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Keynote Address of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America for the Opening of the 39th Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress

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  • Jul 14, 2008

    Opening Ceremonies

    July 14, 2008 – Marriott Wardman Park Hotel – Washington, DC

    1. Introduction

    Glory, praise and thanksgiving belong to Jesus Christ our loving Lord for gathering us in the illustrious Washington DC, the capital of our Nation, for our 39th Clergy-Laity Congress. What a joy and excitement to meet in the place producing the most important political and governmental decisions that seriously affect not only America but the entire world! And what a joy and excitement to know that in this great global center, through our Clergy-Laity Congress we will be able, by the grace of God, to offer our strong witness for our Orthodox Faith. A faith that seems to be urgently needed in our fallen and disoriented world. A faith that gives life to the world because it connects the people to the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and as St. John the Evangelist said in his First Letter, he who has the Son of God has life, he who has not the Son has not life (1 John 5:12).

    So, here we are in Washington DC to offer our witness of a faith that gives life to the people and to the world, and to make the theme of our Congress “Gather my people to my home”, a theme connecting the people to God the ultimate source of true life.

    2. From Nashville, Tennessee to Washington DC.

    Before dealing with the theme of the Congress, I would like to review very briefly with you some of the developments that have occurred between our last 38th Clergy-Laity Congress at Nashville Tennessee in 2006 and the present one. I am sure there will be pertinent information and discussions in the various committees during our meetings here.

    1) The first such development is the increase of the number of the clergy in our Archdiocese. During the past two years 49 new clergy were ordained. To this number we should add another 7 clergy who were incardinated to our Church from other Orthodox jurisdictions, making the total number of new clergy 56. This number 56 for the two year period of 2006-2008, shows a significant progress when compared with 40 ordinations and incardinations that occurred in the 2 year period of 2004-2006.

    During the same period we had the retirement of 21 clergy, 8 of them, however, continue to serve in a certain capacity.

    In the course of the same last two years, i.e., from June 20, 2006 to July 6, 2008, we experienced with deep pain the separation by death of 33 of beloved and distinguished mostly retired Priests of our Archdiocese. Let me read their names as an offering of honor and memory. They are:

    Siagris, Rev. Fr. Achilles / June 20, 2006
    Xenofanes, Rev. Fr. George A. / July 30, 2006
    Neofotistos, Rev. Fr. George / August 22, 2006
    Chakalos, Rev. Fr. James / September 4, 2006
    Mylonas, Rev. Fr. Efstathios / September 22, 2006
    Sitaras, Rev. Fr. Nicholas M. / November 26, 2006
    Kyriakos, Rev. Fr. Peter N. / December 3, 2006
    Thanos, Rev. Fr. George N. / December 16, 2006
    Harmand, Rev. Fr. Michael C. / January 18, 2007
    Kavadas, Rev. Fr. Demetrios / February 25, 2007
    Kapsalis, Rev. Fr. Vasilios / February 26, 2007
    Papageorge V. Rev. Fr. Emmanuel / April 12, 2007
    Mihalakis, V. Rev. Fr. James / April 22, 2007
    Kotzakis, V. Rev. Fr. Lukas / June 8, 2007
    Paul, Rev. Fr. John / July 2, 2007
    Andrews, Rev. Fr. Dean Timothy / July 18, 2007
    Katsoulis, Rev. Fr. Nicholas / August 2, 2007
    Koskores, Rev. Fr. Peter B. / September 15, 2007
    Maniudakis, Rev. Fr. Chrysostom / October 14, 2007
    Gratsias, Rev. Fr. Emmanuel J. / October 16, 2007
    Sirigos, Rev. Fr. Anthony C. / November 29, 2007
    Kehayes, Rev. Fr. William S. / December 17, 2007
    Bartz, Rev. Fr. George / January 15, 2008
    Nicozisin, Rev. Fr. George / March 1, 2008
    Kalpaxis, Rev. Fr. George / March 8, 2008
    Kontogianes, Rev. Dn. John / March 15, 2008
    Mamangakis, Rev. Fr. George / March 16, 2008
    Michalopulos, Rev. Fr. Michael / April 6, 2008
    Kastaris, Rev. Fr. Panagiotis / April 7, 2008
    Kogias, V. Rev. Fr. Nectarios / May 7, 2008
    Retselas, Rev. Fr. Nicholas / May 22, 2008
    Koutoukas, V. Rev. Archimandrite Paul / May 26, 2008
    Longos, Rev. Fr. George/ July 6, 2008

    May their memory be eternal.

