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The Great Man and the Friend

On the eve of the Antiochian Unity Conference convened by Patriarch John X and meeting at Balamand Seminary in Lebanon on June 26, 2014, it is fitting to reflect on our North American Antiochian Orthodox journey. Honorary Member of the Archdiocese's Board of Trustees Dr. Eugene J. Sayfie offered this intimate portrait of friendship and honor in his recent tribute published in The Word, June 2014. 

Honorable hierarchs, beloved reverend Father, esteemed fellow members of the Board of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, brothers and sisters in Christ: I come to tell you a story of the journey of a great man and a friend. It is a story of work, service, determination, friendship, joy, love, and ultimately honor.

The great man was born in the hills of Lebanon. The friend was born in the hills of West Virginia. At age 14, the great man was ordained a deacon in the Antiochian Orthodox Church and worked hard in devoted service to those he assisted. At 14, the friend was simply selling newspapers during the day and working 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. on Saturday night stuffing inserts in the Sunday newspaper. Every Sunday, however, the friend served as an altar boy to the priest at St. George Orthodox Church in Charleston, West Virginia.

In 1949, the great man was selected to serve as secretary to the Patriarch of the Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria. The same year, the friend on occasion was able to serve Metropolitan Samuel and the great Metropolitan Anthony when they visited. The friend was an aspiring poet in his youth and contemplated the priesthood. He ran into a problem: there was a war in Korea, and he abhorred war. Therefore he was forced to go to college in 1952. In 1959, the great man was ordained a priest and sent to the parish of Cleveland, Ohio. In 1960, the friend graduated from medical school and began his professional life as an interning physician at the Harvard Medical Service in Boston, Massachusetts.

In 1962, the friend continued his cardiac training in Cleveland, Ohio, and met the great man, who became his priest and his friend. It was immediately evident when he first met this great man that he was someone special, unique, and passionate about his work. He was innovative and creative, and he loved life. He was very devoted to his work, which reminds one of the words of the great poet, Khalil Gibran: "To love life through labor is to be intimate with life's inmost secret; work is love made visible." He loved his life through his work. He loved his people. He wanted to serve his church, his people, his country, his God. Please remember his devotion to his work.

In 1964, the friend moved to Miami to continue his cardiology practice. In 1966, fortuitously, the friend was on a vacation in Beirut, Lebanon, and by chance ran into the great man in the Phoenician Hotel in Beirut, Lebanon. The friend did not know why the great man was there and was unaware that he was preparing to become the Metropolitan Archbishop of North America, but they were happy to greet each other.

The great man said he was an Arab by birth, American by choice. In his role as a Christian leader, his love for those in need was exemplified by his hard work, in trying to help those who suffered, particularly those who suffered during the war of 1967 in the Middle East. He always had a great affection for those people. He worked to develop a program to raise money for the Arab refugees of the 1967 war. He was in Washington, D.C., in 1968, trying to meet with ambassadors of Arab countries in hopes of raising money to help these refugees. As often happened when he was working on problems in the Middle East, he was left disappointed and in despair. Several hours after that unsuccessful meeting, he suffered a heart attack in the State Department. Fortunately, he survived and he came to Miami to recover. There I became his doctor and his friend.

He was a great friend, a friend indeed when a friend was in need. We had the honor of spending many wonderful times together, and we had many interesting conversations about life, love, the history of the world, and personal issues that perhaps he and I could only share with a few. I was honored to have him marry my wife, Suzie, and me, and two of my daughters, and to baptize most of my grandchildren. He was obviously a brilliant man, a person with a loving heart, one with great vision and determination. He had very high expectations for his work in shepherding his flock. He loved the song, "The Impossible Dream." He believed, however, that few things were impossible – only difficult. We deal with difficult problems every day of our lives, and life without stress, as we all understand, is called death.

He enjoyed his life. He had a great time, but he felt a great sense of urgency about carrying on his work and his service to his people. He really enjoyed his life despite the many challenges he faced, whether it was his health, his clergy, the laity, the political issues, the whole Orthodox diaspora, and his passion and concern for the many people he served. He was an American by choice. He loved his country and was concerned about the travails of all the people of this country.

He especially loved children. He treated my children and all other children of the Archdiocese as if they were his own, but he had a special place in his heart for his beloved niece, Leslie, and nephew, Philip. He was interested in every aspect of their lives. He was not just an ordinary ummee but a very special ummee. His concern for the welfare of children led to the purchase and extraordinary development of the Antiochian Village, which we know will be the final resting place of his earthly body. I have been honored to work with him on many projects as a member of the Board of Trustees and as his Project Chairman for the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was particularly pleased when we supported requests for projects benefiting children, whether they were in Mexico, the Middle East, America or anywhere in the world.

In 1972, his cardiac condition worsened. His condition was so serious that we had to use innovative and complicated techniques. He overcame these obstacles with great confidence and humor. He often referred to the new name his orderly gave him as he wheeled him into surgery: "Archie Bishop." Once again, his remarkable determination prevailed.

