Metropolitan Philip's Address to the 48th Archdiocesan Convention General Assembly


by Metropolitan Philip

 

Beloved Hierarchs, Your Eminences, Reverend Clergy, Esteemed Members of the Board of Trustees, Members of the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Members of the Antiochian Women of North America, Members of St. John the Divine and Members of SOYO, Parish Councils and Delegates to this 48th Archdiocese Convention:

The theme of our convention this year is chosen from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians, “Building up the Body of Christ, until we all come to the unity of faith” (Ephesians 4:12-13).

Before I address the theme of this convention, which is “Unity of the faith,” I would like to joyfully reflect on a very significant event which took place in this Archdiocese, not one thousand years ago, but twenty years ago when we welcomed home more than two thousand former Evangelicals into canonical Orthodoxy. That was indeed another Pentecost and another chapter to be added to the Book of Acts. It is meet and right to celebrate this recent event because we Orthodox are always celebrating the remote past.

Twenty-five years ago, I said in one of my sermons, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, “the triumphalism of the past cannot save us from the sterility of the present and the uncertainty of the future.” The Holy Spirit will work with us if we courageously respond to the Divine challenge. The reception of the former Evangelicals to Holy Orthodoxy was a positive response to the Holy Spirit and an affirmation of our Lord’s commission: “to make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).

Lest we forget, let us recall some of the events which led to that blessed day in 1987. These good people discovered Holy Orthodoxy from books on their own, but what happened when they began knocking on Orthodox doors seeking canonical Orthodoxy? One Orthodox jurisdiction sent them overseas to meet a Patriarch in a foreign capital. The Patriarch, however, was told not to receive them, by those who sent them. Thus, they returned home empty-handed and disappointed. Then, they were told to try another jurisdiction; they did. They kept knocking on the door, but unfortunately no one answered. Someone told them, “Why don’t you try Antioch?”

In 1985, the Antiochian Archdiocese was blessed by the visit of our Father-in-Christ, His Beatitude Ignatius IV, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East. The Parish Life Conference of the Western Region was held in Los Angeles. I remember receiving a phone call from Father Peter Gillquist, asking if he and two other priests could meet with the Patriarch of Antioch. I said, “Of course, you can.” A meeting was arranged for Father Peter, Father Jon Braun and Father Richard Ballew, and they were well received by His Beatitude. After the meeting, the Patriarch said to me: “Please do everything you can to help these people.” I asked the three visitors to send me samples of their religious literature. They did. With a small committee of theologians from the Archdiocese, I reviewed their writings and found them to be very Orthodox. Our dialogue continued from 1985 to 1987.

In September of 1987, our dialogue culminated in a meeting at the Archdiocese headquarters in New Jersey. Most of the leaders of the former EOC were received by me and a small committee of Antiochian theologians. Many views were exchanged and many questions were asked. The meeting was long and exhausting. Finally, the Very Reverend Gordon Walker broke down in tears and said to me: “Your Eminence, if you do not accept us, where do we go from here?” At that moment I, myself, was also in tears, and said: “I want you brothers to go spend the evening together, reflect on our discussion and give me your final decision tomorrow.” The next day, Father Peter Gillquist called and said: “We would like to come and see you.” I said, “Come.” I did not know what to expect. They all came. Father Peter Gillquist asked for the floor and said: “Your Eminence, we have unanimously agreed to join the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America.” I, joyfully, said: “Welcome home, Brothers!”

These were precious moments in my life which I will never forget. We all exited the big dining room to the patio and smoked cigars. The story, however, did not end with the cigars. The most exciting and most rewarding part of this spiritual adventure took place when, assisted by my brother, Bishop Antoun, we traveled to Franklin, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; Gary, Indiana; St. Michael of Van Nuys, St. Nicholas Cathedral of Los Angeles, Saints Peter and Paul of Ben Lomond, California, and Eagle River, Alaska.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Words are inadequate to describe the joy which permeated my heart when I was chrismat- ing and ordaining these wonderful people. Before this, I used to chrismate little Middle Eastern children with dark hair, brown eyes and olive skin, and suddenly I found myself chrismating little blond, blue-eyed and fair-skinned children. These people have added more depth to our spiritual life; and while they continue to discover the treasures of Orthodoxy, we continue to learn from them, also. One of the things that they are teaching us is the practice of “tithing.” If you check your financial report for the last fiscal year, you will find that the biggest contributing parish to the Archdiocese was St. John Parish of Memphis, Tennessee.

