The Mission of the Greek Orthodox Parish in America
Thanks to Alex Haley we have come to appreciate the importance of "roots." We, too, must take a look at our roots in order to comprehend, grasp and accept the mission of the parish here in America. However, before we address the current mission of the parish, we first need to turn to the lessons of the past and look at how church history in America affected the mission of the parish. This historical backdrop notwithstanding, we will see that the aims and purposes in short the mission of the parish remain the same. The parish was and continues to be the rallying point and force around which Orthodox Christians find both solace and strength. The Church began with humble beginnings and grew by leaps and bounds. During the Great Depression the Church was there to counsel and nurture. And even though many changes have occurred from the early years of this century through World War II and since, the mission of the Church and parish remain constant: to evangelize, to safeguard family values and to share the beauty and fullness of Orthodox Christianity with the rest of America. Join me in a historical jet trip through the past, to help us better understand today and the future.
Greeks in America Before the Immigration Period
The first Greeks on American soil came in 1767, when Dr. Andrew Turnbull was given 20,000 acres of uncultivated Florida land by the English government. Turnbull brought 200 men from Mani, Greece, along with an equal number of Italians and Corsicans. They were to work as indentured servants for three years and then be given free title to fifty acres. Turnbull, however, did not honor the terms of the contract. Those who did not die from heat, exhaustion and/or bad food stole away to St. Augustine, a few miles to the north.
Neither these Greeks nor others who came to America during and after the Greek War of Independence established themselves as Greek Orthodox, nor did they found churches and perpetuate the religious beliefs of their forebears. Perhaps the most important reason for their absorption into the mainstream of America, and their religious and ethnic eradication, was the conspicuous absence of Greek Orthodox parishes and clergymen. The first to recognize these primary needs were the Greek import-export merchants. In 1851, the House of Rallis opened branch offices in New York, New Orleans and Savannah, to import foreign goods and to export cotton. By the 1860s, quite a few Greek cotton merchants were residing in New Orleans with their families. In 1864 they organized the first Greek Orthodox parish in America, dedicating it to the Holy Trinity, and in 1866 they built their first house of worship. Although an attempt was also made to organize a parish in New York, this did not happen until the immigration period began in 1890.
Greek Immigration Period
First, we must note that America is an unprecedented phenomenon. The English who went to India, the French and Dutch who went to Indonesia, the Germans who went to China and those from Belgium who went to the Congo didn't become citizens of those countries. But this did happen in America then in Canada and Australia.
The Greeks who came to America were unlike the Greeks who had gone to Russia, Egypt, Africa, India, China and the various Western European countries. Those coming to America were usually uneducated, agrarian peasants of mainland Greece who could not better themselves economically in their homeland. They were also Greek nationals fleeing from the eastern tier of Greece, the Dodecanese and other Turkish islands in the Aegean Sea, which were being liberated from the Turkish yoke of Ottoman oppression. These Greeks came for economic reasons: to pay off debts back home; to provide dowries for their unmarried daughters and sisters; to educate offspring; to make a mint and go back and live happily ever after!
The Greek immigration period began in the last decade of the nineteenth century. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, there were over fifty Greek Orthodox parishes. The first parishes were founded in New York City, Lowell, Massachusetts and Chicago, Illinois. They, along with other parishes, were founded by the faith, dedication and initiative of the lay immigrants who recognized the need for a parish mission to meet their religious and sacramental needs.
Early Beginnings of the Greek Orthodox Church in America
At the beginning, the Greek Orthodox parishes were under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. However, priests were being dispatched and assigned from both the Patriarchate and the Holy Synod of Greece. For the most part these priests were theologically trained. But since there was no bishop to assign the priests, nor from whom they could seek redress, the priests were generally at the mercy and disposition of the lay leaders who had introduced the process of "hiring and firing." Thus, in the absence of a bishop from 1890 to 1918 the Protestant concept of locally-owned and locally-governed churches began to proliferate.
As the Church grew in numbers, the problems of uniformity, conformity and cooperation become more complex. Therefore, the priests and lay leaders in the Greek Orthodox churches in America petitioned the Patriarchate to assign a bishop who would organize the churches into a uniform and canonical diocese. Instead, in March of 1908 Patriarch Joachim III transferred spiritual jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox churches in America to the Holy Synod of Greece. Rather than solving the problem, this action greatly aggravated it because it politicized the mission of the parish. Nevertheless, the parishes continued to grow and meet the spiritual needs of the people.
