By Anton Vrame Ph.D.
Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute
The future patriarch was born Aristoclis Spyrou on March 25, 1886 in the village of Vasilikon, in the province of Ioannina, Epiros. That region was still part of the Ottoman Empire. It wouldn't become a part of Greece until after 1912 and the border resolution after World War 1. His father, Matthew, was the village doctor, so we can assume that Aristoclis grew up in better than average conditions. At thirteen years old - in 1899 - the young Aristoclis and his mother fell terribly ill. Aristoclis was unconscious for some time. During this period his mother passed away. Upon his recovery, the family told the boy that they had sent his mother to Konitsa to recuperate. However, after three months, she had still not returned. One day a visitor came to the house and asked, "Does Matthew Spyrou, who lost his wife some time ago live here?" This is how Aristoclis learned of his mother's death. (Tsakonas, p. 12).
At the age of sixteen, he entered the Patriarchal Theological School in Halki under the patronage of Grand Chancellor Athenagoras Eleftheriou. In March 1910, he was ordained to the diaconate "receiving the name Athenagoras to honor his spiritual advisor and benefactor, and because of his admiration of another man with the same name, the philosopher and apologist, Athenagoras, who lived in the second century A.D." (Papaioannou, p. 45). His first assignment was to be in charge of schools in the city of Monastir in what is today Yugoslavia. His administrative abilities shone and in two years he was Chancellor of the diocese.
It was during this period that we can see something that would become a hallmark of Athenagoras, what we today call the "face to face" encounter. Patriarch Athenagoras said about his time in Monastir:
"I had some wonderful experiences of the love of which simple people are capable, of dialogue, and of my first encounter with Christians of the western Church. I developed a strong personal contact with the local villagers, and each day, about a dozen of them would pay me a visit. When I asked them what they came to see, they replied in their simple language, 'So that we can look at each other.' From this looking at each other I developed a practical philosophy: to love communication with men as I loved men, as individuals, because in man I see God, and behind the miracle of human existence is God Himself." (Tsakonas, p. 13).
After the transfer of the diocese to the Church of Serbia in 1918, and a six-month stay at Mount Athos, Athenagoras winds up serving in Athens, Greece, as Archdeacon to the Metropolis of Athens, under the leadership of the legendary Meletios Metaxakis. This was a time of political instability, not only for Greece, but for the Church. The controversy between those who favored the monarchy (Royalists) and those in favor of democracy led by Eleftherios Venizelos (Venizelist) was in full bloom. When the Venizelists had taken control of the government in 1918, they forced out the royalist Metroplitan Theoklitos and had the Venizelist Meletios installed as Metropolitan of Athens. In 1920, the government positions switched; Meletios was out and Theoklitos was back in. Through it all, Athenagoras survived, not only not
losing his position but actually being promoted. Somehow, Athenagoras had managed to stay above the factions. He was liked by all and would stay in his position until 1922, when he was elected Bishop of Corfu (Papaioannou, P. 47).
These are important details to know, because in this period, the Greek community in the United States was being strongly affected by the Royalist - Venizelist controversy. Parishes were being started based on political affiliation. The Greek parishes were part of the Church of Greece, being "lent" to it by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1908. However, they had no local leadership. After his removal from office in 1920, Meletios Metaxakis came to America in February 1921 and organized the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America under the Church of Greece in September of that year.
Just a few months later, Meletios was elected Ecumenical Patriarch in November. Enthroned on February 8, 1922, in his address Metaxakis gives his famous line, "I saw the largest and best Orthodox Church in the diaspora, and I understood how exalted the name of Orthodoxy could be, especially in the great country of the United States of America, if more than two million Orthodox people there were united into one Church organization, an 'American Orthodox Church.'" (FitzGerald, 1998, p. 39). One month later, Metaxakis would reverse the 1908 decree regarding the Greek parishes in America (which were part of the Church of Greece), returning the newly formed Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and authorize the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America in 1922, as we now know as an autonomous eparchy of the Church of Constantinople.
Athenagoras, as I mentioned above, was elected Bishop of Corfu at the end of 1922. In this role, Athenagoras shone. Corfu had become home to many Greek refugees who had been displaced in the Smyrna disaster that year, when the Turkish Government forced out thousands after the defeat of the Greek Army. On Corfu, Athenagoras organized what we would call a job placement office for the refugees and a day care center for their children. He wanted to upgrade the state of the local clergy, so he opened a seminary. He organized young people, modeling his program after the YMCA. He organized an "Association of Philanthropists," which established and supported shelters, tried to rescue women from prostitution, a sanitarium for tuberculosis victims, programs for girls without dowries, and as I mentioned earlier, schools for children, especially but not exclusively orphans.
