COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS 2010
ST. VLADIMIR’S ORTHODOX THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
Most Respected and Honorable Faculty and Staff
The Graduating Class of 2010Families, Classmates, Friends, Brothers & Sisters-in-Christ
WHERE MY TREASURE IS
It is certainly an honor to address you on this day that SVS has honored me with a Doctorate of Humane letters for my commitment to SVS. I have always referred to SVS as the “Jewel of Orthodoxy” and you graduates are God’s emissaries that will shine to make a difference in proclaiming our Lord’s works.
I will share with you today my long association with the Seminary and the Miracle of Resurrection of the Church in Albania. Perhaps this will reinforce your faith that miracles do happen and with God’s blessing you will work hard to accomplish your missions as priests, deacons, scholars, choir directors, and church workers and experience your own miracles.
As you probably have read my bio, I was born in Albania; my family moved to Greece when I was 8 and emigrated from Greece to the U.S. when I was age 13. Communism took over the country shortly after we arrived in Greece, and the border closed and we were blessed to find ourselves free in Greece until we immigrated to the U.S. This great country gave me the opportunity to get an education, have a great career, and practice my Orthodox faith. God blessed me with a wonderful caring wife, Joan, and three children and nine grandchildren.
Over 50 years ago I was introduced to SVS; and then in 1977, our parish, St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church, arranged for Fr. Thomas Hopko to be our parish priest while he was teaching at the seminary. Fr. Tom held weekly lectures, which were very well attended, and he even encouraged many of us to attend classes at the seminary. His inspiring lectures, and he and his family’s example of living the faith that he preached had a great impact on our community, and especially for me and my family in living our Orthodox faith.
One day when my wife, Joan, told me that Fr. Schmemann had called about my joining the St. Vladimir’s Board of Trustees, my reaction was: “I am too busy at the peak of my career, I don’t have time for that.” She said to me, “I would like to see you say ‘No’ to Fr. Schmemann.” She was right. I tried to resist, but I realized God was leading me and I needed to participate on the Seminary’s Board.
I have been a Trustee for 28 years, and although I had a short time with Fr. Schmemann before he fell asleep to the Lord, I realized his wisdom in bringing new people to the Board in order to grow the seminary. Between 1982 and 1990 the composition of the Board changed, with many exceptional people joining us. The Board launched a Capital Campaign in 1990 for $20 million to build the library and build up our endowments and various other projects. I was privileged to be Co-Chairman of this campaign with Brian Gerich under the guidance of Fr. Anthony Scott and Dean Fr. John Meyendorff. I remember vividly another Trustee, Fr. Paul Shafran, telling me, “My son, don’t you know we are Orthodox? We can’t raise that kind of money.” With God’s help we reached and even surpassed our goals, and this set an example for fundraising among the Orthodox faithful.
My seminary involvement has enriched my life. Through the years I have grown to love the faculty and staff who give so much of themselves in teaching and serving the students. It continues to be an honor that I feel able to work so well with this group. Over the years the Board has actively provided for necessary transitions to improve the curriculum, address student concerns, improve facilities and housing, et cetera. Somehow we think we do it, but more and more I realize that it is God’s Plan that makes it possible.
Now I would like to share with you the “Miracle of the Resurrection” of the Church in Albania, which I hope will inspire you graduates and future graduates to look at the challenges facing you and to remember that with God’s help everything is possible.
Albania is beautiful mountainous country that was Orthodox Christian, with very few Roman Catholics. But during the Ottoman Empire takeover in the 17th and 18th centuries, many were converted to Islam, and 70% of the country became Moslems; 20% of the population remained Orthodox, mainly in the south next to Greece, and 10% of the population remained Catholic, in a northwest region.
In 1944 one of the harshest dictatorships took over Albania—preaching communism and actually outlawing religion in 1967. Absolute Atheism reigned from 1967–1990 in Albania. The only country in the world to outlaw religion, the government killed or imprisoned all the priests and Imams, and only a handful survived. They destroyed all churches and religious institutions and prevented anyone from naming their newborn children with Christian names. Anyone who exhibited a cross, an icon, or even red eggs during the Easter season was jailed for 10 years. Although the government outlawed religion, there was a small but strong group of Orthodox who remained underground and maintained their Orthodox faith by praying and performing baptisms at the risk of execution.
