Keynote Address of Archbishop Demetrios at the Opening of the 42nd Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress
Jul 7, 2014
The Orthodox Christian Family:
A Dwelling of Christ and a Witness of His Gospel
BY HIS EMINENCE ARCHBISHOP DEMETRIOS OF AMERICA
MONDAY, JULY 7, 2014
42nd CLERGY-LAITY CONGRESS
A. «Εὐλογητός ὁ Θεός καί πατήρ τοῦ Κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὁ εὐλογήσας ἡμᾶς ἐν πάσῃ εὐλογίᾳ πνευματικῇ.»
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.” (Eph. 1:3)
These opening lines of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians are fully applicable to us today. As we officially open our 42nd Clergy-Laity Congress, we feel abundantly blessed by God in every way. Therefore, we glorify Him, we bless Him, we give thanks to Him and we place this Congress under His invincible protection, His limitless love, and His unsurpassed wisdom.
Most Reverend Metropolitans Athenagoras of Belgium and Stephanos of Kallioupolis and Madytos, honorable representatives of our Ecumenical Patriarchate,
Most Reverend Metropolitans of our Archdiocese and esteemed members of our Eparchial Synod, Metropolitans Iakovos of Chicago, Methodios of Boston, Isaiah of Denver, Alexios of Atlanta, Nicholas of Detroit, Savas of Pittsburgh, Gerasimos of San Francisco and Evangelos of New Jersey, Right Reverend Bishops Andonios of Phasiane, Demetrios of Mokissos and Sevastianos of Zela,
Reverend Presbyters and Deacons,
Honorable Mayor of the City of Philadelphia,
Honorable Senator and Congressman,
Honorable Vice Chairman and members of the Archdiocesan Council, Madame President of the National Philoptochos,
Presidents of our major organizations of Leadership 100,
Faith Endowment and AHEPA,
National Commander and Archons of our Ecumenical Patriarchate, Deans of Hellenic College-Holy Cross School of Theology, Archdiocesan Presbyters’ Council,
Sisterhood of Presvyteres,
Brotherhood of Retired Clergy,
Trustees of St. Michael’s Home
Trustees of St. Basil Academy,
Trustees St. Photios National Shrine,
Honorable dignitaries of major organizations of our Omogeneia, Distinguished guests,
Beloved brothers and sisters members of the present 42nd Clergy-Laity Congress as representatives of our dynamic parishes,
I greet you warmly and I have the great honor and joy to welcome you and convey to you the wholehearted paternal blessings and deep love of His All Holiness our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. He is with us in spirit offering to Christ his patriarchal prayers for abundant blessings from Christ upon our Assembly.
We gratefully acknowledge the presence of the two distinguished Brother Hierarchs, who came a long way to be with us representing our Ecumenical Patriarch.
We gratefully acknowledge the gracious and systematic labors of His Eminence Metropolitan Evangelos of New Jersey,the two co-chairs Mr. Michael Karloutsos and Mrs. Anastasia Michals, and the people of this Holy Metropolis, who as hosts of the present Congress worked day and night with impressive effectiveness in a harmonious cooperation with the staff of our Holy Archdiocese in preparing this Assembly.
A great blessing of God is the central theme of this 42nd Clergy-Laity Congress of our Church: The Orthodox Family: A Dwelling of Christ and a Witness of His Gospel. This is a theme of vital importance for us, not only as a Church but also as members of the contemporary American society, a theme worth of a thorough study leading to action. But before proceeding in offering some relevant thoughts and suggestions, allow me to make a quick reference to a few significant events and to some statistics related to the period of the two years between our last Congress in Phoenix, Arizona and the present one.
1) During the past two years, we had the joy of seeing the continuation of activities related to building, renovating, extending, opening and consecrating Churches, community centers, and schools in several of our parishes all over the country. In some cases, significant construction of impressive Churches with adjacent community halls and school facilities was accomplished in record time of two to three years and with no debt left behind!
2) Since the July 2012 Clergy-Laity Congress in Phoenix, there have been 44 persons ordained to the Holy Diaconate. Of these, 15 were ordination resulting from the special Diaconate program, a course study established by the Holy Eparchial Synod to facilitate the diaconal ordination of individuals to meet the growing needs of parishes of the Archdiocese. During the same period of time 30 Deacons were ordained Presbyters, a total of 11 clergy were accepted into the Holy Archdiocese of America from other Orthodox Churches and jurisdictions while 4 were released. Moreover, 16 of our priests officially retired from active service but a number of these dedicated clergy are still serving the Archdiocese in some capacity. 16 of our priests passed away and are with the Lord in Heaven resting in His eternal peace. May their memory be eternal.
