Friday, December 25, 2015

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!




My Beloved Brothers and Sisters,

"Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people; for born unto you is born this, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." (Luke 2:10-12)

This is a day of great rejoicing my children, for this night salvation has come into the world; the Eternal Word of God has taken flesh and is born a child. Come, let us adore Him! 

What can we do but rejoice and glad? This night, our hearts should be filled with great joy and with consolation and hope for God has seen fit to come and dwell among us. The Word Incarnate has come to bring us the Good News, which brings eternal life and blessedness for those who would hear and listen and make it their own, living it to the fullest.

No matter what difficulties and trials we encounter in our life, my children; no matter how out of control the world seems to be, we should never despair of God's love and mercy. His love is a love that conquers all. Tonight a great light shines forth in the world. It dispels the darkness of sin and evil; it washes away despair and fear and replaces it with hope and confidence. Tonight, God fills the world with His love and it is that love which illumines the world and our lives. 

The star which shone brightly in the sky so long ago and which led the shepherds and the Magi to the manger in Bethlehem, draws us also to that crib in adoration and worship. Let us leave our worries and cares, our sorrows and fears at the foot of the crib, trusting that God will make everything right for us and the world. Of course we must do our part. We must believe in Him who was born this night as a child. God took on our flesh so that we could see and touch and know Him in a personal and intimate way. For those who believe, hope springs forth tonight in great abundance. The Fountain of Love gushes forth a sweet, refreshing and life-giving water which renews and restores us to our former beauty.

My fervent prayer for all of you this Christmas feast is that you may be filled with the love, peace and joy of the Infant Child of Bethlehem. May you always be childlike in your faith, find strength and comfort in Christ Who is born this night for your salvation, and rejoice in the hope and promise of the Gospel. be not afraid, my children and friends, for God will never abandon you, especially in your time of need and difficulty. 

May the peace of Christ be with you all now and during this Christmas Season and throughout the entire New Year.

With the assurance of my love and unworthy prayers,

I remain,

Your father and servant in the Word made flesh,
+Archbishop Stephen

Saturday, December 19, 2015

2015 Christmas Archpastoral Letter






God Became Man So That Man Could Become God

This statement, so central to our Orthodox Catholic Faith, explains, in a very succinct and simple way, why Jesus Christ came to dwell among us. Yet, in its simplicity, St. Athanasius’ words are powerful and tell us much of God’s desire and plan for us who are His creation and children. In this simple phrase is summed up the whole teaching of the New Testament. In his letter to the Romans and in his second letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 3:17-18), St. Paul speaks of our “deification,” or becoming one with God. In the Gospel of St. John (John 10:34), Jesus defends Himself against a charge of blasphemy, saying: “Have I not said that you are all gods?” Many Fathers of the Church such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Hippolytus of Rome, Augustine of Hippo, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximos the Confessor, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory Nazianzus and St. Basil the Great, all speak of the deification or “theosis” of man. This is the goal of the Incarnation, our becoming gods by becoming one with God. This should be the ultimate goal of every Orthodox Catholic Christian. But in order deification, we must first accept Christ, who gives us power to become children of God.

In the Letter of St. James, the Apostle tells us that Jesus gave us a new birth, and that we are ‘first fruits’ of His new creation (James 1:18).  In the Second Letter of Peter, we read that by God’s power, we ‘share the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4).

So, what then does it mean to be a “child of God” or “one with God?” And how is the Incarnation relevant to us today?

We are all aware of the current decline in religious practice and observance. It is a worldwide problem. One significant contributing factor to this problem is that many Christians, while they have learned the moral obligation dimension of the Gospel, they have not first been taught the Gospel’s message of empowerment. This is contrary to how Jesus went about teaching His Gospel. In other words, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not merely a set of rules or guidelines we are expected to obey without question but it lays out for us a way of life that makes us one with God.

How many people have given up religious practice because of one or more moral demands of Orthodox Catholic Faith? We think of the many areas of life where so many today find living as Christ taught and lived too difficult to emulate. Without sufficient faith in the empowerment foundation of Christ’s teachings, the moral demands can seem like impossible dreams.

Jesus Himself criticized the Pharisees for focusing solely upon moral obligations (Matthew 23:4): “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they!” We lay ourselves open to the same charge today if we present moral laws outside the context of Christ’s manner of living and acting.

