Archbishop Elpidophoros reflects on the issues of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the non-Christian position of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church regarding it. The bishop also explains his stance on abortion and coronavirus.
Q: You took part in demonstrations over the murder of George Floyd, you supported the use of plastic spoons for Holy Communion, and you baptized the children of a gay couple. What kind of hierarch are you? What shaped you?
A: I come from the heart of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the First Throne of the Church, where our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew taught us that at the center of the Christian faith is love and solidarity with all people and without exception. Without prejudice and without conditions, except in matters of faith.
The Floyd protests, the issue of Holy Communion during the pandemic, and the baptism this past summer presented contemporary challenges to my everyday pastoral ministry. The question of the Church in every age should be how exactly it will embrace the world. Who do we invite to the great and holy banquet called the Church? And why are we afraid of progressing beyond those spaces where we feel comfortable? Let us not forget that Christ’s cross promises anything but comfort.
I must clarify, however, that during the pandemic, we suggested the possible alternative of a regular metal spoon, but it should be clear that this was for single use; under no circumstance was it a plastic spoon.
Q: What is important, you said, is Christ’s Body and Blood of Christ, not the method by which it is received. Why do you think this was so difficult for the Orthodox Church to understand?
A: I think that the unprecedented—at least for our generation—pandemic has led us to reevaluate many of our daily practices in activities we previously took for granted; the way we work, for example, as well as the way we go to church. And it is not at all a simple or easy matter to accept another, a new reality. But what is most important is to maintain a level-headed sense of judgment in responding to the call of the times and to be able to distinguish the “essence” of a spiritual inheritance from the “letter” of a practiced custom. As you know, metal spoons are historically a much later tradition and practice of the Church.
The Mystery of the Eucharist is not the metal spoon but the Holy Communion—the sacred Body and Blood of Christ Himself. In earlier times, before the introduction of a metal spoon, Holy Communion was transmitted in various ways. In the Apostolic era, it was transmitted separately as Body (bread) and Blood (wine), or the faithful could take it home with them. Even today, during the Divine Liturgy of St. James the Brother of God on October 23rd, the faithful do not receive Holy Communion with a spoon, but receive the Body first and then, separately, the Blood.
While the Holy Archdiocese of America clarified that the current tradition is not being abolished, it nevertheless gave our priests the freedom to decide, along with the members of their communities, regarding what their parishioners were most comfortable with during the exceptional and temporary circumstances of the pandemic—without forcing parishes to adopt a new method. In any case, as you know, we did the same with the issue of church attendance. The fact that we gave our faithful the opportunity to follow services from the internet does not mean that we eliminated or replaced physical church attendance in general.
Q. You received homophobic attacks following the baptism in Glyfada. But the Holy Synod of Greece also sent a letter of protest to you and to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Can we speak of two “classes” of children in the Church: a “privileged” one and a “lesser” one？
A: Our Christian faith teaches that God loves all His children and does not separate them by means of any criteria whatsoever.
It is perhaps not well known, but the Church does not deny—and, in the case of an infant, cannot deny—the Holy Sacrament of Baptism to anyone. I would even say that the Holy Sacrament of Baptism is the ultimate mystery of God’s absolute grace. How can we block a child’s access to God’s infinite mercy? Even the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece recognized this in the letter which you say was sent to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In this particular case, the tension emerged because the Church was again called upon to choose between “being” and “appearing.”
Q: The Greek Prime Minister has pledged to legalize same-sex marriage. Do you agree with him?
A: Mr. Mitsos, let me quote the scriptural “Render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar.” The Prime Minister has the knowledge and discernment to make decisions in a way that serves the Greek people in its entirety. The Church, of course, will express the faith, conviction, and tradition that it has expressed and practiced for ages.
The issue, you know, is not that the Church understands things differently to the state or a section of the population. The issue lies in the process and reasoning whereby the Church deliberates and decides. As hierarchs today, we cannot groundlessly insist on things, expressing opinions or issuing decisions without any explanation. In today’s world, it is not enough to publish public “affirmations” or “statements” regarding the teaching of the Gospel, while ignoring the severe criticism from those who disagree or seek to hold a conversation with us. Dialogue with other points of view has always helped the Church to deepen its understanding of the Gospel’s teaching, while at the same time compelling it to speak the language of every generation and avoiding marginalization. As our Patriarch said recently: “In authentic dialogue, there are no losers.”