As the first World War surfaced, two political statesmen emerged in Greece, King Constantine and Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Venizelos wanted Greece to go in with the allies while King Constantine, whose wife was Kaiser Wilhelm's sister, wanted Greece to remain neutral. The political power struggle in Greece wreaked upheaval and havoc on the Greek parishes in America. The Greek immigrants, just as the citizens of Greece, found themselves split into two political factions, venizelist and royalist. This is more readily understood when we recall that many immigrants had no intention of remaining in America. They had come for economic reasons and in due time would return to their cherished homeland. The 1908 Tome was still in effect during this time. Archbishop Theoklitos of Athens, a staunch royalist, was forced to resign and in his place Archbishop Meletios Metaxakis was elected and enthroned. Since he replaced Theoklitos, Meletios was labeled a Venizelist.
Formation of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America
One of the very first things Archbishop Meletios did was to take a trip to America. He assigned Bishop Alexander of Rodostolou as Synodical Vicar for the Greek Orthodox churches in America on October 29, 1918. Meletios returned to Athens to find that he had been deposed and that Theoklitos had been reinstated. Meletios returned to America and, jointly with Bishop Alexander, called the First Clergy-Laity Congress in September of 1921, something unheard of in Orthodox countries. This set the precedent for convening Clergy-Laity Congresses. At the conclave, papers were drawn up and the Constitution of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America was ratified. The following year Meletios Metaxakis was elected Ecumenical Patriarch. Under his aegis the 1908 Tome was rescinded and the jurisdiction of the Greek churches in America was returned to the care and mantle of the Ecumenical Patriarch. On May 11, 1922, the Patriarchate officially recognized the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America.
Although the lion's share of the communities affiliated and came under the jurisdiction of the canonical Archdiocese, a small but vocal group remained separate and retained their autonomy. They were the royalists. They petitioned Archbishop Theoklitos of Athens to send a bishop under the newly-designated "Synodical Autocephalous Exarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church of America," with Diocesan Headquarters in Lowell, Massachusetts. Metropolitan Germanos Tryanos of Sparta, a dynamic and charismatic churchman, was appointed to shepherd the dissident group. The disputes and quarrels that ensued were compounded by endless court litigation vying for jurisdictions and properties.
Under normal circumstances the inevitable preoccupation in the early years of any immigrant group is mere survival. Although the Greek immigrants had come a long way in their establishment, adjustment and orientation in the New World, they were not steeped in the interpretation of theology and canon law. Their recourse was to be led by the fervor of their daily emotions sparked by political leaders and generated by the Greek newspapers which took sides. With each shipload of immigrants the feud and opposition grew; more communities were established; more priests were brought from the homeland, while others were ordained here according to their political leanings. In a normal course of growth these events would be favorable and desirable. Not so in this case because dissension grew monstrously as clergy and laity were polarized as royalists or venizelists. These emotional dynamics had an inordinate negative impact on the mission of the parishes in America.
The friction was compounded in 1924, when both the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Greek Orthodox Church of Greece jointly adopted the Gregorian calendar. (The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., and was used until it was corrected in 1582 A.D. Since the correction was introduced during the time of Pope Gregory XIII, it is called the Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar is approximately thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar.) The royalists kept the Julian calendar and were called "Paleo-Imerologites" (Old-Calendarists.)
In May of 1930 Patriarch Photios and Archbishop Chrysostomos Pappadopoulos of Athens jointly directed Metropolitan Damaskenos of Corinth to assume temporary administration of the 133 communities of the autocephalous group. Damaskenos recommended that all bishops of both groups return to Greece and the Patriarchate for reassignment.
At this time Metropolitan Athenagoras Spyrou of Kerkyra was elected Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. He arrived in New York February 24, 1931 and set about reuniting the communities in good order. Athenagoras' seventeen-year tenure of office brought most of the dissident and recalcitrant churches back into the fold. Metropolitan Michael Constantinides of Corinth succeeded Athenagoras when the latter became Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 1949. Metropolitan Iakovos Coucouzis succeeded Michael and was enthroned April 1, 1959. Through the concerted efforts and great patience of these three prelates practically all the former royalist parishes returned to the canonical archdiocese. (The present day Old Calendarist group with headquarters in Astoria, N.Y. is not to be confused with the former royalist group.) Archbishop Iakovos retired in July of 1996 and was succeeded by Metropolitan Spyridon Papageorge of Italy, who was enthroned as Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in September of 1996.
