BOSTON – His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, in an exclusive interview with The National Herald on the anniversary of his elevation to the Archbishopric Throne of America, reflects on the challenges and achievements of the past year. He emphasized the rescue of the Holy Cross School of Theology in Boston “from the dire condition that almost cost its accreditation last year,” as well as the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine, which has been redeemed “from the brink of disaster by the remarkable generosity of the Faithful.” The finances of the Archdiocese have also been strengthened, and in that regard, the Archbishop said “there are many who have worked for this, but let me limit myself to just two people who have clearly distinguished themselves: Mrs. Elaine Allen and Mr. Michael Psaros, acclaimed members of our community, for whom we all have every reason to be very proud.”
The entire interview follows:
The National Herald: Your Eminence, today it is one year since your election to the Archiepiscopal Throne of America. What are your thoughts?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: Christ is Risen! Thank you for giving everyone the opportunity to remember this anniversary. Even in the midst of this pandemic, with all the losses to our Faithful and the difficulties that will challenge us for perhaps many years, personally, I am overwhelmed by an enormous sense of gratitude. First, to our Ecumenical Patriarchate and especially to His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew for his confidence and the honor of electing my person. Then I owe a debt of gratitude to every single member of our Church in America for the honor to serve them as their Archbishop. And this honor consists in the fact that together, we will overcome our present difficulties, because faith, hope, and love will always triumph in the end. I am very aware that this first anniversary must be observed somberly, and that I must give an accounting of my ministry: to our people, to our clergy, to our Hierarchy, and to our Patriarchate.
Think about what we would have done if we were without our Patriarchate during the recent difficult years, and what we are going through today. We would have been in uncertainty and confusion. Without hope or direction. Fortunately, our Patriarch and his Synod intervened at the right moment and provided the solution to the impasse.
TNH: Are there moments when it feels like a dream?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: Not like a dream at all. The day to day realities, especially in this time of the pandemic, are a hard for me and I would say for all of us. I see the suffering of those who have lost their family and friends. I hear the cry of those struggling to make ends meet. And I behold with deep admiration the exceptional devotion to duty of the daily heroes of our lives: the doctors, nurses, emergency responders, clerks and public servants. No, all of us are fully engaged in reality, trying to do the best we can for our neighbors and for ourselves, for this is the true measure of love.
I wonder, of course, how this first year of my archiepiscopal ministry passed so quickly. And I think maybe it passed so quickly because it was so full, so rich in events and experiences, so loaded with issues that needed to be addressed. They usually say that it is the vacations that pass too quickly. Maybe it's true. But holidays and vacations are neither productive nor creative. My experience has taught me that the joy of creative work and especially the joy of serving the people of God is incomparably superior to the relief of relaxation.
TNH: How would you summarize your impressions and your experiences of the past year?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: The word, “whirlwind” comes to mind! There was so much to do from the moment I touched down at JFK this very day one year ago. I decided early on to spare nothing – no level of energy, time, or effort – to meet the multitude of challenges that lay before me and all my co-workers in Christ. And I have found that the people of the Church – clergy and laity alike – are eager to engage and take ownership of ministry and to be problem-solvers. Especially from the nationwide conference calls with both the clergy and the laity (right before Holy Week), I see an engaged Flock of Christ that is willing to roll up their sleeves and set themselves to the tasks at hand. And I think: how blessed I am to serve such a flock!
TNH: If you were to list five things that happened last year in the life of the Archdiocese and its institutions, what would they be?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: Why only five? We could list many more, but in order not to be long-winded I would say the following:
First, we made internal changes in the Archdiocese administration that have raised the levels of competence and confidence.
Second, the Theological School has been rescued from the dire condition that almost cost the School its accreditation last year; third, the Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero has been redeemed from the brink of disaster by the remarkable generosity of the Faithful and we will complete the Shrine.
Fourth, the finances of the Archdiocese have been strengthened.
And fifth, we started an effort to strengthen the Greek language and education in our schools on a new, realistic basis. Because we are determined to keep them at all costs.
And there are many more…But I'm not the right person to list them all. Nor is this the right moment for approbation. History will judge us.
TNH: What goals have you set for the coming year?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: The main goal right now is to get to 2021 with as healthy and recovered a Community as possible. We need to ensure that our parishes not just survive the current crisis, but are on a course to thrive and flourish as never before. We are going to finish the Saint Nicholas Shrine and open it for the nation and the world. And in this time when the crisis has taken a severe toll on our Faithful, we are going to pay even closer attention to their spiritual and material needs, as never before.
