errant political theology and prompts a dangerous nostalgia for a bygone era of idealized, even mythologized Christian Empire,” Demacopoulos said.
“And it’s because the distinction between the real and the ideal is lost on the political opportunists of the present,” he noted “that so many traditional Orthodox countries have problems with the kind of religious nationalism that is nostalgic, rather than genuine, and xenophobic rather than Christian.”
“This is precisely what we see with the rise of the Golden Dawn movement in Greece…in my mind the Euseubian model is ripe for exploitation by figures like Vladimir Putin…It also fuels a narrative of victimization and a hatred of Western Christianity,” he said.
After apologizing to those time did not permit him to name for helping him arrive at this point in his career, he praised Archbishop Demetrios, colleagues, mentors, and his graduate students, whom he said helped sharpen his own scholarship.
He thanked the Board of Advisors and the Center’s Director of Development Valery Longwood, who helped raise $7 million for the Center to date, and, last but not least, “the guiding influence of my family,” beginning with his father George who came to America as a foreign exchange student, and his late mother Mary Lynn, “who was first in her class in nursing school and first again” earning a Master’s degree while raising a family.
His most profound intellectual influence, he said, was his maternal grandfather, a veterinarian who was a voracious reader. He taught Demacopoulos “to love those with whom I disagree,” which he called a genuine grace.
He became even more emotional when he said, “speaking of saints, I’d like to recognize the influence of my father-in-law, Fr. John Orfanakos” of blessed memory, and continued, “finally it would be impossible for me to stand here without the willful sacrifice of my immediate family, my children Zoe, Lizzy, Eli, and Grace, and his wife Kathy, about whom he said “without her I could achieve none of this.”
The program concluded with a hymn chanted by the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Octet and reception made possible by Tsantalis Wines and Fantis Cheeses.