New York.- By Apostolos ZoupaniotisThe 39th Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America will convene in Washington D.C. form July 13-17. Delegates from more than 550 parishes around the country will gather to discuss matters of our Archdiocese, including administrative and financial. The Congress will also include the annual meeting of the National Ladies Philoptochos Society. In addition, meetings will be conducted by various affiliated organizations of the Archdiocese, including the Archdiocesan Presbyters Council, the National Sisterhood of Presvyteres, the Retired Greek Orthodox Clergy of America, the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians. The National Young Adult (YAL) Convention will be held prior to the Congress, July 10-13.
This is the fifth Clergy Laity Congress presided by Archbishop Demetrios, who is leading our Church in America for 9 years.
Archbishop Demetrios spoke to the Greek News about the Congress, on the day he was leaving for Rome.
Q: Your Eminence the main theme of the 39th Clergy Laity Congress is “To gather My people to My home” and I wonder if it points to a problem. That only a portion of the Greek-Orthodox are members of the Church and even fewer participate?
A: Thank you first of all for the opportunity of having this discussion of a very significant event, the 39th now Clergy Laity Congress in Washington. You had a point when you say that the theme of the congress, “gather my people to my home”, relates to some problem but, its not only and exclusively related to that problem. In other words the theme, as it is, addresses itself to four categories of people that have to be invited and gathered to the Home of God.
* One is our disconnected or loosely connected people of our own Church. This is a certain number, They seem to be approximately 1/3 of the total number of baptized Orthodox and might not be connected or strongly connected to the Church.
* Category number two are the families of the so called interfaith marriages. Some or several of these families after the wedding ceremonies, they are not connected anymore to the church and there is a very important need here to simply bring them to the embrace of God, as we say in the Church.
* The third category to which the theme applies is the category of the young people, especially ages 17-35. Now this is a phenomenon that occurs in almost all denominations. There have been observations that even in denominations that think to be increasing in number, they are not increasing in this age bracket, they are just as low as every other congregation. So, this is a significant number of young people, that has to be addressed and either brought back to the church, or connected to the church for the first time, depending on the case.
* And the forth category is the category of the so called un-churched. According to the very late statistics, they are approximately 60 million people in the U.S., people who either were connected and became disconnected at some point or people who never were connected to any Church or to any religious body.
So these four categories are the targets of our efforts, to really apply the theme “to gather my people to my home.”
Q: Your Eminence what practical measures can be taken to solve this problem? I understand by solving this problem, improving the numbers, we will have improvement them in every aspect: in the finance, in the priests, and many other issues. But at the same time if we donʼt have improvements in the other issues maybe we wonʼ t have improvement in this main theme, to increase the participation in our Church.
A: There is a mutual relationship, Mr. Zoupaniotis, between what you call the other issues and the issue of the people that have to be gathered to the Home of God to these categories we mentioned before. It is very clear if we work on that level of gathering the people, this would have certainly a very positive, very beneficial impact on many other aspects of the life of the Church. Now, as you pointed out, there is here a need for very methodical, very systematic, and very substantive work. How you reach out?
First of all, the application of the theme means a different orientation. In other words means a mentality in our Church, in our congregations. A mentality of not limiting ourselves to ourselves, not being in an introspective self including way, but to reach out, to think of the other people outside. To care what is outside of our own house or yard.
So, you need this kind of awareness of the need to simply reach out.
Then, you need to have a systematic work of how you do that. Do you do that by approaching the people? By discussing with the people whenever you encounter them? You have to create a whole program in the parishes, a program of how to have reception of the people who you bring back.
Offering to them substantive things in terms of the teaching of the Church, in terms of sharing the universal values of Hellenism. This is again a program that needs to be worked out. In part, some of these items are already in effect in some of the ministries in the Archdiocese, but we have to work to increase quantitatively and qualitatively this work and our departments will of course receive this kind of mandate to intensify, systematize and work in producing the material, the methods and programs necessary to apply the theme in our the life of our Church.