3) Thanks to a strong initiative by our Patriarch, a meeting of high importance for the entire Orthodox Church took place last March in Constantinople. From March 6 to 9, 2014, the heads of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches, each escorted by two senior hierarchs, had a sacred Synaxis in our Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Synaxis after three-day deliberations ended with the important unanimous decision of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches of the World to have a Great and Holy Synod in Constantinople in the Spring of the year 2016. This Synod has been in preparation since the year 1960, and God willing, when convoked in 2016, will deal with major issues of concerns of contemporary Orthodoxy.
4) As it is known, a historic meeting between our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis occurred in Jerusalem last May. From May 25 to 28, 2014, the Patriarch and the Pope, celebrating a meeting in Jerusalem 50 years ago between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI, had the occasion of four encounters in two days in the Holy City of Jerusalem. The meetings were cordial and honest, stressing the need for a constructive continuation of a sincere dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, and for an enhancing of the efforts to contribute to the solution of the very serious problems of peace and reconciliation, especially in the Middle East area.
5) During the past two years, God gave us the joyful opportunity to finally complete a very hard effort that lasted 14 years! I am referring to our Church of St. Nicholas at Ground Zero of Manhattan, New York (the World Trade Center). By the grace of God, the rebuilding, or rather the resurrection of the Church destroyed on September 11, 2001, will begin sometime in the next two months. We will have the chance, during our meetings here, to return to this important subject and speak about St. Nicholas Church as a parish Church and at the same time as a National, even International, Shrine visually projecting Orthodoxy to millions of people monthly.
C. And now, let me proceed with the presentation of some thoughts and suggestions related to the theme of our 42nd Congress: The Orthodox Christian Family: A Dwelling of Christ and a Witness of His Gospel.
It was not long ago that the word “family” evoked a particular image in the minds of most Americans. In this mental picture we saw a man and a woman, not just living together but joined legally and in most cases through a religious ceremony, in a lifelong bond of marital commitment and deep mutual love. We saw children, usually more than one or two, who belonged to both their parents by birth or adoption. For many of us also, that family portrait included one or more members of the previous generation, a grandmother and/or grandfather who lived in the home of their adult son or daughter, rather than in a retirement community or a nursing home.
Today, there is a movement in our society to change and redraw this portrait completely. We hear about the “modern family,” which in essence means everything and anything. It seems that in many cases any two people who share an address are to be considered a family, whether or not they are married or have children together. So, the family is under heavy pressure, because its very sense of identity and uniqueness is being eroded by this huge change in public sentiment. If everybody and everything is a family, then nobody is truly a family in any meaningful sense.
Today’s family is under pressure in another way, too. The demands of the modern life weaken the bonds between family members, between parents and children, between siblings, between grandparents and grandchildren. Economic concerns take both parents out of the home and into the workplace for more and more hours each day, each week. Falling birthrates mean that children no longer find playmates easily in their own family and neighborhoods, so that organized sports and activities away from home are becoming the norm. Children’s athletics are becoming a focal point, taking children out of their homes for more and more hours each week. How many of our families find their Sunday mornings dominated by activities other than worship in the Church and Sunday School!
The real work of parenting – which is to say, of developing character, religious convictions and life-skills in children – falls to coaches and teachers. Add to that, the dominion of all screens in the contemporary lives of people: television screens, computer screens, iPads and iPods, tablets and smartphones. The modern culture seems to be a culture of the “face in a box” at all times of day and night. People no longer look into the faces of one another; they stare at the various screens, mesmerized and transfixed. And how about the replacement of face to face dialog and communication with texting!
Studying the above mentioned conditions, we can understand why we have today in America, but also in many other countries, the high and appalling rate of divorces – almost 50% - the same sex marriage, and the one parent children – more than 20 million such children in America. Then, it is not unreasonable that the modern world finds itself asking not only “What is a family,” but even “Why is a family?”
1) To this question, our Church based on the Bible, the Ecumenical Synods, and the 2000 years old Tradition gives an answer with clarion voice: the family is a divine institution, a special creation of God, one that bears His own holy name and dignity. Saint Paul articulates this thought precisely addressing the Christians in Ephesos (Ephesians 3:14-19). He says to them: I bow my knees before God the Father, from Whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.