    At the same time we have had the special joy of adding a new Bishop to our Church, in the person of Fr. Dimitrios Kantzavelos the Chancellor of the Metropolis of Chicago, who on December 9, 2006 was ordained Bishop and given the title Bishop of Mokissos.

    2) The second worth mentioning development is the significant progress on the financial front: The dramatic reduction of the debt and the payables of the Archdiocese, the closing of the years 2006 and 2007 with almost no deficit, the continuous steady increase of the offerings of our Parishes for the past eight years, the remarkable growth of the funds and the membership of Archbishop Iakovos Leadership 100, and of the Faith Endowment for Orthodoxy and Hellenism and the impressive increase of unrestricted donations, are some of the data convincingly indicating the economic progress particularly achieved in the past two years. A progress that is related also to the success of the new system for the National Ministries Commitment of our Parishes.

    3) The third noticeable development is the progress that has been made in the field of education. This progress is evident in the writing of new books for kindergarten and for effectively teaching Greek as a second language for our Greek American children, in the special seminars for teachers organized in our Metropolises, in Greece and in Cyprus, in the coordinated efforts with the Ministry of Education of Greece relating to computer assisted programs and special educational opportunities for our teachers, and in the creation of new endowed chairs and Institutes related to Orthodoxy and Hellenism. Included among them is the Mary Jaharis Institute for Byzantine Arts and Sciences at Hellenic College/Holy Cross endowed with 3 million dollars and the chair of New Testament Studies at Holy Cross endowed with 2 million dollars. We have had in addition the Faith Endowment financial awards to the Valedictorians and Salutatorians of our day schools and of our Communities as well as to the finalists of St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival.

    4) The fourth development worth citing is the increase of our activities related to our Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, an increase due mostly to the commendable work of our Archdiocesan Archons of St. Andrew Order of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. These include: our professional assistance in the legal issues of our Patriarchate even to the point of substantial participation in the European Court in Strasbourg France last November. It is important to know that a week ago on July 8, 2008 the European Court vindicated our Patriarchate. Our activities further include the collection of signatures of 80% of US Senators in support of the religious freedom rights of the Patriarchate, and the significant increase of our financial assistance to the Patriarchate to mention just a few.

    5) The fifth noticeable item in this review, is the growth of philanthropic activities in the past two years. Such growth is related to the commendable work of our Ladies Philoptochos Society. It is also related to extraordinary philanthropic activities like our assistance to the areas of Greece plagued last summer by devastating fires. The amount collected reached four million dollars, and the provided assistance followed a careful and systematic procedure responding to real needs detected by autopsy.

    6) Allow me to also mention at this juncture three significant events outside of the United States to which our Church has had the great honor of participation. The first was the occasion of the historic visit by Pope Benedict XVI to our Ecumenical Patriarchate on November 2006, where as Archdiocese we were invited and where we offered a decisive organizational assistance in executing a highest level and very demanding protocol.

    The second was our presence at the equally historic visit by our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to Rome, two weeks ago, on the occasion of the Apostle Peter’s thronic feast of the Roman Church. We were there, a group of members of the Faith Endowment escorting our Patriarch and receiving with him an exceedingly honorific and cordial treatment by the Pope and his staff.

    Then the third significant event was our visit last May to the Patriarchate of Moscow. Invited by the Patriarch of Moscow Alexei we were, as a group of 12 clergy and lay members of the Archdiocese, his guests for one week in Moscow. He treated us in an impressively cordial way showing his appreciation and high esteem for what we are and for what we do in the United States and in the service of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, promoting cooperation and unity among Orthodox.

    7) I would like also to make a reference to a very touching event of last year, namely to our strong support for the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Christodoulos of blessed memory in the course of his heroic fight against cancer. Especially during the time from August to October 2007 of his staying in Miami Florida, while he was waiting for the proper liver transplant our members of the Church there, offered to the Archbishop and his escorts an astonishing assistance in kindness and effectiveness on a continuous twenty four hour basis.

    8) I feel compelled to mention one more item of the last two years because it relates to our children and shows what wonderful voices can be in calling people to God’s Home even outside of the United States. I am referring to the Children’s Metropolitan Choir of our Archdiocese, comprised of 60 to 70 children of our Schools in the New York area. This choir, which has only been in existence for 5 years demonstrated such artistic maturity in so short a time that it was invited last summer to Cyprus by the First Lady of Cyprus to give a public concert in the Presidential Palace for the benefit of an Institution for the children of working mothers called “Mana”. The concert was an enormous success.