In fact, I would add that, today, we theologians cannot support our views by looking to the past alone, however sacred and mighty it may be. We should also respect contemporary developments in science, medicine, and psychology. And it is a great blessing and a great advantage that experienced clergy-physicians and theologian-psychologists serve the Church today.
Q: Six out of 10 American women now live in states hostile to abortion. Georgia Meloni, who will take over as prime minister in Italy, is against abortion. The Holy Synod of Greece recently circulated a statement against abortion that was read aloud in churches. What is your position?
A: My position is clear, and I expressed it in an address earlier this year. I unambiguously maintain the position of our Church, which believes in the sanctity of human life, born and unborn. Abortion has been in existence for millennia, and the church has never endorsed it. At the same time, however, we also believe in the fundamental freedom of every human person. As a general rule, women bear the full burden in giving birth and raising their children, while men, otherwise directly involved in the pregnancy, do not bear the same burden. Therefore, we must support women’s right to make reproductive decisions of their own free will, while at the same time—as Church and society—adopting every action and ensuring every provision that would render abortion unnecessary and supporting a woman to choose the birth of her child.
We support safe and effective birth control, which has been practiced in diverse ways since time immemorial. What we should strive to avoid is reducing women to mere “child-bearers,” as if this were their sole purpose in life. Let us remember that the Theotokos—who, as her title signifies, is the ultimate example and model of what it means to be a “bearer of God”—willingly and freely consented to receive the “incarnate” God in her sacred womb. She exercised her freedom when she said to the Archangel Gabriel, “Behold the servant of the Lord, let it be according to your will.” In other words, she did exactly the opposite of Eve, who—while also exercising her free will—refused to obey the divine will and violated the commandment. This is why the Church Fathers refer to the Theotokos as the “second Eve.”
In America, the issue of abortion has been completely politicized. It has reached the point where many consider the sole criterion for a politician’s election to be whether or not they are in favor of abortion. When addressing religious constituencies in particular, some political platforms argue that it is inconceivable for a proper Christian to vote for a politician who supports the right of a woman to a legal abortion, even if this ensures her health and her life. It is as if the only qualification for being a good Christian or a good politician depends on one’s stance on the issue of abortion. All other principles and doctrines of Christianity do not matter; you can be a crook, a liar, a swindler, a warmonger, violent, or a misogynist, but if you are against abortion, then you are a politician suitable enough for “pious people” to support.
This politicization of Christian principles disturbs me because we must not allow the teaching of the Gospel to be instrumentalized for secular and political purposes.
Q: You have been clear from the outset on the matter of the COVID vaccination: Yes to vaccination and no to exemption on religious grounds. So do you believe that there is no contradiction between science and faith? Can the two coexist?
A: Not only is there no contradiction between faith and science, but there is absolute harmony. Science is God’s gift to humankind; it is the gift of knowledge through which each of us discovers the miracle, the wealth, and the diversity of creation. And in all of these, we discover the God, Creator Himself.
There is a wonderful phrase in Church history, according to which “faith seeks understanding.” This perception is the stark opposite of the proverbial saying “believe and do not question.” We can never claim that our faith or our knowledge is perfect. As the Apostle Paul points out, “Now we only see a reflection as in a mirror.” (1 Cor. 13:12) Consequently, we navigate our lives with reason (insofar as science is concerned) and with faith (insofar as our church life is concerned). If our motivation is the power of love, and not the love of power, then we will be able to find the necessary balance. For science cannot replace religion, but neither is religion in a position to replace science. Such an argument would have been condemned by the Church Fathers as arrogant.
After all, science and the Church are not searching for different truths. There may be a distinction, but there must be no dichotomy between the transcendent and the worldly, between heaven and earth.
Q: The Church has been divided on the issue of the war in Ukraine, with Patriarch Kirill fully siding with the aggressor party. How do you explain this?
A: The Church is not divided. On the contrary, it is the Patriarch of Moscow who has disassociated himself from Christ’s teachings and the Orthodox tradition, while supporting a repulsive war, which has already claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Ukrainians as well as Russians—that is to say, Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters. He has participated in an illegal invasion, which has led to the razing of countless cities and villages in Ukraine, turning millions of its inhabitants into refugees. This has simultaneously led to a global food crisis with immense repercussions, especially for poorer countries, and an energy crisis affecting the whole world, especially the weakest among us.
It is unthinkable that the Patriarch of Moscow would bless a war that is principally “imperialistic” in the name of Christianity or Pan-Slavism. I am sorry to say it, but the Patriarch of Moscow serves neither God nor his flock, which ultimately suffers from this war. On the contrary, he serves the repulsive agenda of a group in the Kremlin, with which he has absolutely, uncritically, and indiscriminately identified.