If someone we know has given up their religious practice or belief because of the moral demands of the Christian message, then the question that must be asked is this: ‘Do they appreciate that the Christ Child came to help them live the message of the Gospel?’ ‘Have they found some moral teaching too difficult to live because they are trying to live it without Christ’?
If the answer to either of these questions is ‘yes’, there are two things we can do to help change their point of view.

First, we could help them realize and understand that the birth of Christ is an event borne of immense love. This is what the true meaning of Christmas is all about: love. God so loved the world that He gave His Only-Begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) What greater act of love could there be than for God to become man so that we could become one with God? Such an awesome and wondrous gift God gives us in the miracle and mystery of Christmas.

Jesus was born to free us from the burden and consequence of sin. The Incarnation opens the way to true freedom for all men: rich and poor; slave and freeman; Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, etc. In the birth of Jesus Christ, all are invited to participate fully in the life of God and to be the recipients of the freedom that comes from His Word.

Baptized people share in God’s own nature. They are members of the Body of Christ. Christ seeks to make us “capable” of living every aspect of His Gospel as we worship God in spirit and truth, as we partake of the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), and as we pray fervently with all our heart, with a focused mind, and with a disciplined soul.

Second, we can help them come to know and experience the peace which comes from God alone. There was a reason God chose to come into the world as a child; as an infant born in the silence of the night. God could have come into the world any way He chose; He could have come with an army of angels or on a cloud with thunder and lightning. But He didn’t. He chose rather to come to us in a quiet, unassuming way: as an innocent baby born in obscurity.

In the beauty and innocence of the Infant of Bethlehem, we find the way to true peace and happiness; the perfect way to eternal blessedness. The birth of Christ empowers us with a supernatural power that strengthens our humanity, that gives us the courage and strength we need to change and fight the good fight, and that gives us the ability to purify ourselves and become like God in all things. This is God’s desire for us: that we become one with Him and live with Him in eternal blessedness and happiness. But we can only achieve these things if we open our hearts and minds to the reality and truth of what took place in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. This is why we celebrate Christmas, why we celebrate and honor, commemorate and remember that wondrous night when the Word of God came down from heaven, was born of the Virgin Mary, and dwelled among us. God became man so that we could become like God.

The night that Jesus was born, the angels proclaimed:” Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, to men of good will.” The message of Christmas is not only love, but peace. But there cannot be peace in the world without justice, and there can be no justice without mercy, and there can be none of the foregoing without love. Everything is rooted and has its foundation in love, or at least it should have.  Since God is love, it stands to reason that everything has its origin and foundation in God. But when God is removed from the equation, when God is removed from our lives, either by our own choice or by the acts of others, everything falls apart and chaos reigns supreme. God, and the love of God, is the glue that holds everything together.

The birth of the Child of Bethlehem is a subtle but poignant reminder of the importance of love in our lives and just how life-changing it can be. No other event in human history has made such a profound impact on humanity than the birth of Jesus Christ. And this event was born out of love and was itself, an act of supreme love. It was equaled only by the love Christ showed for us when He gave Himself up to die on the Cross. But, here too, there is a lesson to be learned. Christ came into the world out of love for us and He died on the Cross out of love for us; in between these two dramatic events was a life filled with myriad acts of love. This is the life that we, as baptized Christians, are called to live. In fact, it is the life all people everywhere are called to live: a life lived fully in Christ; a life of love lived entirely for others.

Christ was born into this world to become one with us so that we could become one with God in Him. God emptied Himself, not by laying aside His divinity, but by taking on our humanity. In everything but sin, He was like us. Consider this, if you will: The God who created the earth and filled it with many wondrous things was born in the midst of the very animals He created. The Creator of the seas, rivers and streams experienced thirst. The One who fed His people with manna in the wilderness experienced pangs of hunger. The One who set the stars in the sky slept under the stars. The One who inhabited Heaven’s ivory palace lived in a house of mud and clay. The Omniscient God had to learn how to talk and how to walk. The Eternal Word of God had to learn how to read. The Creator and Helper, Savior and Redeemer of His people was born helpless and dependent. The beloved Son of God became the rejected Son of Man. The One who created the angels had angels come to His aid during His temptation in the wilderness and to comfort Him in His sorrow and agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Why would God go through all of this if not for love of us?