Communism fell in 1990, and the Orthodox began to surface, but there was no leadership. In 1991 Archbishop Anastasios was sent by the Patriarchate to survey the situation. I was privileged to be there at his first visit in Korca (the city where I was born), and it is impossible to describe the momentous reception he received. The Archbishop had just returned from a long stay in Africa, and shortly thereafter was appointed by the Patriarchate as Exarch of Albania. Soon thereafter he was elected as Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania, an Autocephalous Church. His missionary spirit is the story of the Resurrection of the Church in Albania.
In his words on the Spirit of Mission:
A static Church which lacks vision and a constant endeavor to proclaim the gospel to the world could hardly be recognized as the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church to whom the Lord entrusted the continuation of the Word …”
Archbishop Anastasios said his first task in rebuilding the Church in Albania was to establish worship. To quote Fr. Schmemann who wrote:
The Eucharist is always the end, the sacrament of Parousia, and yet
it is always the beginning, the starting point now the mission begins…”
There was a desire among these newly free people to hear the Word. The surviving priests were quite old, but they held services as often as they could. Even the Archbishop was serving whenever possible. The services were held in ruins of churches and were overflowing with people who wanted to be near a holy place, with which they had lost touch for over twenty years. People of all religious backgrounds including Moslems were attending because they knew something was special—“Holy” was happening. Thus the Archbishop started the establishment of authentic, local Eucharistic communities and the preparation of clergy as soon as possible to serve the people. He first started a seminary in a rundown hotel to train priests. In 1996 he was responsible for building a beautiful seminary at the ruins of St. Vlash Monastery. This provided the necessary facilities to train priests and lay leaders, which is another characteristic in rebuilding the church—with catechism, Christian education and spiritual formation.
The most difficult task was rebuilding the destroyed churches and monasteries and building new churches. This monumental task was accomplished with repairing or rebuilding over 200 churches, monasteries, monuments, as well as building 150 new churches. The latest is the Cathedral of Tirana, a uniquely designed Church fashioned after Aghia Sofia in Constantinople.
The beauty of divine services and church buildings have played an important role in offering a witness to God’s presence in a country where God was prohibited for over two decades. However the Church must serve all the people, and Archbishop Anastasios started holistic missions and social programs to serve not only the faithful but also all the people.
He established the following:
- Healthcare—an Orthodox Diagnostic Medical Center serving 5000 people of all faiths monthly
- Education—many kindergarten, elementary schools, high schools, and professional institutes
- Youth ministry centers
- Children’s Home of Hope—for abused children and orphans
- Social and relief programs—$12M project for relief during the war in Kosovo
- Cultural Activities
- Development, environmental, and other such projects
- Media presence through radio, websites, and publications
All of the above round out the miracle of the Church in Albania by nourishing the faithful while simultaneously reaching out to the world around them.
The leadership of the Archbishop drew many missionaries from the U.S. through the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) and from his Greek teams, and from many that had served him in Africa. All worked very hard for years, and they continue to do so, radiating the witness of God’s love to all whom they serve.
We gather today to celebrate your hard efforts to graduate from the Seminary in your fields of endeavor in order to meet the challenge of the missions awaiting you in the world. With God’s blessing, miracles happen all the time: remember how a national church awakening was made possible in Albania.
May God bless each one of you in your parishes, or wherever you serve, to become one with God and to live in continual union with the people you serve, loving God with all your heart, mind, and strength and loving your neighbors as yourselves. You each will experience your own small miracles in your ministry that will inspire you to move ahead. But sometimes you will not even realize when these small miracles happen, and these will be the most important ones.
In conclusion Mark 16:15 tell us: “ Go into all the world and spread the gospel (Good News) to the whole creation.”
Thank you and may God bless you all with good health, happiness, and whatever your heart wishes.