Monday, March 3, 2014

Archpastoral Letter for Great Lent 2014



 To the faithful of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church:


Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Today, we enter the great spiritual arena of Great Lent. The season of holy and Great Lent is a time of compunction; a time for repentance and for tears; for making a change in ourselves; and for beginning our life anew, free from passions and from sin, with a renewed spirit and desire to enter more fully into the life of Jesus Christ.

As a concerned and loving mother, the Church gives us this time of Great Lent in order that we may purify our lives, draw closer to God, and be counted worthy of celebrating the great day of Christ’s glorious and radiant Resurrection.

Great Lent is an especially sacred time because it envisions both great spiritual and physical struggles. These include the struggle of fasting, the struggle of longer and more frequent services and vigil’s, the struggle of perfection, and the struggle of self-examination. To help us in our Lenten struggles, the Church assists us and encourages us with penitential hymns and services, as well as with spiritual teachings and ascetical works, to prepare us for the fight for the purification of our souls.

Great Lent is an opportunity for us to wash our faces with tears so as to cleanse our souls and become worthy participants in and benefactors of the Resurrection of Christ. This holy season which we have now begun in earnest should not be treated merely as mechanical practice. That is to say, it should not be something we simply “observe” every year as part of the Church’s liturgical year. No, in order to truly benefit from Great Lent, we must immerse ourselves in all that this holy season has to offer us.

Great Lent requires a lot of work and effort. It requires a great deal of attention on our part and requires a participation that is serious and committed. It is not a time or an exercise that we can take for granted. The period of the next forty days is an opportunity to relive ourselves of so much of the burden of sin we have collected over the previous year. The more we focus on cleansing our bodies both spiritually and physically during these next forty days, the better we will feel and the closer we will become with God.

Yes, Great Lent requires a lot of work and effort. It requires that we be alert and wise. There is no question that the devil works overtime during Great Lent. He will do whatever he can to make our Lenten journey as difficult and dangerous as possible. He tries to leave us wanting in compunction and conversion. He tries very hard to lead us into every kind of soul-destroying temptation and as many occasions of sin as possible. Satan rejoices when we fall but he rejoices even more when we set out on our Lenten journey and stumble and fall along the way. He is fully aware of our weakness and brokenness and does whatever he can do to exploit them and use them to his advantage. Even though we try our best to keep the fact and change our sinful ways, Satan is always there to gut-punch us and knock the wind out of our sails, which means that we often fall back into our sinful ways. Bad thoughts; giving in to worldly and sexual passions, desires and obsessions; and indifference to the spirit and purpose of this holy season must be rejected as soon as they make their appearance.

Holy Mother Church knows just how difficult it is for us to live holy and righteous lives. She knows of the many temptations we face every day in a world which seduces us with promises and images of wealth, unconstrained self-gratification, and the false happiness. For this reason, the Church makes available to us every spiritual weapon possible that will enable to fight, with great intensity, the attempts of the devil to distract us from achieving our stated goal, which is perfect communion with Christ. The weapons of which I speak are those of prayer, fasting, ascesis, and the doing of charitable works.

Last evening, at Vespers, we said for the first time a prayer which we will say several times a day over the next forty days. Of course, I am talking about the beautiful prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian: “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of laziness, despair, lust of power and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of soberness, humility, patience and love to Your servant. Grant, O Lord and King, that I may see my own transgressions and not to judge my brothers and sisters, for blessed are You unto the ages of ages. Amen.” What a beautiful prayer! The constant praying of this prayer every day keeps us focused and reminds us clearly of what the spirit and purpose of Great Lent is. The season of metanoia, that mighty change of heart, mind and spirit brought about by the Spirit of God. With the beautiful words of this prayer, St. Ephraim wishes us to understand very clearly that without compunction and repentance, without true metanoia, and without true love for and forgiveness of our fellow human beings, there is no chance of even making the slightest progress towards spiritual growth and purification.

