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Insight: Greek bishops trying to oust new archbishop

Sunday, July 11, 1999

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Early this year, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh joined the nation's other Greek bishops in an attempt to force their new archbishop from office.

 
Bishop Maximos, front, leads Archbishop Spyridon and Patriarch Bartholomew on their arrival in Pittsburgh in November 1997. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette) 

Archbishop Spyridon is paranoid and incapable of governing the 1.5 million-member church in the United States, said their report to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Constantinople. The Orthodox bishops accused their archbishop of acting more Catholic than the pope:

"Not even the pope enjoys our archbishop's freedom of action, and the freedom to make arbitrary decisions without accountability," the statement said.

According to the bishops' report, Spyridon repeatedly insulted the American clergy, referring to them as "goons" who were "mentally retarded" and interested only in a comfortable lifestyle.

The bishop's blunt remarks open a rare window into the inner sanctum of church power, where faith sometimes collides with ambition and spirituality with personality. The public fight is all the more remarkable in a church widely viewed as the most mysterious of the major religious traditions in America.

During Spyridon's two years in New York, the metropolitans wrote, the laity had been alienated, the priests demoralized, church finances mismanaged. The seminary became unfit to train priests, and reactionary monks took the bishops' place in the archbishop's inner circle. As a result, dedicated lay people were calling for independence from Constantinople -- by schism if necessary.

"The Archdiocese is presently suffocating in an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, insecurity, lack of trust and vindictiveness," the five bishops wrote.

At a January showdown in Constantinople -- modern day Istanbul, Turkey -- Bartholomew told the Americans, in effect, to kiss and make up. Spyridon, he said, will be "archbishop forever."

But while Spyridon won that battle, he may have lost the war. Recent actions by the patriarchate have favored the metropolitans. The Greek press is full of speculation that the "archbishop forever" may be a short-timer.

On Friday Spyridon and three metropolitans -- Maximos, Anthony of San Francisco and Iakovos of Chicago -- received an urgent summons to a Tuesday meeting at the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The stated purpose "is to know from the Mother Church what is going on, instead of hearing it from newspapers," Maximos said.

But the three metropolitans intend to urge Bartholomew to replace Spyridon with one of the bishops now serving in the United States, Maximos said. Although Bartholomew was unwilling to trust any of the current American bishops with the post three years ago, "We stand a chance," Maximos said.

Maximos, who lives in Shadyside, presides over a three-state diocese of 60,000 registered members -- 25,000 of them in the Pittsburgh region -- and perhaps twice as many unregistered believers.

"I have realized, unfortunately, that I cannot trust Spyridon. He tells you one thing one day, but the next day something else," Maximos told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

A spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America called the metropolitans' portrait of Spyridon "highly inaccurate."

"In fairness to the metropolitans, whatever impressions they were left with did not come from lengthy experience," said the Rev. Mark Arey.

Arey said Spyridon had taken the steps necessary for healing. The patriarch told the bishops to stop fighting and Spyridon has held up his end of the bargain, he said. Given the archdiocese's past, no one could have fulfilled everyone's hopes, Arey said.

When Spyridon came in 1996, "There were unrealistic expectations and unrealistic fears by a lot of people who thought he was either sent here to undo the archdiocese or to promote the Americanization of the church," Arey said.

Governance of the archdiocese had been at odds with Orthodox tradition since its foundation in 1921. While the state church of Greece was hobbled by political turmoil and war, lay immigrants started their own parishes, which Constantinople later claimed. Through years of court battles, the laity fought the hierarchy for control of church administration.

Orthodox church government is marked by councils, in which all of a nation's bishops govern together with their patriarch, who arbitrates differences as "first among equals."

The United States is not a national church, however, but an archdiocese of Constantinople. Until 1979, local bishops such as Maximos were mere auxiliaries under the archbishop's thumb. Even after 1979, Maximos said, the archbishop did not allow them to govern the archdiocese with him in a true Synod of Bishops.

But after 37 years in office, Archbishop Iakovos was forced to resign by the ecumenical patriarch because of his role in organizing a now-infamous gathering of all Orthodox bishops in America at a Ligonier retreat center in 1994.

Although Bartholomew had approved the gathering, he reacted in fury against what he perceived as its call for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to reject his authority and create a self-governing, interethnic, American Orthodox church.

Maximos, who has been a close friend of the patriarch since they attended seminary together, believes Bartholomew was deliberately misled by certain advisers.

As a result, Bartholomew did not trust any of the American bishops to lead the archdiocese, Maximos said. Maximos recommended Spyridon for the job.

Spyridon, then the 51-year-old archbishop of Italy, had been born in Ohio and played high school football in Florida. But he had spent his career in Europe. The bishops believed he would treat them as true equals...

American-born church members were thrilled that he was an American, and one who accepted intermarriage with Catholics and Protestants as a fine way to bring in converts.

