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Death of a Patriarch

Alexander F.C. Webster

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April 15, 2005

With the eyes of the world fixed on Rome -- upon the death of Pope John Paul II and the gathering of cardinals to pick his successor -- many Americans might have missed the quiet passing of another prominent bishop. Earlier this week, His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos died peacefully at the age of 93. Today he will be interred in Brookline, Mass.

Though not a pope in any familiar sense of the term, Archbishop Iakovos wielded an almost papal authority among the roughly two million Greek Orthodox in America, as well as among two million Orthodox Christians of other assorted ethnic origins. He was the senior Orthodox hierarch in the U.S. from 1959 to 1996 -- a reign half again as long as Pope John Paul II's celebrated pontificate in Rome.

Sometimes imperious with his clergy, always personable, at once charismatic and formidable, a man of keen intellect (if not an exceptional writer or speaker), Archbishop Iakovos often seemed larger than life. Yet he remained an enigma to the Orthodox faithful -- perhaps because he was not as predictable as they would have preferred.

His two greatest public moments came toward the beginning and end of his leadership. Both proved to be controversial in a religious community that has, until recently, avoided the limelight, generally craving a comfortable anonymity rather than taking its rightful place in the American public square Both moments capture Archbishop Iakovos's lifelong pursuit of a spiritual unity that transcends historic divisions -- divisions that are, at best, merely a penultimate stage in the grand scheme of creation.

Archbishop Iakovos literally became the face of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in America when he appeared on the cover of the March 26, 1965, issue of Life magazine -- a bearded patriarch bedecked in cassock and the black headdress and veil of Orthodox bishops. He was shown standing alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., labor leader Walter Reuther and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.

The occasion for the photograph was a historic march for civil rights in Selma, Ala. Archbishop Iakovos was there, alone among his fellow Orthodox bishops -- in fact, way out in front of the rest of the Orthodox community on one of the most vital moral issues of the day. For this visible prophetic stance, he earned acclaim from most of the members of his church but bitter enmity from others, who were not yet ready to embrace the civil-rights movement or its demands for equality.

The other key episode in the archbishop's life led to his forced retirement, or so it is widely believed. For three days in late 1994, 29 bishops from the various Orthodox "jurisdictions" -- a convenient Latin term that describes the scandalous ethnic fragmentation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Orthodox church in this country -- met in Ligonier, Pa., at the invitation of the archbishop. Their purpose was to contemplate the formation of a united Orthodox community in America.

In a final statement, the bishops spoke glowingly of their commitment to "a common vision of mission," of their conviction that all the Orthodox of North America are "called to plan together and work together" in reaching beyond the ethnic boundaries of the churches. The bishops -- with Greek, Russian, Syrian, Lebanese, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian and American roots -- pledged to avoid "the creation of parallel and competitive Orthodox parishes."

While many of the Orthodox faithful have long prayed for such an outcome, the meeting apparently triggered alarms in Istanbul, historic seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, "first among equals" in the 300-million-strong Orthodox world. Within 20 months, Archbishop Iakovos retired at the behest of Patriarch Bartholomeos, who reportedly saw in the archbishop's efforts an attempt to detach the Greek Orthodox flock in North America from their mother church.

Such a breaking away was certainly on the minds of some of the assembled bishops. One later suggested that the group should have staged a "Ligonier Tea Party" and severed formal ties with the churches overseas. But it is unlikely that Archbishop Iakovos was thinking of anything so dramatic or severe. Still, he paid a dear price for his vision of a unified American Orthodoxy.

Honor has been defined as doing the right thing, especially when it may exact a personal toll. Archbishop Iakovos demonstrated such honor on two prophetic occasions, two shining moments, at Selma and Ligonier. Whatever else he achieved or failed to achieve between those antipodes of his hierarchical reign pales in significance.

Father Webster is a priest in the Orthodox Church in America and co-author of "The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East & West."

This article first appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 19-Apr-05

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