We also have before us two important celebrations: the Bicentennial of the Greek Revolution and the Centennial anniversary of our Holy Archdiocese. We want both of these milestones not to be limited to rhetorical grandiloquence about our glorious past. We want them to be an occasion to chart and plan a future worthy of our culture and our children, for future generations. We have the best and the most talented people and potential to achieve this.
In addition, after the completion of the reconstruction and the substantive launch of Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero, it will be time to focus on our Theological School. It is the womb that begets the leadership of our future, and hatches the priests of our tradition and faith. I am very optimistic that our faithful will embrace this effort and we will solve the problems of the Theological School, not for a short-sighted and tentative short-term, but with long-term and stable objective.
TNH: What is your opinion about the Omogenia, the Greek-American Community? Is it as you thought it was before you came; better, worse?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: The story of our Omogenia is an illustrious one. Let me remind you that I lived in the U.S. for a while back in 2004, and I visited over the years very often. Consequently, I always had an immediate familiarity with America. The first generation arrived poor and eager to become part of the American Dream. They worked hard, established communities, became accomplished themselves, and gave back to their motherland, always making sure that the Church was the center of their community.
Many decades have passed since those early pioneers, but their values continue to live in the hearts and minds of every succeeding generation. Even as their descendants rose to the top echelons of American society, they never forgot their Church.
I believe we are at an inflection point for the Omogenia, an opportunity for a renaissance of spiritual and cultural values, and the Archdiocese and all its clergy – Hierarchs, presbyters, and deacons, have an obligation to lead the way. We all see the general decline in religious affiliation – the rise of the so-called ‘Generation None’. But this is our opportunity to seize the day – carpe diem – and take our Greek Orthodox traditions and Faith to a new level of understanding and appreciation. It is not going to be easy. We saw how difficult it was to celebrate Holy Week and Pascha in a virtual manner. But we also saw our Faithful dig deeper into their Faith in order to enter the experience of Christ and His Church. We have much to hope for and I am committed to fulfilling these hopes. I am so proud of my flock!
TNH: What is the current status of the completion of the Church of Saint Nicholas at the World Trade Center? Have the funds been raised; how much, how, and from what sources?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: As you will remember, before the pandemic manifested, we were ready to receive His All-Holiness at the site that would have been up and running! We all know how the crisis interrupted every plan, but it does not mean that work ceased. Through a remarkable combination of the generosity of individual families, the Faith Endowment, and Leadership 100, forty million dollars has been raised since the beginning of 2020 in order to complete the construction. This is unprecedented! And yet, the work of raising money and making public our efforts to finance its completion is still ongoing. I have to mention the extraordinary efforts of the Vicar General of the Archdiocese, Father Alex Karloutsos, and the Friends of Saint Nicholas organization, without whom the project would have been left in the dire circumstances that I found when I was elected one year ago. I am not going to mention individual names and amounts – that is for another occasion. Let me say only that thanks to these remarkable Christians, whose generosity exceeds every expectation, we have rectified the past and are now heading toward a future where the Saint Nicholas Shrine will be a treasure of our Nation and the pride of our Church.
TNH: How are the finances of the Archdiocese? Are there still debts you inherited? Is the Headquarters (on 79th Street) still mortgaged to the bank? What is the status of the deficit of the Clergy Retirement Fund that you inherited?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: I have to say that the individuals who began the process of cleaning up the finances of the Archdiocese before I arrived have continued their good work, and we now have internal controls and sound fiscal policies that will ensure the errors of the past are never repeated. There are many who have worked for this, but let me limit myself to just two people who have clearly distinguished themselves: Mrs. Elaine Allen and Mr. Michael Psaros, acclaimed members of our community, for whom we all have every reason to be very proud.
You ask if there are still obligations that must be fulfilled. Of course there are. These issues did not occur in a single night, but some are decades old, and cannot be so quickly rectified. Therefore, we are working through them with diligence and carefulness, and with a vision of the future, not dwelling on the past. We have repaid all our old debts, we have repaid the unpaid funds of our Archdiocese and we regularly pay our mortgage. We are working in depth and seriously to address the Pension Fund of our clergy, to propose a solution that will recognize the importance of caring for our retired clergy, while maintaining our fiscal responsibility.
It will take time, but as I said before, these did not happen overnight, and they cannot be solved overnight. The important thing is that we have a professional and responsible team with the oversight necessary to make things right.
