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Church

Metropolitan Athenagoras of Mexico Speaks about The “Miracle” of Orthodoxy in Central America

BOSTON – The Orthodox Church is blossoming in the countries of Central America according to His Eminence Metropolitan Athenagoras of Mexico, who has been pastoring there for the last twenty-six years.

Metropolitan Athenagoras spoke to The National Herald on all aspects of the ecclesiastical life of his unique Eparchy. He began by saying that, “when I assumed responsibilities for the then-newly established Holy Metropolis of Mexico in 1996, the Metropolis covered a vast geographical area of twenty countries. Mexico, the countries of Central America, the Caribbean, in addition to Colombia and Venezuela. There were only 5,000 families of Greek descent, mainly living in Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela, with only three priests, all of Greek descent. Today, 25 years later, due to the growing number of mixed marriages and the fact that we live in countries where immigrants are easily assimilated, the Greek community of Mexico no longer exists. In Venezuela, 3,000 Greek families once lived in the country, while today there are no more than 250 families. Panama, which numbers only 250-300 families, is perhaps the most powerful Greek Community in all of Central and South America.”

Asked where the priests are educated, he answered, “each Metropolis has the responsibility of educating new clergy. Thus, at my request, in recognition of our ministry, the Office of Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Greece, began giving scholarships to young people of our Metropolis. In the last twenty-five years over 50 students received scholarships and studied Theology at the University of Thessaloniki. Today, most of the clergy of the Metropolis are graduates of the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki, with excellent knowledge of the Greek language, with an orthodox ‘fronima’, and with appreciation and love for Greece.”

Thousands of faithful gathered at the village of Agouakate of Guatemala for the inauguration of a medical clinic where they will be getting medical care. (Photo: Metropolis of Mexico)

Regarding the establishment in his Metropolis of its own Theological School, he said, “in order to survive as a Metropolis, it is necessary to establish schools for the proper preparation of clergy. In Guatemala with 200,000 faithful, we need at least 50 clergy today. Our faithful live in a remote area of the country, with a minimal level of education. Therefore, in Guatemala, we have recently established a two-year Seminary, where 45 students are registered. In Colombia, where a Roman Catholic priest, with a genuine love for Orthodoxy, donated 17 acres of land to us, with a complex of seven buildings, we have established a university level theological school with a Department of Greek Education. Theological School will open next October and 58 students have already applied to be accepted, most of them from Colombia and Venezuela.”

Asked if they use the Greek language in the Divine Liturgy, he said, “in Panama and Venezuela where our faithful are of Greek descent, the Divine Liturgy is chanted in Greek. In the rest of the countries, however, where our faithful are natives, the Divine Liturgy is chanted in Spanish. The Parish of Saint Nicholas in Cuba is unique. Despite being Cubans, our faithful there have studied Greek and prefer to chant most of the Divine Liturgy in Greek.”

Regarding how the Metropolis is maintained financially, Metropolitan Athenagoras said, “as a Missionary Metropolis with few Greeks, there is no permanent income to meet our financial needs. The Community of Panama and some Greeks in the Country do help our ministry, but not sufficiently. We do receive some help from clergy friends in America and from five to six individuals, including relatives of mine.”
When asked how the priests get paid, he said, “six clergymen of the Metropolis receive a salary from Greece. The rest live on the financial aid of their faithful, receiving $150 to $300 a month. Of course, this differs in each country, according to the economic potential of the country.”

The late President of Cuba Fidel Castro is giving the key of the church of St. Nicholas to His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Shown are Metropolitans Athenagoras of Mexico and Demetrios of Prince’s Islands of Constantinople. (Photo: Metropolis of Mexico)

Regarding how the people of Latin American view Orthodoxy Metropolitan Athenagoras said, “we have a missionary presence in fourteen countries. In all these countries, former Roman Catholics and groups of Protestant sects are knocking on the door of our Metropolis, seeking to become Orthodox. Seeing this unfolding miracle, I am able to assure you that if the Metropolis had the appropriate financial income, within the next five years, the Metropolis would number more than one to two million faithful.”

Speaking about the Church of Saint Nicholas in Cuba, he said, “the Church is vibrant, with ever growing numbers of faithful. When in 2004 the Patriarch inaugurated the Church of Saint Nicholas, which Fidel Castro built and donated to the Metropolis, we numbered only four Cuban Orthodox. Today in Cuba we have bought and renovated suitable buildings in four other cities, so that in the country we now have five churches with more than 5000 Cuban families baptized Orthodox.”

When asked if the Church of Greece financially supports the Metropolis of Mexico, Metropolitan Athenagoras said, “with the exception of two Metropolises of Alexandroupolis and Kitros, who actively support our Metropolis. Others, very few, half by enrolling some of our clergy to vacant positions in their metropolises, thus giving them the opportunity to receive salaries, for which we are grateful.”

“Of course, I miss America, the Metropolitan said. I was born and raised in Chicago. My brother, sister, and I graduated from Socrates Day School. We lived opposite the Church of St. Basil, where our parents sent us to the Afternoon School of the Church. There were days when we studied the Greek language for six hours, and English, only three hours. If I did not have my parents, and the first-generation priests, serving our communities at that time, I would not be a clergyman today. All that I am, I owe to the Greek Community within which I grew up, and to the opportunities that America offers, so that everyone can fulfill their dreams and aspirations.”

Metropolitan Athenagoras baptizes hundreds every week. The baptismal service above is for a young lady in Cuba. (Photo: Metropolis of Mexico)

Speaking about the Greek-American community, he said, “I can never separate myself from the Omogenia living in the United States. I am part of the Greek Diaspora. My hope is that the coming generations will want, if not to be considered as full Greeks, with the same understanding of Hellenism which my generation grew up with, at least to have the opportunity to feel that they are philhellenes , to appreciate their origins, and to be proud of the Greek and Orthodox tradition and culture they received from their parents and ancestors.”

Asked how the Greek-American community can help his Metropolis, he said, “first and foremost with their prayers. Secondly, in the next two months, we will be establishing a website where every Greek-American will be able to share our efforts, to see our missionary work in Central America. Hopefully they will want to help with whatever donation they can. I thank you wholeheartedly, Theodore, for the opportunity you gave me to present, through the National Herald, the work entrusted to me by God and our Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew.”

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