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Metropolitan Philip Addresses the 50th Antiochian Archdiocese Convention

(First published in The Word, September, 2011)

Your Eminence, Your Graces, Beloved Clergy,

Esteemed members of the Board of Trustees of our God-Protected Archdiocese,

Beloved members of the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Members of the Antiochian Women,

Members of the Fellowship of St. John the Divine, Members of SOYO, Parish Council Members,

And all the faithful of our Archdiocese,

It seems like yesterday that we were in Palm Desert, California, to celebrate the work of this Archdiocese and the various departments which we have established for the edification of our Church.

This year the theme for our Parish Life Conferences and Archdiocese Convention is taken from the Anaphora of the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great: “Be mindful, Oh Lord, of the priesthood, the diaconate, and every priestly rank.”

For the past forty-five years I have been telling you that the Church is not the bishop alone, or the priest alone, or the deacon alone, or the laity alone. The Church is the bishop, the priest, the deacon, and the laity working together, like a “symphony,” as St. Ignatius of Antioch put it.

In 1 Corinthians, Chapter 12, verse 4, St. Paul wrote: “Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit and there are varieties of services but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Such words of St. Paul are manifested in our own Archdiocese. Some are gifted to be bishops, some to be priests, some to be deacons, some to be nuns, some to be members of the Board of Trustees of the Archdiocese, many to be members of The Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, some to be members of the Antiochian Women, some to be members of SOYO, some to be youth leaders and directors, and some to be church school leaders and teachers and some to be parish council members. All this work is being done under the oversight of the Bishop for the edification of the body of Christ.

St. Paul continues to say in the same chapter, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (12:4–13). The three orders of bishops, priests, and deacons are rooted in the New Testament and the Apostolic age. In the early Church there was a bishop in every parish. When the Church developed, it was not practical to have a bishop in every parish. The order of priests was created to lead the parish as representatives of the bishops.

The New Testament reveals to us that the office of a deacon existed mainly to serve the bishop. The priest and the deacon have the same spirit but they perform different functions, as St. Paul put it.

In addition to these three orders there is the order of the laity. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). St. Peter said, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own special people that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The royal priesthood includes everyone, clergy and laity alike. All of us are members of the same body, though we have different functions.

For many years, the laity existed on the margin of the church. In 1968 at the Archdiocese Convention which was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I said, “It seems to me that we have two classes in the Church: the clergy, who perform the Liturgy upstairs, and the laity who count the money downstairs. Thus we became a Church of upstairs, downstairs theology.” Fortunately, in 1968, we put an end to this dichotomy, this “upstairs, downstairs” theology.

If you study the history of our Archdiocese, you would find that many of our parishes were established by the laity when we did not have bishops and priests; for example, the parish which I had the honor to serve in Cleveland, Ohio, was established by women. The women got together, raised money and gave it to their husbands and ordered them to go and buy a church for their young people and children. Their husbands obeyed, and that is how the Church in Cleveland was founded. I could say the same thing about many parishes in our Archdiocese. Our lay people used to gather in various halls or homes and say their prayers. Once a year a priest would pass by and visit these small flocks; baptize their children, marry them, and pray for their departed loved ones. Thus we could say without hesitation that our laity played a tremendous role in founding this God-protected Archdiocese. Therefore, all of us, clergy and laity, share in the perfect Priesthood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The whole body of the Church is priestly, and the whole Church is the laos, that is, the people of God. St. Paul said: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if they prophecy in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness” (Rom. 12:6-8).

The Ministry of the Laity

Based on the witness of the scripture and the fathers, the laity has a different ministry to perform in the life of the Church. As a matter of fact, in today’s secular and relativistic world, a ministry of the laity has a wider scope and a bigger dimension than the ministry of the ordained clergy.

I would like to clarify my statement: the priest’s ministry, in most instances, is confined to the boundaries of his parish. His many parochial duties in this age of organizations do not leave him much time to transcend the boundaries of his parish and reach out to the world at large. Some theologians might say, “But the world is evil, filthy, and corrupt, thus, let us flee from the world and let the world go to the devil.” 

