Met. PHILIP in the View of the Very Rev. Elias Bitar, Vicar-General, Antiochian Archdiocese
Forty years ago I heard his voice: our first meeting
It was a fall afternoon, November 1968, when I, a seminarian serving at the archdiocese headquarters in Tripoli, Lebanon, heard that the Metropolitan of New York and All North American was coming for a visit; my heart rejoiced!
I finished the Balamand Seminary in 1967 and was chanting at the St. George Cathedral of Tripoli, Lebanon. I was excited to meet this famous bishop who greatly loved his clergy and his faithful. I had heard about him and seen him two years before at his consecration at the St. Elias Monastery in Dhour Shweir, Lebanon, where the Balamand choir of which I was a member chanted the Liturgy.
After lunch, His Eminence asked me to chant something. I got my music book and chanted the ninth Ode of Pasch, “The Angel,” in Arabic, from the Mitry Murr book (Alkithara Alrouhia). He smiled and said: “Do you want to come to America?” (Iza Alla Raad), “If God wills,” I responded.
In those years, people just dreamed of going to America.
From Thessalonica to Little Falls
In 1971 I left the University of Thessalonica, Greece, and came to New York, where Father Elias Audi of Yonkers (now Metropolitan of Beirut), picked me up and brought me to his parish. After one year of intensive English, three years of St. Vladimir’s and thirty-one years in the priesthood, I believe that God had a plan and Saidna PHILIP executed it. He saw in me what I could not see in myself. Sometimes parents with real vision are able to see in the lives of their children a future beyond the child’s own imagination. Saidna PHILIP had that ability. He, in reality, adopted me as one of his clergy and spiritual children. When I was in California the first ten years, he made sure I received the proper training under Father Paul Romley, my friend and best man. Father Paul requested that after seminary Saidna would assign me to assist him in Los Angeles.
Then, five years later, during a pastoral visit to Los Angeles, Saidna PHILIP, once again issued the next call. “It’s time to be on your own.” From Los Angeles to Northern California I went. Five years later, a call from Saidna Antoun initiated my transfer to Little Falls, New Jersey, ten miles from the archdiocese headquarters and eight miles from Father Joseph Allen. At St. Vladimir’s Seminary, I took over Bishop Basil’s place in teaching Byzantine chant and music, with the blessings of Saidna PHILIP, in addition to teaching the Arabic language.
A step further
Since I was eleven years old I lived among priests and bishops and everything in between, but Saidna PHILIP stands a mile above all the rest. What he saw in me brought me to these shores of the United States to serve Antioch in America. What I see in him now, and saw in him then, is the image of the good shepherd. Every priest leaves father, mother and family to serve the Church, but Saidna PHILIP takes shepherding a step further.
First, he listens to the voices of his priests. A metropolitan with all sorts of administrative situations and challenges, he still finds time to actually listen to the concerns of his priests. He listens not only as a priest, but also as a father and a concerned friend. Then he does something about that. Whether the concerns are legitimate or not, Saidna comforts, consoles, encourages, realigns and assures his love. Like a doctor, sometimes he needs to perform surgery, sometimes even a radical operation! As painful as something like this might be, he makes the healing process easier to accept, tolerate and bear.
Secondly, Saidna PHILIP never leaves his priests destitute, even when they leave him. His love overshadows even those whose mistakes led them out from beneath his omophorion. His compassion has no end or boundaries. Isn’t that the same with our Lord? The priest’s family is as special as the priest himself to Saidna PHILIP. He receives letters and calls from priest wives and children, which he answers patently and compassionately. Not too many people are willing to do that!
His home is our home
First, as his neighbor I am always overwhelmed by his hospitality and kindness. I am always treated with utmost respect. He greets everyone as if he was extremely special. He makes his guests feel welcomed and loved.
For a long time, as I went through school, I saw that bishops don’t dine with priests. This bishop dines even with seminarians more than once a year. When I attended St. Vladimir’s I was invited to the headquarters for dinner with the seminarians. Even until this day the tradition continues.
His modesty brings him closer to our hearts. Not only do we have great love for him, but we also know that he loved us first with the love of God. Every time I happen to visit his home, I can’t leave without having lunch. His home is always open to everyone—“but please call first so Almaza may have enough plates on the table.”
I traveled with him on a few occasions. I have never sat next to a Metropolitan to receive confession, never stayed in a room next to his on a trip or had to call room service to bring breakfast. Who am I? He made me feel good as an individual and I thanked God that Saidna PHILIP is my metropolitan. I am proud to be associated with him.
For what he sees in me
Music has been my life and serving him was, is and always will be, an absolute honor. Then he appointed me his Vicar General. Unworthy as I am, I have his love and trust. For that I am grateful. There is a song by Kenny Rogers entitled: “For what he sees in me.” Thank you Saidna for what you saw and still see in me. Looking back at these forty years, I see not only hundreds of accomplishments which are a result of a deeper, and a more special you; I also see a heart which has once been opened by doctors, and thousands of times by your children, seeking your love and friendship. You kept your heart open all your life. You have taken the Church from glory to glory because you are driven by faith, determination and conviction.
God has carried you across stony and thorny terrains. He has led you over mountains of illness and valleys of challenges. You have gone through everything to see your dreams come true. But those dreams were the Church’s promised land. You took all of us by the hand. You did not split the Red Sea or cause water to gush forth from the rock. You did not bring down manna from heaven or talk to the burning bush. But to us you are the Moses whom we know and love. With you we laugh and cry, we stumble and rise. In you we find consolation in times of sorrow, and hope in times of despair. Progress with you has been a joyful journey. You have been a good captain and a shepherd. You have gone after many lost sheep and brought them home. You have taken us to war over apathy, regression and stagnation, and we can feel confident and victorious.
You kept us deeply rooted in Antioch and kept our arms open for America. You have made the Antioch of North America as the promised land of Orthodoxy, due to your faith and leadership. Your leadership is an everlasting journey with us. When we are not led by your word, we are driven by your love.
Many Years, Saidna! Thank you for the precious gift you continue to give to us: your life. May God grant you good health to continue the journey, so that we may continue to be led by you!
Father Elias Bitar, Vicar General