On the 20-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York – an event that shocked humanity and changed our lives – Archbishop of America Elpidophoros talks to Kathimerini about the reconstruction of the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero, which has risen like a ray of hope from the rubble of the modest church that was located near the twin towers.
The Archbishop, who held a memorial service for the victims of the attack on Friday, stresses the importance for all Americans, but also for humanity more generally, of the fact that the emblematic Greek Orthodox church is the “only symbol of religious faith on this hallowed ground.”
The new church, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, which was lit up in blue on Saturday as part of the commemoration of the 9/11 attack, opened its doors briefly for the event but will not be ready to welcome its congregation and other members of the public until the spring of 2022.
Elpidophoros, who as head of the Archdiocese of America leads the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s most important province, sends a message of universal understanding, saying that “in an era when intolerance and even hatred have become nearly normative for religious bodies, we have an extraordinary opportunity to bear witness to the very best of religion.
Religious faith that preaches, teaches and practices love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance of the difference of others.”
He notes the relationship between US President Joe Biden and the Greek diaspora in America, his increased interest in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also in the Patriarchate, and he concludes that “our Church and Hellenism has a friend in the Oval Office.”
Expressing his own and Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios’ concern about the environment and climate change, Elpidophoros says that everyone can make a difference by “scaling back their own climate imprint, and by behaving in the public sphere – whether through their franchise or consumer choices – to encourage environmental justice.”
Last, but definitely not least, commenting on the issue of the coronavirus pandemic, the archbishop notes that the Church encourages vaccination “as a means of protecting ourselves and as our moral obligation, as Christians, to protect others.”
– What does the reopening of St Nicholas signify for the Greek-American community?
From the moment I arrived in the United States as archbishop of America, I made a solemn vow to complete the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine as soon as possible.
It was our duty, our responsibility to the American people, and particularly to New York City. Saint Nicholas was the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11, and it had to be resurrected, because the lives that were lost deserved a cenotaph.
With the extraordinary efforts of the Friends of St Nicholas, a group of leading figures in the Greek-American community, we were able – even in the midst of Covid – to raise all the funds necessary to finish the construction of the church (over 55 million US dollars) and to break the over-three-year silence at the Ground Zero site with the sound of activity and progress.
As the Omogeneia of America, we can now be proud of an accomplishment that fell to us, because we were the little church martyred with thousands of our fellow human beings on 9/11. And yet, I do not believe this is mere happenstance.
As the Greek Orthodox Church of America – an eparchy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople – we now have a platform in American public consciousness that is far greater than our numbers in the nation indicate.
It is a Greek Orthodox church of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that will stand at Ground Zero as the only symbol of religious faith on this hallowed ground.
As the months go by and we finally open the shrine for worship, I believe you will see that its significance is not only powerful for the Omogeneia, but for all Americans, and indeed the world.
– How do you feel personally, after so many delays and setbacks, to see the completion of Saint Nicholas?
As I was not here during the “delays and setbacks” you mention, I will only say that I always followed the news about Saint Nicholas from afar.
But as I said before, my commitment to bring this spiritual responsibility to fruition was in my mind and heart as I traveled across the ocean to assume the mantle of Archbishop of America.
If one word could be used to sum up my feelings, it would be “gratitude.” My thankfulness to the Friends of Saint Nicholas, to Father Alexander Karloutsos, who has championed this church from day one, to the construction workers and volunteers, and, of course, to the Wonderworker of Myra himself and his Lord and our God is limitless. It must be limitless because our mission is so – to all the people of the world.
– How important is the fact that a Greek Orthodox church will be at the very place that attracts the attention of the US and the world?
Indeed, how important! The World Trade Center site of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, is the epicenter of the first chapter of the history of the 21st century.
In New York City, a world capital if ever there was, the Greek Orthodox faith has a position, a mission and a responsibility that no other religious place in the country – or even the world – has.
In an era when intolerance and even hatred have become nearly normative for religious bodies, we have an extraordinary opportunity to bear witness to the very best of religion.
Religious faith that preaches, teaches and practices love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance of the difference of others.
We Orthodox Christians have a Spirit-filled tradition that is not inclusive of every vagary of human experience, but we do not predicate our life and ministry on hatred of the “other,” or rejection of those who are different from us.
We are persons of dialogue, and the Saint Nicholas National Shrine will be that crossroads where dialogue and mutual respect and understanding flourish.
– You have stated that “pollution and environmental damage constitute a moral sin.” What do you think that both the human race and each one of us should do to fight climate change?
During the disastrous flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, we bore witness to what the recent joint communique signed by our Ecumenical Patriarch, Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared: “The people bearing the most catastrophic consequences of these abuses are the poorest on the planet and have been the least responsible for causing them.”
For decades, His All Holiness Vartholomaios of Constantinople has been calling the world to environmental responsibility and positive action. If we are to take seriously the Lord’s injunction to be stewards of creation, we must think about all creatures on the planet, and the generations yet to be born.
Each person can make a difference by scaling back their own climate imprint, and by behaving in the public sphere – whether through their franchise or consumer choices – to encourage environmental justice.
– How close is President Biden to the Hellenic community? Would you think that there are excessive expectations from the US president in terms of his ability and willingness to respond to concerns from Greece?
As I am sure you know, President Biden started his career in politics over 50 years ago with the warm support of the Greek-American community in his home state of Delaware.
Greek Americans were always among his staunchest supporters, and throughout his career in the Senate, he took a special interest in the developments in Southeastern Mediterranean.
I first met President Biden as early as 2013. At the time, I was serving as the abbott of the Theological Seminary of Halki, and the Metropolitan of Prussia.
We met again after I arrived in New York, as the newly enthroned archbishop of America, in 2019.
In July 2020, after the reconversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque, he was quick to call me on the phone to reconfirm his unequivocal support to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, while this past March, he honored us by speaking through video at the celebration of the bicentennial of Greek Independence Day.
I know that in President Biden, our Church and Hellenism has a friend in the Oval Office.
– What do you think the role of the Church should be in responding to the pandemic? What’s your response, as the archbishop of America, to those – many of whom are our faithful – who deny that Covid-19 constitutes a threat, or who refuse to get vaccinated?
From the early stages of the pandemic, we didn’t hesitate to heed the advice of the scientific experts in the field. A small minority objected loudly, but we switched to virtual worship, and adjusted our practice in the ministration of the Sacraments.
We do advocate for the proper use of the masks, and we support vaccination as a means of protecting ourselves and as our moral obligation, as Christians, to protect others.