All of this is what needs to be told to those who have given up their religious practice and/or their Faith. This is the true Christmas story. It is the story of love that we must tell every Christmas. It is the story we must pass down to our children and grandchildren and that they must pass on to theirs. When we tell the story of the birth of the Child King born in Bethlehem, let it be the story of love and selfless giving. And let us give one another the assurance that God wants us to share in His love and that He wants us to share His love with others. God truly does love us with a love that knows no bounds. For love of us He became human so that we too could become God.

Our deification begins when we accept God and acknowledge Him for who and what He is. Our journey to oneness with God begins as we make Christ’s life our life. And our deification will be perfected when Christ comes in glory on the awesome Day of Judgment and we are numbered among the righteous.

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us gratefully re-commit ourselves to working toward our deification in Christ by making His life our life; by announcing the Good News to all people and sharing our Faith with them; by prayer, fasting, and doing good works; by worship and fellowship; and by encouraging and serving one another. And let us be the instruments and vessels by which God’s love, mercy, compassion and peace love is communicated to and poured out upon all people everywhere.

May the peace, holiness and love of the Infant of Bethlehem find a home in your heart this year and always and may you share these gifts in abundance with all those you encounter in the New Year.

In Christ,
+Archbishop Stephen

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New Video Promoting Unity between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches


In response to and in support of the Great Prayer of Supplication for the Restoration of Communion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches written by His Eminence, Archbishop Stephen, the Department of Inter-Church Relations of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of the Americas and Canada has created and produced a video entitled "May We All Be One." The video is presented here for your viewing pleasure.

The video may also be viewed on YouTube at www.youtube.com/igoarch1. We hope you enjoy and like the video.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Calendar Change

Beloved Children of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church:

Christ is in our midst!

With a majority consensus of the Church membership voting in favor, I am pleased to inform you that effective December 1, 2015, we will begin using the Revised Julian Calendar in the observance of the Church's liturgical celebrations. This means that all fixed feasts and memorials of the saints will be celebrated according to the Gregorian Calendar (Civil Calendar) and all moveable feasts (Pascha, Ascension Thursday and Pentecost) as well as Great Lent will continue to be observed according to the Julian reckoning. 

I congratulate you on this very big step. I know it was a difficult decision to come to; that changing more than 1500 years of tradition was not easy. Change is never easy, but with regard to the calendar we all know that it has divided and disrupted the life of the Orthodox Church for many years. In our own experience, the use of the Old Calendar has inhibited our growth and impeded our ability to effectively evangelize, especially among unchurched and disaffected Italian Catholics.
Our adoption of the Revised Julian Calendar does not solve the "calendar problem" but it does allow us to evangelize more easily in the American culture.

As we discerned three years ago, we can sanctify time and celebrations like Christmas, which have been corrupted by secular influences, not by following this or that calendar but by remaining faithful to the Faith and not "dumbing it down" where it is really important, especially in the area of worship.  The act of worship is what sanctifies the day and seasons, not the calendar.

It is up to the fathers of the Church to resolve the problematic issue of the Calendar. Hopefully it will be addressed AND resolved once and for all at the upcoming Great and Holy Pan-Orthodox Council which will take place in Constantinople at Pentecost 2016. If the Council does resolve the issue, we will obediently and joyfully implement whatever protocol they agree upon, even if it means resuming the observance of the Old Calendar. As I said so many times, the calendar is not an issue for me and it should not be an issue for you, the faithful. What is more important is that we worship God in purity and truth and remember, honor and commemorate the saints of the Church. A day is just a day. We do not worship or honor a day. We worship God and honor the Most Blessed Theotokos and the Saints.

A new Calendar of Saints will be available soon. If you would like a copy, please contact the Chancery Office at igoarch@gmail.com. In the interim, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me. You can reach me at igometropolitan@gmail.com.

Once again, I am proud of you all and I am grateful for your input and participation in the life and work of the Church. May God bless you all!