This year, twenty years later, I have already received some very moving letters from former Evangelicals, thanking me for receiving them into Holy Orthodoxy. I will read to you an excerpt from one letter dated February 15, 2007. “I am, especially, grateful to the Lord and to you because this was the fulfillment of a twenty-year quest of the Church. For my colleagues and me, this pursuit began in 1967. At first, we did not know where the Church was. All we knew was, we wanted to be the Church, and you were the only one who did let this become a reality. And this reality continues to grow in me day by day. Your vision to bring America to the Orthodox faith is still very much alive in us and to this end, we labor night and day.” Signed, Very Reverend Richard Ballew.

As you know, after the reception of these beautiful people into canonical Orthodoxy, I was criticized severely by some frozen-minded Orthodox. I didn’t care. And if I have the opportunity to do it again, I would shout a million times, “Welcome home, Brothers!”

Ladies and Gentlemen: The theme of our convention this year is Orthodox unity of faith. In 1995, we celebrated the centennial of our God-protected Archdiocese. Our journey to the kingdom began in 1895, when Archimandrite Raphael Hawaweeny arrived to these blessed shores of North America. On March 12, 1904, Raphael was consecrated Bishop of Brooklyn, New York and was the first Orthodox Bishop to be ordained in North America. Unfortunately, Bishop Raphael fell asleep in the Lord in 1915, having served only eleven rich years.

In 1917, Aftimios Ofiesh was consecrated Archbishop and served until 1933. Emmanuel Abou-Hatab was consecrated Bishop of Montreal and Auxiliary to Aftimios, September 11, 1928, and died May 30, 1933. Sophronis Bechara, who was the Bishop of the West Coast and Auxiliary to Aftimios, died in 1934. Archbishop Victor Abouassaly, who was consecrated as Archbishop of New York and all North America, with a praxis from the Holy Synod of Antioch, died April 19, 1934. Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi returned to Lebanon in 1933 and died in 1934.

Shortly after the departure of Hawaweeny, Metropolitan Germanos came to America to collect funds for the Archdiocese of Zahleh, Ba’albek and Dependencies. But instead of raising funds and returning to Lebanon, he stayed in North America and led a faction of our people who were loyal to Antioch. Thus, our people in North America became divided between those who were loyal to Antioch and those who were loyal to the Russian Synod. This was a dark period in our history and the struggle which ensued was dubbed “Russy-Antaky.” Consequently, congregations in the same city were divided. Parishes of the same faith were not in communion with each other. Neighbors were not talking to neighbors and relatives were against relatives. People who belonged to the same Church sued each other and ended up in civil courts. In other words, the Antiochian situation in North America was dismal and disgusting. Neither the Russian Synod nor the Antiochian Synod was able to put an end to this tragedy. By the end of 1934, however, all the bishop who were in the Antiochian arena in North America were dead; but as you will see, death did not solve the problem.

In 1935, Patriarch Alexander Tahan III delegated the late Theodosius Aboujaily, Archbishop of Tyre and Sidon and later Patriarch Theodosius VI, to come to North America, visit our parishes and find out who our people wanted as the Metropolitan Archbishop. According to his findings, Archimandrite Antony Bashir was the most popular and qualified. The Holy Synod of Antioch, based on the recommendation of Metropolitan Theodosius, elected Antony Bashir as Metropolitan of New York and all North America to succeed Archbishop Victor Abouassaly. Some of our people were against this recommendation and the election of Metropolitan Antony. Thus, on April 16, 1936, while Antony Bashir was being conse- crated Archbishop, on the same day and at the same time, Archbishop Samuel David was being consecrated in Toledo, Ohio, as Archbishop of Toledo and Dependencies. Unfortunately, the long dark night which began after the falling asleep in Christ of Raphael Hawaweeny, continued and the conflict, then, was between New York and Toledo. The same animosity among our people persisted. If you check the Minutes of the Holy Synod of Antioch between 1936 and 1970, you will be horrified with the contradictory decisions which were made during this period, vis-á-vis New York and Toledo. After my consecration as your Metropolitan in 1966, I was determined to put an end to this shameful tragedy, before this conflict put an end to my hopes and dreams of a united Antiochian Archdiocese and, consequently, a united Orthodox Church in North America.

