1979 Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Government's highest civil award. It may be awarded only by the President to "persons who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interest of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church in North and South America. Remarks at a White House Reception Honoring the Archbishop 

September 18th, 1979

Rosalynn and I are very delighted that not only the East Room but the entire White House is filled with admirers and friends and lovers of Archbishop Iakovos. We are very proud that you are here. It's an honor for us to participate in honoring him.

I would like to say that we have Members of the Congress here; we have distinguished educators here, distinguished religious leaders from every faith. We also have people who've come as personal friends—those from the business community, from other elements of government, from all over the Nation—to listen to the beautiful music of the Metropolitan Singers and to take part in this celebration of one of the important anniversaries in the Greek Orthodox Church.

As all of you know, the Greek Orthodox Church has been the repository and the avenue through which the culture and the values of Hellenic society have been transmitted and enhanced from one generation to another, in the service of one another and in the service of Jesus Christ.

Our own Nation is a nation of immigrants. We've brought here some of the finest aspects of the lives and the customs, the achievements and the hopes and aspirations of people throughout the world. But our heritage from Greece is indeed extraordinary, because from that great country, the mother country of many in this room, we have derived the basis for American principles and government-liberty and democracy. And we thank all of you and your ancestors for that noble gift.

We could not have a better exemplification of the finest aspects of human life than His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos. His life is one which has been dedicated to the pursuit of the broadest possible realm of basic civil rights, basic human rights, not just in this country but throughout the world. 
As you know, this is the 20th anniversary of his enthronement as a spiritual leader of North and South America. Although he only has 3 million communicants who look to him with direct religious conviction, and a common, narrowly defined religious conviction, he has many millions of other Americans who look to him for spiritual inspiration and who admire his great contributions to our country and to the kingdom of Christ.

His small gestures have exemplified not only humaneness but also courage. In 1965, when it was not an easy thing to do, this great man walked shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King, Jr., holding the hand of a small black girl in Selma, Alabama. He didn't have to do it. His church did not demand it. Had he not been there, few would have noticed his absence. But he was there. And this simple act was not extraordinary in his life, because it's one of many similar acts that have exemplified his public and his private and his religious service. He has always sought justice for the poor.

He's also been a world leader in many organized religious efforts—twice president of the World Council of Churches. He's had the breadth of vision to transcend religious boundaries, which often are very difficult to cross. One of his major achievements has been that he was the first Archbishop in 350 years, 3 1/2 centuries, to meet with the Pope, representing the Roman Catholic Church. And not only in this connection between Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches but among Protestant and other religious orders, this fine leader has helped to bridge a chasm that separates human beings.

He's been an adviser for many. He's been an adviser for me, and I thank God for it. Not too long ago I was at Camp David, considering our Nation, some of its problems, some possible solutions for it. I needed counsel on government, politics, energy, taxation, and economics. But, above all, I needed counsel on our country's spirit—who we are, what we are, what we should be. I asked him to come to Camp David and meet with me, and he graciously consented.

We talked about a vision of a greater America. We talked about the need for a rebirth of the American spirit. We talked about how we might, as Americans, revitalize the basic human values on which our country was founded and which are part of the ethics and the morals on which the church itself premises its service to human beings. We talked about the need for a new sense of unity, which he, throughout his own life of public service, has exemplified so well. And we talked about the definition of new and even higher goals for our country and for all Americans, who live here together. That could not possibly be a greater demand on a person's understanding and sensitivity and intellect and experience than to give a President counsel on these kinds of important things.

I'm a great personal admirer of his. And since I've been President, I have given two awards—one to Jonas Salk, who helped to eliminate the threat of polio from the world, and the other one to Martin Luther King, Jr. And I would like to announce to this group that I will present to Archbishop Iakovos the Presidential Medal of Freedom later on this year. This will give me a chance to invite some of you back for an additional ceremony. [Laughter] And it will also give the Nation a chance to be reminded of the remarkable achievements of this fine man, my friend and your friend. 
And now I would like to ask our dear friend to say a few words here to his friends. 
Thank you very much.

Mr. President, Mrs. Carter, fellow clergymen, ladies and gentlemen:

For a long time now I have pondered my 20 years of service; I have examined and reexamined my record of service countless times. And yet I have never felt so inadequate. Who am I? What have I done to deserve recognition of such magnitude and spiritual significance? Even it I have achieved anything noteworthy, was it not my dutiful responsibility? Is it not Jesus, our Lord and Savior, who admonishes us to say, when we are thanked for something, "We are merely servants. We have done no more than our duty."

In His name, Mr. President, I have endeavored to offer some small services to my church, to the church of Christ in general, to education, and to my fellow man. And most especially, my heart and soul have been touched and moved to cry out for the oppressed and for those who have suffered and continue to suffer because of social injustice in the world. Indeed, I have walked hand in hand with a small black girl in Selma, next to the great Martin Luther King. But is it not true that marching forward is a solemn duty and obligation for me at all times and under all circumstances?

I have always considered myself to be a servant, and I pray to be a faithful one. It is a singular honor to be in the service of the Servant of Servants. He has taught me to serve and lead the way for all who wish to serve. I am conscious of my faults and my failures, which cause me considerable pain. But I am also conscious of an ongoing incentive within me to do better, for I carry a triple legacy—an American, a Hellenic, and the Christian legacy. I pray God may ever show me the wisdom to correct my faults and grant me the strength to ever glorify Him in deed and word.

I view this magnanimous and obliging gesture of yours, Mr. President, as a mandate, for through this event, you once again remind me of the unfinished task which lies ahead: the reunion of all Christians into the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church that may serve and save the world; the restoration of the image of God in man by our renewed and concerted effort to reinstate respect for human dignity and justice; the spiritual reawakening of our society in the face of the ugly realities of today, which may lead us to the recapturing of the modern spiritual values of Christianity; the stirring of the human soul and thought, so that it may once again attain and grasp God's truth and love, through which peace in the world may be advanced. All of these sacred causes and many more place formidable demands upon me and upon all of us.

We who are privileged to share this great moment with you, Mr. President and Mrs. Carter, will ever treasure the beauty and meaningfulness of it. From the depths of my heart, I thank you, Mr. President, and your beloved wife, our First Lady, Rosalynn. 
And on behalf of all of us, please accept, Mr. President, Mrs. Carter, our fervent prayer. May God, our Father, grant you your heart's desire and crown all your plans for our country and the world with triumphant success.

NOTE: The President spoke at 4:36 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

Archbishops of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America