In His Service,
+Archbishop Stephen

Prayers Written by Archbishop Stephen

We are pleased to present to you two very beautiful prayers which were written by His Eminence, Archbishop Stephen. The first prayer, entitled "The Great Prayer of Supplication for the Restoration of Communion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches," was written by His Eminence on April 2, 2015, while he was in prison. A hand-written copy of the prayer was sent by Archbishop Stephen to His Excellency, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States on September 8, 2015, with a request that it be conveyed to His Holiness, Pope Francis during the Pope's Apostolic visit to Washington, DC later that month. His Excellency, Archbishop Vigano responded to His Eminence that his prayer was "beautiful and appropriate." Framed copies of the prayer, which bear an icon of Sts. Peter and Andrew, are available for purchase from the Chancery Office. Please email igoarch@gmail.com for more information.


The second prayer entitled "Prayer for the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church, was written by His Eminence on February 28, 2006, shortly after his elevation as Archbishop and Primate of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church.


The Great Prayer of Supplication
for the
Restoration of Communion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches

Heavenly Father, we Your weak and sinful children of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches come together before You in fraternal charity and join our hearts and voices in prayer to humbly ask that You graciously heal the division and estrangement that has kept us separated for more than 900 years.

Because of human weakness and pride, of ignorance and intolerance, and of egotism and greed, we have said and done many terrible and aweful things to each other. By our actions and words, we have stained the name of Christ which we bear and have grievously wounded His Body. Because of our unChrist-like behavior toward one another, we have drifted apart and broken the holy bond of communion which existed between our Churches.

For all the sins, offenses and transgressions we have committed against each other, grant us the grace of humility that we may prostrate ourselves, each before the other, and with genuine tears of repentance, sorrow and regret, ask forgiveness of and grant to one another the same.

We have wounded, O God, the heart of Christ, who is the only head of the Church, and we have not heeded His will that "they may all be one." Though we try to restore what was lost between us, we are still very far from achieving the unity that once bound our Churches together in fraternal love and fellowship and in Eucharistic and ecclesial communion.

Help us to understand and see, O Lord, that the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ triumphs over all human divisions. Let the bond of charity, therefore, which brings everything together in perfect harmony, be restored in its fullness between our Sister Churches. Help us to see that, within the unity of the People of God, a magnificent assembly of peoples and cultures is gathered together, each with its own gifts, offices, traditions and way of life. May the Holy Spirit open the eyes of our hearts and minds to the great riches of such diversity and the knowledge and understanding that it does not stand in opposition to the unity of the Church.

Grant to the shepherds and archpastors of the Church, O Good One, especially the Patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, and the heads of all the patriarchal, autocephalous and autonomous Churches, the grace, courage, wisdom and humility to work closely together in charity and with pure hearts and minds to settle and resolve the differences and disagreements that keep us apart and thereby re-establish and restore communion between our Churches.

We earnestly seek and desire this, O Lord, for the good of the Church and Your people; that we may once again gather together at the altar and there make our common sacrifice and offering of thanksgiving and praise to You, the Eternal God and Father, and partake of the Eucharistic Banquet in unity of faith and heart. On that great day of jubilation and celebration, may we proclaim with tears of joy, "Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity."

We ask all these things through Jesus Christ, Your Son, the Eternal High Priest and Good Shepherd, who lives and reigns with You, in unity with the Holy Spirit, one God always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Copyright 2015. Italo-Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of the Americas and Canada


Prayer for the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church

Lord Jesus Christ, through the holy works and zeal of the glorious and all-laudable Apostles Peter and Paul, Your holy Church was established in the God-protected Island of Sicily. Nurtured by countless bishops and priests over the centuries, the vineyard planted by the Great Apostles blossomed and flourished, bringing forth abundant fruit, which You have harvested for Your greater glory.

With great devotion and faithfulness, the Italo-Greek people, when they migrated to other lands, brought with them the True Faith of the Apostles, establishing new communities wherever they settled. These vineyards too were lovingly cared for and nurtured and have produced much sweet fruit.

Grant, O Lord, that our venerable and much-beloved Italo-Greek Church may continue to flourish and grow. May She always remain healthy and vibrant, filled with the fragrance of pure faith and genuine piety. Bless and protect Her bishops, priests and deacons, the monastic estate, and all the faithful. Keep them holy and pure. May they always be obedient to the will of God and ever faithful to Your life-giving Gospel, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Copyright 2015. Italo-Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of the Americas and Canada




Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thank You!

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Christ is in our midst!