We are all witnessing the consequences of the recent developments in Russia, with the forced recruitment that has given rise to a reaction by its people, who do not want to send their children to die in the fields of Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill should have tried, with all his power, to stop this fratricidal war, to separate himself from Putin’s criminal politics, and to identify with his Orthodox brethren, including our Ukrainian Orthodox friends. As our Ecumenical Patriarch said, the Patriarch of Moscow should even have chosen to step down from his throne, rather than bless weapons and become responsible for so many people lost in vain.
Q: You recently visited “The Ark of the World,” a youth protection center on the island of Chios, where you told refugees from Ukraine that they have “the support of the whole free and democratic world that shares the same values.” What do you have to say to those who offer a justification to President Putin for invading Ukraine?
A: Every visit to “The Ark of the World” deeply touches me and grounds me in the tragic reality that exists all around and so close to us. It reminds me of the responsibility that we all have to work within our power to eliminate child delinquency, especially by supporting wonderful initiatives like this. “The Ark of the World” is further proof of what we can achieve when inspired by examples of people of sacrifice, like Father Antonios.
And since I am speaking to Greek readers, I do not think it is necessary to remind us Greeks about what military invasion and refugee status mean. Unfortunately, even our recent history has been indelibly marked by such tragic events. That is why, with all peoples of the world, we agreed henceforth no longer to resolve our differences with deadly wars. In the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is inconceivable to me that we still need to explain why the invasion of Ukraine—with the horrific crimes that accompany it—is heinous. In Greece, where we have an excellent global example of intersection between the ideals of Democracy and Christianity, one cannot be but blatantly and unequivocally opposed to the military invasion of Ukraine.
Q: You were among the 227 professors and intellectuals who asked for the Russian president to be stripped of the title of honorary doctor bestowed by the University of Athens. Do you think activism has a place in religion?
A: To begin with, allow me to mention that before my election as Archbishop of America, I was an active academic, honored to teach at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, an academic post I never relinquished. Like numerous academic professors in Greece, I feel profoundly insulted when a Greek university institution continues to acclaim as an honorary doctor someone who has masterminded and is responsible for the bloody invasion into Ukraine.
Religion by its nature is “activist.” By which I mean that it is not an theoretical exercise, but a practical application, a way of life.
Truth and integrity should characterize all leaders, spiritual and political. A leader should also serve as an example; just as no politician is above state law, so too no person is above God’s law. And what is the law of God? It is to love God and our neighbor, just as we love ourselves. How, then, could such a war ever be considered an act of love?
Q: The refugee crises are a perennial blow to humanity. Beyond its political instrumentalization, how do you see the efforts of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, or Ukraine to seek a better future, and what do you think the civilized world should do for them?
A: You know, Mr. Mitsos, I know very well what it means to be a refugee because I experienced it as a young child, when my family and I were forced to leave Constantinople and come to Thessaloniki with nothing but our clothes. The first night that we arrived in Greece, we slept on our suitcases. Being a refugee is hard, and the decision to abandon the land of your ancestors is a choice not taken very lightly at all.
The refugees from Syria, Ukraine, or Afghanistan are choosing the same as I think you and I would choose if we were in their place; if we faced war, persecution, imprisonment, and unbearable poverty. And if we also add to all these plights a rapidly accelerating climate change, which will push more and more people from rural areas to urban centers that cannot offer employment, then we will appreciate how immigration is not a wayward road.
To be justified in calling itself “civilized,” the world cannot turn its face from this problem. Time will tell whether we can ultimately demonstrate just how philanthropic we are as a nation, just how hospitable we are as a world, and just how Christ-loving we are as Christians. After all, the Lord Himself told us that we will be judged based on whether or not we offered food and hospitality and compassion to our fellow human beings; because in the face of our brother and sister, God Himself is revealed!
Q: You caused a commotion in Nicosia and Athens a year ago when you attended the inauguration of the “Turkish House” in New York. But recently, you welcomed the Greek Prime Minister to the newly-constructed St. Nicholas Church and National Shrine, where the Twin Towers once stood. Has the chilly relationship melted away?