This world-denying attitude, my friends, is alien to the spirit of the New Testament. In the Gospel of St. John, we read, “For God so loved the world, that he gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

If the world is filthy and hopeless and completely evil, let us as good Christians clean the world, breathe life into the dry bones and bring this world back to God. If this world is evil, we should ask ourselves, What then was the purpose of the Incarnation?

Therefore, the laity, men and women alike, whether a teacher, a farmer, a truck driver, a doctor, a businessman, an engineer, or a scientist, must be involved in the affairs of this world and try to restore it to what it was in the beginning. Thus through the laity, the Church enters into contact with the world. It is at this point the Christian meets the non-Christian, the sacred encounters the profane, the religious deals with the secular. The laity, however, cannot fulfill their ministry to the Church and the world, if they are not regular members of the worshipping community. We need Christ-believing laity, conscious of their royal priesthood to which they were called by their baptismal ordination. Although we do not expect them to be accomplished theologians, we do not expect them to be theologically illiterate. It is the sacred duty of our priests to encourage the ministry of the laity in their communities and to cultivate their talent.

The laity, the royal priesthood, has, as we heard, their definite ministry in the Church. There is another very special ministry in the Church; that is the ministry of the ordained clergy which is rooted in the New Testament.

Some biblical scholars say that Timothy and Titus were auxiliary bishops to St. Paul. The bishop (episcopos) is the overseer of his Diocese. The deacon (diaconos) or server, assists the bishop and the priest. The priest serves his parishioners from the cradle to the grave. When we are born, he goes to the hospital to pray for our mothers and for us. After forty days from our birth he receives us into the church. Priests baptize us in order to make us members of the body of Christ and citizens of the heavenly kingdom. From the priest we receive the sacraments of chrismation and communion. When we are ready to get married, he presides over our sacramental union in the church. When we get ill, he is the first one to visit us in the hospital. When we fall asleep in Christ, he presides over our funerals and walks with us the last step to the grave.

Unfortunately, in a few of our parishes priests are not well-received; this is dead wrong. The priest must be treated kindly, lovingly, and with much respect. The priest cannot be hired and fired. A priest is appointed by the Metropolitan and transferred by him and no one else. The priesthood, my friends, is not a social institution; it is rather a divine vocation.

The priesthood was not instituted by an act of Congress nor by a Presidential Decree. When we ordain a deacon, a priest or a bishop, we utter the following words, “The Grace Divine, which always healeth that which is infirm, and completeth that which is wanting, elevateth, through the laying on of hands,” and so forth. 

The patristic literature is full of exhortations to the deacons, priests, and bishops. St. Gregory the Theologian points out that the role of leadership positions begins with ourselves, with the priest. Listen to him speak to us: “A priest must himself be cleansed, before cleansing others; he must be wise so as to make others wise; he must become light and then give light; he must draw near to God in order to bring others to God.”

St. Ephraim the Syrian says, “Oh ye pastors, be made like unto that diligent Pastor, Chief of the whole flock, who cared so greatly for His flock. He brought nigh those that were afar off. He brought back the wanderers. He visited the sick. He strengthened the weak. He bound up the broken. He gave Himself up for the sake of the sheep.”

St. John Chrysostom, in the many works in which he refers to the life of the clergy, always reminds us of the elevated honor of our ministry. It is established through the Holy Spirit and is most evident in the liturgical rites. 

“The work of the priesthood is done on earth, but it is ranked among heavenly ordinances. And this is only right, for no man, no angel, no archangel, no other created power, but the Paraclete Himself ordained this vocation, and persuaded men, while still remaining in the flesh, to represent the ministry of angels.”

If you want to read more on the priesthood, I refer you to St. Ignatius of Antioch, the three hierarchs, Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and especially, St. John Chrysostom, “On the Priesthood.”

I am going to take the last quotation from St. Cyril of Alexandria: “Each of the clergy, regardless of the rank of order, bishop, priest, or deacon, serves in the ministry of Jesus Christ himself; it is the Great Shepherd who truly ordains all the orders by the Holy Spirit.”

