Who Will Replace Athenagoras?
By Ernest Villas
In 1949, after eighteen years of shepherding the Church in the Americas, Archbishop Athenagoras was elected Ecumenical Patriarch. He was flown to Constantinople in the presidential plane of Harry S. Truman, and the question of the day was, “Who will succeed Athenagoras?” That name had become synonymous with Greek Orthodoxy in the Americas, and another Archbishop would be a totally new experience for everyone.
In 1950 his successor, Archbishop Michael, arrived. He was a kindly, soft spoken man, fluent in English, of moderate stature with a white flowing beard. Almost a year passed before the new Archbishop met many of his parish leaders at the 1950 Clergy Laity Congress in St. Louis during the cold days of late November. Who could then imagine that our new spiritual leader would only live long enough to lead his flock through four more Clergy Laity Congresses before being called home to God?
The arrival of Archbishop Michael coincided with the flurry of Greek Orthodox youth activity following World War II. Youth groups from parishes in Chicago, New York, the Upper Midwest, New England and the Rocky Mountain area were already organized and following initiatives by the youth leaders in Chicago. The first gathering of youth delegates met in November at the 1950 Clergy Laity Congress. This meeting set the stage for the first national youth conference in Chicago eight months later where GOYA and the Archdiocese youth movement were born.
While the goal of uniting our youth was high among the priorities of the new Archbishop, so was the need to stabilize Archdiocese finances. For ten years the “monodollarion” instituted by Archbishop Athenagoras in 1942, had sustained the needs of the Archdiocese. In 1952 at the Clergy Laity Congress in Los Angeles, where the magnificent new Cathedral of St. Sophia was consecrated, Archbishop Michael ignited financial shock waves when he convinced Congress delegates to legislate the “dekadollarion.” He also pricked our moral consciousness with a controversial edict prohibiting dances on Saturday evenings as inappropriate to our participation in the Divine Liturgy on Sunday. There was no lack of items for discussion when delegates returned to their parishes after the Los Angeles Congress!
Meanwhile, Michael moved ahead in another area that was new to most of us, ecumenism. He ushered the Greek Orthodox Church into the National Council of Churches, and began the preliminary efforts of convening his fellow Orthodox prelates into what eventually would become the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) organized by Archbishop Iakovos.
His attention also focused on the inner life and order of the Church. Congregations were urged to recite the Lord’s Prayer and Creed in both Greek and English, the taking of flash pictures during weddings and baptisms was forbidden, and, to focus attention on smaller parishes, he had the 1954 Clergy Laity Congress convene in Savannah, GA to demonstrate what could be accomplished by a small Parish.
In 1956, the President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, accepted an invitation from the Archbishop to participate in the cornerstone laying ceremony of St. Sophia Cathedral in Washington D.C. Later that year, following his reelection to a second term, the President extended to His Eminence the historic invitation to offer the first Orthodox prayer at a U.S. Presidential inauguration. This was a huge step toward the recognition of Orthodoxy as a major faith in America.
The life of Archbishop Michael on earth ended shortly after the 1958 Clergy Laity Congress in Salt Lake City. He had not been feeling well, and eight years of spartan-like existence, plus the never-ending pastoral visitations and duties of the Archbishop took its toll.
His Last Liturgy
Only he knew it, but his sermon on that day was his own eulogy. He must have known the end was near, for at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, which opened the 1958 Clergy Laity Congress in Salt Lake City, he came out of the altar to deliver the sermon, but he paused, and instead of proceeding to the Bishop’s throne he took off his Mitre, placed it on the altar and went directly to the pulpit. Why he chose to spurn tradition and deliver his sermon from the pulpit instead of the Bishop’s throne we will never know. Perhaps for physical reasons, for he leaned heavily on its sides and drank deeply from the glass of water placed conveniently there before him. For whatever reason, the sermon he delivered on that day will eternally be enshrined in the minds of those who heard it. There, white beard and hair flowing, ablaze with spiritual fire, His Eminence fervently preached on his favorite topic, St. Paul the Apostle; his words, his great tribulations and temptations, his travels and his famous epistles, and it could not have been more fitting, that this Sunday coincided with the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, the latter of who has had a living champion in the person of the Archbishop. Immediately after the Congress banquet, he returned to New York, by an ambulance plane sent by President Eisenhower, and entered the hospital. On Sunday July 13, 1958, a telegram announcing his unexpected death was read in all of our Churches. It shocked everyone.
The unforgettable funeral with over 150 priests chanting the funeral hymns ended with the long cortege that made its way to St. Basil’s Academy where, amid tears and final goodbyes, Archbishop Michael was laid to rest. His entire life was a total testimony to the Church he loved and served so well, and a dynamic witness to the living God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Will of God had been served, and once again history had been set in motion for the next major chapter in the life of our Greek Orthodox people in North and South America.
[ Ernest A. Villas, Director, Archdiocese Department of Religious Education (1984). Founding Conference Chairman GOYA, C.E.O.Y.A.L. Chairman; created Archdiocese Department of Laity; Exec. Chairman of several Clergy-Laity Congresses’ and was Executive Director of the Archons. Ernest, a native of Minneapolis, MN and a World War II veteran, a founding member of the Upper Midwest Hellenic Orthodox Youth Federation (1940-50) forerunner of GOYA , retired as Director of the Department of Religious Education in 1997. His death, July 14th, 2006 in Weston, MA, was announced during the 28th Clergy-Laity Congress in Nashville, TN ]