As Bishop of Corfu, Athenagoras would begin to have more formal contacts with Roman Catholics, of which there was a sizeable population on the island. "he invited all of the island's inhabitants to work together in the service of the poor, the sick, and the needy." (Papaioannou, p. 53). Armenians had also been affected by events in Turkey and found themselves on Corfu. The Armenian community approached Bishop Athenagoras and requested a church and a priest for Holy Communion. "Athenagoras knew that there were certain differences between Greek and Armenian Orthodox Churches, but in moments of crisis, he thought, one does not indulge in theological discussions. So not only did he fulfill their request, but he himself officiated at the Holy Communion." (Tsakonas, p. 18).
Athenagoras served as Bishop of Corfu for eight years. In that period, we see a pattern that would become a hallmark of Athenagoras' witness: organization of people, establishment of institutions, a vibrant concern for the social welfare of people, and ecumenical openings. Each of these would be tested in his next assignment, as Archbishop of North and South America.
Elected in 1930 to replace Archbishop Alexander, who had been archbishop from the creation of the Archdiocese, Fr. George Papaioannou's (1976) biography states that Athenagoras was elected as a "solution to the American problem." The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese was a mess. Congregations had divided over political issues in Greece, non-canonical bishops had been elected, parishes were changing alliances. On top of it all the Great Depression had deepened, people were out of work and broke, which also affected clergy and parish life. Alexander had proven particularly inept in dealing with all of these matters.
Athenagoras signaled a new era. His most important concern was the unity of the Archdiocese itself. To achieve this aim, the 1931 Clergy - Laity Congress adopted a new charter, eliminating the autonomy (see Manolis, 2003 for details) and a synodal system. Athenagoras became the sole bishop of the archdiocese, all other bishops were reduced to titular status. But there was an interesting twist. According to George Papaioannou (1976), autonomy could be restored once the archdiocese was more stable financially, administratively, and spiritually, but also once the agreement could be reached on the status of all of the national churches in America. In 1931, the recognition that the situation of paralell jurisdictions needed to be corrected is already evident. While there was resistance to the changes that were being made, Athenagoras won the day. Athenagoras worked tirelessly travelling throughout the country to win over the people and eliminate all divisions. His personality was disarming, and no one could oppose him for very long.
In America, Athenagoras follwed the pattern of Corfu, establishing institutions and organizations that are still with us today; 1931, the Ladies Philoptochos Society; 1937, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology; 1944, St. Basil's Academy. In 1942, he oversaw the purchase (for $33,000) and move of the Archdioces headquarters from an old house in Astoria to 10 East 79th Street in Manhattan. He organized young people into the Greek Orthodox Youth (Ellenike Orthodoxe Neolaia
) movement. He solidified the archdiocese's finances by establishing the monodollarion
system of 1942, by which every parish paid $1.00 per parishoner per year to the archdioeces to support itself.
He was also concerned about Inter-Orthodox matters and as the exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch, he knew that he should take the lead. In March, 1941 Athenagoras wrote Metroplitan Theophilos of the Russian Metropolia (what is now the OCA) the following: "Our Church ... is still 'the forgotten Church in America.' Clergy and faithful, we are not sufficiently known to each other. We have made no efforts to make our Orthodox Church and the immense treasure of her dogma ... known to the American public in general." (Papaioannou, p. 173). Athenagoras proposed a common Orthodox publication. Unfortunately, such a magazine still does not exist.
During World War II, there was a practical matter that required joint Orthodox cooperation. In the Selective Service Act, the Orthodox Church was not considered a regular church, depriving the servicemen of any benefits from the Act. To remedy the situation, Athenagoras proposed a Federation of Orthodox Churches that was created in 1942. In February 1943 it would be legally incorporated. The Federation then lobbied the State of New York for official recognition, which was granted by the New York State Legislature on March 20, 1943. On August 22, 1943, a heirachical liturgy with participation from the six jurisdictions (GOA, Syrian, Moscow, Serbian, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian) was celebrated in Buffalo, New York. The next day, New York Governor Tom Dewey said the following: "In the Old World their jurisdictions differed only in languages and in the nationalities of their parishioners. Transported to the New World, their worshippers came to realize that even those superficial differences were erased by their common language. In short, they are no longer Greek, Russian, Syrian or Serbian, but American. Hence the union resulting in the Federated Orthodox Greek Primary Jurisdicition in America, the Church which shall be known in the future as the American Orthodox Church." (Papaioannou, p. 176).
