Fr. Emmanuel Gratsias: Thirty Years of Serving the Church
By Sophia Niarchos
When the Laws of Men Are Not Enough
It was partly the prevailing spirit of idealism in our country and partly the frustration he experienced when he saw that government couldn't take care of everything that inspired Fr. Emmanuel Gratsias to begin his work in God's service. It is a calling to which he has devoted the last thirty years of his life. "It was the early '60s. (I went to seminary in '63.) It was a time of idealism; it was the time of John F. Kennedy; it was a time when young people were being called to do something, to fulfill something in society, to take action, to reach out. We had the attitude of 'we can do it, we will do it,'" Fr. Manny, as his parishioners and those in the surrounding Glen Cove community know him, explains.
But for Fr. Manny, the idealism that emanated from the spirit of the times, while sufficient to inspire him to pursue an education in political science at George Washington University, left him questioning the role of government in people's lives and whether it was the answer to what was lacking in American society.
"Somewhere along the line, I started getting kind of frustrated. I was working for the federal government, going to school at night, but not 100% happy with what I was doing.
After spending two or three years seeing what was going on in government, I realized that government a lot of times didn't really care, and you didn't really get things done through government.
"I remember seeing beggars on the streets of Washington and wondering why. If there's a Welfare Department, why does a guy who's minus a leg have to sit there and beg?
I would say, 'The laws of men aren't going to solve a lot of problems. There's got to be something that's bigger and stronger.' I started to realize that there had to be a greater principle and greater ideals.
"At Easter of '63 [at his hometown church of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral], it started coming to me that it could be God-centered principles, that perhaps God's laws, not man's laws, are the way to change things. If you take that kind of principle and rise above government, you might be able to do something in the world, even though government is trying to do things. I decided I had to do something meaningful in life."
And so, for Fr. Manny, the usual portrait of a priest as a contemplative, prayerful, meditative individual was replaced by his vision of a community activist who seeks to better the overall human condition by deeds as well as prayer and words. Having been a very active and involved Greek American (he was a member and -- during his first year in the seminaryÂ -- Supreme President of the Sons of Pericles, AHEPA's Â (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) junior auxiliary. Fr. Manny remembers that "the idea of being around Church and Greek-American life was not strange or different to me.
"I was a little concerned on the flight [from Washington to Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, Mass.], wondering whether I was doing the right thing.Â But I decided to go and spend 'a few days'.
"I'll never forget the cab ride, when we turned the corner and drove up the hill of the seminary. And it was, and still is, so beautiful. The first impression was so welcoming, and I ended up being very comfortable up there."
Fr. Manny especially remembers the three teachers who had the greatest influence on him during his seven years there. Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos was his professor of New TestamentÂ and "just opened up the Bible to me. I was amazed and from then on loved anything that had to do with Biblical Studies all the way through the three years of graduate studies. Fr. Ted is still an inspiration to me.
"Fr. Harakas was my professor of ethics and social ethics, issues that I was especially concerned about and that even brought me to the seminary, the Church and social action. I loved Fr. Harakas," he said.
Fr. Manny focused on history at Hellenic College, the undergraduate school, and he appreciated the intellectualism of Fr. Vaporis, who had two Ph.D.s and two Master's degrees, and taught him Balkan, Russian, and Modern Greek history.
Fr. Manny received his Master of Divinity degree in 1970 and then spent a year at the Graduate School at the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Institute in Switzerland. The program, jointly undertaken with the University of Geneva, awarded a Certificate in Ecumenical Studies. The following year, he worked with the Economic Opportunity Committee (established in conjunction with the War on Poverty) in Cambridge, Mass.Â It was a year of social activism during which he helped organize communities to respond to actions taken that led to housing shortages affecting the poor,Â the absence of health benefits for factory workers in the region, and other issues impacting on low-income areas.
Student of theology Emmanuel Gratsias was first ordained a deacon on October 1, 1972, by Bishop Silas at St. Sophia Cathedral in Washington. Two weeks later, he was ordained a priest at Boston's Annunciation Cathedral. "When I was first told I would be ordained in Boston, I didn't understand why. I had wanted to be ordained in the presence of my family and friends in Washington," Fr. Manny remembers.Â But it didn't take long for the explanation to make sense.
"My ordination was held in Boston on the date of the 10th anniversary of the death of Fr. Kavadas, the founding dean of the seminary. Because the school was founded to train Greek-American young men for the priesthood, Archbishop Iakovos thought what better way to honor Kavadas' memory than to have the ordination of one of those young men on his memorial anniversary."
