The Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America – February 2015
Imagine the spiritual renewal, excitement, festivities and joyful reunion of the clergy and laity at a Parish Life Conference or an Archdiocesan Convention – in the middle of winter.
Antiochian Orthodox Christians on this continent did not have to wait until summertime for such large gatherings. We had great cause for celebration before then – the enthronement of a new metropolitan, the first that the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America had celebrated in 48 years.
The Archdiocese came together twice this winter – first in Brooklyn, and then in Los Angeles – to celebrate the beginning of the leadership of its new father and chief shepherd: His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph. Inaugurating the first celebration was none other than his roommate in the late 1970s at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, Greece, who is now the successor to the throne of the Apostles Peter and Paul: His Beatitude, Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East. (View photo galleries, video, and press releases in Antiochian.org’s special Enthronement section)
On the night of Wednesday, December 3, His Eminence led a delegation of bishops, priests, deacons and laity to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City to welcome His Beatitude and those who flew with him: Metropolitan Saba of Bosra, Houran, Jabal Al-Arab and Dependencies in Syria; Metropolitan Basilios of Akkar and Dependencies in Lebanon and Syria; Archimandrite Parthenios Allati, secretary of the Patriarch; and Archdeacon Gerasimos Kabbas, assistant to the Patriarch. They had just arrived from an official visit to the Orthodox Church of Romania, where His Beatitude, Patriarch Daniel and the then-President, Mr. Traian Basescu, along with other ecclesial and civil leaders received them warmly, as Patriarch John recalled.
“The Romanian people are a lovely people,” he said, marveling at how they guarded their traditions and their Orthodox faith during Communistic oppression. “We discussed a lot of ecclesiastical themes for the cooperation between the two churches.”
Patriarch John called the Enthronement of Metropolitan Joseph “one of love and peace.” “The bishop is the shepherd of peace and he is the apostle of our Jesus Christ. This is a very important event for us, for the spiritual family of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. For this reason, the bishops came from different areas in the world to take part in this event.”
His Beatitude spoke highly of Sayidna Joseph: “We are friends. We have known each other since we were young men at Balamand and Thessaloniki. We have a very good relationship, and I pray that he will continue the blessed work of His Eminence, Metropolitan Philip.”
Patriarch John also used the occasion of his visit to bring attention to the suffering people of all walks of life in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where the bloody civil war is about to complete its fourth year. He had the same message of love and peace for fellow Orthodox Christians, world leaders in Washington, D.C. and the United Nations, and the general public. His Beatitude begged for diplomatic solutions, not bombs and troops, to end the strife. He even recalled his own brother, Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo, Syria, and the Syriac Archbishop John who were kidnapped nearly two years ago. Even with the violent terroristic presence in Syria’s second largest city, Christ and His Church still endure.
“We have about 5,000 families until now,” His Beatitude said. “They come to the church as usual, and they still live there. We are, despite all of this tragedy, not children of death, but children of the Resurrection.” Without question, Patriarch John misses his brother and prays for his safe return, but until then, “we will continue our work, our duties and our mission for all human beings.”
The night of Friday, December 5 commenced the official activities of the Enthronement weekend, which were centered on worship of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Every scheduled event except one gathered everyone at the Archdiocesan Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Brooklyn for liturgical celebration. The “Mother Cathedral” was full for all divine services, starting with Great Vespers with Litia-Artoklasia. That night, 27 Antiochian bishops – all seven auxiliaries from this Archdiocese, plus 13 of the 20 metropolitans of the Holy Synod, plus its leader, the Patriarch – had gathered with hundreds of clergy and faithful for what may have been the greatest celebration of the Cathedral’s patron saint on his feast day in its storied history.
Patriarch John chanted antiphonally with an 18-member Byzantine music choir from across the Archdiocese under the direction of Subdeacon Rassem El-Massih. Their Eminences, Metropolitans Damaskinos of Brazil and Ignatius of France, joined as well. Together, they sang hymns of praise for one of the most beloved saints the Church has ever known. To say that everyone was “impressed” by the music is a grievous understatement. His Beatitude and everyone present marveled at its glory. Collectively, people recorded every word with their smart-phones for instant uploading to their Facebook pages, something inconceivable in 1966.
