When major religious leaders die, it's traditional that public figures -- secular and sacred -- release letters expressing sorrow and sending their condolences to the spiritual sheep who have suddenly found themselves without a shepherd. This is precisely what Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis did, acting as chairman of the assembly of America's Eastern Orthodox bishops, after he heard about the death of Metropolitan Philip Saliba -- the leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Christians in North America for a half century. His letter was kind and gracious, but contained a hint of candor that spoke volumes.
"For more than 15 years I have had the opportunity and privilege to work closely with Metropolitan Philip," wrote Archbishop Demetrios, noting that the Antiochian leader served as vice-chairman of the assembly of bishops. Metropolitan Philip was a pastor to his people, but he also "passionately supported a common witness to our Orthodox faith in the world. It is well known that he spoke his mind openly on a number of important issues and would often challenge inactivity surrounding serious issues, which he felt Orthodoxy could address in unique and important ways."
That's one way to put it.
Metropolitan Philip -- who died March 19th -- was more than an advocate for Orthodox life and faith. He was more than a pragmatic strategist who helped his flock grow from 66 parishes to 275, while opening youth camps and a missions and evangelism office.
The Lebanese-born archbishop was also a fierce advocate of Orthodox unity in the United States, to whatever degree possible among Greeks, Arabs, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Serbians and others. After living his adult life in this land, he made the controversial decision in the mid-1980s to embrace waves of evangelical converts (I am one of them). These converts affected all levels of his church including, as much as anywhere else, in seminaries and, thus, at Orthodox altars.
That was the backdrop to the symbolic moment when Archbishop Demetrios surprised Metropolitan Philip by asking him to make some off-the-cuff remarks at the 2004 Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Church in New York City.
"I reminded him that when I speak, I tell it like it is," said Philip, when I interviewed him for an "On Religion" column soon after that event.
Rather than speaking in Byzantine code, Metropolitan Philip bluntly addressed the delegates as Americans, not Greeks. He said he thought it was time to challenge ecclesiastical ties that continued to bind their churches in the new world to those in the old. Then he marched straight into a minefield, bringing greetings from the Antiochian Orthodox delegates who, a few days earlier, had unanimously approved what many Greeks have long desired -- a constitution granting them more control of their church in North America.
"I told them that if I could sum up this new constitution, I would begin with the words, 'We the people,' " he told me. "We cannot ignore this truth -- Americans are infested with freedom. We cannot ignore that our churches are in America and we are here to stay."
A press aide for the Greek archdiocese noted: "It would be accurate to say that he received an enthusiastic response."
Part of the problem was that Philip was intentionally calling to mind the 1994 gathering in Ligonier, Pa., when America's Orthodox bishops boldly declared: "We commit ourselves to avoiding the creation of parallel and competitive Orthodox parishes, missions, and mission programs. We commit ourselves to common efforts and programs to do mission, leaving behind piecemeal, independent, and spontaneous efforts … moving forward towards a concerted, formal, and united mission program in order to make a real impact on North America through Orthodox mission and evangelism."
That effort failed. Two decades later, Metropolitan Philip left instructions that he was to be buried at the Antiochian Village camp near Ligonier, where young people will visit his grave for generations to come.
"This faith was to remain the best kept secret in America because of our laziness, we Orthodox, because we have been busy taking care of our little ethnic ghettos," said Philip, during one of the first rites ushering an entire evangelical congregation into his archdiocese.
"It is time that we let this light shine. American needs the Orthodox faith. I said to the Evangelical Orthodox in these past Sundays, I said, 'Welcome home.'"