Metropolis of Atlanta

Metropolitan Alexios on the Challenges and Opportunities for the Church in the South

© GOA/Dimitrios Panagos

Editor’s note: The Orthodox Observer continues its series of interviews with the Metropolitans of the Archdiocese.

O.O. – Your Eminence, you have served as a bishop in the heart of the Greek immigrant community in Astoria and in the part of the Archdiocese with some the most assimilated Greek Americans. How is it different to be a Greek Orthodox bishop in Astoria and in Atlanta?

Metropolitan Alexios: Serving in Astoria was truly a blessing from above, as it gave me opportunities to interact with many different generations: those who emigrated from Greece in the 1920s; those who emigrated after the end of the Second World War in the late 50s and early 60s; and those Greek-Americans who had been born and were now working at many professional levels in the United States. Every year we had between 250- 280 weddings, baptisms and funerals. Now, as the Shepherd of the Holy and God-Protected Metropolis of Atlanta, the whole Metropolis has 250 baptisms and funerals, total. Here, we have 80 priests to perform the sacraments, where in Astoria it was merely four of us. But we never looked upon these challenges negatively. We consider all these things, as St. Basil says, like a sky with clouds: we must always have patience, because the clouds never remain. Down in the South, I do not feel much of a difference, because I believe the church is the same everywhere, just with different challenges and opportunities. In the South perhaps we have fourth, fifth, and sixth generations, which means that where in Astoria we would use 90 percent Greek, here we would use more English. But, just as St. Paul had one style to preach and minister, I believe the worship culture is still very much the same.

O.O. – What are the special challenges for promoting Orthodoxy in the South?

Metropolitan: In the North, people may be closer to one another geographically, but in the South, we are more spread out. Nevertheless we are focused on creating programs for all ages, especially the youth. This helps the youth to get to know one another, to feel less alone, and to be proud of their identity. I believe this is no different than any ethnic group in the United States, because America is a beautiful mosaic. For the practical concerns of the distance, we either try to have the same program repeated in different areas, or find affordable means of travel.

O.O. – You have a very successful Hellenic Dance Festival (HDF) program which allows our young people to connect with Greek and Christian Civilization’.” What other youth and cultural initiatives does the Metropolis offer?

Metropolitan: Referring back to the distance, and the relatively small size of many of our communities, we understand it is important that our children do not feel alone. Our youth programs give them opportunities to mingle with groups of other Orthodox Christians, whether they are large gatherings such as HDF, St. Stephen’s Camp, and our annual Winter Youth Rally; or even more intimate gatherings such our Lenten and Advent Retreats, both of which take place at our Diakonia Retreat Center. Also, in different years, we take small groups of the youth on tours to Greece, so that, regardless of whether they are fifth or sixth generation, or come from a family made up of different ethnicities, they can feel proud of their country, their ancestors and Orthodoxy.

O.O. – Are there initiatives to help the people of Greece?

Metropolitan: In addition to our fervent prayers for our brothers and sisters who are suffering in Greece, we have had fundraisers to collect materials for school supplies and first aid kits. Also, our Metropolis has not only supported the Archdiocesan efforts to offer relief to the Churches of Greece and Cyprus, but the Metropolis Philoptochos also held a yearlong fundraiser, where individuals would support a specific family with monthly sums to help with food, medicine and other necessary expenses.

Our Metropolis is also in the process of building a new sanctuary at our Diakonia Retreat Center, and apart from the iron and concrete, the rest of the materials (such as the sanctuary furnishings) have come from small businesses in Greece. The workers are also from Greece. In this way, we are doing some small part to support 14 families, whose fathers are working here.

O.O. – The South is part of the Bible Belt, where people take their religion very seriously. How does being in the South affect Greek Orthodox Church life?

Metropolitan: As far as the geographical area is concerned, I believe residing in the Bible Belt works to our advantage. The people have a greater day-to-day understanding of religion than many in the North, and it becomes easier to speak about Christ and our God, no matter with whom we are speaking. We are mindful of our place in America’s mosaic, and therefore we are constantly working to polish it for the beauty of the whole. We have a good relationship with the Catholic Church, extending as far as having gatherings twice a year that alternate between their cathedral and our cathedral, where we have lectures on topics that concern both churches (unity between our two churches, refugees and the spirit of Christmas, abortion, and so on).

O.O. – How does Your Eminence communicate your vision and the Metropolis’ concerns and needs to the clergy and laity?