Q: I guess you are satisfied with the status of our Church and you will report to the Congress progress in all the matters…
A: God willing we have a considerable progress on a number of central issues and central developments in the church. First of all the financial issue. Second, the issue of educational improvements, which again is visible and palpable. Then we have a good report on the number of ordinations of new priests vs. the number of exiting priests.
We have other issues as well of connection. Lets say the assistance to the Patriarchate and the whole effort related to the Patriarchate. We have also a progress in terms of care for the family. They are going to be reported in detail during the Congress.
Q: Could you please give us some highlights of this Congress, both on the substantive issues and some part of the ceremonial matters. We have also heard that maybe President is going to attend, we hear that senator Obama or senator McCain is going to attend.
A: In the program of the congress we have of course the basic components that every congress had so far, namely the opening session on Monday morning and before that, on Sunday, the liturgy with all the members of the Synod and in addition the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Archbishop Gregorios of Thiateira and Great Britain will be there.
On Monday morning at the official opening, what follows the key-note address is a series of meetings and seminars and meetings of various Arcdiocesan committees. Then we have the plenary session which is Wednesday afternoon and Thursday all day and then the conclusion.
There is also an evening of cultural events with music and folk dances etc...
There is an interesting addition in the program on Monday morning which is worth mentioning. After the opening session, during which the Archbishop will deliver the key note address, along with addresses from some officials, after we finish, it will be a one hour class of a special meeting in which we will have the whole body divided into 8 parts and on each part one of our 8 Metropolitans will preside and further discuss the main issues and items related to the theme of the Congress.
This is an important step because our Metropolitans will be in a position to meet people from all over the country. This will not be a division according to metropolises, but a general one and we will have a certain number of 150-200 people from all over the country and thatʼ s important. This is a new feature of the congress.
In terms of visits by official people, we are still waiting for confirmation from the president (The White House informed the Archdiocese one week later that Bush will not be able to attend). There is a possibility to attend the grand banquet.
The same holds true for senator Obama and a high level representatives for Senator McCain, because he cannot attend and thatʼs one of the reasons he came to see me in New York.
So this is a case with the visitations by officials. Also, we have extended an invitation to some officials from Greece and there is a high possibility for Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs Theodoros Kassimis, who is responsible for the Greeks Abroad and perhaps some other members of the Greek government.
Q: Your Eminence, let me point out some issues that are dear to us: the first is Greek education and second that you already announced to us some positive news, the need for priests. I am pointing out on that both in numbers and in quality, to be people that also help the younger generation to love the Greek Language and the Hellenic values. How do we deal with both issues?
A: This is something related to everything, and not only the Clergy Laity. But these are issues that relate. I am absolutely sure that at the congress we will have very specific numbers and discussions related to the issues that you raised. But that would only be part of confronting these specific issues. Itʼs something that has to do quite frankly with the long term activity and life of the Church. It is not something that can be posed and resolved in the Clergy Laity, that is the very central forum for at least raising the main components of pertinent issues like education and the need for highly qualified clergy.
Q: Let me insist a bit on the Greek education. There were quite few meetings between you and Greek officials. The Archdiocesan Department of Education had discussion with various authorities in Greece, there were quite few studies and analyses and even starting taking some steps. I wonder how this year the Clergy Laity Congress can be more substantive on that theme. And satisfy something that the participants of the Greek Education meetings ask every year, to be more practical.
A: I think you are right, because we are not talking about general plans that are still in the status of planning. There is already an ongoing activity on the educational issues, in terms of producing the proper books for teaching properly and effectively the Greek language and also organizing other activities. There is even an involvement of Ionian Village, that has the potential for increasing efforts on education matters. Not by simply increasing the number participants but making the Ionian Village a place that will be operating for a much longer time than the summer, namely spring and autumn.
So there is a much more elaborate kind of effort to increase the activities on the issues of education, and especially Greek education and culture.
And I am sure that with the data that will be now offered this time in the Clergy Laity, the participants in the corresponding committees will have a much - much better opportunity to do more than h in the past.