What St. Paul says is this: The family is an institution of divine origin and character, not merely a social arrangement that arises from the exigencies of earthly affairs. From God every family in heaven and on earth is named. The family is a powerful microcosmic expression of God’s fatherly care for the whole universe. Therefore, if the concept and the very name of “family” derives directly from God the Father, it is truly a holy thing. Such a sublime word the word “family” is not to be used lightly, not to be redefined according to every whim of moral or social convenience!
2) In presenting family as an icon of the divine prototype, St. Paul is following the teaching of Scripture, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. The family beginning on Earth is described in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. According to Genesis, God through his creative action formed the first man and the first woman as equals who balance and fulfill each other as “one flesh” and constitute the first family on earth. He gave them a home and meaningful work in the Garden of Eden. He granted them the God-like power of procreation, so that together they could enjoy children who are formed in their own image. In love and harmony, the first family found joy, each member in the other.
Some will say that this is a naïve portrait of the family. But remember that the Scripture also shows that the family can be the arena of terrible tragedies and crimes. In the very same book of Genesis the first homicide on earth is reported, and this terrible crime happens within the first family with the two sons of Adam and Eve, when Cain kills his brother Abel! (Gen. 4:1-16). We do not need to report the deceitful conspiracy of Jacob and his mother Rebecca against his brother Esau. Or, Joseph being sold into slavery by his own brothers (Gen. 37:1-36).
These are valid points that serve rather to corroborate the undeniable fact that the family is a divine institution. For that which has the greatest potential for good, it has also through its misuse the greatest potential for evil. The sacred trust that binds a family together can become an occasion for tremendous evil, when that trust is abused by parent or child or sibling. But the good potentialities of family life are so great that, even in a condition of brokenness, already the prophets of Israel saw an icon of divine love healing to the wounded family.
3) It is, however, in the New Testament that we encounter a tremendous emphasis on the institution of the family. Among other examples, St. Paul speaking of the Christian marriage and family says that the bond of husband and wife is analogous to the bond of Christ and the Church, and that the mutual love of husband and wife should be like the love of Christ for His Church for which He even offered Himself to death (Eph. 5:21-33).
The superb example for the reality of family as a most holy and unique institution is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. At His incarnation, He was born in a family. He was protected as a newborn baby by His family from the murderous plans of King Herod. He lived for 30 full years out of His total 33 years of His life on earth, in His family in Nazareth, not in the desert. He did His first miracle, recorded at the beginning of the Gospel of John, in Cana of Galilee, transforming the water into wine, just in order to support and strengthen the celebration of a new marriage, of the creation of a new family. And as recorded, also in the Gospel of John, among the very few words that Christ spoke from His Cross, in His very last hours before dying, were words that created a family by giving His disciple John as son to His holy mother and giving the Theotokos as mother to John. It is a moment of breathtaking and awesome beauty, that Jesus in such agony, barely able to speak or even breathe, yet through utmost effort pronounced this blessing of a renewed family life for His beloved Mother the Theotokos and His disciple and Apostle John: This is your Mother. This is your son! Absolutely solemn and astonishing Divine words establishing forever truly sacred family relationships (John 19:26-27)!
1) The divine origin of the family as an institution and its ultimate and irrevocable consecration by the Lord Jesus Christ, not only by His Words but also by His Actions and personal example, constitute our perfect understanding of what the family really is.
We have, therefore, to be fully aware of the supreme value and irreplaceable nature of the family. We must be fully conscious of the fact that the family belongs to the unique items of the universe created directly by God Himself and shared personally by Jesus Christ, the incarnate God in His earthly life. This awareness and consciousness of the sacredness of the family is our antidote against the constant poisoning of the institution of the family today by all kinds of theories, mentalities and attitudes.
Within this context, we see the Christian Orthodox Family as a dwelling of Christ and a witness of His Gospel.
2) Truly our Orthodox Christian Family is a home for Christ, His permanent residence, His dwelling place. We certainly encounter the Lord in the Church, especially in the worship there and through the participation in the Holy Sacraments. But our Orthodox Christian family is also a dwelling place of Him. It is so by its strong faith in Him, a faith that is transmitted from generation to generation in the genealogical history of each family. The Orthodox Christian family is a dwelling of Christ by making the prayer to Him a permanent characteristic of its life, something so indispensable and vital like breathing and eating.
It is a dwelling of Christ by having love, originating from Jesus the source of love, being cultivated and continuously growing among the members of the family.
