One of the things I will be thankful for during Thanksgiving dinner is being able to witness the historic gathering of Orthodox hierarchs and other representatives of our Faith at Holy and Great Council (HGC) last summer. Everyone I spoke with felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and expressed what a privilege it was for them to be there – I felt it was truly a gift from God.
The island of Crete is a joy to visit anytime. Pictures help convey the enchantments of the manmade and natural beauty and the stories tourists take with them will delight friends and family for decades, but while neither words nor images can do justice to the experiences of those who participated in the HGC, hearing them talk about it is inspiring.
While I was there, I had the chance to speak to participants from the Archdiocese of America. It’s strong presence included administrators who helped make the event possible and hierarchs led by Archbishop Demetrios who participated in the discussions that were the substance of the HGC.
The hierarchs included Metropolitans who were serving their rotation as members of the Endemousa Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, including. Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver, Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco, Metropolitan Nicholas of Detroit, Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta, and Metropolitan Nikitas of Dardanellia.
Their heavy schedules did not permit me to speak to each of them, but I was grateful for some time with Metropolitans Isaiah and Nikitas while they were still in Crete about their experiences as members of the Council and about the important aftermath which includes communicating and discussing its work with clergy and laity.
All the hierarchs noted that although rooted in ancient Orthodox tradition, the HGC was a completely new reality for its approximately 200 participants.
Metropolitan Isaiah told me in the middle of the week-long gathering “Initially I felt there was no concern on the part of some to work together, and to have unanimity in the subject matter….I did see some confusion when I got here…but I now see an intense desire to bring clarity and understanding and agreement in regards to what we are talking about.”
“Until recently geopolitical realities made it very difficult to bring people together in an environment of peacefulness in order to understand each other, he reminded, and added “I thank God that I am here.”
I had the feeling all of us on Crete continually thanked the Lord and felt His presence.
“I have to say that during the last two sessions I feel very comfortable saying that the Holy Spirit is guiding us because I see a very peaceful consensus in regard to finding in clarity and what the truth is in regard to what these documents will say not only for us, the hierarchs, but to the people in the outside world,” including the non-Orthodox.
Communication after the council is important because it is easy for people who are not experts to misinterpret the Council’s documents, Metropolitan Isaiah told me, and added that he believes that the Holy Spirit is at work in the process.
The Ecumenical movement was a major topic at the HGC and Metropolitan Isaiah told me of the excitement he began to feel 50 years ago when he started “to notice statements made by people about how we who call ourselves Christians can come together not to become one church but to work together as Christians - as far as we Orthodox are concerned we are the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
I was only able to catch up with Metropolitan Gerasimos after he returned to the U.S. He shared some preliminary thoughts with me by phone, and I heard him elaborate upon them when I attended the Archdiocese’s Clergy-Laity Congress in July.
“I am still trying to tease out the importance of this event” he told me. “Of course, I was blessed and honored to be together with so many other hierarchs in this historic event. And this is the most crucial point of this gathering: convening all together, under the guidance of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the blessings of the Holy Spirit, in order to discuss and dialogue about our faith today and tomorrow,” he said.
All the people I spoke with emphasized that the HGC was an important first step. I had the honor of hearing His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew declare that more Councils will follow – the next one may he held as soon seven years from now.
Metropolitan Gerasimos said to me, “I feel that we had a good beginning with this Synod, in making ourselves a little more open to others' opinions and ideas…Our journey as the Orthodox Church of the 21st century however is full of challenges, some of them more serious than others. Therefore, the substance of this gathering is that it is an unprecedented gathering of so many different Churches with so many different opinions, yet united over the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith!”
“And here is the wonder of this Synod,” he continued, “we might have differences of opinions in substantive matters, but at the end we were able to convene together and agree on issues that will shape our spiritual lives and those that we shepherd throughout the world.”
The Metropolitan believes that eventually, the success of the Synod, beyond of what was discussed there, will depend on the hierarch rising to the challenge of “taking this event and making it real throughout the world by implementing our decisions. I pray that our Lord will be kind and merciful to us all as we begin working for the realization of the Synod's implementation tasks.”
Metropolitan Nikitas of Dardanellia is the Director of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, CA. He told me “I think the first and most important thing is to see the wisdom, the guiding hand of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and the courage to convene not only this Holy and Great Council but to overcome challenges and difficulties, the confrontations and different problems - which takes a man of thought and vision.”
In addition to the intellectual capabilities a spiritual leader requires to preside over a Council, Metropolitan Nikitas noted Patriarch Bartholomew’s “Compassion, and embracing attitude” that was needed to reinforce “the idea of being inclusive rather than limiting.”
The Metropolitan used an example from everyday life to demonstrate that a Council’s challenges are not unique: “A family that has a dozen children has its own problems at the dinner table. Not everyone likes the same food, some like salt and others don’t, but still they sit together and at that table they discuss and talk - they share – and that’s the spirit of this Council.”
He continued, “The Church has a space for everyone, and this Council and the challenges and the discussions are a part of that everyone and everything. The question was, are we able to come to some conclusions and resolutions, some statements? I think we were able to because of the wisdom and the vision of the Patriarch.”
And because the spirit of the HGC will be conveyed to those who were absent, the process of the reception of the decisions on Crete, which is “part and parcel of the work of the Council,” moves forward and will fuel discussions around the world as Fr. John Chrysavgis told me.
“Councils are never frozen in time,” Metropolitan Nikitas said. “They are ongoing events because they are lived by the Community and the Church…the decisions are lived, and we have to see that and remember that.”