At the conclusion of Great Vespers, His Beatitude addressed the congregation. “St. Nicholas was the father of the poor and the oppressed,” he said. “He wiped away the tears of those who suffered. We, too, need to follow his example and wipe the tears of those who suffer as well.”
The next morning, Saturday, December 6, the Cathedral celebrated Festal Orthros and the Hierarchal Divine Liturgy for St. Nicholas. His Eminence, Metropolitan Niphon, Representative of the Patriarchate of Antioch to the Patriarchate of Moscow, served with His Grace, Bishop Nicholas of Brooklyn on the occasion of his patron saint’s day. Sayidna Nicholas used the liturgical staff of his predecessor in Brooklyn, His Grace, Bishop Emmanuel Abo-Hatab of thrice-blessed memory. Sayidna Niphon is famed for his beautiful, powerful voice, and he did not disappoint the congregation. After the Liturgy, His Beatitude led the Trisagion Service for his immediate predecessor, His Beatitude, Patriarch Ignatius IV of thrice-blessed memory, on the two-year anniversary of his repose.
If the Cathedral was “full” for the divine services, it could have “burst at the seams” for the actual Enthronement ceremony that afternoon. Every seat in the nave and choir loft was taken. People stood crammed in the narthex. Overflow seating exceeded capacity downstairs in the parish hall, where closed-circuit television carried the ceremony. As His Beatitude, Patriarch John and His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph entered the Cathedral, it was brightly lit – not just by the chandeliers, but by the constant flashes of smart-phones recording and uploading every moment.
The Enthronement ceremony consisted of a “Prayer of Thanksgiving” that included the Trisagion Prayers, a small doxology, and a litany. But in between that, the Byzantine choir and the four-part choir – led by Chairman Christopher Holwey of the Department of Sacred Music – sang three hymns in Arabic and English: the apolytikia for St. Nicholas and St. Joseph of Arimathea (Sayidna Joseph’s patron saint) and the kontakion for the Annunciation, “To thee, the Champion Leader.” In the Arabic rendition of the latter, the Cathedral walls shook.
At the end of his remarks, Patriarch John called Metropolitan Joseph to the episcopal throne to offer him the archpastoral staff. His Beatitude prayed these words:
“Receive, O Master, this staff as the symbol of the staff of Moses with which he parted the Red Sea and opened a path for the people to cross over into the Promised Land. Lean upon it and be spiritually strengthened by it in order to calm all the turbulent waves breaking about the Holy Church. With this staff, lead the new people blameless into the Eternal Promised Land. Be courageous; be strengthened; and know that you will give account for this flock before the Chief Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Read the remarks in the January issue of The Word, or on Antiochian.org.)
The congregation shouted “Axios! Mustahiq! He is worthy!” as Metropolitan Joseph took the staff. Sayidna took his place on the amvon and issued his Enthronement speech, in which he evoked the example of St. Nicholas:
“What did St Nicholas do with the pastoral staff of Christ? He led the people God entrusted to him forward to places they had never been. He encouraged them in their faint-heartedness, he disciplined them in their trespasses, he led them to the inheritance promised by the Lord.”
That night, 800 people broke bread together at the gala banquet at the New York Marriott Hotel at the Brooklyn Bridge. When the head tables were introduced, three of our hierarchs received standing ovations: His Beatitude, Patriarch John and His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph, naturally; and His Grace, Bishop Antoun of Miami and the Southeast. For His Grace, the cheering lasted for more than a minute in honor of his lifetime of service to the Archdiocese and his lifelong best friend, Metropolitan Philip. Sayidna Antoun fought back tears. He later said that he had to find a way to bring a cheering to a close and resume the banquet, so he ran to the microphone and led the diners in his favorite song, “You are My Sunshine.”
Several special guests made inspired presentations in honor of Sayidna Joseph. First was His Eminence, Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Chairman of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America. Dhespota Demetrios congratulated Sayidna Joseph on his Enthronement and on becoming First Vice Chairman of the Assembly by presenting him a liturgical staff.
Special guests included His Excellency, Antoine Chedid, Lebanese Ambassador to the USA; His Excellency, Bashar Ja’afari, Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations; Dr. Elie Salem, President of the University of Balamand; and Mr. Fawaz El-Khoury, Vice Chairman of the Archdiocesan Board of Trustees. These men also congratulated Sayidna Joseph and expressed hope that he would continue the strong camaraderie between the Archdiocese and the spiritual homeland of the Middle East, following the great example of Sayidna Philip.