A: There was never a chilly relationship with the Greek Prime Minister. How could that ever be? From the very beginning of my ministry as Archbishop of America, the Prime Minister tangibly demonstrated his support for the Archdiocese of America and its work by financially supporting Hellenic College / Holy Cross School of Theology in Boston. So we are personally grateful to him and we shall never forget his support and that of the Greek people at a time when we were in such great need. We were also in communication with the Prime Minister during the time of the pandemic. Indeed, last year, during the celebrations of the Bicentennial of the Greek Revolution, he honored us with an exclusive video message. Moreover, our relationship surpasses any temporary acquaintance or personal connection inasmuch as, in my person, the Prime Minister recognizes and honors the office of the Archbishop of America and what it represents—throughout history to this day—for the Omogeneia and our Ecumenical Patriarchate. It was with immense joy, then, that I welcomed the Greek Prime Minister to New York a few days ago for the third year in a row since my enthronement.
This time, we welcomed him and gave him a tour of our newly-constructed church, the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at Ground Zero, where I expressed to him my hope that the next time he returns to New York, he will enter the doors of the Church and attend a liturgical service in one of the most visited Greek Orthodox Churches in the world, which stands tall thanks to the sacrifices and perseverance of our Omogeneia, as a meaningful testimony to Orthodoxy and Hellenism at a location in Manhattan of enormous symbolic significance, not only for the United States but for the whole world.
Q: Greek-Turkish relations are going through a bad phase. Do you think that the Church can build bridges and indicate a way forward to politicians?
A: The Church always speaks the language of truth. This is the language I used when I spoke about the illegal occupation of Cyprus by Turkish troops during a recent event of the Federation of Cypriot Organizations in America in the presence of the President of Cyprus. You must understand that statements like these come at a cost. Every such statement that I have made in the past three years has elicited violent reactions against me personally, and these are recorded in both the Turkish press and on social media.
At the same time, however, Mr. Mitsos, the Church also speaks the language of understanding. The Church prays for peaceful coexistence and hopes that its prayers for the “peace of the world,” which the priest exclaims every Sunday during the Divine Liturgy, will be heard.
This is not an easy position to adopt, and it is sometimes attacked by our compatriots—sometimes out of ignorance, while at other times for personal interests. Fortunately, I have been greatly blessed in my life as a clergyman to have the Ecumenical Patriarch as my teacher and guide, who, despite difficulties, manages to serve the institution of the Mother Church in Constantinople and to preserve its light inextinguishable both in “difficult phases,” as you described them, and in easier ones.
In the past three years in the United States, I can attest to the fact that the Omogeneia—which has served Hellenic issues with self-sacrifice and responsibility—embraces and sustains the language of truth and concord.
Q: In Iran, women have risen up against the theocratic regime on the occasion of the death of a woman at the hands of the “morality police.” What do you feel when you look at them?
A: I feel that this is neither the first, nor the only, time in human history that an authority has used religion as an excuse to impose tyrannical behavior. Since I live in the United States, I will share one my favorite phrases by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who, in speaking about the oppression of Black Americans, said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It may seem that justice is slow, but we believe it will prevail.
But perhaps it is also fitting to highlight the dynamic, bold, and sacrificial stance of the women in Iran. The snapshots we see on television and on the internet bear witness to their unparalleled courage. It is deeply moving that, at the same time that we behold the destructive influence of various authoritarian leaders, we also observe the daring protest of these women, who alone can bring down a discriminatory and theocratic regime.
Q: Many consider you as the most likely successor to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. And since the succession will be decided by people and not by God, do you associate this possibility with the attacks you occasionally endure?
A: We pray and believe that our Ecumenical Patriarch will still be with us for many years to come. Over the last few decades, when we have been greatly blessed to have him serving the Mother Church, Patriarch Bartholomew has steadfastly led the Ecumenical Patriarchate through enormous difficulties, and his work is far from over. But please allow me to disagree with you: the succession will be decided by God. This is how it always occurs in the history of the Church, which is full of surprises.
Q: Wars, nuclear threats, climate change: “Devastation on Earth never stops,” as you have said. Are you afraid for the future of humanity? Or are you incurably optimistic?
A: Above all, I try to be faithful, and indeed, as the Book of Revelation emphasizes, “faithful unto death.” Throughout the course of history, there has always been devastation and all kinds of “wars or rumors of wars,” as Christ says. Every generation has its concerns and fears before the possibility of experiencing some form of destruction of the world and life as we know it.
I belong to those who believe that faithlessness is what drives this kind of thinking. Christians are people of responsibility–responsibility for one another and for the creation that God has entrusted to us. Therefore, I would rather maintain hopefulness; call it optimism, if you like. But it is not a groundless or immature concept. It is a justified and loyal response to God’s call for us to act and live responsibly in the world, based on His unconditional love and exemplary compassion for every creature.