    Two weeks ago, on July 3, the same Choir of children, thanks to the generosity of two of our blessed people who covered all the travel expenses, presented in Athens, Greece another extremely successful public concert for the benefit of the Foundation “Elpis” (Hope), a foundation for children suffering from various forms of cancer, and two days later it offered another public concert at the convention of AHEPA in Athens. We thank God for all the Children of our Church, who in many ways offer a convincing witness of our Faith.

    For all these and many other signs of vitality and growth within our Holy Archdiocese which the limited time does not allow me to include at this moment, we profoundly thank God, our unfailing strength and guiding light.

    Now let us proceed to a series of comments and thoughts on the theme of our Congress, “Gather my people to my home.”

    3. The theme of our Congress in the context of the contemporary religious landscape

    1) The theme of the present 39th Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress of our Holy Archdiocese of America provides us with more than a slogan for our gathering. It constitutes a summons, a divinely-spoken directive that we are called to follow in view of where we come from, what we are and where we are destined by God to go.

    For years we have been organizing our communities, providing educational, worshipping, and philanthropic opportunities for our members, building beautiful Churches, Community Centers and Schools for our own use.

    This has been a natural course to follow as we tried to assert ourselves and to establish ourselves firmly as a significant entity and agent within the American society.

    The Greek Orthodox Community in its first years of existence, in its first generation, was a community with a hundred percent participation of all of its members in the various activities of the church. From the youngest child in a Parish to its oldest member, people were always present as whole families in liturgical, educational and philanthropic events of the Church. The Church in the specific form of the parish, was the natural center where the community would gather, especially during the very difficult years of adaptation and survival in the new country where the heroic first immigrants, the true pioneers found themselves.

    2) With the passing of the years and the appearance of the second generation, the third, the fourth and now even the fifth generation, things gradually started to change. A new reality began to emerge, having the following characteristics:

    a) First, in spite of the continuous, but in recent years more limited, phenomenon of immigration, our Church is by no means any longer a Church of immigrants, or an ecclesiastical entity of the diaspora, but a Church which is naturally, firmly and proudly rooted in the American soil. This means that the Church in our days is no longer preoccupied with the issue of the socio-economic survival of its immigrant members in a new country. Clearly new conditions have been created. A recent statistic shows that today approximately 45% of the members of our Community have at least one College degree, and also 45% have an annual income of or above $100,000.00, and that in both cases we are the number 2 among the major religious communities in the United States including the Roman Catholics, the Protestants and the Jews. Having reached a level beyond that of socio-economic survival or even success, enjoying a freedom from pressing socio-economic concerns the Church now, is in a position to completely and intensely focus in promoting the Orthodox Faith and in cultivating the universal human values of Hellenism, operative today in all civilized societies and countries.

    b) Secondly, there exists no longer a full homogeneity in our Communities, the way it existed among the first immigrant communities. Today there is a certain difference between first generation immigrants and fifth generation Greek-Americans. Also, the constantly increasing number of interfaith marriages has caused a change in the composition of the membership of the Church. A typical, well organized Parish of our Metropolises, presents an internal differentiation because of the difference in terms of levels of generations from first to fifth and of ethnic and even religious origin of several of its members.

    c) Thirdly, in the present new reality of the Church, there is a serious problem with the youth. A certain number of High School adolescents, College and University students, and young adults, which means the people from 16 to 35 years of age, are somehow disconnecting themselves from the Church and her life. This is a phenomenon occurring in all major religious Communities in the USA, but its general character does not diminish the fact that it constitutes a sad phenomenon, a major problem, and a grave concern for us.

    d) Fourthly, there is a new reality in the religious landscape of contemporary America. This is the existence of the 60 million people characterized as “unchurched”. These people are not atheists at all. They are individuals who for various reasons are not connected with any Church or organized religious body. Many were connected but at some point left their religious community. Others were never related to any religious body at all.

    The above observations help us understand the importance of the theme of the present Congress: “Gather my people to my home”. We are no longer a Church community looking for survival. Such an understanding of ourselves belongs to the past. We cannot be a self-centered, self-enclosed Greek Orthodox ecclesiastical body, limited to itself and directing its energy exclusively within itself. We cannot be a Ghetto Church. God calls us to gather His people. In order to gather God’s people we have to go out, to look for them, to search places and find them and lead them to God’s home. The theme of the Congress calls us in no uncertain terms to reach out, to move out and start gathering the souls who look for a spiritual home, for a living community and ultimately for a communion with God. How can we respond to such a sacred call?

    Our response starts with a question: Who are the specific people to whom God sends us to gather them and to share with them the treasures of a life giving faith?