TNH: How much has the pandemic affected the finances? How much and for what specific purposes did the Archdiocese receive assistance from the Federal Government?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: You might be surprised how our people are responding at this time of crisis, how they are continuing to contribute to the Church. I am very moved by their sacrifices and their generosity. Like many institutions, we were able to receive the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) forgivable loan from the government. This was very beneficial for the support of our Holy Archdiocese and the Holy Metropolises, so that they could continue their services in the short term.
But my priority is to see how we can assist those in need. That’s why I established the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese COVID-19 Relief Fund for those hit hardest by the pandemic. There are people who, when times were good, always helped the Church. How can the Church abandon them now? They are her children. We all know that the economic road back is going to be long and difficult, but the Church is here to help, both individual families and our parishes going forward.
TNH: What is the condition of the Theological School: academically, administratively, and financially? Where do you want it to be in three years? Do you plan to update teaching staff?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: The last year has been transformative for Hellenic College and Holy Cross. With our new president, George Cantonis, we have been able to make tremendous strides in filling in the gaps of administration that led to the academic, administrative, and financial failures of the past. Believe me, this has not been easy. The School came perilously close to losing its ability to confer a degree. However, the progress made in the intervening year has been significant.
As for your question about our School for the next three years, the possible answers are constantly changing and will continue to change due to the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. All Higher Education Institutions, including our School, are developing plans, which could possibly be effective, depending on the new reality they face in the coming fall. Provided that this is allowed by the competent government authorities, we estimate that we will start the courses in September and have a successful Academic Year 2020/2021.
We had hoped this year to have the visit of our Patriarch for the graduation ceremony. We hope to have him next year.
As far as the body of the professors is concerned, this is included in the planning prepared by the School's leadership, taking into account the appropriate level for its staffing. However, everything is affected by two factors: registrations and the financial situation.
The crisis plaguing our world today is real, but we will not allow it to change the direction we have taken, nor to threaten our stability. We remain in constant communication with the School and will continue to give it the attention and respect it has always deserved.
TNH: Do you have any thoughts and ideas about the prospects for St. Basil’s Academy?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: As anyone who has visited the Academy knows, St Basil’s is a true treasure of our Archdiocese, and a testament to the vision of the late Patriarch, then Archbishop, Athenagoras and the Philoptochos Sisterhood. How to maximize and optimize this ministry is a key for the future, and I know that all parties involved want what’s best for St. Basil’s and for the Archdiocese. Right now, we are preserving the status quo in the time of the crisis, but innovative ideas will surface as things return to whatever new normal we have yet to experience.
TNH: How do you see the course for the issue of Greek Education?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: Especially because with every successive generation, the linguistic, cultural, and even religious ties to Greece diminish to different degrees, we must constantly apply ourselves to renewing our methodologies for the transmission of our ‘Paideia’.
That is why on January 30 of this year I re-established the High Council for Greek Education in the U.S. Even during this pandemic we have not stopped working for the revival of Greek education through seminars, vocational training, and communication with teachers across the country. We have already formed partnerships with various Institutions in the U.S. and abroad, in Greece. The Archdiocese is 100% committed to the celebration, transmission, and absorption of our Hellenic culture and linguistic heritage. But we have to be smart about it. We have to find ways and means to bring this amazing heritage to life for our people. It was never enough to print books and send them around the country, as if they were going to read themselves! We have to be serious, and I believe that we shall be, and we shall, in due time, bring a renaissance of Greek Education throughout our Archdiocese.
TNH: When do you plan to renew the institutions, the members of the Archdiocesan Council, the Committee on Finance, the Philoptochos Society, and the Order of St. Andrew, the Archons?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: As you know, we have a Charter granted by our Mother Church of Constantinople and regulations that are in accord with that Charter, which govern the operations of all the organizations you mention. With our Metropolitans, who make up the Holy Eparchial Synod, with our Archdiocese Vice-Chairman, John Catsimatidis and the members of the Executive Committee, and with these various organizations that you name and their officers, we will follow all policies and procedures to achieve a robust and orderly functioning of all these Church organs that are so vital to our collective ministry.
TNH: Looking into the eyes of the members of our Greek-American Community, what would you like to say to them?
Archbishop Elpidophoros: First, thank you for this opportunity. My message to every member of the Church is crystal clear. I am here for you. I am here to be with you, in the good times and these very difficult days. Already in this one year that we have lived together, there have been very beautiful and very difficult moments. And your Church will be here for you, every step of the way. I am not afraid, and you should not be either. Together in Christ, through the intercessions of the Theotokos and all the Holy Saints, we will more than triumph through our Risen God. Christ is Risen! Truly, He is Risen!