Keynote Address of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America for the Opening of the 38th Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress
Jul 17, 2006
By the grace and love of God, we are together once again for the 38th Clergy Laity Congress of our Holy Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. We are meeting here, in the beautiful and hospitable city of Nashville, Tennessee, in order to translate into projects and actions the theme of our Congress: “Sharing the truth of the Gospel and the love of Christ”, which means sharing the truth and the love of Christ with our brothers and sisters of the Orthodox faith, and with our non-Orthodox, even non-Christian neighbors, colleagues, and citizens of this country, and beyond America.
The task is truly monumental. It constitutes a responsible answer to the call for mission addressed to us by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself when He said, Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15). Offer the Gospel of the truth, the Gospel of the love of Christ to the ends of the Earth. Share with every human being the supreme joy of the liberating truth and the indescribable experience of the limitless love of Christ.
Viewed from such an awesome perspective, the theme of the present 38th Congress of our Church “Sharing the truth of the Gospel and the love of Christ” becomes a very serious challenge: The question is: Are we going to deal in our meetings responsibly, bravely, and dynamically with this theme or are we going to treat it as a nice religious slogan, of a rather decorative nature and of no important consequences for our lives?
I would like for you to keep this question present and active throughout the days of our blessed meetings here. Please let the theme of our Congress be the real focus and the stimulating challenge during our discussions and actions here. Nashville has a big name as a major U.S. center for producing music. Can we not make Nashville also a great place for producing our own Gospel music of truth and love through our 38th Congress?
2. Some events and facts since our last Clergy Laity Congress in New York 2004
As we start our work here, we remember a number of events and facts which happened in the two years since our last Clergy Laity Congress.
1) We remember the falling asleep in the Lord of our beloved Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America. A great Church leader of this Archdiocese for 37 years, he left us on April 10 of last year. Filled with the peace of God, anticipating with joy and faith his encounter with Christ, displaying an amazing dignity up to the last minute of his earthly life, he departed this world praying for us and blessing the name of the Lord. May the memory of Archbishop Iakovos be eternal!
We also remember the falling asleep in the Lord of the beloved Brother Metropolitan Anthony of San Francisco. After a heroic fight against an unexpected deadly form of cancer, he breathed his last on Christmas day in the year 2004 leaving behind the legacy of a dynamic, creative and faithful hierarchical ministry. May his memory be eternal!
We also gratefully remember the priests, presbyteres, archons, and lay leaders of our Archdiocese who offered their noble services to the Church for many years and passed away during the last two years. May their memory also be eternal!
2) We painfully experienced all the above mentioned departures. But the merciful God gave us, at the same time, the comfort and the joy of having a new Metropolitan of San Francisco in the person of Metropolitan Gerasimos, enthroned on April 2 of last year, as well as the gratification of having a good number of new clergy approximately 40, by ordination or incardination during the same 2-year period. We thank the Lord for these gifts.
3) Following last Clergy Laity congress, we were in the advantageous position of having the revised Regulations approved by our Ecumenical Patriarchate and published and put into effect in 2005. Thus, in one booklet of Regulations containing 35 articles, we have an excellent tool to help us in our administrative work in the Parishes, the Metropolises and the Archdiocese in general.
During the same period and in accordance with our Charter (Articles 21 and 15), our Holy Eparchial Synod prepared a) the “General Regulations for the establishment and operation of Holy Monasteries in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America”, and b) the “Regulations regarding the Auxiliary Bishops of the Archdiocese”. These two new sets of Regulations were approved by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, published and put into effect last year. To our Ecumenical Patriarchate, to our Hierarchs, to the members of the pertinent Archdiocesan Committees, to the members of the 35th, 36th, 37th Clergy Laity Congress in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York respectively, and to all Brothers and Sisters who worked so diligently, so responsibly and so tirelessly for the preparations of the Charter and the various Regulations mentioned above, we express on behalf of our Eparchial Synod our deep gratitude.
4) Since the last Clergy Laity Congress in New York, our work for our Ecumenical Patriarchate took a different turn. We drastically increased our efforts to have the U.S. Government, the State Department in particular, involved in the hard task of resolving the major issues that infringe upon the religious freedom of our beloved and venerable Patriarchate. At the same time, through the intense and persisting actions of our Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and with the assistance of other influential people, we expanded our activities in the territory of the European Union aiming at pressing Turkey for the elimination of issues that plague our Patriarchate.
5) During the past two years, in spite of some difficulties, the work that we do with the help of God in SCOBA has been steadily progressing. Thus, IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities) offered increasing and considerable help in catastrophic cases like hurricane Katrina and in areas of conflict or war like Iraq, Israel and the Middle East in general. Only in 2005, IOCC offered $32 million in services.
On the other hand, OCMC (Orthodox Christian Mission Center) is one more growing activity of SCOBA. At OCMC, beyond their growing important work, they are now in the process of starting to build a new home and center in St. Augustine, Florida, in order to create a training center for people involved in the mission work of our Church in various countries outside the USA.
OCF (Orthodox Christian Fellowship) constitutes another important SCOBA activity. This is an effort to create Orthodox Christian Student groups in the American Colleges and Universities. We now have such groups in 200 Universities.