As many of you already know, I was released from prison on Monday, November 2nd and am now back home. I want to thank you all for your love, your support and your encouragement during the past twenty months. Your cards and letters were a tremendous source of support and inspiration during the period of my incarceration.

First and foremost, I want to thank Almighty God for giving me this great blessing and experience. I believe with all my heart that what happened to me was God's will; that He had a definite purpose and plan for me. Certainly, I was greatly humbled and brought low by the entire experience, but that is a good thing. A priest, and especially a bishop, should never think or believe that his office gives him any special rights or privileges. At the end of the day, we are nothing but servants. We should never think too much of ourselves. We should think only of Christ, His Church and His people. This is what we live for. So I thank God for humbling me and giving me this great blessing.

In actuality, the past twenty months were a very good experience. I met many wonderful people, some of whom will remain in my heart and most certainly in my prayers forever. At this time I want to say a special thank you to the administration and corrections officers of Livingston Correctional Facility for their support, encouragement and care. You do not have an easy job and I highly respect what you do. I want to thank you also for the confidence and trust you put in me by giving me the privilege of working in the Admin Building. I enjoyed my job as a porter; it was an obedience I looked forward to every day and took great pride in. Who would think somebody could have fun cleaning bathrooms but I did!

Being in prison has been an awesome learning experience. I learned so much about so many things; things I couldn't possibly have learned in such depth and detail in a parish setting. I never realized how isolated, comfortable and safe we are in our parishes. We only touch the fringe of certain aspects of the human condition. No amount of book knowledge and schooling can come close to giving you the knowledge and understanding that comes from personal experience. In this area, I want to say thank you to some very special guys who have become, in a very real sense and in every respect, my sons and brothers; true members of my family. Noel, Phil and Nelson, thank you for letting me into your lives, for sharing your concerns, fears and hopes with me; for allowing me to share my faith and the love of Christ with you; for teaching me so many things about the street that I never knew; for being patient with me as I tried to learn and understand the prison culture; for protecting me from the wolves and sharks, and for helping me grow physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. You are not only my spiritual children but my family and I love you with all my heart. I will always be grateful to you and forever in your debt. Remember, I will always be here for you, as will the Cathedral parish family. You have a home with us when you get out.

To my mother and father, who visited me every month for the past twenty months; to all my relatives; to the Cathedral parish family; to the faithful of the Archdiocese; and to my friends, may God bless you all for your generous and unconditional love, support and encouragement. No person in prison suffers or goes through such an experience alone. Loved ones also go through it as well. You stuck by me during this difficult time and as always your love has been constant and faithful. No words I could ever speak would be adequate enough to tell you how much I love you and how grateful I am for all of you who have stood steadfastly beside me.

To the members of the Cathedral parish family and the faithful of the Archdiocese, thank you for your trust and confidence, not only during this difficult time, but throughout our entire journey together. I know this experience has made me wiser and stronger in so many ways and that because of it, I will be a better priest and bishop. I know also that I will be able to serve you with more wisdom and knowledge.

To my mother and father and the Cathedral parish family, your kindness and generosity is second to none. Your work in sending food and clothing to some of the offenders was outstanding; God will truly bless you all for the work you have done in making the Gospel relevant and real to the men who have no family or anyone to care for them or about them. You have touched so many lives over the past twenty months. The letters you received are just a small sampling of the positive impact you made on men who had no hope. You sent the light of Christ into the hearts of a lot of guys. Though the final accounting will not be completed for a few weeks, you should know that in the past twenty months, you sent in over 100 care packages of food and clothing valued at over $3,000. By the time we are done with the accounting, the totals and amounts will be more.

Now it is time to get back to work. The first priority is to resume a normal diocesan and parish life and to raise the money to pay the outstanding bills, especially the restoration bills. In this regard, any help you can provide will be greatly appreciated. It is important that we do this as soon as possible as the Church is not a business but the Mystical Body of Christ, the household of God. Thus, much more is expected of us; it is incumbent upon us to always strive for the highest standards of integrity.

Once again, thank you to all of you. You will always be in my heart and in my prayers. May God bless you all!

+Stephen
Bishop of Utica
Metropolitan of the Americas and Canada of the Italo-Greeks
Archbishop of Siracusa and All Sicily
Primate of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church