The State of the Archdiocese

Ladies and Gentlemen, between February 24, 2009, and August 18, 2010, this Archdiocese experienced some restlessness because of contradictory resolutions taken by the Holy Synod of Antioch. I thought we were back in the era of the Toledo/New York conflict. The Holy Synod met on June 16, 2010, at the Patriarchate in Damascus and adopted three contradictory resolutions vis-á-vis North America. I was supposed to attend that meeting, but because of illness I could not travel to Syria. The resolutions which were made on June 17, 2010, added some confusion to the Archdiocese. I informed his Beatitude, Patriarch Ignatius the IV, that such resolutions were not acceptable to us. His Beatitude called for another meeting of the Synod for August 17, 2010, at St. Christopher’s Monastery in the shadow of the Sayidnaye Convent. The date was accepted, despite the 120-degree temperature heat-wave both in Lebanon and Syria. So I traveled to the Middle East, accompanied by His Grace, Bishop Joseph, auxiliary of the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West; The Very Reverend Father Michel Najim, Pastor of St. Nicholas Cathedral and his wife, Khouriye Eva; The Chancellor of our Archdiocese, the Reverend Archdeacon Emile Sayegh, and his wife, Suzie; and our Archdiocesan Trustee, Fawaz El-Khoury who was a tremendous help to us regarding the logistics of the trip.

The Holy Synod was very peaceful and productive. It lasted six days. On August 19, 2010, I reported to the Synod that the contradictory resolutions taken between February 24, 2009, and June 17, 2010, were very damaging to the unity and integrity of our Archdiocese. In addition, I said no bishop can be married to his diocese while the real wife is still alive.

When I was ordained a Metropolitan on August 14, 1966, I was ordained as Archbishop of New York and All North America. Thus, my friends, our Archdiocese cannot have more than one husband. Furthermore, before we begin our Synod meetings, we members of the Synod chant the Troparion of Pentecost, and pray that the Holy Spirit will descend on us to do what is pleasing only to God and His church. The ques- tion is, Does the Holy Spirit contradict Himself? 

After a brief discussion, the resolution of August 19, 2010, was adopted, which put an end to the turbulence which was experienced between February 24, 2009, and August 19, 2010.

Ladies and Gentlemen, between February 24, 2009, and August 19, 2010, there was a plan by a few of our clergy and laity against me. Perhaps they wanted another Metropolitan. What was written on the Internet against me, the Archdiocese, the Patriarch of Antioch, and the Holy Synod were rumors and lies. Their attempts were like a mosquito trying to move a mountain or a seagull trying to stop the waves of the ocean. I have no doubt where such people will be standing on the Day of Judgment. Without discipline and respect for each other, this Archdiocese cannot continue to grow. The worst problem Orthodoxy is facing on this continent is fragmentation, almost in every Orthodox jurisdiction. After the August meeting of the Synod, this Archdiocese became united and stronger than ever.

We are, in this country, blessed with the principle of democracy. The Constitution of our Country begins with these words: “We the people.” The decisions of the Holy Synod begins with these words: “We, therefore, the members of the Holy Synod,” the highest authority in our Church. When we decide on matters listed on the agenda of the Synod, we say, “The Church has decided.” The Church, therefore, in its earthly structure is not a democratic institution. It is, rather, established on God’s rule.

In the Book of Acts, we read, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials” (Acts 15:28). I know that some of you came to us from a Protestant background where the bishop is hired and fired. This is not Orthodoxy; it is rather congregational Protestantism. Thus, we do not say, “We the people”; we say, “We the Church,” and the Church, as you well know, has a definite hierarchical structure based on more than 2,000 years of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am sure that you know that we have lost His Grace, Bishop Mark, based on his own request. On October 22, 2010, in Jacksonville, Florida, during our Synod meeting, I brought to the attention of Bishop Mark the deteriorating condition of the Toledo and Midwest Diocese. The Midwest region used to be a precious gem in the crown of the Archdiocese. We used to gather in our Parish Life Conferences 1,500 to 2,000 people. Two years ago, the Parish Life Conference was held in Cincinnati, Ohio, with only 250 people and last year the Parish Life Conference was held in Toledo and less than 400 people attended. Moreover, the participation of our organizations at the Conference was very disappointing.