Prayer centers us. It brings us into the world of the divine and invites the Holy Spirit to enter into our lives so that the work of metanoia can begin and be completed. As soon as we wake up, praying should be the first thing we do. After that comes the practice of our spiritual rule: using our prayer rope or rosary; reading, studying and contemplating God’s Word in Holy Scripture; and observing the fast. We should go to church with great readiness and anticipation, attending divine services if they are available and our work schedule permits. At the minimum, we should at least visit a church at some point during each day and spend some time in prayer before the Lord Himself. It is also good for us to remember the poor in some way every day. A random act of kindness or charity, done sincerely from the heart, makes Christ visible in tangible ways and brings His love and compassion to those most in need.

Together with prayer and works of charity, we must add fasting. Fasting helps purify and strengthen our bodies both spiritually and physically. “Behold my humility and my efforts and forgive me all my sins.” When we labor with the fast, with kneeling and prostrations, with fervent and unceasing prayers, with serious determination of heart and mind, our efforts will be blessed and rewarded by God, and we will receive a crown of glory and honor.

If we don’t pay attention to our thoughts, our words, and our heart, then there is absolutely no benefit at all to observing Great Lent. The season becomes nothing more than an entry on the Church’s liturgical calendar, one which we pass through year after year without any real thought or concern. We may give it a passing glance but we don’t take the time to stop and really discover the riches the season really offers us.

Satan and his demons fear this holy season of Great Lent and its attendant practices of increased prayer and worship, of fasting, ascetical works and almsgiving because it weakens their power and lays them low. “This kind of demon will not depart except by prayer and fasting”, said the Lord (Matthew 12:21). This is why the holy fathers and mothers of the Church always began any Godly task with prayer and a fast. They considered prayer and fasting to be very powerful tools in bringing about good and positive results from their labors.

Any Christian who truly desires to attain holiness and righteousness can only attain their goal by prayer, fasting, works of charity and vigilance. When these four elements are combined, then people will be filled with the grace of God and become worthy and shining examples of virtue to their fellow human beings.

In olden times, men and women monastics had a holy and venerable custom. On the eve of Great Lent, they would leave their monasteries and go deeper into seclusion, sometimes even into the desert or into caves high in the mountains, where they lived in great asceticism until Lazarus Saturday, when they returned to celebrate Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Pascha as a community. Some would take a few of the basic essentials as far as food was concerned; others would eat only of the green plants they found in the desert or on the mountainsides. When they returned to their monasteries, they would spend all of Holy Week together in church, in constant, even unceasing prayer and worship.

Our own Archbishop Gennadios, of blessed memory, was known to keep a very strict fast during Great Lent. From Monday to Friday, it has been told that he ate only a small dish of nuts and fruit with a glass of water once every twenty-four hours. He also spent many hours a day praying and doing prostrations. When he visited people during Great Lent and had the occasion to stay with them for one or more days, he could be heard praying throughout the night. Archbishop Timotheos, the bishop who ordained me a priest and presided at my episcopal consecration, also kept a very strict fast. He too only ate once a day and spent many hours in prayer. I remember visiting him one year during Great Lent. I was staying at a hotel in Athens but had to meet him very early in the morning at his chancery office, where he also maintained his living quarters, because we were going on a pilgrimage that day to visit some monasteries. When I arrived, I found the Archbishop in the chancery chapel praying and doing prostrations. I watched intently as his small frame dropped to the ground effortlessly but with great piety and zeal. It was clearly evident by watching him that every prostration was an act of love, a gift given to God in supplication for forgiveness of sins and failings committed. Needless to say, I was not only inspired but embarrassed; inspired by the Archbishop’s humility and zeal, and embarrassed by my own laziness and lack of spiritual depth. The acts of asceticism practiced by both Archbishops Gennadios and Timotheos were done in order to purify the inner person; to make it clean, more honorable in the eyes of God, in order to acquire boldness before Him so that the prayers they offer on behalf of the people and the world will be heard and answered.