And so it was that Fr. Manny was ordained by Archbishop Iakovos in the presence of fifteen priests, chancellor of the archdiocese Fr. Bacopoulos and president of the seminary Fr. Kontos who presented him, and a cathedral full of his family and the people and dignitaries who had come for Kavadas' memorial.
Early Years in the Priesthood
As much as Fr. Manny wanted to continue doing the kind of community activist work he had done before being ordained, it didn't take long before he realized it was time to learn how to be a priest in a parish.
"It wasn't the social action that was going to be important, it was learning how to deal with the Sunday School and the Scouts and being a parish priest that was going to be important," he remembers realizing.
"The four years I spent at Three Hierarchs Church in Brooklyn, as an assistant pastor," he says,Â "were the best thing that happened to me. Fr. Angelo Gavalas treated me with respect and let me do things on my own."
Fr. Manny believes the most important thing he learned as a priest was to be tolerant of other people, their differences, their opinions, their weaknesses.
"I used to get upset at things, and Fr. Angelo would calm me down explaining that the reason people felt as they did was because of their own personal experience. "Here's where they're coming from," Fr. Angelo would explain. "Although we had learned this at seminary, then it was academic. At Three Hierarchs, it was real life."
"I also learned to listen and that there are a lot of things that other people know better than I do and can do better than I can," he reflects.
After four years of work at Three Hierarchs, a new position was made available to Fr. Manny, to be the first priest of a newly formed church on the North Shore of Long Island in Glen Cove, N.Y. From an established thousand-family church in Brooklyn, he moved into a situation where a small group of people wanted to build their own local parish.
"What I had thought of as priorities before, social action and education, became secondary to the importance of creating a parish and making it grow. In a sense, it' been the priority for the last twenty-six years of this parish.
"I still talk of this parish as a "new" parish. There's a big difference than being an established parish. At Three Hierarchs, I didn't have to worry about finding new members - there were one thousand families. I had to worry about such things as what to teach the Scouts on a given night."
Home Base: Church of the Resurrection
After four years, the archdiocese wanted to place Fr. Manny in his own parish.
"Bishop Silas kept saying he had a large parish for me," he remembers. "But people on the North Shore of Long Island had heard I was leaving Brooklyn and were calling me to come to be the pastor of the parish they were trying to form. The challenge interested me and I told the bishop. He kept repeating the part about a big parish, but I figured if you are going to start a parish, do it when you're young." Finally he said O.K. "and I started meeting with the organizing committee. Presbytera Alexandra was pregnant with John, and we were both anxious about whether this was a good move for a family especially since there were concerns on the committee as to the ability to compensate a full-time priest. But there was enough confidence expressed, we sensed the dedication and enthusiasm, and told the committee and the bishop that we would take the chance with them."
With a small core group of Orthodox Christians, in 1976 Fr. Manny became pastor of the Greek Orthodox Church of the North Shore (named Resurrection in 1980), which had its home in the borrowed space of Glen Cove's Methodist Church, before moving to the former St. Hyacinth Catholic Church.
"It took aggressive reaching out and welcoming people to the community to begin to build the parish," Fr. Manny remembers. "In the early years, I would look in the phone book for Greek names, phoning people to let them know we were here. I would even knock on the doors of new arrivals to the area."
Today Fr. Manny reflects on the change in demographics of the community.
"In the 80's, no one was moving in," he says. "Today, we have many young couples and children."
So many, in fact, that it has become incumbent upon the community to plan the building of a new Byzantine-styled Orthodox church with more classrooms, meeting space, and, reflecting Fr. Manny's emphasis on the importance of learning, even a library.
Married with Two Sons
Like other Greek Orthodox priests, Fr. Manny chose to marry and have children before being ordained. He and presbytera were married in 1972, John was born five months after this parish was founded, and Alexander five years after that. Although he recognizes the difficulties presented to priests by married life and life with children, he sees beyond these to the advantages of going through problems that are the same as those of his parishioners and seeing things in the parish that give him insight into his own family.
"One of the greatest conflicts to overcome is a priestâ€™s schedule, which keeps him away from home more in the evening, with parish council and youth group meetings, than during the day and makes it difficult to spend time with his wife and children," he says.
"Also, when you're a priest, the problems of your parish can become personal, and you can bring them home without realizing it. Conversely, it is by understanding those problems and the frustrations of your parishioners that you come to understand the issues your own family faces."