Definition of a Greek Orthodox Parish in America
The original Certificate of Incorporation of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America in 1921-1922 proclaimed that the communities/parishes have the charge and responsibility to:
"Edify the religious and moral life of the Greek Orthodox Christians in North and South America on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, the rules and canons of the Holy Apostles and of the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the ancient and undivided Church as they are or shall be actually interpreted by the Great Church of Christ in Constantinople."
Shortly after, when Archbishop Iakovos became primate of our Archdiocese, he characterized and described our parishes as follows:
"Our parishes in America began as organizations and developed into religious communities. Today they are churches. Around them our whole life is entwined and is developed. Thus we have accepted what St. Paul states with these words: 'Whether we live or die, we are the Lord's' (Rom. 14:8). We are born and we die in the bosom of the Church. We place all our hopes for the future in the Church, for the Church alone will remain as the divine and eternal institution. And for this reason we have made the Church the center of our lives. The Church is everything to us!"
The definition, aims, purposes and mission of the parish have gone through a development and an evolution since 1922. The most significant change took place at the 1964 Clergy-Laity Congress in Denver, Colorado. Under the aegis and persistence of Archbishop Iakovos the new Uniform Parish Regulations are presented in a concise and clear language as follows:
"The parish is the local eucharistic community of the Church in a given locality, organized under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese, whose ecclesiastical authority is its canonically consecrated Bishop. The aims and purposes of the parish are to keep, practice and proclaim the Orthodox Christian Faith pure and undefiled."
This same language is in the Special Regulations and Uniform Parish Regulations we presently have. But the mission of the Church is far greater and it goes beyond regulations and descriptions. The parish mission is one that has been and is being lived by both clergy and laity, especially by those who know and live the difference between "Assimilation" and "Integration."
Assimilation versus Integration
Our Archdiocese has grown tremendously since the immigration period. Nevertheless, she has lost a significant number of her members, actual as well as potential, since the immigration period. It is my contention that confusion between assimilation and integration have contributed.
Assimilation means "to be absorbed, incorporated, to become synthesized, to become just like everybody else, to have no identity any longer." If we have lost a significant number of actual and potential members of Christ and His Holy Orthodox Church and admittedly we have it is because we have chosen to be "just like everybody else," as a Greek Orthodox faith, as a culture and as a heritage. Assimilation leads to extinction!
Conversely, integration means "bring different parts together, to blend, to orchestrate into a whole, yet not lose essence or identity." Integration as a religion and a cultural heritage means that we offer to contribute our values of a time-tested Orthodox Christian faith to this wonderful country. I suspect a good number of us, first-generation up to the present time, have not fully understood the difference between, on the one hand, letting ourselves be assimilated into extinction and, on the other, learning about our own Greek Orthodox Christian faith, living that faith and integrating our faith into our American nation.
In his letter to the Romans St. Paul uses a metaphor to illustrate how the Christian Church was "grafted" as a branch into the tree of God's people. In a similar manner, the founders of our Greek Orthodox parishes began "grafting" (integrating) our two-thousand year old faith into our American Nation. I submit to you that perpetuating this integration with the same zeal and dedication is one of the ongoing missions of our parishes.
The Mistake of Presumption
If the immigrant priests, parents and parish leaders share part blame in not understanding and not perpetuating the mission of the parish and the Church, it lies in their inability to perceive what was happening all around them. Their mistake was presumption. They presumed that because they were steeped in their religious faith and cultural heritage that their children would automatically follow suit without question or deviation. Those families that knew the mission of the Church that lived a Christ-centered life, that shared their faith in the Lord and the values of the Bible, and for whom the Greek Orthodox Church was a vibrant, living spiritual guide had far better results. Those parishes that invested in the future of their youth, through creative religious education programs and meaningful youth activities that were religiously based, morally oriented, and ethically motivated, had far greater dividends.
On the other hand, those parishes whose parents made very little effort to raise their children in an Orthodox Christian environment were soon disillusioned and embittered when they saw their offspring indiscriminately divesting themselves of the religion and culture of their forefathers because they found them inadequate, antiquated and unimportant! Worse yet, irrelevant!