The weekend in Brooklyn concluded on the morning of December 7 with Sunday Orthros the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy. His Beatitude led worship with all of the Antiochian hierarchs, plus six more hierarchs from other Orthodox Christian jurisdictions (view the complete list of hierarchs present). Following Liturgy, His Beatitude led another Trisagion Service, this time for His Eminence, Metropolitan Philip. After that, he inaugurated the Centennial Jubilee of the Falling Asleep of St. Raphael of Brooklyn. The Archdiocese will celebrate his life and legacy throughout the year at different events and youth festivals. Both Patriarch John and Metropolitan Joseph then thanked Very Rev. Fr. Thomas Zain, Cathedral Dean and Archdiocesan Vicar General, and his entire parish and committee for coordinating and executing such a spiritually-inspiring weekend.
The celebration in Brooklyn was only the first half of the festivities. On Saturday, January 31, the second half began at the West Coast’s St. Nicholas Cathedral in Los Angeles, His Eminence’s home parish for 19 years. More than 80 young adults had premium time with their new metropolitan whom they had known and loved as their diocesan bishop for most of their lives. That morning, even before the official start of their spiritual talk and question-and-answer session with Sayidna Joseph, they lined up to ask him all sorts of questions. He was thrilled.
“The first questions that I heard were, ‘what can we do, and how can we help?’” His Eminence said. He told the gathering, “You are the fullness of the Church. Don’t be afraid to run for the parish council. Don’t let any negativity stop you. If you serve in this way, then I will be at peace. Do you want your parish council to be old financially, spiritually and educationally? The Church needs you and you need the Church.”
Sayidna Joseph assured the young adults that he is the same person, even though he has new responsibilities. “You and I will never stop seeing each other and talking to each other,” he said. “Life will always be crazy, but we must master our time. We need God. Those who do not have Him may seem happy, but they live with a great emptiness. When people are not filled with God’s presence, then evil things fill them.
“God has given you all of the precious freedom in your lives. Without it, we are not truly human,” Sayidna Joseph continued. “When you have a little sin, get rid of it through Confession immediately because it will be easier for healing. Otherwise, one sin will attack you right after the other. So, use your freedom with good discernment, and you will be at peace.”
One of the young adults asked His Eminence who will replace him as bishop on the West Coast. “For now, I will divide myself into three or four people,” Sayidna Joseph answered. “We may have to go to Lebanon or Syria to find a replacement. Don’t worry who will lead you – I will be everywhere!”
He then turned to the subject of seminarians. “We need married priests, but we also need monks and nuns – we are not producers of them in North America,” he said. His Eminence recalled the address of His Beatitude, Patriarch Elias IV of thrice-blessed memory to seminarians upon his return to the Middle East from his three-month trip to North America in 1977. It was one line: “They have everything, but they don’t have monasteries.” His Eminence said, “I heard this as a commandment and an order. Before I die, I will leave a number of monasteries in this Archdiocese.”
Midway through the session, His Grace, Bishop Nicholas arrived and joined the young adults. The day before, Sayidna Nicholas had visited St. Vladimir Orthodox Theological Seminary to give the 32nd Annual Father Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture on “The Life and Ministry of St. Raphael of Brooklyn,” part of the Centennial Jubilee celebrations. When the session finished, the two hierarchs dined with all of the young adults and had more personal interactions.
That afternoon, the hierarchs arrived at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in nearby Universal City to begin a full series of events, beginning with a special reception for clergy and clergy wives. Sayidna Joseph told them the same thing that he had told the young adults: that he would not abandon them, even though he had a new home in Englewood, New Jersey nearly 3,000 miles away.
Next, the faithful from across the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West joined the clergy for Great Vespers. It truly looked like a service at the Parish Life Conference, complete with the usual priests who served as chanters, the four-part choir led by Diocesan Sacred Music Coordinator Mareena Boosamra-Ball, and the portable iconostasis on loan from St. Mark Church in Irvine, California. Following the beautiful service, Sayidna Joseph welcomed his friend, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America. Both hierarchs pledged to continue their friendship although they are now separated by a greater distance, even if they have to “keep meeting like refugees in airports,” as Sayidna Joseph quipped. Archbishop Hovnan replied, “When you get cold, think of California.” The Archbishop presented a special gift to the Metropolitan, as did the clergy brotherhood of the Diocese – an icon of the Mother of God written by Dorothy Alexander.
