Archbishop brings `an aura of goodness'

Greek Orthodox leader visits Baltimore to mark charity's 10 years of work

April 19, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

It was nearly three years ago that Archbishop Demetrios took over a deeply divided and troubled Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, racked by dissension over the autocratic style of his predecessor.

Since then, many in the 2 million-member archdiocese say Demetrios has brought a spirit of healing, calm and unity, even as he guides it through contentious issues such as possible autonomy from authorities abroad and the church's increasing Americanization.

Demetrios came to town yesterday to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Baltimore-based International Orthodox Christian Charities with a solemn vespers service and a gala dinner at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.

Demetrios took over from Archbishop Spyridon, an American-born cleric who spent most of his adult life in Europe. During his three-year tenure, critics say, Spyridon alienated his flock, wielding autocratic power in what they called a "hyperpapal" style.

In contrast, Demetrios, 74, was born in Greece but spent much of his career in the United States. A biblical scholar, he earned a doctorate from Harvard University and later taught there and at the Greek Orthodox seminary in Brookline, Mass.

Evan Alevizatos Chriss, a Baltimore lawyer who was a leading critic of Spyridon, said that since Demetrios took over, "It's an entirely different atmosphere. He brought peace."

"He just has an aura of goodness around him," Chriss said.

Demetrios said that when he took office, he reached out to people on both sides of the conflict, keeping many of Spyridon's appointees in their positions and discouraging the search for scapegoats.

"What happened, happened," he said in an interview last night. "We have a future ahead, and we have to go toward the future."

He avoided further conflict "by including all people, without differentiation or distinction, in the work of the church," he said. "Don't use the language of blaming, the language of assigning responsibility. Let's look ahead."

He still faces some thorny issues. He emphasizes the need for a deeper understanding of the faith among a church increasingly made up of third- and fourth-generation Greek Americans.

As Orthodox churches in this country become more Americanized, they are losing strong ties with their Old World mother churches.

An attempt in 1994 to forge an independent American Orthodox church from the various immigrant-based branches drew a sharp rebuke from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, and may have resulted in the forced retirement of the beloved Archbishop Iakovos, who was succeeded by Spyridon.

Last night, Demetrios discounted the need for independence for the archdiocese, which is under the authority of the Istanbul-based Bartholomew. It is an arrangement under which some Greek Orthodox Americans chafe.

"In essence, the church is independent in the sense that we could really develop programs without any impediment from the patriarchate," he said.

Orthodoxy in America is still young, he said, and from the perspective of two millenniums of church history, a premature push toward independence could be damaging.

"I don't think you can simply force history to do things," he said.

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