"This was to be our finest hour and it has become our worse nightmare," said Dean Popps, a spokesman for Greek Orthodox American Leaders, a group formed to oust Spyridon.

The bishops were troubled by Spyridon's actions from the start, but assured each other that he just needed time to adapt to America after a 30-year absence.

In early 1997, a sex scandal at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox seminary near Boston raised public questions about the new archbishop's judgment.

During a drunken dormitory party, a vowed celibate priest-seminarian from Greece molested a young seminarian, who gave the priest a black eye. A faculty disciplinary committee recommended expelling the priest. But the dean allowed him to graduate and return to Greece.

Soon afterward, Spyridon deposed the school's president and removed two tenured priest-professors, all of whom had sought the priest's expulsion.

"Any decent professors now will not stay," Maximos said. "The younger ones, especially, leave because there is no job security, no academic freedom. They are in an atmosphere as if they were under a Gestapo regime or a KGB regime," he said.

Spyridon has always said that the shake-up was unrelated to the sex scandal and was intended to end long-standing conflict within the seminary's staff.

A recent decision from the Association of Theological Schools removed Holy Cross Seminary from "warning" status, but said it had to show major improvement in atmosphere and governance before its next accreditation review in 2001.

The Rev. John Chakos, pastor of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon, was on sabbatical as a missionary in Tanzania when phone calls poured in about the crisis at the seminary. Friends told him "there was a kind of malaise in the church," Chakos said.

As president of the board of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, Chakos had witnessed an early debacle that damaged Spyridon's relationship with other ethnic Orthodox leaders. The mission center was a pioneering effort to bring all the ethnic Orthodox together for work overseas. Spyridon promptly attempted to claim the center for Greeks alone.

But the archbishop relented in response to complaints, showing that he can adapt, Chakos said.

"He is sincere. We have been very pleased with his involvement" since then, he said.

But another shock came in April 1998, when Spyridon tried to have the archdiocese buy him a $1.4 million house.

According to the metropolitans, Spyridon violated church procedure by having two of his aides authorize a $139,000 down payment without first consulting the Archdiocesan Council. But its Executive Committee, on which the bishops then served, refused to approve the purchase and the down payment was lost. Spyridon then expelled the bishops from the Executive Committee.

After a year of mounting criticism, the archdiocesan newspaper explained that Spyridon was renting a run-down cottage for $58,000 a year, its lease was due to expire and Spyridon saw a chance to build equity in a home suitable for entertaining heads of state.

The lost deposit was covered by an anonymous donor. Spyridon now rents for $66,000 a year.

But more accusations had emerged in affidavits supporting a suit under a New York law that allows courts to intervene when a nonprofit group is mismanaged.

According to Jerry Dimitriou, who was chief financial officer of the archdiocese from 1992 until his resignation last year, Spyridon insisted on being paid in large amounts from petty cash, with no fixed salary.

Furthermore, when Spyridon hired an aide, he ordered Dimitriou to pay half the man's salary from an unaudited charitable account, so the aide's children would not lose their need-based scholarships.

Last month a judge, without investigating Dimitriou's allegations, ruled that the accusations did not justify sweeping court intervention in church affairs.

Maximos believes Dimitriou, but also believes the archdiocese has corrected its financial practices since the suit was filed. Spyridon has admitted that he used to be paid in cash, but both he and the aide, who recently resigned, denied any wrongdoing.

The most basic problem with Spyridon's leadership is not psychological but theological, Maximos believes. The archbishop refuses to share power with his fellow bishops in the conciliar system where he is not their superior, but first among equals.

"He wants to be the only bishop, with the rest of us as puppets. His idea was to reduce us to auxiliary bishops ... taking our church back 100 years," Maximos said.

Perhaps the lowest blow, in the eyes of the metropolitans, was that their role as counselors to the archbishop seemed to have been taken by schismatic monks.

The monks had been part of an Old Calendar movement that broke from the Greek Orthodox Church decades ago when the church adopted the Gregorian calendar to date religious holidays. They had a monastery in Astoria, where Spyridon befriended them and brought them into the archdiocese.

Spyridon's supporters say he deserves credit for leading them back to the fold. His critics call the monks "fundamentalists" with an embarrassing record of anti-Semitism.

Arey counters that Spyridon was the first archbishop to put all of the bishops on the Executive Committee, along with more priests, more women and more converts. But after the archdiocesan Clergy-Laity Congress complained, the archbishop reverted "to the strictest interpretation" of who should serve, which didn't include the bishops, Arey said.

Nor does Arey believe the Synod of Bishops is as crucial as the metropolitans make it out to be.

"The synod has tremendous possibilities, but it is not... the highest authority in America. The person who exercises the highest ecclesiastical authority in America is the archbishop, with the members of the synod. But the highest authority is the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate."