It is good for us to observe Great Lent as faithfully as possible, to keep the fast, but we should do so only insofar as we are able. “Unless the good be done well, it is not good.” In other words, unless we use discretion when we do good, we may end up doing more harm than good. For example, fasting is extremely necessary and good for our souls and bodies, but it is a means rather than an end; and that end is purification and change of behavior; a growth in holiness and purity. If we do not apply discretion to our fasting, for example, by understanding our medical or physical limitations, we may cause ourselves more harm both physically and spiritually. So we must make sure that our good is done well and reasonably, then, and only then, will our efforts be pleasing to God and be beneficial to us.

During the next forty days of Great Lent, we must strive with all sincerity and humility of heart and mind to purify our souls and bodies with the fountains of sanctification the Church offers us. Purity brings great boldness before God, because He Himself is pure. The whole beauty of the Church is founded on purity and spotlessness. When our heart is pure and beautiful it will exude a pleasing fragrance and loveliness. But if people have ugliness and filth in their hearts, that’s what they will expel. Let us struggle to cleanse our glass, our heart, so that we will be pure and pleasing in God’s eyes.

Over the course of the next forty days, let us work very hard, let us fight as hard as we can, and the rewards will be very great. Nobody finds grace unless they make the effort. If a farmer doesn’t tend his crops, he will not see any harvest. When our Lenten journey is accompanied, reinforced and supported by prayer, fasting, church attendance, good works (especially almsgiving), study, vigilance, confession and Holy Communion, then the preparation of the soul for participation in Holy Week will be complete. Then will we experience the holy and sacred Passion of Christ more intensely and clearly, because our hearts will be softened, our sins will be washed away, and the heavy burdens we carry because of our sins will be lifted from our shoulders. Then, we will be able to look in the empty Tomb and experience the Resurrection of the Lord in a forceful and life-changing way.

As we begin our Lenten journey together, I prostrate myself before each of you and ask your forgiveness for all the times and ways in which I have hurt, wounded, offended and failed you. My sins and inadequacies are many and great and because of them I ask your fervent prayers and intercessions on my behalf to Christ, our great God and King, who is most merciful and compassionate.


With deepest love and affection for you all, I remain His and your unworthy servant,

+Archbishop Stephen









Monday, January 20, 2014

Sing to the Lord, for He has Done Marvelous Things!



The year 2013 was certainly a very interesting one for the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church in the Americas and Canada. Certainly it was a very difficult one, but difficulty has always been very much a part of Italo-Greek life. I cannot remember a time in the history of our Church when difficulty has not been a part of our ecclesial life. For sure, difficulty has been a constant companion of the Church and our people from the very beginning. One only has to read the history of our Church to see the many difficulties and sorrows our clergy and people have endured over the centuries. We could lament this, but would that be beneficial or helpful to us and to our spiritual growth both individually and as a community of faith? I don’t think so. We should look at the difficulties and sorrows we have experienced as opportunities for growth, as lessons from which we have been able to learn a great deal about God’s infinite love and mercy toward us.

The past several years, especially the period from 2010 to present, have been filled with many disappointments and sorrows. I can easily say that last year, 2013, was the most difficult for me personally. It began a personal crisis of faith which deeply enhanced a “dark night of the soul” I have been experiencing for quite some time. Periods of immense doubt, despair and loneliness have consumed me. They have virtually impeded my ability to pray and fulfill my priestly and episcopal responsibilities. Yet, in all of this “darkness” my longing for God continues to grow day by day. It is a painful experience yet it is, at the same time, an experience which has opened my eyes to many great new things and visions.

When I say “visions” I do not mean supernatural apparitions but rather new opportunities, of things that can be. For example, I have come to a better understanding of what the role of a priest and bishop is and of what the Church is. The difficulties we have experienced, especially during 2013, have opened my eyes to realities that, while I knew to be true, were nevertheless clouded by earthly or worldly considerations and preoccupations.