By the same token, those Orthodox Christian parishes that spent more time on politics, bickering, infighting and creating animosities and enmities, did far more to disillusion and disenchant young people both from Christ and the Orthodox Church than presumption and assimilation combined! Thank God, a substantial number of families did share the fullness of our Greek Orthodox faith and heritage with their children and their children's children. This is why our Church has experienced significant growth and has made the great strides she has over this past century.
The Watered Down Mission of the Parish
Last but not least, you and I, the first, second and third generations and present day leaders of our parishes, have also played a role in what I would call "The Watered Down Mission of the Parish." Many of us mistreated Orthodox Christianity like a poor relative. We regarded her as inferior and, more often than not, an embarrassment! We identified the Orthodox Church with a few religious practices we either did not understand or with which we did not agree. We associated the Church with some customs that our parents and grandparents imported from their villages which, more often than not, have nothing to do with our belief in Christ and how we worship Him. Thus we passed sentence on Orthodox Christianity and labeled the Greek Orthodox Church antiquated, superstitious and old-country, fine for the old folks but not for us! Furthermore, we picked and chose the doctrines, teachings and liturgical practices that appealed to us and cast aside those which we did not take the trouble to understand and which did not appeal to us.
St. Paul uses a marvelous metaphor in 2 Corinthians 4:7 to illustrate how the power, grace and love of God can shine through to all people regardless of intellectual capacity, business acumen and/or station in life, providing we commit ourselves to God and avail ourselves to be a "vessel through which his light can shine." St. Paul writes: "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us." We must have nothing but admiration, respect and gratitude for the Greek Immigrants, clergy and laity who brought the Greek Orthodox faith, culture and heritage to these American shores and passed them on to their offspring. They were truly giants who let God's light shine with brilliance and splendor! The same must be said about the first, second and now third generations of American born who received the torch of faith and who constitute the clergy and laity leadership in our Greek Orthodox parishes, dioceses and archdiocese today!
The Mission of the Parish
Perhaps our insufficient knowledge and understanding have misled us into regarding the Orthodox Church as static, fossilized and anachronistic. Perhaps the Orthodox Christian approach to Christ and salvation has been laying dormant within us for many years. Perhaps we have come to know Christ, either through a peasant faith, as a result of experiences and maturity, or through just plain growing up. Perhaps we have been exposed to Orthodoxy through a marriage or through a concerted effort of catechetical study. This religious faith that helps us face the problems of life, as well as prepares us for salvation, can and must be shared with others. Thus another essential mission of the parish is to evangelize and spread the "Good News." But in order for us to comprehend the mission of the parish, in order for us to appropriate this faith for ourselves, in order for us to evangelize and share this faith with others, we must read, ingest and digest; we must internalize and externalize what Chapter II, Article I, Section 4 of the Uniform Parish Regulations sets forth succinctly and clearly:
"The diakonia (work, ministry, mission) of the parish will include proclaiming the Gospel in accordance with the Orthodox Faith, sanctifying the faithful through God's grace in worship, the Divine Liturgy and the other Sacraments and Devotional Services, enhancing their spiritual life, adding to their numbers by instructing others and receiving them into the Church through Baptism and/or Chrismation, catechizing them in the Orthodox Faith and in the ethos of the Church through the establishment of programs, schools and philanthropic activities, and implementing Christian ministries."
An Assaulted and Self-defending Parish
Before we conclude, there is one more dimension of the parish mission of our time that deserves our undivided attention: An Assaulted and Self-Defending Parish. In order to better comprehend this aspect of the parish mission let us turn to Mk. 13:22 where Jesus warns: "False messiahs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders to lead you astray". The "false messiahs and false prophets" are legion today! In the 1950s and 1960s we saw the rise of the Flower Children and the gurus trying to lull us into an artificial tranquility. Then in the 1970s Transcendental Meditation, Hara Krishna, the Moonies, Scientology and a host of other cults appeared on the American scene. The 1980s unleashed the New Age religion. New Age says we can be gods! That is what the serpent told Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. That is what the builders of the Tower of Babel sought. New Age invites us to moral decay and ethical anarchy. "Do whatever you want, when you want and how you want!" What is so appealing about New Age is that nobody loses. There are no moral absolutes. Sin and evil do not exist. New Age is more than a new belief system, or a new religious fad. This is not a matter of fun and games, and it is much more than stress management seminars for adults and rest periods for children. New Age is an insidious evil that can adversely poison our earthly life and influence the loss of our eternal life, as well as those of our loved ones!