    4. Who are God’s people whom we must gather to His Home?

    1) First, they are our Orthodox brothers and sisters, members of our families, who were baptized, and perhaps even married in the Church, but are no longer strongly connected with her. We see them on Palm Sunday, on Good Friday and in the night of the Resurrection Service. There are thousands even tens of thousands of them. Where are these people during the rest of the year? Obviously they are not connected or their connection is simply loose. We have to go out and invite and gather them and not wait for them to come once or twice a year or on the sad occasion of a funeral in their family.

    Looking for them should be a priority in each Parish, aiming at systematically and tirelessly reaching out to our disconnected or very loosely connected Orthodox brothers and sisters who demographically belong to the area of the parish.

    2) There is a second category of people of God whom we must invite and gather to His home: they are the members of the interfaith marriages who after their marriage have not been in touch with the Church or who did not even have an Orthodox wedding service and, therefore, are completely unknown to us. Reaching out to them, finding them, requires greater effort. Such a task is not easy due to many factors, one of them being the high mobility of the population. The Parishes, however, are a good basis of information having at their disposal data by which we could eventually locate and find the interfaith families which are not in touch with the Church. We must find them, with the help of God and bring them to God’s home.

    3) The third category of people whom God asks us to gather to His Home, are our young people, our adolescents and young adults, who, in one way or another, have left the Church. One might argue that this should not have happened, that we could have prevented such a sad disconnection. But it happened, it is a general phenomenon with every religion in America and now we have to address the issue of gathering the disconnected young people to God’s home, instead of passively complaining about the phenomenon.

    Gathering them presupposes offering to them opportunities of learning the truth of the Gospel in a substantive and satisfactory way, relevant to the contemporary intellectual and social reality but also to the universal and eternal quest for God and to the ultimate meaning of life.

    4) The fourth category are the “unchurched”, the spiritually homeless. As we pointed out earlier, according to statistics there are today in the United States approximately 60 million unchurched. This is a category which is not located in a specific area or in a precise social group. They are dispersed everywhere: in the colleges and universities, in the working places, in the neighborhoods, in the airplanes and the cars, in Washington and New York, in Chicago and San Francisco, in Boston and Pittsburgh, in Atlanta and New Jersey, in Denver and Detroit, and everywhere. Reaching them is a very sensitive task because our Orthodox Church always avoided engaging in a proselytizing religious propaganda. We are not for proselytizing but for sharing what God gave us. Gathering the “unchurched” by sharing truth and love with them and gathering them to God’s home is a demanding task. But we must undertake it. This is a call by God, Who as St. Paul said to Timothy, desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).

    5. The theme of our Congress as applied in the life of our Church.

    Let me now, in the last part of my presentation, offer some suggestions aiming at applying the theme “Gather my people to my Home” to the life of the Church.

    1) Any effort for a serious application of our theme must begin with a changing of mentality and attitude. We must change from an exclusive and all absorbing focusing on our parish to an awareness of the existence of people outside of our Parishes, Metropolises and Archdiocese. People who have the right to know what we know as the truth of God, to taste the joy of participating in our ecclesial community, and to experience the blessings we experience to be with God as we are by being Greek Orthodox Christians. The area of our focused action should gradually be enlarged by including those who are outside, by being concerned with those who are waiting for the brother or the sister who will bring them home. Offering the shelter of God to the homeless souls should be part of the care and action of our parishes, should be indispensable part of our mentality, attitude and vision, and also should definitely be a central item of the basic education cultivated by the Church.

    2) Each parish must appoint a committee which will have the duty of creating a list of the Greek Orthodox People who are residents of its parochial territory and are not connected with the Church. As soon as the names start being collected, the committee under the guidance of the Priest, will organize the ways of contact by using personal visits, phone calls, e-mail, church events, and distribution of the appropriate printed or electronic material. The Parish could take advantage of its annual festival as an excellent opportunity to reconnect the people with the Church.

    3) Another permanent committee should be instituted at each Parish dealing exclusively with the non-connected interfaith marriage families. The committee, using the pertinent data existing in the parish will find those families and bring them to God’s home, the Church. Some of our Parishes have a special program of introduction to Orthodoxy and to the universal human and cultural values of Hellenism, which show that our Church is not a limited and exclusive ethnic entity but a very inclusive and truly universal Home of God.

    4) As Church, we have to review and reorganize our work in order to gather home our youth. Gathering the youth presupposes offering them a real role in the life of the community and further opportunities for meaningful activities. For young people at a certain age, athletic and artistic activities have been proven to be successful means of connecting them to community. Athletic Tournaments, Folk Dance Festivals, Local Metropolitan Olympics have been truly successful youth activities.