When we view things in terms of the world in which we live, we run the risk of leaving God out of the picture and thus leave ourselves open to unnecessary disappointments and troubles. God does not disappoint us, but we disappoint one another. One thing I have learned from the events of 2013 is that in ALL that we do, God’s Will must be considered first and foremost. In other words, we should “never put our trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.” That is not to say we should not trust another human being, but we must realize that things do not always work out the way we hope. Past experiences do not always predict the outcome of future or similar experiences. In the past, I have relied too much on past experiences with people in determining what their future actions will be. I forgot that life constantly changes and nothing remains the same. People’s lives change. Their views and ways of thinking change. Their personal and financial situations change over time. Unexpected and even unwanted events force their way into people’s lives which create chaos and uncertainty.

At age 54, I find that I still have a lot to learn about life and people. 2013 was a great learning experience for me personally.  The Church is run by human beings who are flawed and weak and who are sinners. Among the first in that group of sinners I place myself. All who are members of the Church are sinners; none of us is without sin. But, looking at myself in the mirror every day, I see a great sinner. I see an individual who falls short of what is expected of me not only as a human being, but also as a priest and bishop. Certainly, many of the problems our Church has faced have come about in no small part because of my own personal failings, weaknesses, inadequacies and sinfulness. But God gives us an opportunity with each new day to change our lives, to take a new path, to redeem ourselves, and to make a difference for good.

Temptation is the constant companion of every bishop, priest and deacon. The temptation to seek personal glory and fame, of having position and power, of receiving recognition and accolades, assaults us every day. As human beings we want to be acknowledged, we even crave it or believe we have a right to it. In reality, we are not important. We are here to serve as Christ Himself served. We exist to be servants, slaves of the Lord. We cannot escape the temptations of material and emotional gain and satisfaction, but we can avoid them if we try very hard to stay focused on Christ and remember that we serve Him.

I never thought I was seeking the soul-destroying vices of glory and fame, position and power, recognitions and accolades. In fact, I really thought I was doing my best to avoid them. But I wasn’t doing as good a job as I thought because, as it turned out and 2013 proved, I needed some enlightenment. Talk about learning a lesson! My arrest and the subsequent charges were God’s way of telling me I was not quite where I should be in my understanding of self and my life as a priest and bishop.

While I know in my heart that I am a servant, there must have still been something of the world inside me that tainted or corrupted my priesthood and episcopate; something which needed to be purged away.  What happened to me was a clear message that those of us who are clergy cannot be concerned with worldly praise, accolades or position. Equally important a lesson is the understanding that we cannot always trust our own decisions to be absolutely right or correct.  We must look to others for advice and counsel. While a bishop is the ultimate authority in his diocese or archdiocese, he can, and often does, make administrative mistakes and errors in judgment because of his own flawed humanity. The old saying is true, “pride goes before the fall,” and none of us are exempt from occasional or even frequent attacks of pride. It only takes one instance of giving into a particular temptation to end up in difficulty or trouble.

There is a reason why the Church, in its wisdom, has appointed through Canon Law, councils and counsellors to the bishop to assist him in the administration and governance of his diocese. It is to ensure that a bishop makes the best possible decisions as often as possible to ensure the spiritual and physical well-being of the People of God entrusted to his care.

Bishops and priests have grave responsibilities before God, more than any other person in the world. Much authority is given to a bishop and priest. Because of this, so much more is expected of them by God. An irresponsible exercise of that authority and power carries with it grave consequences not only for the bishop and priest, but also for the souls entrusted to his care. The degree of severity of responsibility is even greater for a bishop, because he possesses the fullness of the priesthood. Therefore, a bishop has responsibility for all the priests who serve under him, since they function with his blessing and under his authority.

Like any other human organization, the Church is subject to corruption, greed, vanity and a host of other human failings that enter it through the fallen humanity of its human ministers and members.  But the Church is much more than a mere human institution or organization. It exists in this world but it is not only of this world. It is other-worldly in ways not always understood to the simple and limited human mind. A bishop, priest or deacon who concerns himself with the pursuits and things of the world actually corrupts the divine gift which God bestowed upon him through sacred ordination. It is for this reason that the life of every bishop and priest must be firmly rooted in prayer, abstinence and sacrifice, and in the constant pursuit of God.

