CONSTANTINOPLE – His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew opened the 45th Clergy laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America with the following historic text:
“Your Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, most honorable Exarch of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, beloved brother and concelebrant of our Modesty in the Holy Spirit; Most Reverend and Right Reverend brother Metropolitans and Bishops; Very Reverend clergy Hieromonks, Reverend Presbyters and Deacons; most honorable representatives of the Communities and Parishes; most esteemed Archons of the Mother Church; dearest delegates of the major Institutions of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and all participants comprising its 45th Clergy-Laity Congress: May the grace, peace, and blessing of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ be with you all.
With the assent of God, the Giver of all good things, the 45th Clergy-Laity Congress of this great Eparchy of our Ecumenical Throne, the united Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, takes place for the first time virtually, as a result of the difficult circumstances that the pandemic of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 continue to create. As we convey the commendation of the Mother Church and our Patriarchal blessing to all of you, we congratulate you for continuing this beautiful tradition, which, for many decades now, has strengthened the good witness of the Church in light of the demands and challenges of the times, thereby securing the broad participation of the people of God in the Church affairs, the exchange of opinions in a spirit of love and concord, as well as the reaching of decisions beneficial for the mission of the Church.
The theme of this Clergy-Laity Congress – the first under your presidency, dearest brother Elpidophoros – is the wonderful verse from St. Paul: “but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13.13), which expresses the quintessence of the Christian ethos. The meaning of love was revealed in God’s love for humankind: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 Jn 4.9). It is to this love, as the source and model of love from the faithful to their neighbor, that St. Paul looks when he composes his eminent “hymn of love” (1 Cor 13.1–13).
Love is the ‘new wine’ that bursts the ‘old wineskins’ (cf. Mt 9.17). It is from this love that new values were sprung, social movements were inspired, and the charitable conquests of modernity were nurtured, despite the many conflicts between Christianity and modern humanism; for while these were inevitably the consequence of essential differences in the perception of human freedom, nonetheless they were primarily the result of circumstantial misconceptions and repudiations. Today it seems both sides have understood that, despite the differences, they meet in the joint mobilization for the sake of the protection of human dignity, justice, and peace. In this context and encounter, the Orthodox Church highlights the social dimension of freedom, the priority of the culture of solidarity. The late professor Fr. Georges Florovsky was right to underline the central place of social sensitivity in the Orthodox tradition: “There is still, as it has been for centuries, a strong social instinct in the Eastern church in spite of all historical involvements and drawbacks. And possibly this is the main contribution which the Eastern church can make to the contemporary conversation on social issues.” (The Social Problem in the Eastern Orthodox Church, in Christianity and Culture: Volume Two, The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Co., 1974, 131–142, at 132).
And the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church that convened in Crete (June, 2016) emphatically promoted the social message of Orthodoxy and ‘the supreme value of the human person: The Orthodox Church confesses that every human being, regardless of skin color, religion, race, sex, ethnicity, and language, is created in the image and likeness of God, and enjoys equal rights in society. Consistent with this belief, the Orthodox Church rejects discrimination for any of the aforementioned reasons, since these presuppose a difference in dignity between people.’ (The Mission of the Orthodox Church in the Contemporary World, V.1)
In love and through love, Christians are more humanists than all humanists. The Christian mandate concerning the human person transcends the humanistic ideal pertaining to human rights. The freedom ‘to which Christ has set us free’ (Gal 5.1) is not the vindication of rights, is not individual freedom from the other, but rather it is the freedom for the other, our brother or sister who needs help. Christian love is always concrete; it is not associated with an impersonal sympathy or a vague philanthropic disposition. It always constitutes an expression of the eucharistic identity of the Church, ‘a liturgy after the Liturgy,’ and is experienced not as our own achievement but as a gift from above. Such a Christian ethos is embodied by the blessed Philoptochos Societies of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, both in their National and regional expressions. It is completely inappropriate to describe the Church’s social witness and diakonia as a secularization of the Church, inasmuch as it is its salvific imprint in the world.
Most honorable brothers and beloved children, the contemporary world and its culture is not some ‘sinful Nineveh’, whose punishment and destruction by God are desired by those overcome by the ‘Jonah syndrome’, who believe they are the ‘chosen ones’ in the ‘household of the father,’ but have no connection to the contemporary reality, no sensitivity for the adventures of human freedom, and no sharing in the pain of the victims of violence, injustice, and discrimination. Our objective should be a Christian witness and action in the world, which implies engagement and not disengagement, praxis and not just theoria, acceptance and not just rejection, dialogue and not just barren disputation.
This is the good and timely witness of coordinated concern for the ecclesiastical affairs that you have demonstrated, Your Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, over the past year, your first in pastoral leadership in the New World. We commend you for your tireless efforts to complete the construction of St. Nicholas Church at Ground Zero, rendering possible the celebration of its opening next year. We also applaud your initiatives to remedy the Pension Fund of the clergy and lay employees of the Archdiocese. Noteworthy is also your contribution to the restructuring of the Holy Cross School of Theology in Boston for the sake of a more efficient response to its financial problems and academic challenges that have emerged in the function of this historic institution.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has also demonstrated, and continues to demonstrate, tangible love throughout the period of the novel Coronavirus pandemic, through its undivided support of those suffering and their families, by establishing a special Relief Fund for those affected by this virus, through its word of patience and comfort, with pastoral imagination – all of these, in the unfailing conviction that suffering and evil do not have the final word in history, whose master is Christ Himself. It is the same spirit of Christian solidarity that is also expressed by the observance of the mandated measures in response to the spread of the Coronavirus, with the full knowledge that these do not affect our faith, piety, and traditions, which we maintain as the apple of our eye, but that they contribute to the protection of the health and life of us all. At all time, but especially in such circumstances, fraternity, self-sacrifice, and love constitute the presence and image of the Kingdom of God in the world. The current pandemic has shattered many things that we take for granted, but it has also revealed the value and power of faith in the living God and of our hope in eternal life, so that we do not break beneath the weight of these ‘limit situations’ and of the fear of death.
With these thoughts, we bless, from the Phanar, the deliberations of this Clergy-Laity Congress and wish you every success for the benefit of the clergy and laity of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, for the glory of the ‘God of love’ (2 Cor 13.11), whose name is above all names, the Founder of the Church, to whom your Patriarch earnestly prays for the children of the Mother Church of Constantinople in America and throughout God’s world.
We close our greeting with the words of the Apostle Paul, in which the ‘hymn of love’ is culminated, inspiring words, which reveal the horizon, the final perspective and ultimate meaning, the hope and endless joy of the faithful in the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: ‘Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So, faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love’ (1 Co. 13. 8–13). May the God of love bless you all!” September 4, 2020.