To make the long story short, in 1973 I was in Toledo, Ohio, presiding over the Midwest SOYO Parish Life Conference. After the liturgy, I was in my suite talking to Father George Rados. Suddenly, I said to Father George, “Please call Archbishop Michael and tell him I want to stop and pay my respects to him.” Needless to say, Father George was surprised and said: “Are you serious?” I said: “Very serious, proceed.” Ten minutes later, I found myself embracing the late Archbishop Michael. I said: “You and I must put an end to this absurd division and we must reunite our Antiochian people. If you want to be the Metropolitan, I will be very happy to serve as your auxiliary.” Archbishop Michael said: “No, you have many more parishes than I do.” And he continued: “If we do not bury the past, the past will bury us.” I was overjoyed with Archbishop Michael’s positive response. We agreed to appoint a joint committee to work out the details. Finally, on June 25, 1975, Archbishop Michael and I met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and signed the Articles of Reunification, putting an end to a sad division which disturbed the peace of our Antiochian people in North America for more than sixty years. Subsequently, I said in one of my messages to the convention, “Even if the angels come and tell you division is good for you, do not believe them. Christ is the source of unity and the Prince of peace. Only Satan is the master of deceit and dissension, and we must never surrender to him.” One of the great poets and philosophers, George Santayana, said: “Those who forget history, are doomed to repeat it.” In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul said: “I appeal to you brethren by the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, that all of you agree that there be no disunity among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (I Cor. 1:10). I want these words of St. Paul to be engraved on your hearts and minds.

Sometimes, during my hours of solitude, like most of you, I think about the future of this beloved Archdiocese. I know and you know that all of us are mortal beings. The question is: “What about the future?” I appeal to you, my beloved children and friends, not to let any group of people, or any group of bishops or any Synod, local or foreign, divide you and destroy what we have built for the past forty-one years. This Archdiocese must remain a beacon of light and a good example to be emulated by all Orthodox in North America. We have enough Orthodox fragmentations and we do not need any more.

Ladies and Gentlemen: This brings me to the last segment of my message to this convention, which is “Orthodox Unity in North America.” On May 31, during our Archdiocesan Synod Meeting, I told my brother bishops the following: “Since 1966, I have lived with two obsessions: (1) The Unity of our Archdiocese and (2) Orthodox Unity in North America.” Where are we now in regard to this unity? Unfortunately, the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America is still divided into more than fifteen jurisdictions based on ethnicity, contrary to the decisions of the First and Fourth Ecumenical Councils. Our canons clearly state that we cannot have more than one bishop over the same territory, and one Metropolitan over the same Metropolis. I regret to tell you that we Orthodox are violating this important ecclesiological principle in North America, South America, Europe and Australia. In New York, for example, we have more than 10 Orthodox bishops over the same city and the same territory. I can say the same thing about other cities and territories in North America. When ethnic ecclesiology began to flourish and prosper in the nineteenth century, the Orthodox Church, immediately, summoned the pan-Orthodox Synod of Constantinople in 1872 and condemned ecclesiological ethno-phyletism as a heresy. One more example of phyletism is Paris, France. There are six co-existing Orthodox bishops with overlapping ecclesiological jurisdictions. In my opinion and in the opinion of Orthodox canonists, this is phyletism. This is heretical. How can we condemn phyletism as a heresy in 1872 and still practice the same kind of phyletism in the twenty-first century here in North America? When I lived in Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, Lebanon, in the early 1950’s, there were large Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox communities there, but they were not under the Archbishop of Athens or the Patriarchate of Moscow, but under the Omophorions of the Antiochian local bishops. Due to wars and social upheaval, we now have a large Lebanese community in Athens, Greece and they are under the Omophorion of the Archbishop of Athens. They do not have a separate jurisdiction because they are Lebanese Orthodox.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Archimandrite Gregorios Papathomas, a Professor of Canon Law and Dean of St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, France, wrote: “The defining criterion of an ecclesiastical body has been its location. It has never been nationality, race, culture, ritual or confession.” In First Corinthians (1:2) St. Paul writes: “To the Church of God which is at Corinth,” and in II Corinthians he writes: “To the Church of God which is at Corinth,” and in Galatians (1:2) he writes: “To the Church of Galacia.” We learn from the Apostolic Age and the Patristic Age that the Church is one church, one and the same church, the body of Christ, found in Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, Greece, Rome, Russia, etc. Based on all this, it is wrong to call the Church Russian and Greek or American, because the Church, in essence, transcends nationalism, race and culture. Here in North America, we have a distorted Orthodox ecclesiology because of our ethnic jurisdictions.