No bishop can run  his diocese alone. This is especially true given the unique situation we face in the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church. Ours is a very special missionary and evangelical journey. Prior to my election and enthronement as ruling bishop in 2004, our Church had been without episcopal oversight and leadership and clergy since 1982. The years between 1982 and 2004 saw our Church steadily decline and wither away. In many ways, it was a repeat of what happened in the middle ages when latinization virtually wiped out the Byzantine rite and the Greek Church in Sicily.

Since the establishment of our first community in Philadelphia in 1902, our entire existence in this country has been filled with hardship and difficulties. Many of our elders know only too well how difficult it was just to be a person of Sicilian or Italian decent in a country which initially looked upon them as undesirables and second-class citizens. Religiously, it was even more difficult, as our customs and traditions were unfamiliar and strange to the Catholic communities of the cities in which the Italo-Greeks established themselves. Nevertheless, we persevered and were there for each other. It was our Italo-Greek identity that kept us together and allowed our Church to continue. It was the sense of community, of conciliarity, that has kept alive what people like Bishop Ambrogio and Archbishop Gennadios worked so hard for. It was the intimate relationship between bishop and people that kept the Italo-Greek Church alive all these years.

In our own particular situation, I have emphasized time and time again the necessity of you being involved in the life of the Church at the diocesan level. Every parish, mission and fellowship should share and have a voice in the administration of the Archdiocese through the Metropolitan Council. The refusal or indifference on the part of many of you to be actively involved in the life of the Archdiocese is really inexcusable and really perplexing to me. It is true that where the bishop is, there is the Church, but there can be no Church if there are no people. Who is the bishop to shepherd and govern if the people who make up the Church do not actively participate in its life?

Synodality and conciliarity are two very necessary characteristics of the Church. When one or both of these elements are absent or not fully in place, the Church suffers. History has given us plenty of examples of the bad things that can happen in the Church when absolute authority goes unchecked. Throughout our entire existence, concilarity has been present, but the Church has been without the blessing of synodality for many, many years. This is a sad situation, one which I have worked tirelessly, but unsuccessfully, tried to correct since my becoming bishop in 2004.

In our efforts to rebuild the Italo-Greek Church, we have placed great importance on the necessity and role of such entities as the Metropolitan Council, the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, the Archdiocesan Finance Council, the Presbyteral Council, the College of Consultors, etc. These councils are not merely advisory bodies to the bishop. They are charged by the bishop to actively carry out specific responsibilities entrusted to them by the bishop and in his name. They assist and support the bishop in the governance of his diocese. While we have not been in a position to completely form and put into place all the canonically required entities, I have been fortunate to have at my disposal the wise and good counsel of several knowledgeable individuals. That being said, we are still very deficient in having the necessary entities required by Canon Law to assist me in what I want to be a superior and recognizable standard of excellence in the governance and administration of the Archdiocese.

Another deficiency we have, and one which is very critical, is the lack of clergy for service to the Church. As you know, I have been reluctant to ordain men to the diaconate and priesthood without them first having any proper spiritual formation. This does not mean just academic education but thorough spiritual formation. I don’t want priests in the Archdiocese who are academics or merely book smart. I want true pastors who have a heart for Christ and who understand what it means to be a servant.

His Holiness, Pope Francis recently stated that when men are not properly formed in the seminary, they end up being “little monsters.” Men not properly formed for and in the priesthood cannot be expected in turn to properly form the faithful in their own faith. What ends up happening then is that we have a dysfunctional Church that does not understand its role and purpose in society and in the world.

We have no interest in having ‘little monsters” in the Italo-Greek Church. We want only pastors, servants, and sound spiritual fathers who are exemplary models of holiness and integrity. Sound preparation and maturity are critical to the selection, calling and ordination of men as priests and deacons of the Archdiocese.

The most important element of a seminarian’s formation is his spiritual formation. Great emphasis must be placed on the spiritual formation of the seminarian and the on-going spiritual formation of every priest.  One of the goals we will seek to accomplish over the next year is the creation and establishment of a seminary, a house of formation, where men interested in the diaconate and priesthood can come and live together in community and be properly formed for a life of service to the Church.