Following a short reception, the attendees gathered in the grand ballroom for the second gala banquet. A dozen vested altar boys carrying the processional cross, candles, fans and icons led His Eminence to the dais as the Pasadena Master Chorale sang Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” Opus 37, Number 1, “Come, Let Us Worship.” The Antiochian Youth Ensemble then sang “The Lord’s Prayer.” Finally, the youngest children formed the third choir and sang, in Arabic, Sayidna Josephs favorite song from his childhood, “Ya Rabbee ana albee” or “O Lord, My Heart.”
The co-chairwomen of the West Coast Gala, Mrs. Jasminka Gabrie and Mrs. Rose Samore, welcomed everyone who had come from near and far. Mrs. Samore thanked the entire committee for their hard work and for executing such a glorious event. Mrs. Gabrie turned to Sayidna Joseph and told him that the evening was his church’s gift to him and his ministry. She echoed the words that he often expressed: that the greatest gift would come in the form of the Eucharist at the Hierarchal Divine Liturgy the next day. The cover photo of the souvenir journal shows Sayidna Joseph holding up the diskos with the bread that would be consecrated for Holy Communion during a Liturgy days before his election as Metropolitan.
More of Sayidna Joseph’s counterparts of other Christian Churches congratulated him during the banquet. Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian of the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America reminisced on the two hierarchs’ years of friendship, as did Bishop Tod Brown of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, California. Then, His Excellency, Johnny Ibrahim, Consul General of Lebanon in Los Angeles, prayed that the Lord would continue to guide Sayidna’s steps in leading the Archdiocese and in his support for the people of the Middle East.
His Grace, Bishop Nicholas then spoke of how Sayidna Joseph’s election on July 3, 2014 ended a period of instability for the Archdiocese, but truly began His Eminence’s work. “He rolled up his sleeves, and he has been working hard ever since,” Sayidna Nicholas said. “I offer you, Sayidna Joseph, my congratulations upon your Enthronement, and my full support and assistance.” Incidentally, 14 of the 17 metropolitans gathered at Balamand for the election voted for Sayidna Joseph to succeed Sayidna Philip.
The banquet was treated to a short video presentation showing various photographs of His Eminence throughout his life – from when he was three years old, to his days as a teenager at Balamand, to his early years as a clergyman, to his ministry as bishop on the West Coast, to his Enthronement in Brooklyn.
After that, His Eminence, Metropolitan Gerasimos of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco recalled how Sayidna Joseph helped him adjust to the West Coast ten years ago, helping him to solve some “slippery things” from the get-go. Dhespota Gerasimos called Sayidna Joseph “his beloved brother and mentor.” “I told him he would be the next Metropolitan, but he said, ‘No way,’” Dhespota recalled. “But, here we are today. We have gathered together our collective clergy and laity for Pan-Orthodox events, retreats and liturgies. You have always asked the probing questions to build the Church – I hope you never stop that.”
All 600 banquet attendees then rose and sang “To thee, the Champion Leader” just like the overflowing St. Nicholas Cathedral in Brooklyn had done during the Enthronement ceremony. They had the music in front of them, and were even emailed a YouTube link prior to the gala to help them learn the melody so that it could be sung in unison.
Finally, Metropolitan Joseph spoke, immediately calling to mind the life and legacy of his predecessor. “Metropolitan Philip served several generations in his 48 years leading this Archdiocese,” he said. “He left a great impact on all of us. I have big shoes to fill. I cannot do it by myself, but all of us together will be able to do it. And we will help each other to bring Christ into our lives more and more.”
Sayidna Joseph then thanked everyone for coming to the Gala which he considered not as a tribute to him, but as a great opportunity for fellowship, joy, love and charity. All proceeds went to support the St. Nicholas Summer Camp Program and youth education programs. “I will live with you and die with you,” he told all of the clergy and faithful. “This is how I understand my ministry. You have been so generous to support these programs. If we don’t teach our children to love God, then we will lose them. The Church is our mother and our father. We will work together with God’s mercy and solve all problems.”