These are a few recent examples of the important work produced by SCOBA through several other activities. This work is a specimen of pan-orthodox unity and nature. I am mentioning it because by the grace of God our Archdiocese has been playing for years now a central role in it, a role of offering extensive and decisive resources, coordination and personnel. We are responsibly and methodically cultivating the spirit of unity in action among all Orthodox in America in terms of real cooperation and common tasks for the witnessing of Orthodoxy.
6) In the past two years we have seen a significant increase in the philanthropic work of our Church, especially by our Ladies Philoptochos Society. It is noteworthy that in the specific case of unexpected catastrophes, like hurricane Katrina, our Church as a whole, our National Philoptochos and our Philoptochos chapters of the Metropolis of Atlanta in the district of which the destructed areas belong, did outstanding work. We thank all these noble workers of love and care and we are grateful to God for them.
7) The year 2005 has been designated as the Year of the Family. Many of the faithful have been working with zeal and patience in programs and activities for family guidance and support. Gratitude belongs to them. But the special care for the family did not end with the closing of the year 2005. It continues undiminished, since the family remains at the center of our attention, love and care.
I do not want to continue mentioning events and facts of the past two years which are related to important areas of Church life and activities like Communications, Religious Education, Greek Education, Finances, Youth, Leadership 100, Faith Endowment, etc. We will have the opportunity to discuss them at length in the various meetings here.
Let us then proceed now to a brief presentation of suggestions for planning and action related to the theme of our Congress “Sharing the truth of the Gospel and the love of Christ”.
3. Suggestions related to the theme of this Congress
1) We have plenty of data that help us offering pertinent suggestions. We have, in addition, a recent excellent tool that promises to facilitate our effort, and this is the SWOT survey which was conducted by our Archdiocese in the past months. Many of you are aware of it since several have participated in the survey. The SWOT, an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, is a survey that is largely used as an instrument for improvement by various organizations. You will receive a report about the findings and results of our survey, and there will be in our meetings more detailed information on SWOT. At this point allow me to refer only to some basic information from the SWOT survey connected to perceived Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats related of our Archdiocese. This will help us better understand the meaning and the implications of our theme “Sharing the Truth of the Gospel and the love of Christ.”
a) Perceived as Strengths of the Archdiocese (results by SWOT)
- The spiritual leadership of the Archdiocese
- The Orthodox Theology and worship
- The skilled and competent Clergy
- The strong spiritual identity
- The important and unique message
- The electronic media
- The competent volunteers and laity
b) Perceived as Weaknesses of the Archdiocese (results by SWOT)
- Lack of understanding of the Orthodox Faith by the faithful
- Little understanding of Orthodoxy by those outside the Church
- Low awareness of Orthodoxy in America
- Lack of uniform liturgical texts in English
- Inadequate funding
- Poor fiscal planning
- Lack of strategic planning
c) Perceived as Opportunities for the Archdiocese (results by SWOT)
- Marriage between Orthodox and Non-Orthodox
- Emerging Technologies and Resources
- Increased interest from non-Orthodox
- Ease and utilization of Communication Media
- Orthodox in Key Business, Political and Educational Positions
- Increased interest in maintaining fiscal responsibility
- Increasing interest in traditional values and issues of Faith in America
d) Perceived as Threats to the Archdiocese (results by SWOT)
- Number of Orthodox who are not well informed about their Faith
- Archdiocesan financial debt
- Diminishing pool of Clergy
- Increasing secularization
- Legal liabilities
- Weakening of the Institution of Marriage
- Weakening of family structure
2) Keeping in mind the information just presented, we can now present some comments on our theme, “Sharing the Truth of the Gospel and the Love of Christ.”
The first question: Do we know the truth of the Gospel, so that we can share it? Do we know the truth of the Orthodox Faith based uniquely on the absolute truth revealed to the world by the Son of God Jesus Christ in His unchanging, definitive, eternal and universal Gospel? Please, remember what our people said in the SWOT survey about perceived major weaknesses including the lack of understanding of the Orthodox Faith by our faithful and by the people outside of the Church.
How can we effectively share the truth of the Gospel if we display such fundamental ignorance of it? Ignorance of the truth of the Gospel means, in essence, that we do not know Christ, that we do not know Him. He declared: I am the Truth (John 14:6). If He is the truth of the Gospel and if we do not know it, then we do not know Christ. Practically and urgently, therefore, “Sharing the truth of the Gospel” means first increasing and improving among our people our knowledge of Christ and of His revealed truth. As we have emphasized in our last Congress, our parishes should be centers for continuous catechism, education and training for acquiring the needed deep and intimate knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and of the truth of His Gospel. Teaching the truth of the Gospel has been an absolute priority in the sacred ministry of Christ Himself, in the apostolic activities, in the attitude of the Fathers, and in the life of the Church throughout a history of almost 2000 years. It must be an absolute priority for us, too.