Having well-trained and properly formed clergy to serve God’s people is critical to successfully carrying out the Church’s ministry in the world. A priest must be a person of faith. He must not only know his faith, but he must be able to live it to the fullest. A priest who is not formed in the faith or whose faith is lukewarm will not be able to properly and effectively minister to or serve the people entrusted to his care, nor will he be able to help them grow and mature in their faith.

Many of our people acknowledge their faith, call themselves Orthodox Christians, but, for whatever reason, do not actively live the faith. They may have stopped attending divine services or maybe they do not participate in the life of the Church at all. The reasons for this are many. It could be they feel the Church is out of touch with the times because it does not share their views on such issues as birth control, abortion, contraception, pre-marital sex, and homosexuality. It could be because of the Orthodox Church’s focus on anything but the Gospel and it's hypocrisy of walking the talk. We have all experienced the judgmental, unchristian, and arrogant behavior that seems to permeate and find a welcome home among many of the Orthodox in this country. Power, authority and position seem to be the primary concerns of many in the nine Orthodox jurisdictions in America. While the various Churches do an exemplary job of preaching the Gospel, they do an awful job living it. The packaging is very pretty and nice, but that’s about it.

The power and authority of every bishop, whether he bears the title of pope, patriarch archbishop or metropolitan, derives solely from Christ. When one keeps that in mind, his behavior and actions will be much different. If we acknowledge that our power and authority comes from Christ, is given to us by Him through the Holy Spirit for service to His Church, then we will have a better understanding of our role in the Church and our relationship to God’s people.

Bishops and priests must always reflect the values and needs of the Church in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Over time, the effect of this will result in the blossoming of a Church which is truly the Body of Christ, a Church abundantly blessed by God; a Church not seen as an “institution” but rather as a living and vibrant community of faith sustained and made holy by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Rather than being obsessed with itself, it will seek to dedicate itself to dispensing the love, compassion and mercy of God in every moment of its existence.

One of the things I have come to learn is that many people perceive the Church to be an “institution of negatives.” In many ways they are right. Negativity permeates in the Church. Many bishops and priests often look sour and very rarely smile. Following all the prescribed rules and regulations to the letter is expected. There is no room for joy and celebration except for those occasions and times approved by the Church. In their Church, we must always wear ashes and sackcloth and keep our eyes lowered in repentance and shame because of our utter sinfulness before God. This is not what the Church is all about.  The Church is about life and joy.   Certainly, we should be mindful of our sinfulness and work every day to eliminate sin from our lives, but the Church should be a community of joy; a warm, inviting and inclusive home where everyone is welcome and where all people can come to connect or re-connect with God and experience the love and peace which only He can give.

The Church should be a refuge and well-spring of hope, a place where people can come and be told that despite all the things that are wrong with this world and the obstacles we face as flawed human beings, redemption, salvation and happiness are still within our reach. The Church should empower people in goodness and holiness. It must lead by love. It must listen attentively and with patience to the opinions, concerns and fears of its members. Yet, at the same time, like a loving mother, it must be firm but kind and gentle in guiding and correcting us when it appears we are drifting off the path of righteousness.

The Church should be a community obsessed with God’s love, mercy and compassion and not obsessed with dogmas, irrational authority, and sex. Bishops, priests and deacons should be leaders in making God’s love, mercy and compassion known to, and felt by, all God's people. Herein lies the true meaning of apostolic, evangelical and priestly ministry.

Only God is the perfect lover and the clergy must strive to show the faithful of the Church, and even those outside the Church, the many ways in which God’s love is made real and knowable for humankind. The Church is the vessel by which God’s love is poured out upon mankind. Bishops and priests must be lovers of mankind, emulating Christ, Who is the perfect lover of mankind. We must take love seriously. Loving and serving God’s people must be the priority of every bishop, priest and deacon in the Church.

