Born as Abdallah, “the servant of God,” June 10, 1931, Metropolitan PHILIP has been a success story. Little did my father know that the little boy he led by the hand and offered to Patriarch Alexander Tahhan in July of 1945 at St. Elias Monastery would grow up to become the Metropolitan Archbishop of New York and All North America. The name “Abdallah” was probably a good omen for things to come. Abdallah was the fourth child born to my parents, Elias and Salimeh Saliba, after Nasif, Shahid and a daughter, Nazira. I, Najib, the author of this article, was the fifth and last, born some four years after Abdallah. We were all born and grew up in Abou Mizan, a humble village in Mount Lebanon. Larger towns nearby included Bikfayya, Shweir and Btighrine, the capital of the Saliba clan. I remember we used to walk to all these towns to shop, work or break the monotony of life in Abou Mizan.
I actually didn’t get to know my brother well when he was in Lebanon since he left home at an early age and joined the church, assuming the name “Philip.” After that he occasionally came home but only for a short stay. However, I do recall some fond memories of that short period in our lives. Since we were the youngest in the family we were close to each other and he often used to tease me. Being older and more experienced, I looked up to him and considered him a role model, especially after he left the limited environment of Abou Mizan for a wider world.
Since Abou Mizan was a small village with little to do beyond the house and the farm, the church and religious holidays became the center of attention. Church festivals filled a void in people’s lives. Of all the church holidays, Good Friday, Easter and Christmas were the most important. Good Friday, for example, provided a good occasion for the children of the village to show teamwork. My brother and I, along with the other children, used to spend the whole day collecting wild flowers from the fields to decorate the bier of Jesus. We used to walk a long distance to fetch the sweet smelling laurel leaves for the occasion. This was annually the most anticipated event of the spring. Nature was waking up after a long winter. The weather was warm, sunny and beautiful. Things just looked right for the Resurrection.
Abou Mizan did not have the regular services of a fulltime priest. It was dependent on St. Elias Monastery for services, and at times no priest was available. On such occasions, especially on Easter and Christmas, my brother and I would awaken at about two o’clock in the morning and walk the distance in the dark, up the mountain to Shreen in order to attend services. An elderly priest from Btighrine, who never missed a service, serviced the church in Shreen. The church was cold with no heat and no seats. Given the conditions, the service seemed endless. But there was always something to sweeten the occasion. After the liturgy, we of course visited Aunt Zainy who lived near the church, in order to warm up and wish her a happy eid, “feast”. This was the highlight of the day. Aunt Zainy had no children of her own, so she always welcomed us. She was known for her generosity, and she always prepared special foods and sweets for the occasion, which we always enjoyed. My brother has a sweet tooth and used to enjoy Aunt Zainy’s tein, “cooked figs,” especially when cooked with walnuts, among other ingredients. This was certainly a special treat that no one wanted to miss. May God bless her soul!
Coming to America
It was here in America that I got to spend more time with my brother, getting to know him better. He came to the United States early in 1956 and I followed some five years later. By the time I came in September 1961, he had already been ordained a priest and was serving the parish of St. George in Cleveland, Ohio. I remember I sent him a note informing him of my arrival time to New York City, and that I would be attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. When my plane landed and I cleared customs together with a couple of friends, I had the greatest surprise of my life: I found my brother, Father Philip, our friend Father Antoun Khouri (whom I knew from Lebanon), and my brother’s friend Edward Khouri from Cleveland all waiting for me outside. When I heard my name being called, worlds away from Abou Mizan, I just could not believe it! I had no idea that anybody would be waiting for me at one of the largest airports in the world. That is indelibly etched in my memory. We drove to Philadelphia that evening where we spent the night in the hospitality of Father Antoun, later Bishop Antoun, then serving the Philadelphia parish.
After a good night’s sleep we woke up refreshed and ready to drive the distance to Cleveland. This was my first full day in America. I was so impressed by the scenery, by the weather and by the size of America. I could never imagine that Cleveland was so far away. In Lebanon distances are so short. In a couple of hours one crosses Lebanon from north to south and east to west. Finally, after what seemed to me an endless drive we arrived at my brother’s residence in Cleveland, where I rested for about a week before we took to the road again, this time to Miami University in southern Ohio.
Throughout my undergraduate work at Miami University I spent my summers and Christmas vacations with my brother in Cleveland, doing odd jobs. During this time I came to realize what priests endure in America. Not only do they minister to their parishioners spiritually, but also they serve as administrators, educators, psychologists, marriage counselors, missionaries, fund-raisers and public relations experts. My brother did all that. He was on the job twenty-four hours a day. The telephone rang constantly. Sometimes I had the unpleasant duty to answer the phone when he was not at home.