The incorporated Federation had seven purposes:
a) to secure the unity of action on matters common to the Orthodox in America.
b) to accomplish uniformity of worship and practice, and of religious education, including the establishment of a theological seminary
c) to coordinate activities
d) to promote religious collaboration among all Orthodox in the western hemisphere
e) to maintain and propagate the teachings of the Orthodox Churches
f) to create agencies or bodies to aid in the work of the Churches
g) to acquire, hold and convey property.
Unfortunately, the Federation actually did not do any of these things. At the time the needs of the war effort were dominant; securing status for servicemen and women was paramount. Being named a "fourth major religion" was significant for this small group of immigrants. This recognition of the Orthodox Church as a major faith would be played out throughout the United States, state by state. However, we can see the effects of this work, SCOBA and its agencies would be created in the decades to come.
On November 1, 1948, Athenagoras was elected Ecumenical Patriarch. On January 26, 1949 he would fly to his new home in Air Force One (then called the Sacred Cow), lent to him by President Truman. Some have speculated that this was a signal that the American government somehow approved of Athenagoras' election or had been involved in pushing his candidacy. It is hard to say for sure. Athenagoras was certainly an outsider, not a Turkish citizen (which he would acquire), and seen as an innovator. From the reports, there were many at the Phanar who were not enthusiastic about his election. He took up his role during the Cold War; the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan were in their infancy.
At the same time, the stage of global Orthodoxy was challenging as well The Patriarchate of Moscow was flexing its muschles especially in the areas of Soviet domination. The concept of Moscow as the Third Rome was being resurrected. Athenagoras began to respond to these challenges. He called for the convocation of a Pan-Orthodox Great and Holy Council in 1952. The first pre-conciliar meeting would be held in 1961 in Rhodes (the most recent pre-conciliar meeting was held in 1992). One of the outcomes of the Rhodes meeting was that the Orthodox agreed to adopt a common policy on relations with other Christian Churches. By 1964, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox were hodling "unofficial" consultations on the divisions emenating from the Fourth Ecumenical Council. These too, would have historic consequences, as the two divided Churches saw in one another the same apostolic faith albeit in different terms.
The perspective of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is clearly different than that of a local bishop. Patriach Athenagoras' witness changed dramatically, especially in the area of relations to other churches. His breakthroughs with the Roman Catholic Church will most likely be Athenagoras' greatest witness. We have to put this in context. In the post-war years, the spirit of international cooperation was quite high in the West, particularly because of the Cold War. The UN and the World Council of Churches were both established at this time. Ecumenical dialogue was occurring throughout the world. Churches that had been divided for centuries were actually talking to one another. The Roman Catholics stayed aloof from these movements.
Then in October 1958, John XXIII was elected. Three months into his pontificate he announced the convocation of an Ecumenical Council: Vatican II. The world was shocked, including the Orthodox world. No one knew what to expect. Athenagoras would respond by sending Archbishop Iakovos ( who was on his way to enthronement as primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese 1 April 1959) to Rome to meet Pope John.
On March 17, the two would meet. It was the first meeting between a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Bishop of Rome since May 1547. One month later, a representative of the Pope would be in Constantinople meeting Athenagoras (Stormon p. 9).
One of the great issues was whether or not the Orthodox Churches would send observers to Vatican II. We did not send them to the session in 1963. But after regular contacts with the Orthodox churches, we agreed to send observers to the third and fourth sessions in 1964 and 1965 respectively.
We shouldn't underestimate the significance of these times and moments. Two churches had not only been separated sine 1054, there had been no formal contact in over 400 years. In 1963, Pope Paul wrote a handwritten letter to Patriarch Athenagoras. The last time this had been done was in 1584 when Pope Gregory XIII informed Patriarch Jeremiah II about reform of the calendar (Stormon, p. 9).
By 1963 the contacts between Rome and Constantinople were becoming more and more regular. It was time for the heads of the Churches to meet - to look at one another, reminiscent Athenagoras' early years.
In Decemebr of that year, Pope Paul announced that he would visit the Holy Land in early 1964. Athenagoras, announcing the news in Constantinople stated that is would be an act of divine providence if the heads of the Churches could meet in Jerusalem to pray together at the Holy Sites. On January 5, 1964 Athenagoras and Paul VI would meet on the Mount of Olives. An amusing story from this visit was Atehnagoras' remarks to the media. He was asked, "Why have you come to Jerusalem?" Athenagoras' reply, "To say 'Good Morning' to my beloved brother the Pope. You must remember that is is five hundred years since we have spoken to each other!" (Tsakonas, p. 56). After meeting with Paul, Athenagoras asked a confidante, "Well what do you think of it, was it a success?" The confidante offered a scholarly reply about the council of Florence, the size of the retinues, and more, to which Athenagoras answered, "Nevertheless, we did achieve something positive today, didn't we?"