In looking at the relationship between the Church and secular society, we must also consider our present understanding of the Church. We need to stop looking at the Church as some form of business, non-governmental, or non-profit charitable organization. Corporations and businesses are creations of the state. They are given “life”; they come into being and existence by fiat of the state or federal government. The Church, on the other hand, was established by Christ. It is a living organism which draws its life from Christ, Who is its Founder and Head. Without Christ, the Church does not exist. It is difficult to describe fully in human terms what the Church really is. The reason for this is because, at its very essence, the Church is a mystery. While visible to human eyes, the Church is nevertheless clouded in divine mystery, a mystery which can only be understood by those who are truly one with Christ.

We must place more emphasis on the Church as a community of faith, a religious society, the mystical Body of Christ, the Kingdom of God on earth. Our tendency has been to see the Church more in earthly terms to the exclusion of its divine origins and essence. We must speak more of Christ and the Church’s relationship to Him as opposed to the Church being a worldly institution or “corporation.”

As we move forward into 2014 and continue our efforts to rebuild the Italo-Greek Church, we will talk more in terms of ministries and apostolic service. I would like to see us move away from terminology and definitions that give the false impression of the Church as being some kind of quasi-business. In those instances where we have taken to ourselves certain functions of administration that have a secular orientation and which are not traditionally part of the Church’s governing model (i.e., chief operating officer, general counsel, etc.), we will explore their usefulness and necessity in furtherance of the Church’s mission and, where necessary, will either modify or eliminate them. In those instances where we retain such positions, we will ensure that they function entirely in support of the Church’s mission and apostolic work.

We will also explore the various ways in which the Church exists in civil society and under civil law and make the changes necessary to ensure that it is seen only as the Body of Christ and not, in any way, as a “business.” Civil or religious corporations will be reviewed to ensure that they do not, in any way, create the impression that the Church is merely a business or some kind of not-for-profit organization.

In evaluating our present situation and our goals for the future, special care will be taken to ensure that the Church has every possible tool at its disposal to carry out its mission successfully in secular society while maintaining and enhancing its holiness, integrity and efficiency in serving God’s people. While we may adopt certain business practices of secular non-profit organizations, it will be with the understanding that these are employed only to help the Church further its divine mission on earth. Our “business model” will be exclusively the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the most perfect rule by which we should live and conduct our daily affairs. When it comes to the matter of accountability, we must always remember that we are accountable first to Christ God as the Head of the Church and secondly to one another as members of the Body of Christ.

In all things good and noble, the Church must be the leader and prime example. The events of the past couple of years, especially the August 2013 arrests of both myself and Mr. Barker regarding the outstanding bills owed for the restoration of the Archdiocesan Cathedral, have been great learning experiences. Through them, God has done great and marvelous things for us personally and for the Church.

Such experiences humble us, they purge us of our pride and ego, and they help us to understand our humanity more. As difficult as the experience was and still is for me, I have learned so much and for those lessons I am very grateful. I gained a personal understanding of what people go through when they are arrested and find themselves in the criminal justice system. I understand the feelings of fear, abandonment, loneliness, shame, etc. and I thank God for the experience because it will help me be a better priest, bishop and pastor.

Another very important lesson I learned is that there is no “prestige” in being a priest and bishop. In other words, if worldly honors and position are what one seeks from the priesthood or episcopate, then one should not be a priest or bishop. If there is any “prestige” at all in being a priest or bishop, it comes from being a true and faithful servant of the Lord. Only by being a real and true servant will a priest and bishop have real power, authority, and position. With those gifts, however, come great responsibility and obligation.

All of us in the Church should have the virtues of genuine humility, simplicity and modesty. These virtues give a quality of authenticity and kindness to our relationships with one another and to those whom we meet in secular society. They also bring with them a great feeling of joy and exuberance. They energize and excite us and put things into a different perspective, one that is often lost on those who do not believe or who have a lukewarm faith.

We must willingly and cheerfully put our lives, our talents and our treasures at the service of the Church and through it, to those of God’s people in our communities who are in need and want. As has always been our practice, we will do good quietly, in ways which are known only to God and those we serve. Human praise and adulation are not what we seek as Orthodox Christians. We seek rather to serve the Lord and give glory to God by serving others in the name of Christ. We are aware of our limitations and the temptations we face in this life, yet, trusting in God and in the most holy Theotokos, we can face and overcome every temptation which has as its goal our utter ruination. Looking to Christ and His most blessed Mother and asking their help and protection, we can undertake difficult tasks and carry them through to a successful completion to the greater glory of God.