The question is: Where do we stand on this issue? One would answer that we have our Sunday or Catechetical Schools. Is the work of those Schools satisfactory? We often hear complaints about inadequacy, deficiency, watered down teaching, etc. We need changes here if we intend to teach properly our children the truth of the Gospel. We also have the adults. As Eparchial Synod we know that there are parishes in our Church that do praiseworthy work for the adult Orthodox education. But such a training and function should be an integral methodical, and indispensable work in the life of each and every parish. No parish should be left without adult catechism, without offering to the grown ups a constant instruction on the truth of the Gospel.
However, this is only part of the work needed. “Sharing the truth of the Gospel” also means transmitting it to the people, the communities and the society in general outside our own circle. Are we doing that? A huge field for such an activity is the intermarried family, which is listed as the top opportunity for our Church in the SWOT survey. It is the top opportunity indeed, because this is a field open and ready for immediate action for sharing the truth of the Gospel, for sharing the joy of Orthodoxy. Such action should be a serious part of the agenda in every parish.
-Imagine the excitement of having in each and every parish a full, well organized program for offering to the interfaith family the truth of the Gospel.
-Imagine the joy of having in each and every parish catechetical and Hellenic culture schools to teach effectively the truth of Orthodoxy and the treasures of the universal Greek language and culture!
-Imagine the exhilaration of having in each and every parish a school of the Gospel, teaching the adults, in methodically organized courses, the truth of the Gospel as a content of faith. Imagine a continuous adult Gospel education!
Imagine? Why imagine. This is not a matter of imagination. This is a blueprint for action in the next years! This is the expected reality if we intent to fulfill our mission as Greek Orthodox Church in America.
We know well that in this case we need the proper tools in terms of adequate guidance, pertinent material both in printed and in electronic form and constant support. And of course, funds are necessary, too.
3) Our theme, however, speaks also about the love of Christ. “Sharing the love of Christ!” Of course we do that. Every time that we offer assistance to the needy, support to the failing, food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, and compassion to the injured and mistreated, we are automatically sharing the love of Christ, because we do what the Lord Himself would have done under the same circumstances. But “sharing the love of Christ” means more. It means increasing both in terms of quantity and quality our personal sharing the love of Christ with others; any others, whether inside or outside of our Church. It also means doing this not only as individuals but even more as Greek Orthodox communities, as Orthodox presence in America.
We have been blessed to have in our parishes the dedicated groups of the Ladies' Philoptochos Society. They have offered for 75 years significant assistance in matters of philanthropic activity. We wholeheartedly thank them. Sharing, however, the love of Christ with other human beings is not to be limited only to our gracious and dedicated ladies. This is a fundamental commandment of our Lord, a strong sign that we are His disciples and that we belong to His kingdom.
Sharing the love of Christ is the trade mark of Orthodoxy. A huge field of action is open in front of us and we cannot close our eyes and ignore it:
-Imagine the number of homes for aged people which we as Church could build all over America!
-Imagine the centers for the daily care for pre-school children that we could open attached to our parishes, thus relieving thousands of working mothers, and connecting thousands of parents to the Church!
-Imagine the visiting services that we could offer to many people who live alone and are sick, and desperately need someone to be with them for one or two hours, to read for them from a good book and to talk to them!
-Imagine the opportunities which we could create in our neighborhoods and in our towns by becoming the strong volunteers in initiatives for the relief from catastrophic events of all sorts!
Imagine! Why imagine? This is not a matter of imagination. This is a blue print showing the potential for action in the next years.
Of course, in sharing the love of Christ we have a long way to go. But we should not be afraid of the distance. We are challenged to move on, having Christ with us day and night.
Thanks be to God Who helps us in “Sharing the truth of the Gospel and the love of Christ”, in a certain way and to a certain degree. My short and rather telegraphic analysis, however, implies that we need improvement and changes. Changes on the personal level and changes on the community level. The efforts for a full and appropriate training and education in matters of our Orthodox Faith, the acquisition and sharing of the truth of the Gospel with others, and the sharing with them of the love of Christ, need extensive and effective work and resources. They also need generous funding.
We know that the resources and the funds for the vital services and ministries of our Archdiocese can and must be found. We are deeply thankful for the constantly displayed generosity of our people as individuals and as communities. But funding should cover the urgent needs of our ministries. And we pray that the present 38th Clergy Laity Congress will, with the help of the merciful God, proceed with the decisions, which are appropriate for the translation of the theme “Sharing the Truth of the Gospel and the Love of Christ”, into a living, beautiful reality for our Church and for the glory of God.
In the Gospel of Luke, during the course of a teaching addressed to His disciples, the Lord Jesus Christ raised a totally unexpected and truly terrifying question: When the Son of Man comes, will he find the faith on earth? (Luke 18:8). This utterly dramatic question points to the unthinkable possibility that when He appears in His second coming, the Lord might not find the faith on earth. A total disappearance of the faith from the face of the Earth!
The question of the Lord aims not at sending a terrifying signal to us as His disciples. It rather constitutes a strong call for action. Let us then have the boldness to say to Christ, that as far as it depends on us, we will do anything possible and impossible to keep the faith alive to the end of time to the end of history, since with His help, we will be sharing the truth of the Gospel and the love of Christ with every human being, with our children and with our children's children. Under all circumstances, under all conditions of the present or the future!