    In the recent years we have seen the beginning of a successful reaching out to gather to God’s home our university students by means of the OCF, the Orthodox Christian Fellowship. Today, by the grace of God, we have 270 OCF groups in an equal number of Colleges and Universities, a number steadily increasing. This is a work worth intensifying.

    In reaching out for the youth and keeping them gathered to the home of God also the summer camps offer a terrific opportunity. In our Metropolises, summer camps are now a basic and rapidly expanding activity involving hundreds of young people as leaders, advisors and campers. This might become an even more important and effective activity as it expands beyond the period of summer. In the case of the Ionian Village camp in Greece we are currently exploring the possibility of expanding the programs to include not only children and adolescents but also young professional and university students on a year round basis.

    5) The application of the theme “gather my people home” to the category of the “unchurched” constitutes a case that requires special care and action.

    We can invite the unchurched, whom in one way or another we encounter, to our Church. But then we must be ready to welcome them, to be cordial and understanding, willing to share information and answer questions but not in a propagandistic way. The Orthodox Church is appreciated by other Christian Churches as a Church with a very kind human face and attitude and an aversion for religious propaganda which is very different from lovingly sharing the truth of the Gospel. We reach out to the unchurched by starting today praying for them, unknown to us, known to God as His children.

    An interdepartmental committee will be formed in conjunction with the Archdiocesan Council for a serious study of the phenomenon of the unchurched and the ways to deal effectively with them. The literature on the issue is increasing. Books like “Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach them”, or “The Unchurched Next Door”, (T.S. Rainer) are indicative of the interest about the “unchurched” and the necessity of facing it methodically and persistently.

    6) The effort of gathering the people of God to His home presupposes the availability of the proper and adequate resources, in the forms of books, DVDs, CDs and printed material. Our departments of Religious Education, Greek Education, Outreach and Evangelism and Communications, which have been producing relevant material, are directed to intensify and enhance such a production and provide our Metropolises and our Parishes with necessary tools.

    6. Epilogue

    Certainly the task of applying the theme of our Congress to the life of our Church is not easy. And it becomes even more difficult by the spreading of secularism within contemporary societies. In recent studies, however, produced by political and social analysts and historians, it has been demonstrated that during the last four or five years two mighty factors unexpectedly emerged internationally: religion and ethnicity. Paradoxically, secularism is today confronted by the formidable and dominant presence of religion and ethnicity on a global scale. This phenomenon constitutes an important facilitation of our task to gather the people to the home of God, since we have the great gift of representing our Orthodox Christianity as the perfect religion and our Hellenic tradition as the amazing expression of an ethnicity which transcends its ethnic boundaries and becomes universal.

    But beyond that we have a very inspiring and highly motivating directive in one of the parables of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is an illustration of the substance of the theme of our Congress “Gather my people to my home”. This is the parable of the Great Banquet, from the Gospel according to St. Luke.

    A certain man, said the Lord in this parable, gave a great banquet and invited many. The invited people, however citing various reasons excused themselves.

    “Then the householder said to his servant: Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame. And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room’. And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.’” (Luke 14:21-23).

    The list of the invited people is striking, almost unbelievable: poor, maimed, blind, lame, gathered from the streets and lanes of the city and even from the highways and hedges! And they are not simply brought in but even compelled to come in. No discrimination, no differentiation, no exclusion but the unknown, the despised, the strangers all invited! A human field wide open with no limits.

    The important item here is not only the amazing list but the desire of the householder to have his house filled with all the people. The householder of the parable is unmistakably representing God. God wants His home to be filled with the people because all people on earth are His people. And we are part of His desire and plan. Which simply means that we have to go literally out to the streets and lanes of the cities and to the highways and hedges and gather the people to the House of God so that His House be filled.

    There is one more statement that comes from the mouth of the Lord and is relevant to the theme of our Congress. In the Gospel of John, Christ declared: “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; and I must bring them also and they will hear my voice; and there shall be one flock one shepherd.” (John 10:16).

    Jesus Christ speaks about other sheep that are not of this fold, but He has to bring them also. And they will hear His voice. Who are these other sheep that are not of this fold? And how are they going to hear Christ’s voice?

    Every time that we are in our churches, in our beautiful parishes, let us think of those other sheep, those other people who are outside, known and unknown, the ones described in the parable of the Great Banquet. Let us think of all others, the truly significant others, who wait to hear the voice of Christ. The voice of Christ invites them to gather in His home, to become His flock. But how can they hear the voice of Christ? We are the voice of Christ! My beloved people let such voice be heard outside of our Churches, calling the people of God to His home. Let us be the voice of Christ. Everywhere for everyone. At any time, at any place of the wide world of God.

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