The Word Magazine May 1984 Page 5-7



by Father George S. Corey

Over a year ago, Your Beatitude gave an interview to Father Antony Gabriel for THE WORD, in which you spoke of a renaissance for the Church of Antioch. Since that time to now, how much of your dream has become a reality?

I wish, at the very beginning of this interview, to thank you for this opportunity. I’m referring, of course, to you, Father George, and also to Father Antony for what has previously been published in THE WORD. I referred in the first interview to renaissance as not only a dream, but also a purpose, a direction for all our endeavors for the future. It seems to me that the See of Antioch is really making tremendous steps in this direction, in the sense that I believe, on the level of the Holy Synod, we have achieved full unity. This helps to have a clearer view of the totality of the See of Antioch. Our unity helps the faithful to reflect that unity. I believe this is one of the real times in which the people sense that we are truly one. People no more speak about dissensions, problems and disunity within the See of Antioch. This is very important morally speaking and especially as an image which is shown to others, whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox.

Take, for example, in the area of the sacraments, and especially the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. I believe the See of Antioch is now one of the very responsible agents for dispensing and maintaining marriages. The Church behaves very responsibly in this respect, and we no longer hear about divorces, except for very few exceptions now. The slogan, “the Orthodox Church (meaning the See of Antioch) is the Church of divorce,” has been completely changed now. We can safely say that every other church could be called “the church of divorce,” except the Orthodox Church here.

The reason for the peace and discipline we now enjoy is precisely this: we have tried to end all dissensions, whether on the level of the Holy Synod or among the people. Whatever divisions among some bishops at a certain time, or whatever problems among some of the faithful here and elsewhere, all of these have been put into order for the benefit of the Church. This atmosphere helps us to visualize the See of Antioch as a totality; not only as a spot on the map in this area, but also in all the dioceses whether here, North America, South America, Australia or wherever in the world. We are helped in this peaceful situation to visualize the whole Church of Antioch and to encompass everybody in one direction and, if possible, in one structure. We believe this will help us to be stronger and to be better witnesses for our Orthodox Faith.

What institutions does the Patriarchate maintain and how do you fund them?

One of our most important institutions is the St. John of Damascus School of Theology in Balamand. The North American Archdiocese was very much involved in rebuilding and now maintaining it. We hope this school of theology will satisfy our aspirations and our hopes for the future. I think it will need much work and attention. It is not an easy matter to help people to grow according to Orthodox ecclesiastical life, but we are moving in that direction. Last year, we had fifty-two students which is many for us. When I was Dean there (before becoming the Patriarch), we had only an ecclesiastical school on the secondary level with only sixty-five students in the pre-theological studies. Today it is different. Many of the dioceses in this area are working very seriously in getting to “the Orthodox man,” that is to say, to his spiritual life. We have no substitutes for our interests in the faithful and the believer. This aspect of “man” comes before all other considerations. This cannot be said for all dioceses of the Patriarchate. We are very proud of what is happening in North America — not all dioceses are like the North American Archdiocese in this respect. We thank God for this model which certainly shows the seriousness which we can speak of. However, in some other places, especially in South and Central America, very important efforts should be undertaken. We have to labor very hard there. For thirty years, not a single ecclesiastic came out of that area in which we have a huge number of Orthodox people —more than two million! This is more Orthodox than we have in all this area, including Lebanon. This, I don’t believe, is very normal. We have no harvest there — in fact — we don’t sow!

That is why I am planning a visit to South America. I have already prepared the atmosphere by stating that I am not going there to be invited here and there to socialize. Secondly, I am not going to collect money for anybody on earth. I am going to visit the clergy and faithful and to instill in them a sense of mission and witness for Orthodoxy in their lands. I’m trying to get them out of their cocoon.

Now, concerning the institutions we have, you know the Church has always expressed its witness through institutions such as schools, and we have so many. We Orthodox have the most important hospitals in this area; we have many orphanages, societies of a charitable nature for the poor, the refugees and several homes for the elderly. Certainly this is one of the many ways the Church raised its children. We try, whenever possible, to increase the number of our institutions and to properly fund them through the gifts of the faithful and whatever income is available to us. Lately we have made arrangements to have an archives center on the level of the Holy Synod that will be built in Lebanon. We already have the necessary funds for that center; however, we wait for better circumstances to build (meaning the war in Lebanon). As for monastic communities, we have them, but, in my opinion, we need a revolution to correct the situation. Nothing is normal in the area of monasticism for the Church of Antioch, and I am waiting for the proper time to begin these corrections; rest assured, these corrections will be done. It is an important part of my dream of a renaissance. Monasticism is the best of our purity as the Church.