The Italo-Greek Church has always been known for its deep spirituality. We must work hard to reclaim this beautiful legacy bequeathed to us by our forefathers and mothers. Holy people such as St. Neilos of Rossano, St. Elias of Syracuse, St. Catherine of Catania, Bishop Ambrogio and Archbishop Gennadios have given us perfect examples of what it means to be in deep communion with God. These were deeply spiritual people whose lives were centered in prayer and the pursuit of creating vibrant and holy communities of believers. The spirituality we have received from these holy men and women flows from God’s love for us. It gains strength as we give ourselves to others in Christ, through whom we are led to the Father. In this way, our apostolic life, our life of prayer, and our community life are blended together, the result of which is a wonderful and beautiful harmony.

As we journey together and work side-by-side to rebuild our beloved Church, we must draw our spiritual and physical strength from the mysteries of the Crib, the Cross, the Tomb, and the Altar. We must be content to leave the results of our work and our efforts entirely in God’s hands, convinced that “if the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor.” We must listen carefully to the gentle whisperings of the Holy Spirit, by whom we are given the grace to be faithful disciples of Christ. We must not close our hearts, minds and eyes to new opportunities or ways of doing things.

The Church is not a museum. It is a vibrant living organism. The Church is not about physical plants and structures; it is not about bank accounts and best practices. The Church is about faith, hope and love; about relationships and service; about devotion and faithfulness; and about mercy, forgiveness and compassion.  We must sweep away not only the cobwebs in the Church, but also the guardians of those cobwebs. We must open all the windows and air out the mustiness. It is time to turn the Church upside down and shake from it all the dust and mold that has choked it for so long. We must rub away the rust and tarnish and polish it so that its beauty is once again revealed and is no longer hidden.

The home at Nazareth should be the model for our parishes and missions. They should be places filled with love and forgiveness, support and help, forgetfulness of self, openness to others, compassion and joy. Our communities must be rooted in and draw their strength and warmth from the love of Christ, Who has given Himself to us. This understanding of Church must pervade our attitudes and behavior to such an extent that it makes itself felt wherever we are and its embrace is not only inescapable but desired and welcomed.

There is no room in the Church for sour-pusses or negativity; for clergy or laity who are always negative, chastising or judgmental. The Church’s messages are ones of life, joy and hope. The Church does not need people who are prophets or messengers of doom and gloom. No, the Church needs people in its body who are proclaimers of the Good News and messengers of the hope, redemption and salvation found in Jesus Christ.

The Church is a community of celebration and thanksgiving made up of believers freely and openly acknowledging their sinfulness, weaknesses, shortcomings, and limitations but who rejoice, at the same time, in the promises of Christ and the hope that God loves and forgives.

The Church should be the living experience of love, of mercy and of compassion. It should be a treasure chest of all that is good and worth wanting. People everywhere and from all walks of life, people of faith or of no faith, should be able to seek it out as a model by which to live and achieve true peace, justice and happiness.

We have much to be thankful to God for in the Italo-Greek Church. Let us shake off the robe of despair and doubt, of fear and uncertainty, and place our future and all our hope in the hands of God. God has not failed us or abandoned us. Even in these recent times of extreme difficulty, hardship and persecution, God has revealed Himself to us in many wonderful and amazing ways.

My prayer and hope for you all and for our Church in this new year is that God will continue to do wondrous things for us, even if it means we must accept and endure even greater hardship and difficulties. We can survive and grow, blossom and flourish, but only if we keep our eyes fixed on God, our lives united to Christ, and our hearts and minds open to the inspiration and guidance of Holy Spirit.

Let us not despair or be sad but let us sing to the Lord, for He has done marvelous things for us!

God bless you all!


In His service,
+Archbishop Stephen