The next morning, February 1, saw the best part of the West Coast celebration: Sunday Orthros and Hierarchal Divine Liturgy. His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph and His Grace, Bishop Nicholas were joined by 20 priests, five deacons, and more than 500 faithful at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Los Angeles. In between the divine services, the hierarchs led the Trisagion Service to remember six people who had recently departed this life in the hope of eternal life, including Archdeacon Elias Hamaty of Boston, Massachusetts (40 days); Deacon David Daumit (three days) of Phoenix, Arizona; and Mr. Abe Abraham (one year), a lifelong member of the Archdiocesan Board of Trustees from Grand Rapids, Michigan. (View the photo gallery of the Hierarchical Liturgy)
Sayidna Nicholas gave the sermon on what the Orthodox Church commemorated as the Sunday of the Pharisee and Publican, the first of four Sundays in preparation for Great Lent, “which then prepares us for Holy Week, which then prepares us for Pascha, the Feast of feasts,” Sayidna Nicholas preached. “The Pharisee got off to a good start by thanking God, but he didn’t realize how naked he was by debasing the Publican. The Publican didn’t have the strength to look up to heaven, but he admitted publically that he was a sinner. Before we know God, we are like the Pharisee. After we know God, we are like the Publican.”
As for preparation, “Zacchaeus Sunday reminds us to have a burning in our hearts for Christ,” His Grace said. “That leads us to humility, like the Publican showed. That leads us to repentance, which the Prodigal Son received when he returned to his father.” We will be judged accordingly as we are reminded on the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meat Fare), but we strive for forgiveness (Cheese Fare), which we remember on the last of the four Pre-Lenten Sundays, His Grace concluded.
The Cathedral then offered the Ceremony of the Presentation of the Boys in honor of the Great Feast of the Presentation (Meeting) of our Lord in the Temple, which was also celebrated that day. The boys processed to the solea where Sayidna Joseph read the prayer beseeching God that they would be “temperate, industrious, diligent, devout and charitable,” and that He would grant them “wisdom and strength to resist all temptation and corruption of this life.” Sayidna Joseph then blessed them with the sprinkling of holy water.
Following the Liturgy, Sayidna Joseph initiated six members into the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Some were new, some upgraded their statuses. He thanked them for their extra commitment to the Orthodox Church and the Antiochian Archdiocese.
Then, St. Nicholas Cathedral had a bittersweet moment. Assistant Pastor, Rev. Fr. George Ajalat, plus the choir director of 20 years, Alexandra Mamary Nassief, and a few other families were leaving their long-time parish to open a new one much closer to their homes. St. Simeon the God Receiver Church of Santa Clarita, 45 minutes north of Los Angeles, is the product of many years of labor and determination, and love for the Lord. It will be the first Orthodox Church in that area to bear true witness to Christ. In a special tribute, they were reminded that they will always be loved and never forgotten for all that they had done for St. Nicholas Cathedral. Sayidna Joseph then celebrated the first Divine Liturgy at the mission the next Sunday, February 8, with 225 people in attendance.
As a new church is born, so is a new ministry at St. Nicholas Cathedral. Its Dean and Great Economos, Very Rev. Fr. Michel Najim, led the hierarchs and visiting clergy up the stairs of the parish hall to its state-of-the-art multimedia studio. It is fully equipped with digital cameras, a “green screen,” and computer edit bays to grow Orthodox Christian outreach via the internet. Sayidna Joseph cut the ribbon to officially open the studio and blessed all of the equipment with holy water. Not to worry, none of it short-circuited. (Learn more about this ministry at the Cathedral’s website.)
Lastly, the hierarchs and clergy assembled downstairs for lunch, where the faithful continued to congratulate Sayidna Joseph on his Enthronement and welcome Sayidna Nicholas to Los Angeles. They were among the last to leave the Cathedral that day at around 3:30 p.m.
Both the East Coast and West Coast celebrations concluded the festivities for the historic Enthronement of His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph. But as Sayidna put it to his clergy and faithful, “The Enthronement with all of its joy and success is for you. But what good is the Church if it cannot save souls? Therefore, now is the time to work and to act.”
By Subdeacon Peter Samore, with photo credits to Rami Dahdal, Haitham Fakhouri, and the Antiochian Diocese of Los Angeles and the West