Tarpon Springs, FL - Tense excitement exploded into a large roar of welcome and fluttering of Greek and Patriarchal Flags as the plane of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians, touched down at Clearwater/St. Petersburg International Airport at 5:00 pm on Wednesday, January 4.
Children dressed in traditional Greek costumes, Orthodox faithful young and old, hierarchs, clerics, city, state and local officials, and a multitude of media strained to be the first to see His All Holiness emerge from the airplane entrance and wave to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd gathered to welcome their spiritual leader to Tarpon Springs. This is the first time an Ecumenical Patriarch has visited Tarpon Springs for festivities associated with the celebration of Epiphany.
In opening ceremonies at the airport, Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, thanked those who had come to welcome the Patriarch, including the Patriarchal delegation, Orthodox hierarchs and clergy from throughout the United States and Europe, and local and state officials. He noted that since his enthronement, His All Holiness has pursued a vision of Orthodox unity, spiritual revival, Christian reconciliation, and a world united in peace and justice and in efforts to protect the environment. Also welcoming Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew were William Planes, chairman of the Epiphany events, Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverly Billiris, and United States Congressman Michael Bilirakis.
His All Holiness responded first in Greek, then English, to the warm welcome of all those gathered and thanked the distinguished guests in attendance and the committee for their extensive preparations for the events marking the centennial celebrations of Epiphany in Tarpon Springs and of the establishment of Saint Nicholas Cathedral. "We came here, beloved brothers and sisters," said His All Holiness, " to see your honest faces and to fulfill the joy of our spiritual, living communion with you. We rejoice when we here about all of the honorable and virtuous things that you, the Orthodox people of Greek descent accomplish, as people of order and obedience of the great United States of America."
"We arrived here after a long flight, and you honorably and symbolically bestow upon us three keys: the key of the progressive State of Florida, the key of this blessed local County, and lastly, the key of the beautiful City of Tarpon Springs. Through this gesture you intimate that we are welcome and trustworthy guests of the State, the County, and the City, a generosity of spirit and kindness for which we are grateful. Your honest disposition greatly supports our Humility for the continuation of the ecumenical mission of our holiest Ecumenical Patriarchate."
Before leaving the hall, His All Holiness thanked the members of the children's choir which presented several songs and posed for a photo with the entire group. The entourage then left to go immediately to Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Tarpon Springs to offer a Doxology (hymns of praise) for their safe arrival. Once again a capacity crowd of faithful, many who had waited for hours, welcomed His All Holiness. In concluding his homily the Patriarch stated that, "We also came as brothers and sisters and children to bring the sympathy and spiritual support of the affectionate Mother Church to our afflicted brothers and sisters of New Orleans and other areas who were hurt by the recent catastrophic hurricanes, thus emphasizing our love for all and the sense of indissoluble unity in Christ with all."
His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will begin today's schedule by delivering a message of peace and reconciliation on the major television networks at a press briefing at 10:00 am. Immediately following some 1,000 young people, ages 5-18 from throughout the area, are expected to attend a Patriarchal Celebration of Youth led by His All Holiness accompanied by Archbishop Demetrios of America and Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta. This will be followed by a Patriarchal Epiphany Centennial Clergy-Laity Luncheon in the Edinburgh Hall of the Innisbrook Resort.
The Patriarchal Epiphany Liturgy will begin at Saint Nicholas Cathedral at 8:30 am on Friday, January 6, and will be followed by the Blessing of the Waters and the procession to Spring Bayou for the diving for the Cross.