The 1990s ushered in forces not necessarily new but with far greater vigor and stronger commitment. And the ones who are at the greatest risk are our children, because there is a battle going on for their hearts and minds. Television and movies hammer away at moral values and ethical principles. Any form of restraint and self-discipline is ridiculed by the media, friends and acquaintances. Rock concerts, rappers and MTV have a unique way of subjecting masses of emotionally needy kids to deafening sounds, abnormal noises, eerie lights, wild behavior and godless philosophies.
Why else would healthy boys and girls inject wretched drugs into their veins and fill their lungs with pot? Or give sexual favors to virtual strangers? Or even commit suicide? Their behavior has been warped by enormous social pressures in an environment of confused values and unmet needs. The "false messiahs and false prophets" of today are alcohol, marijuana, hard drugs, pornography, gambling, homosexual experimentation, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, and morally irresponsible abortion.
Let's take a couple of these issues and extrapolate them to their logical conclusion. Why would media people, bureaucrats, researchers and Planned Parenthood types fight so hard to preserve adolescent promiscuity? Their motivation is not that hard to understand. Millions of dollars are generated each year in direct response to sexual irresponsibility. Entire industries of grateful adults benefit. The abortion business alone brings in an estimated $600 million annually. Do we really think the physicians, nurses, medical suppliers and bureaucrats who owe the lion's share of their livelihood to the destruction of unborn babies would prefer that adolescents abstain from sexual relations until marriage? Something for us to ponder seriously.
And now a new commodity has come on the medical market: Aborted fetuses. Aborted fetuses are being experimented with to help those with Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative diseases. The argument given goes like this: If organ donors can help restore quality living to those in need of them, why can't aborted fetuses be used for the same reason? There is an essential and intrinsic difference. Organ donors release their precious gift upon their death. Fetuses are removed before the infants have an opportunity to life outside the womb. Oh, and by the way, there is movement to petition the Supreme Court to allow abortions at any time so the fetuses can develop and mature and give more yield.
Another mission for the parish to ponder is pornography, which today is a $8 billion smut industry whose tentacles reach out to all ages. Twenty million pornographic magazines circulate each month. Hustler Magazine features a full-page cartoon of Chester the Molester. Child sexual abuse has tripled in the last generation. The Supreme Court declared that "obscenity shall be determined by local community standards." And what can be said about the mocking and ridicule of family and the deterioration of family values that proliferate in prime time television?
The immigrant parents lived a daily drama to hold on tenaciously to their religious beliefs, their culture and heritage in an environment that understood neither them nor their values. The mission of the Greek Orthodox parish of our time deserves indeed demands an awareness and a presence in our times no less a witness than that of our forebears!
The first mission of the parish always has been and continues to be the instrument that brings us closer to our Precious Redeemer Jesus Christ and the salvation He offers us. Secondly, the mission of the parish is to meet all our religious, spiritual and sacramental needs.
When the founding fathers of our great American nation determined there would be separation of church and state, they never intended that church people should remain reticent, silent, remote and removed from the mainstream of the political and judicial arena of American life. Unless we stand up to be heard and counted, not only will we forfeit our role and influence, but we will also lose all our values, our moral roots and our ethics by default. Therefore, another dimension of the mission of the parish is to make known our Orthodox Christian religious viewpoints and our strong moral convictions to all levels of government, the news media and the entertainment field. We must communicate our positions and beliefs on all matters that influence our government, politics and American society. This is an integral and inseparable dimension of our mission as Greek Orthodox parishes in America.
During the Sacrament of Ordination in the Orthodox Church a very unique act takes place. Once the priest has been ordained and fully vested, the Divine Liturgy continues where it left off. After the consecration of the Holy Gifts, the Bishop places the Communion Amnos (consecrated Body of Christ) into the clasped hands of the newly-ordained priest and has him stand at the Crucifix behind the holy altar table. The celebrant hierarch charges the newly-ordained priest with the following words:
"Receive this deposit and vigilantly watch over it until the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, at which time from Him it shall be asked of you!"
The Orthodox parish has a tremendous mission here in America. May we accept the mission of the parish as a deposit from Christ. May we watch over our parishes vigilantly with a Eucharistic, Sacramental, Evangelical and Christlike leadership, thus knowing that Jesus Christ will ask each of us for an accounting of our leadership, our motives, our deeds and actions.