On October 22, 2010, we proposed to Bishop Mark that he be transferred from the Midwest to the Northwest, where he could do a better job. He refused and asked for a release from the Antiochian Archdiocese to the OCA. We granted his request and wished him well. This year we had our Parish Life Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, which was attended by six hundred people; twenty-eight teams participated in the Bible Bowl; and fourteen participated in the Oratorical Contest, despite the fact that this year the Archdiocese Convention is being held here in Chicago, a city in the Midwest.

I am delighted that last May we graduated ten new priests; thus we have no shortage of priests and if any priest is not happy in this Archdiocese, we will grant him a release immediately.

All the Departments of the Archdiocese are functioning very well, but we should strive more for perfection.

Finally, I think that all of you agree with me that without our collective efforts, this Archdiocese cannot achieve its goals. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to thank our Hierarchs, namely, His Grace, Bishop Antoun; His Grace, Bishop Joseph; His Grace, Bishop Basil; His Grace, Bishop Thomas; His Grace, Bishop Alexander; the Treasurer of our Archdiocese, Mr. Robert Laham; our Assistant Treasurer, Mr. George Nassor; our Chancellor, Archdeacon Emile Sayegh. I would like to thank the Secretary of the Board of Trustees, Dr. John Dalack, and the Secretary of the Archdiocese, Father Michael Ellias, and all esteemed members of the Board of Trustees, for their generosity and loyalty to this Archdiocese, especially a very deep gratitude to our esteemed Vice Chairman, Dr. George Farha, who is retiring after 12 years of dedicated service to this God-protected Archdiocese. We wish Dr. George Farha a long, healthy, and peaceful life. I also would like to thank our faithful clergy of this Archdiocese for their firm commitment to the eternal principles of our Church, especially those who serve small parishes and missions. I also would like to thank Daniel Abraham, the Chairman of The Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who has worked tirelessly and traveled constantly during the last four years to increase the membership of the Order of St. Ignatius, and all members of The Order for remaining faithful to The Order and its goals. Since 1973 the Antiochian Women have been helping projects within and without this Archdiocese; I would like to take this opportunity to thank Cindy Nimey for her outstanding leadership of the Antiochian Women. I would like also to thank the Chairs of all our Archdiocesan Organizations, Departments, and Commissions for their hard work.

Last but not least, I would like to thank the staff of the Archdiocese, namely, my Hierarchical Assistant, The Very Reverend Father George Kevorkian, for his articulation and oversight of the Archdiocese website; and The Reverend Archdeacon Hans El Hayek, who has been traveling with me for 34 years and taking care of our book department and all our new publications.

I would be remiss if I did not thank a lady who has just retired after dedicating forty-two years of her life to the service of this Archdiocese as Secretary, Kathy Meyer. She came to Brooklyn in 1969 and worked with me, the late Monsour Laham, the late Ernest Saykaly, the late Ted Makoul, and Peter Dacales, to inaugurate a new financial system and to organize the office which we have now. Whether she retires in New Jersey or the Carolinas with her sister, we wish her a healthy, long life and above all, peace of mind. I wouldlike to thank Peter Dacales, who continues to stop at the office from time to time to help, and our new Assistant Controller, Sameh Khouzam. I would like also to thank my new Secretary and Administrator of The Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Joanne Hakim, for her hard work; she has been taking care of The Order and my office at the same time, which is a tremendous burden. I would like to thank our Registrar, Amy Robinson; many thanks also to our Office Assistant, Marly Abou Hamad; and our Chef, Almaza Farhat, who keeps all of us at the headquarters very well-fed.

I would like to conclude with these words from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen and the God of peace will be with you.”

Thank you.