As you know, he loved to swim. The first time members of the Board of Trustees raised money to build him a pool to help maintain his health; he took the money we raised and he sent it to Lebanon to help the children in Lebanon obtain advanced degrees. He was always seeking to serve the poor and the needy, as did Jesus. Sometimes, we liked to get him to spend some time relaxing and laughing. Once, my friend Eddie Kassab, I, my wife, and my four little children took him to the Bahamas to relax at the beach and the pool. One day, he was swimming in the pool with me and my four daughters. My wife was sitting on the side of the pool and she, with her eagle eye and protective spirit, noted that a woman began to flirt with the great man. After all, he was a very handsome man. My protective wife sent my daughter, Nicole, to take his hand, pull him away from this lady, and said "Daddy, Daddy, mommy needs you now." His face lit up and he began that unique laugh that many of you remember, and he burst out with great joy and vigor. Please remember his laughter and his joy.

I want you to know how fortunate we were to have him as our leader. Think about this. He permitted the laity to share in the ministry of the church, knowing that the priest could not do it all, as we sometimes expect. Our participation in the workings of the Archdiocese and our ability to nominate our bishops was a rarity among most hierarchical jurisdictions. It was very important to him that women play a significant role in the life of the Church and the Archdiocese, and he started the Organization of Antiochian Women. How important they have been to the growth and development of Archdiocese! Another example of his respect and appreciation of women is the fact that the leader of the Order of St. Ignatius today is a woman. He strongly believed that without the participation of women, the parish, and the Archdiocese, could not survive.

It is important that you know and remember that he served those he loved. First of all, he loved God with all his heart and with all his soul. Then, he loved his Patriarch, his bishops, his priests, and all other children, young and old, of the Archdiocese, as we are all his children, and you know how much he loved his children. It certainly was not my hand that permitted him to prevail despite so many adversities in his life. God loved him so much that he gave Metropolitan Philip the incredible strength and the determination not just to survive a life-threatening heart attack 48 years ago, a very complicated, innovative heart surgery 42 years ago, and 2 additional near-lethal cardiac episodes over the last 10 to 15 years. Through it all, he was able to serve the Church and his people and make it grow in the most magnificent way. Most important: with his very weakened, but caring heart, he gave his greatest gift to us, his profound, enduring love. He loved each and every one of you, all over this country. Please remember his love.

God loved him more than we could love him. He had incredible determination: the night before he died he had that confident look in his face and that clenched fist that many of you have seen many times before, and he said to me, "Gene, we can do this." He was seeking to climb another mountain, believing that we had nearly crossed over the summit of the mountain of cardiac arrest. Remember his determination. His Father in heaven loved him so much that it was as though He said, "Philip, my son, it is time to come home and rest, your work is complete. You have served and achieved far greater than my expectations, come home and receive your just reward. You served the Church, your people, this country and the world in a manner that will affect their lives and the life of the Church forever. As Christ showed how one man can change the world, you my son, Philip, have given the Orthodox Church an impact in America and the world. Because of you, Orthodoxy will no longer be the best kept secret in America."

All of us – bishops, priests, laity – have a great obligation to honor our beloved departed Metropolitan Philip with our commitment. We have an obligation to pledge our determination to preserve not only the unity of this Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, first and foremost, but also to work urgently, persistently, and with a great vigor, to achieve unity for all Orthodox jurisdictions in America. Some of you may recall that I was so frustrated with the lack of movement on this issue that I thought we should try to achieve this through local action and through the act of autonomy, but my beloved and wise friend tempered my passions and told me he felt confident that we could achieve our goal without disruption and separation from our mother church that he loved so much.

The greatest expression of our love and appreciation of our beloved departed leader is fervently, forcefully, and respectfully to request that his Beatitude consider quickly working towards raising the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America to the rank of a Synod in America. If we can dialogue with Jews and Muslims and Protestants and Catholics, can we not dialogue with our brothers in the same holy faith? Your Beatitude, I ask, "If not you, who? If not now, when? If not, why not?"

Let us remember his work, his laughter, his love, his determination, and his joy in Christ. If I were asked how we could judge one's life, I would say, "Did you enjoy the journey and did you make a difference to another along the way?" If you wanted to add value to that assessment, I would say, "How much did you enjoy the journey and how many did you help along the way?"

My beloved friend, thank you for the honor of serving you and permitting me to watch your love ignite the enthusiasm for Christ in the millions you touched. This is the way we will remember you. Your life was a great life and a memorable one, and we celebrate you and we loved your life.

He indeed has served many. He enjoyed and loved so many people. I have had the great honor to serve many, many great men and women, from presidents of this and other countries, prime ministers, kings, princes, CEOs of major corporations, famous leaders in American science and medicine. I have also had the good fortune to serve many less famous people, such as our hierarchs, other esteemed members of the Board of Trustees, people like my beloved brother and my beloved wife, but I must say, I have never met such a great man. What distinguished him from all the other great people was simply his love. What was unique about his love was that it resulted in action that benefited both the loved and the lover.

I will remember you not as you were in the last few days, but I will remember you as you led us to the light of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Thank you my beloved friend. I will always love you.

Eugene J. Sayfie, M.D.
Honorary Member, Board of Trustees