Emotions ran high. Letters between the Pope and Patriarch continually express the joy of the meeting. A real breakthrough had been made. There were Orthodox observers at Vatican II, including Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh, a young priest at the time. A proposal was made for regular dialoge between the two churches. The feeling at the time was that there had to be an end to the 900-year-old state of schism between the two churches before such a dialogue could occur. Something had to be done about 1054. Over the next year, delegations from the two sides studied the matter and concluded that the anathemas of 1054 were not acts excommunicating churches from one another, but individuals. These acts could be overturned or as the Orthodox decree of 7 December 1965 would put it, "remove them from the memory of the Church." Simultaneously in Rome, Paul VI did the same. While we should not underestimate its effect. Neither did Athenagoras or Pope Paul VI. The joint declaration includes these words: "Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I together with his Synod are aware that this gesture, expressive of justice and mutual forgiveness, cannot be sufficient to put an end to the subjects of difference ancient or more recent, which still exist between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, and which through the action of the Holy Spirit will be surmounted through purification of hearts, through regrets for the wrongs done in the course of history, and through a practical desire to reach a common understanding and expression of apostolic faith and the demands it lays upon us. In carrying out this symbolic action, however, they hope that it will be acceptable to God, who is quick to pardon us when we pardon one another and that it will be appreciated by the whole Christian world ... as the expression of a sincere mutual desire for reconciliation, and as an invitation to follow up, in a spirit of trust, esteem, and mutual charity, the dialogue will lead them to live afresh, for the greater good of souls and the coming of God's kingdom, i the full communion of faith, of brotherly harmony, and of sacramental life, which obtained between them throughout the first thousand years of the life of the Church." (Stormon, p. 128).
It has been over forty years since those historic moments. We should stop here and ask about the legacy of Athenagoras. He would live another seven years, falling asleep on July 7, 1972. During the remaining years of his primacy, Pope Paul would visit the Pahnar and Athenagoras would go to Rome in 1967. The exchange of letters and visits would continue and be extended to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and Patriarchs Dimitrios and Bartholomew. The two Churches would establish an International Dialogue of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. The International dialogue met continually, was halted for nearly a decade over issues of the Eastern Catholic Churches and was resumed in 2005. In the United States the American dialogue began before the International one and continues to meet to this day. The Roman Catholic Church would return the relics of many saints to the Orthodox Churches. The first was the head of St. Andrew to Patras in June 1964. This practice continues today. Last year, Ecumenical Patriach Bartholomew received the relics of St. Joh Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian. The PAOI possesses a relic of St. Demetrios that is a direct result of this practice.
Athenagoras inaugurated regular contacts of the Orthodox Churches, especially through Pre-conciliar meetings in preparation for the Great and Holy Council. While the Great Council is still not a reality, perhaps the preparatory meetings have been even more significant as they have regularly brought together representatives from global Orthodoxy to discuss matters of mutual concern.
Athenagoras inaugurated the regular contacts between the Oriental Orthodox and Byzantine Churches. As I mentioned earlier, this oldest rift in Christianity, from 451, has steadily been healed.
For America, Atehnagoras' legacy was huge. The many institututions he establised still exist. There is a memory of pan-Orthodox cooperation in the Federation, which led to the creation of SCOBA. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese had its synodal system restored in 1977.
That the PAOI would have chosen to honor this patriarch by renaming itself in 1986, Athenagoras' centenary, after him is a testament to his witness of Orthodoxy. The PAOI's task is to honor this great leader by witnessing the Orthodox Tradition in the ecumenical and interreligious mix of the Graduate Theological Union, our academic home. It is to work together, as the Federation of 1943 hoped for, toward a pan-Orthodox center of theological education. It is to look at one another and share our faith in Christ.
FitzGerald, Thomas. (1998) The Orthodox Church. Westport, CT: Praeger
Manolis, Paul (2003). The History of the Greek Church in America: In Acts & Documents. Berkeley, CA: Ambelos Press.
Papaioannou, George (1976). From Mars Hill to Manhattan: The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese under Patriach Athenagoras I. Minneapolis, MN: Light and Life Publishing Company.
Stormon, E. J. (1987). Towards the healing of schism: The Sees of Rome and Constantinople. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press
Tsakonas, Demetrios (1977). A Man sent by God: The life of Patriarch Atehnagoras of Constantinople. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Press