It is a dwelling of Christ by daily listening to His words treasured in the Bible, the source of the absolute truth. The Orthodox family is a dwelling of Christ by having its members constantly transformed and grown spiritually by His dwelling sanctifying and regenerating power.
3) The Orthodox Christian family as a dwelling of Christ becomes an aroma, a fragrance of Christ as St. Paul beautifully said to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 2:15). Imagine each and every Orthodox home filled with the aroma of Christ, become a house permeated by His spiritual fragrance. St. Paul expands this inspiring image, saying that such a spiritual fragrance of Christ spreads out, reaches faithful and unfaithful, righteous and sinners alike (2 Cor. 2:16). Hence, the Orthodox Christian family automatically becomes a witness of not only a dwelling of Christ but also His Gospel. It becomes so by its very Christian existence which like an exquisite spiritual aroma spreads itself to every direction. But it becomes so also by engaging in activities which aim at disseminating the Gospel, of sharing it with others. There must be as part of the agenda of the family, a daily task of transmitting in any way the Gospel to the people, thinking that this is not only an act of faith, but also an act of benevolence of doing good to the people with whom we come in contact. The Orthodox family, witnessing the Gospel in words and deeds through its members, becomes a true apostolic family continuing in the 21st century the work of evangelization started by the Holy Apostles twenty one centuries ago.
We can easily understand that in view of the present crisis of the family, as an institution of divine origin, and the relevant challenges, if not provocations, our theme “The Orthodox Christian Family: A Dwelling of Christ and a Witness of His Gospel” acquires an enormous importance. Now the crucial question is this: How can we save and preserve, how can we develop and enhance such an image of the Orthodox Christian Family? How can we make this image the prevailing image among families? This Clergy-Laity Congress in the present day and in the days to follow is an opportunity for discussion and answers to the above questions, and for offering stimulating suggestions, creative ideas and realistic plans.
F. Allow me at this point, in closing, to present two relevant proposals:
1) At our 35th Clergy-Laity Congress in the year 2000 here in Philadelphia, 14 years ago, I addressed the participants with a plea for the creation of a Center for the Family Care. The idea was to have a fully developed center dealing with all family issues on a well-organized scientific level and at the same time to assist pastorally families facing difficulties of all kinds. For a variety of reasons the above proposal at that time was not materialized. Thus, we stayed with the then existing Archdiocesan Office dealing with the Family under the title “Interchurch/Interfaith Marriages” and run by just one person, Fr. Charles Joanides alone with no assistants. Since 2000, and through continuous efforts, an elementary center for family care was added in 2005 run just by Fr. Constantine Sitaras without assistants. In the following years having now the name Department for Marriage and Family/Center for Family Care, the Department grew, a few assistants were added and a considerable amount of family related resources were produced. We are very grateful for that, for the work done by Frs. Sitaras and Joanides, their assistants and numerous volunteers. But what we have is not yet what was proposed in the Clergy-Laity Congress of 2000. Therefore, we return to the original idea with the question: Is not God calling us today, in view of the enormous need, to think again in a responsible way of a full size Center for Family Care, adequately responding to the current urgent family issues? Family today is not what was in the year 2000.
2) My second proposal consists of asking the Archdiocesan Council Committees in cooperation with the corresponding Archdiocesan Departments to make the family issues a priority of study, analysis and planning before and above anything else. The Orthodox Christian Family as a dwelling place for Christ and a witness of His Gospel is a huge, complex and challenging reality that urgently needs thorough, responsible and very loving consideration.
When St. Paul said to the Ephesians, I bow my knees before God the Father from Whom every family in heaven and on earth is named (Eph. 3:14-15), he added that he did that in order to pray for them. Pray that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith and that they being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend and to know the love of Christ which surpassed knowledge, and that they may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:17-19).
This is an astonishing statement, indeed. The great Apostle Paul started with the solemn assertion that the family has its direct origin in God, Who even gave to the family its name. Then, he proceeded with the prayer that Christ dwells in the hearts of the members of the family and helps them to know His love which surpasses every knowledge. But, St. Paul finally, still on his knees before God the Father, closed his prayer with a petition that the members of the Christian families may be filled with the fullness of God.
With hearts expressing our deep gratitude to God, we now realize that the Orthodox Christian family and its members are not only a dwelling of Christ and a witness of His Gospel but, beyond that, they can be filled with all the fullness of God. This goes beyond any happiness, any dream, any blessing that our human heart could ever desire. This, however, is amazingly and ultimately, our superlative destiny as human beings: to be filled with all the fullness of God.