In North America, the laity are a dynamic force within the Church. We have Parish Councils, women’s and men’s organizations, a strong youth movement, Sunday Schools, Choirs, Adult Study groups, etc. The laity maintain the parishes financially. Every summer, we have six parish life conferences sponsored by SOYO; every two years, our national convention for our clergy and laity, and every other summer, a symposium for the clergy. Do you have similar programs in Syria and Lebanon whereby the clergy and laity feel responsible for the welfare of the Church — or do the hierarchy make all the decisions?

I think it is unfair to believe that our people are separated from the clergy. Also, we are very conscious that the clergy are part

of the people of God. I believe our mode of life is preciously with our people. Maybe you have noticed while you have spent a few days here at the Patriarchate that, on one hand, by the reorganization which has been done, and on the other hand, the kind of administration we now have, that already we have facilitated everything to accommodate our people. They now know to whom to make requests; it seems to be clear to them, and there is no more ambiguity. They now know how money is spent, how it is distributed to the institutions we have. In this respect, our major interests are fulfilled in the sense that we are for our people — and our people are with us. I dare say, we are one of the Sees of Orthodoxy in which there is a very important link between the faithful and the clergy. This explains the vitality —the people come and go here freely as you have witnessed while here. I am always here as a reference to all persons, except for those who come to address their grievances to the Spiritual Court. Then the judges are there for that purpose. I do not interfere in any possible way. Apart from that, the people are our prime concern. The people here in Damascus feel that the Patriarch and the clergy work directly with and for them. All the structures you have in North America are alive here in some way or another. I, myself, work with everybody representing the whole community, the Diocese Council. I have others who represent the finance council — all of these are lay people. All our societies are lay people. All the members of the Board of Trustees of our schools are lay people. All churches have lay people who help the clergy administrate the affairs of those churches (except sacramental services). We even involve specialists in our work: lawyers, engineers, etc., are used because they are there and we clergy cannot substitute for their expertise. We work as a family, an organized family in which there is a division of the work and a respect for the specialists. But of course, I should not negate the last resort which is the spiritual judgment which comes from the clergy. He is the final word.

The Church ofAntioch is a leader in world Orthodoxy and on the ecumenical scene. How does Your Beatitude understand our role in these two areas of concern?

On the world level, I don’t know if you feel the presence of the See of Antioch on other Orthodox Churches. It is not very advisable to speak much about it because it would seem that we boast. But I wish to say that the Antiochian Church, with its bishops, clergy and laity here and elsewhere, are called upon to make things happen. In this respect, let us consider my role among my brother patriarchs. It is precisely to be there among them in order to incite things to happen. I have noticed that all my requests for action, for meetings, for declarations, etc., are met positively by the other churches. This is especially true in dealing with the problems of the Middle East and the future of our Christian presence here. We already have a secretariat located in Cyprus for all the Patriarchates in the East. Today we consult with each other and act together in as many matters as possible. Thus, the oneness of the Church is maintained.

We live in a pluralistic society in North America where there is separation of Church and State. This has both positive and negative effects. We Orthodox are a minority on a continent where Roman Catholics and Protestants outnumber us greatly. On the other hand, we are totally free to practice our Orthodox Faith as we wish, without interference from other communions or from the State. What is your relationship to the State, and how do you survive in a predominately non-Christian world?

I know precisely what you speak about because I have been to North America on several occasions (before becoming Patriarch), and I am in close contact with Metropolitan PHILIP as I was with the late Metropolitan ANTONY of blessed memory. I know the role and situation of the Church in North America. I think we are moving in the same direction. I speak first of all about the function of the servants of God in the life of the Church and the State. I believe the very division or distinction of clergy and laity is but functional because all of us belong to the people of God and all the people of God have their priesthood. The whole distinction (separation) is illogical. We don’t want to concert that into a social or spiritual division. We refuse that idea completely! There may be some points that we need to mention in this respect:

Maybe one of the major things we should forget (and have not in fact) is that we are no more in one Empire. Canon Laws were conceived for one Empire. We don’t have empires now. I envy those who have their spiritual geography corresponding to their political and social geography. But we have a problem. When you speak of the See of Antioch being One, and then when you come to an area and find a different status, that which you can fulfill here, cannot be fulfilled there, or you have completely different minds, different conceptions, etc., you then impair visions! But anyway, we are supposed to be One by our very presence because God allows the Church to be a living Body, precisely in order to meet living situations. I think this is one of the most important questions we need to address today. Maybe some of our people are not sensitive to this. Sometimes we have the impression that ideas are given too easily — supposing always uniformity of atmosphere situations. But life is not like that. We certainly try to maintain a basis for the unity of the See of Antioch wherever we may be, in whatever geographical area, whether it be in a pluralistic society as in North America or in a predominately non-Christian society as here. We survive by maintaining our unity as the Living Body of Christ.

YourBeatitude, I had the opportunity to visit the Church of the Holy Cross in Damascus last evening and witnessed the youth movement there performing some very vital services for the Church:

adult religious education, chanters’ school, youth leaders mapping out programs for social action, etc. What can you tell us about the youth of the Middle East?

A note should be said about our youth! I believe that the See of Antioch should be proud that the first youth movements were conceived in the Church of Antioch. Maybe this is not 100% true in the sense that in Greece there were existing youth movements before ours, but I am sure that none of them belonged to the body of the Church officially. Our youth movements are active, and the Holy Synod adopts all the activities of the youth. In fact, the Holy Synod invites the representative of the youth movement to attend the Synod meetings and this happens officially. We consult with them, and they with us. We want to be directly involved in all the needs of our young people. If I remember correctly, the youth movement in North America has been directly influenced by the youth movement here.* I do remember that myself. Another point which is very important — SYNDESMOS was conceived by Antiochian people. It was instituted in Paris, France, in 1952-53. I will never forget Metropolitan MELETIOS telling me, “I do remember the day you (Patriarch IGNATIUS) spoke about SYNDESMOS in my church.” We are aware of our youth certainly and the role they play in the Church of Antioch everywhere. In some churches elsewhere, the youth have no role. We cannot speak as much as we would like in this regard. Their spiritual work is being done, more or less, in some places in the underground.

Father George, you spoke about your visit to the Holy Cross Church in Damascus. I wish you could witness our work there on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. I really thank God for our present situation now, if compared to what I have seen ten or fifteen years ago. I remember at one time when I was in the Patriarchical Cathedral of St. Mary that we had two chanters and less than ten people in church for the Liturgy, including the Priest! Now, thanks to God, the Cathedral is almost full. I have the impression that our people return to their churches when there is proper spirituality, where they and their problems and aspirations can be addressed. At a certain time, a member will return and find hope and renewal. I’m trying to address our clergy to this; for exam-

ple, when we say, “Let us pray to the Lord,” what does this mean to us? Some clergy will feel that it is us, the clergy, who must pray to the Lord. But we all stand, face to face with the Lord, clergy and laity alike. The Creed, the “Our Father,” even the prayers of Compline during Lent, are sung by all the faithful with the clergy. I, myself ask them to sing together these prayers and hymns. I am very grateful to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that the inner life of the Church is rather lively, very much alive! Maybe those who come to visit our churches now feel something different than they did before. We are certainly clearer now which means we do care about the House of God and those who dwell in it. People feel at home now —there is order in the Church which makes it possible for everyone to see, to hear, and to be seen.

I want to sincerely thank Your Beatitude for this interview and for allowing me the opportunity to stay in the Patri-

archate these few days to see and experience the inner life of our Holy Church of Antioch. We anxiously await your visit to our North American Archdiocese during the summer of 1985, when our faithful can kiss your venerable hand and receive your apostolic blessings. May God grant you many years!

*Editor’s note: In actuality, the youth movement began in North America several years before it began in the Middle East. Founded in 1938 in New England, it was called the Federation of Syrian Orthodox Young People’s Clubs. In 1939 it changed its name to the Orthodox Catholic Frontier. Then in 1945 the region voted to change its name to the Federated Syrian Orthodox Clubs. Finally in 1949, it joined with other youth movements in other regions to be called SOYO. We do agree however that the youth movements, both in North America and in the Middle East, have influenced each other for the welfare of the Church.

Father George S. Corey interviewed the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East at the Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria, during a Middle East tour in October 1983.