Glen Cove Community Life
Fr. Manny says that it is the laity of the Church of the Resurrection that keeps him in this community.
"It is a dynamic group of individuals and although, as usual, it is a few people who do a lot of the work, they approach the work more maturely and professionally than from what I hear happens in other parishes."
Missions: Orthodox Unity and Ecumenical Work
In addition to his life as a parish priest, Fr. Manny believes strongly in the importance of being involved in projects related to the faith that go beyond the local sphere to the diocesan and archdiocesan spheres as well as extending to other Orthodox faiths and even non-Orthodox faiths.
At the call of the archdiocese, he has served on the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches in Christ, the Board of Trustees of Church World Service, and a member of the New York/New Jersey Orthodox/Roman Catholic Dialogue. Currently, he is a member of the North American Orthodox/Roman Catholic Consultation (Dialogue) and has been with this body since 1986. He is also a member of the Joint Commission of Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches, which, among other activities, conducts an annual prayer service for the UN General Assembly, its employees and the public.
Under the banner of Orthodoxy, Fr. Manny sits on the Ecumenical Commission of the Standing Council of Orthodox Bishops in America, which has representation from every Orthodox Church; he is president of the Archdiocesan District Clergy Syndesmos and a member of the Archdiocesan Presbytersâ€™ Council and has served on the Archdiocesan Council.Â He has also been appointed as a delegate to the Council of Hellenes Abroad (SAE: Symvoulion Apohdimon Ellinon).
"I think ecumenically," he says proudly. "I was trained to. Christians especially need to talk about their differences, understand them, and search for more unity."
He has earned a reputation for speaking out on important issues facing the Church, a reputation for which he is not ashamed.
"When something has to be said, I stand up and say it," he notes, adding that the tradition of speaking out is rooted in our religion's history.
"Orthodoxy has a history of going into the public square that goes back to such leaders as St. Basil. He and other Church Fathers challenged the establishment, the government, and the upper classes to respond to the needs of the disadvantaged and took action themselves. We shouldn't hesitate to speak out."
He expresses his disappointment that we are not the socially involved Church we should be, noting that the Greek Orthodox Church doesn't advocate on justice, human and civil rights, children's health, eldercare, abortion, prescription drugs, and other health care issues. He points out that representatives of other religions testify regularly before Congress on these important issues.
"We work at getting government attention on such things as Greek Independence Day and the Cyprus situation, and that's good," he says. "Yet doing just that does not help to keep us in the public eye as a spiritual force, so that we would be called upon to participate in such events as, for example, the prayer service held at the National Cathedral in Washington after our nation was attacked on 9/11."
Fr. Manny believes that part of the reason we don't advocate is our failure to create greater Orthodox unity in America. He stresses the importance of interacting with other Orthodox churches (Resurrection Sunday School children and their parents visit one Orthodox church from other traditions annually) and supporting the work of the International Orthodox Christian Charities and the Orthodox Christian Mission Centers, which work around the world to help people in need and to bear witness to our faith.
For the Better
Despite the disappointments, Fr. Manny does point out that there have been positive developments in the Greek Orthodox Church.
"I remember the big debate on the Churchâ€™s official position of the use of English in our religious services, and I think the decision that a priest be allowed to use his discretion in accordance with the community he is serving was a good one. That way French can be used in French-speaking countries, Spanish in countries where that language is spoken, etc."
He also is glad that today more literature is available than when he first went to the seminary.Â "With good work being done on curriculums, more publications, great use of videos and the Internet we are doing a much better job in evangelization and education," he adds. In addition, priests, he says, are better educated today; and, if we are not getting societal things done as an archdiocese, priests are getting things done locally and responding to the needs of the Church in their own parish and at their own initiative.
In the Church of the Resurrection community, the greatest example of that work is Fr. Manny's leadership as president of the Board of Directors of the North Shore Sheltering Program, a position he has held for the last two years. The program began six years ago following the wintertime deaths of two homeless people in the Glen Cove area and has served dozens of men in an area where few believed a homeless situation existed. Many Resurrection parishioners, including GOYA youth, have volunteered their time to help the homeless through this program.
Thirty years after Fr. Manny left government work to join the priesthood, it is obvious that the activism and idealism that led him there is alive and well and working miracles at Glen Cove's Greek Orthodox Church of the Resurrection. "Kai s'anotera," Fr. Manny.
Sophia A. Niarchos is a journalist and president of Atlas Editorial Services, www.atlaseditorial.net