In 1961, SCOBA was established; some of its founders were the late Archbishop Iakovos and the late Metropolitan Antony Bashir. May their souls rest in peace. The original constitution of SCOBA, adopted January 21, 1961, paragraph I, Section C, under Objectives states: “The purpose of the conference is the consideration and resolution of common ecclesiastical problems, the coordination of efforts in matters of common concern to Orthodoxy, and the strengthening of Orthodox unity.”

Last year, between October 3 and 6, SCOBA invited many Orthodox bishops who met in Chicago, Illinois, to discuss common Orthodox problems. The communiqué issued on October 5, 2006, did not mention a word about Orthodox Unity in America. Again in November, 2006, a meeting of Inter-Orthodox priests met in Brookline, Massachusetts. A draft statement dated January 22, 2007, was circulated and not a word about Orthodox unity in North America was mentioned. I am convinced that serious attempts are being made, by some hierarchs in North America and abroad, to sweep the whole quest of Orthodox unity in this hemisphere, under the rug. After the Brookline, Massachusetts, encounter, one of my Antiochian clergy wrote to me the following: “Two of the Greek priests gave very strong talks on unity. We did decide, however, that given the landscape, we would use the word ‘cooperation’ and not ‘unity’ in our printed records.” This statement, my friends, speaks for itself. With all the obstacles which we are facing, have we then reached a dead end? No, with the All-Holy Spirit working in the Church, there are no dead ends. I am sure that thousands of Orthodox clergy and hundreds of thousands of Orthodox laity in North America are deeply committed to Orthodox unity and “we shall overcome.” We Orthodox must put our house in order, if we want to have a serious Orthodox mission in North America. This unity, Ladies and Gentlemen, will begin with our clergy and laity on the local level. My generation is slowly, but surely, fading away. It is up to you and our younger generation to carry the torch and let the light shine.

Before I conclude this message, I would be remiss if I do not thank my brother bishops, namely: Bishop Antoun, Bishop Joseph, Bishop Basil, Bishop Thomas, Bishop Mark and Bishop Alexander.

I would like to thank the Vice-Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Dr. George Farha; the Treasurer of the Archdiocese, Mr. Robert Laham; our two Chancellors, Mr. Robert Koory and Mr. Charles Ajalat; our secretary, Dr. John Dalack; our Assistant Treasurer, Mr. George Nassor and all dedicated and generous members of the Board of Trustees; all chairpersons of our departments and commissions, all presidents of our organizations, The Word 9 and all members of our parish councils.

Last, but not least, I want to thank my coworkers in this vineyard, our faithful clergy, who continue to serve whether in large parishes, small parishes or missions, dedicating their lives to Christ and His gospel.

Finally, I would like to thank the members of my staff, namely: our hierarchical assistant, Father George Kevorkian; Archdeacon Hans, who has been traveling with me for the past thirty years; Subdeacon Charles Baz; the comptroller, Mr. Peter Dacales; the new Administrator of the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Mrs. Joanne Hakim; the Registrar, Mrs. Amy Robinson, and last, but not least, my dedicated secretary, Kathy Meyer, who has already devoted thirty-eight years of her life to the service of this Archdiocese.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with these words from St. Paul:

“May the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6).

Courtesy of the

September 2007 issue of The Word magazine.

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