Following my graduation from Miami University in the spring of 1965, I transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for graduate work. This practically ended the Cleveland period, with all its memories for both of us. As to my brother, he took a leave of absence from parish duties in 1964 to finish a degree in theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. Then, in 1966, he was nominated, elected and consecrated Metropolitan Archbishop of New York and All North America, succeeding the late Metropolitan Antony Bashir. Shortly after, he moved the archdiocesan headquarters from Brooklyn, New York, to Englewood, New Jersey. In the meantime, and before I finished my doctoral work in 1971, I married Elaine Abodeely of Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1969. Our first child, Philip, was born in August 1971, and was followed by our daughter, Leslie, a few years later. In addition, chance had it that I was offered and accepted a teaching position at Worcester State College, Worcester, Massachusetts, a three hour drive from Englewood, my brother’s residence.
Although each one of us has his concerns and responsibilities in our new roles, we remain close and constantly in touch. My brother has insisted that we spend major holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter together at his headquarters in Englewood. This we have done faithfully since 1971, with little exception. It has become a tradition, a family get-together that we—especially the children—look forward to from year to year. To listen to the service on Good Friday, Easter and Christmas, much of it chanted in Arabic, is an inspiring and spiritually uplifting experience to me personally. Somehow, Arabic moves me in a way English never does. Besides attending the religious services, we use the time to discuss family issues, work, religion, politics, Lebanon, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq. Or we reminisce about Abou Mizan, childhood days, St. Elias Monastery, Balamand, etc. In this regard, His Grace Bishop Antoun is invaluable, since my brother and Bishop Antoun are school friends and have shared many experiences together. These family meetings have strengthened our bonds and built special relationships between my children and their uncle, my brother.
The magnitude of his leadership
Although certain aspects of my brother’s leadership qualities came to light early, when he was in Lebanon as well as the United States, the full weight and magnitude of his leadership became apparent only after his elevation to the rank of Metropolitan. Metropolitan PHILIP provided not only the Antiochian Orthodox but also Orthodoxy in America with a dynamic, charismatic and selfless leadership unprecedented in the history of Orthodoxy in this land. He never played the role of a charge‘d’affaires. He was and is an enemy of the status quo. He never lets events take their course; he shapes events. When he assumed his responsibilities as Metropolitan, the Antiochian Archdiocese in North America was divided into two rival and competitive jurisdictions. He immediately contacted the late Archbishop Michael, appointed committees and began the work to heal the split. Archbishop Michael, to his credit, responded positively, and by the summer of 1975, unity papers were signed and the split became history, all with the blessings of the Holy Synod of Antioch.
Not only did Metropolitan PHILIP work for Antiochian Orthodox unity in North America, he also worked for the unity of all Orthodox Christians in North America. It pains him tremendously to see Orthodox Christians divided into several jurisdictions based on national lines. Although efforts in this regard have so far been unsuccessful, work continues and Metropolitan PHILIP is in the forefront of this effort.
On the Antiochian level, since Metropolitan PHILIP assumed the leadership of the archdiocese, the number of parishes and missions has increased substantially, perhaps quadrupled. Being a firm believer in the universality of the Orthodox Church, he opened his jurisdiction to all those who wanted to become Orthodox and who agreed to abide by the rules of the Church, regardless of national or ethnic background. On this basis, in 1987 he welcomed the Evangelicals who wanted to become Orthodox. Having come to the conclusion that being administratively dependent on the Holy Synod of Antioch impeded the growth of the archdiocese, he worked diligently for self-rule, which has already been achieved. His achievements also include the organization of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Women of North America (1973), the establishment of The Order of St. Ignatius (1975), and the purchase of the Antiochian Village (1978).
Metropolitan PHILIP’s leadership has not been limited to church affairs only. He has been an active leader for peace and justice in the Middle East, both between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and the Arab states. When the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, he worked tirelessly to stop it and to effect reconciliation among the Lebanese. He worked in harmony with other Lebanese religious leaders, Christians, Muslims and Druzes to achieve that objective. He has always been a voice of sanity and moderation in Lebanon and the Middle East.
In conclusion, Metropolitan PHILIP is action-oriented, an achiever; he is never satisfied with what there is, he is always striving for the better. He has been and continues to be a source of inspiration to me personally. My family and I, here and abroad, are proud of the creative, forceful and decisive leadership he continues to provide for the Antiochian Orthodox Church of North America, and for Orthodoxy in general. May God grant him “Many Years!”
Dr. Najib Saliba