Metropolitan: Our vision always proceeds out of the needs of all our people. For this reason, it is not difficult to communicate our vision to the faithful. Though, to make sure the message has been received, we embark on tours, inviting the lay and clergy leaders of different communities to participate as we share how we can better assist our faithful and how we can implement these things. We are currently undertaking an 11 city tour through March 23. Because a greater sense of involvement among congregations is very much in our hearts, we are also advocates of the Strategic Plan, a tool which allows for better organization, as well as increasing an individual’s understanding of the role of the Church, and their role within the Church.

O.O. – What did you discuss at the recent Clergy Syndesmos Retreat, and what can you tell us about the Diakonia retreat center?

Metropolitan: The Metropolis hosts two retreats a year for the clergy. We discuss theological things, ecclesiological things, communication skills, even topics relating to the health and well-being of the clergy family. This year the topic was the Divine Liturgy. This topic was chosen to help us all as clergyman, break out of the routine, to have uniformity, and to help us focus even more on the Sacrament of Sacraments. As for the Diakonia Retreat Center it is a place for our people to come together in both the sacramental and the social life. Out of 52 weekends last year, 37 were occupied.

O.O. – Your Eminence, your devotion to the Church is so strong. Are there other members of your family who were clergymen who inspired you?

Metropolitan: My grandmother’s brother was a priest, but I did not know him very well; he was in his 80s when I was in grammar school. However, my brother went to Mt. Athos as a student at the ecclesiastical academy, and because he went there, after a while, as his older brother, I went there to help him and keep him company. After he finished the academy, he continued at the theological university in Athens, and later on received his psychology doctorate in Germany, where he not only continues to practice, but also chants at a local Greek Orthodox church. I myself entered into the priesthood in my young years when I went to Mt. Athos at 16, and I eventually became a monk at 19, and then a deacon at 21. After my studies at the University of Athens I came to the United States to continue my postgraduate work, and I am still here, studying, and perfecting myself.

O.O. – What can you tell us about the place of monasticism in the Orthodox Church in general, and here in America?

Metropolitan: I believe in monasticism very much, not only because that is my background as a clergyman, but because monasticism is the “backbone of the Church.” Throughout history, we see that the monks were the ones who maintained the identity of the Church in times of trouble. For example, during the Iconoclastic period, the monks were the ones who taught and defended Orthodoxy, while the others who lived in the world, such as the married bishops, sided with the emperor.

Here in America, monasticism came very late, and because of this, we have monasteries that came in groups, instead of growing one by one from different places and different people. They are, however, still part of their various Metropolises, and an important part of the Church, as they regularly help the faithful seek out the deepest meaning of Orthodoxy. Thank God, I believe that in time, monasteries will continue to find their place within the organized church in America.

O.O. – You received a doctorate from Boston University. What was the focus of your studies and dissertation?

Metropolitan: My dissertation focused on pastoral counseling through the examples of the Church Fathers, like St. Basil.

O.O - Was there another field that you were interested other than entering Holy Orders?

Metropolitan: As a child, I was not planning to be a monk or a priest—that came from God. Many children focus on things that are associated with their parents, or things that come into their mind. For me, I considered becoming an engineer, because my father was one. Also, because we were not near the sea, I was very taken with the sea, and wanted to become a sailor or a captain.

O.O. – What is your thinking about programs in religious and Greek education for adults and children now that computer technology presents the Archdiocese with new options?

Metropolitan: I believe that it is imperative we should use all the technology available to us in this modern era in order to propagate our dual identities as Orthodox Christians and Hellenes. Coming back to your question of the challenges of residing in such a widespread metropolis like Atlanta, the Internet and various communications devices could be used in such a way to bring several smaller parishes together with their sister churches for many purposes such as a Bible study course, or an educational video seminar.

O.O – Almost a year has passed since you attended the Holy and Great Council. What are your thoughts about participating in the Council, and about its significance for the future of the Orthodox Church?

Metropolitan: I consider my participation in both the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and in the Holy and Great Council to be true blessings from God. I participated, not because I was worthy, but because it was God’s will. I am thankful to His All-Holiness, our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, for appointing me to that position.

So it was truly a blessing to be present, and to witness all that arose from the dialogue: the collaboration, the discussions, the healthy disagreements, the difficult moments, as well as the easy ones. Another wonderful thing was to see how His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew (our spiritual father) conducted himself not only with the Patriarchal Synod—where I served with my brother bishops from the United States—but with all the Orthodox members of the Holy Council, no matter which parts of the world they came from. Of course, it would have been better to have all the autocephalous churches participate, but unfortunately the devil works to bring about obstacles that can sometimes frustrate our plans if we are not careful. However, while four of our Churches did not attend, they did participate in the previous meetings which took place from the 1960s on, and determined all the topics of the Synod.

Constantine Sirigos is a contributor to the Orthodox Observer.

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