The Synod of Bishops is working, he said.

But "that doesn't mean they agree on everything."

According to the bishops' report, Spyridon humiliated the bishops by usurping their 2,000-year-old canonical right to ordain priests.

Arey says the bishops simply misinterpreted Spyridon's generous actions with regard to ordination. Traditionally, many men about to graduate from seminary ask their archbishop to ordain them, though few ever received that honor.

Because Spyridon wants to visit every parish in the archdiocese, he has used ordinations as an occasion to do so, Arey said.

No matter who is at fault, the turmoil has alienated bedrock members. The opposition group, Greek Orthodox American Leaders, was founded by some members of the Leadership 100, a golden circle of benefactors to the national church. GOAL has spread its denunciations of Spyridon through mailings to parishioners' homes, regional seminars and the Internet.

In October, the five metropolitans publicly castigated Spyridon for taking church members to court. It was the first indication that many priests and laity had of how serious the division in their archdiocese had become.

The 39 priests of the Pittsburgh diocese signed a statement supporting Maximos and the other bishops. Later, Chakos joined a quarter of the nation's 600 priests in signing a statement affirming the metropolitans' report.

Half of the 500 Archons, whose title is bestowed by the Ecumenical Patriarch for service to the church, signed an open letter to Bartholomew accusing Spyridon of lying, intimidating priests and squandering money. They asked for Spyridon's immediate removal.

But Spyridon has powerful supporters.

John Catsimatidis, owner of a Greek-American newspaper in New York and president of the Archdiocesan Council, in an editorial blamed the problems on GOAL. Its leaders "are upset with our current church leadership for not being appointed to positions that they have been accustomed to in the past," he wrote.

About 10 parishes have declared they will hold their annual contributions to New York in escrow until they have better faith in the leadership.

Within the Pittsburgh diocese, SS. Constantine and Helen Cathedral in Cleveland voted 153-17 to escrow its annual $48,000 contribution to the archdiocese until Maximos declares that "substantial progress" has been made toward the resolution of issues outlined in the metropolitans' report.

GOAL says the escrowed funds total nearly $500,000, about 5 percent of the archdiocesan budget. But Arey said the archdiocese was feeling no pain.

"Some of the parishes that voted to support it don't send any money anyway," he said.

Many of Spyridon's critics call the boycott counter-productive, however, because the local dioceses receive their funds from the archdiocese.

But some lay leaders are calling for the rebellion against Constantinople that the patriarch had feared would come from the 1994 gathering in Ligonier. GOAL's Popps theorizes that the Turkish government pressured Barthol-omew to appoint Spyridon, knowing that he would divide and neutralize the church as a pro-Greece lobby in Washington.

"With all due regard to the Mother Church and tradition, we are wondering ... why we cannot elect our own bishops and have our bishops elect our own archbishop. Why are we stuck with this thoroughly inadequate primate sent to us from Europe?" he said.

But the bishops say a schism would be the worst possible outcome of Spyridon's tenure.

Maximos insists that Barthol-omew does not allow the governments of Turkey or Greece to determine his actions on behalf of the church. Because the patriarch will do what is best for his American children, his "archbishop forever" declaration may turn out to be the equivalent of George Bush's "Read my lips: no new taxes," Maximos said.

Signs from Istanbul and New York indicate that Bartholomew and his synod are unhappy with Spyridon. Most significantly, the patriarchate rejected Spyridon's candidates for bishop of three vacant dioceses and approved the metropolitans' choices instead.

The new Bishop Nicholas of Detroit is a former chancellor of Pittsburgh and a protégé of Maximos.

Now the Greek press says Bartholomew is searching for Spyridon's replacement.

There are many church leaders in America who would like Maximos as archbishop. He is a leading theologian, he is devoted to conciliar government, he was a driving force behind the Ligonier gathering, he has a degree from the seminary that great church leaders traditionally come from and he is personally devoted to the patriarch.

Unlike three years ago, he is not saying he would decline. But he says any of the eight U.S. bishops would be a fine choice.

The overseas bishops most touted by the Greek press include Harvard-educated Metropolitan Deme-trios, 70, currently a bishop in Greece, who pastored St. Mary Greek Orthodox Church of Oakmont about 30 years ago and taught at Holy Cross seminary for a decade; and Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, who has only visited the United States, but is considered a fine scholar, a good pastor and an able administrator.

Maximos knows and respects both men, but believes the next archbishop must have had experience as a bishop in the United States.

If Spyridon remains, he must apologize, Maximos said. And the most effective way to do that would be to reinstate the seminary professors whose dismissal opened the Pandora's box.

"A Greek king once had a motto: My strength is the love of my people," Maximos said. "That goes for any person in authority."


To read the metropolitans' report seewww.voithia.organd go to "hierarchs." The official Web site of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is goarch.org



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