NEWS STORY: Patriarch urges adherence to tradition in face of cultural tugs

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

DES MOINES, Iowa _ Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew made a quick swing through the nation’s heartland Tuesday (Nov. 4), urging Orthodox Christians to hold on to their traditions despite the pulls of contemporary American culture.”Our joy is made complete today, because we see in your faces the fruits of ministry of the 75 years of our beloved Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America,”the patriarch said as he arrived here after three days in Chicago.

Speaking at cramped St. George Greek Orthodox Church, whose ornate sanctuary decorated with icons and murals seats just 135, Bartholomew called upon the faithful to”continue the course of preserving the faith and our precious traditions. Pass them as you would a treasure to succeeding generations.” Bartholomew is Orthodoxy’s leading figure and his current visit is his first to the United States since he became ecumenical patriarch in 1991.

Based in Istanbul, Turkey, he has direct authority over the 13 million- member Greek Orthodox Church and is traditionally regarded as”first among equals”by the leaders of the 14 other autonomous, ethnically divided Orthodox churches with roots in the Balkans, Slavic Europe and the Middle East.

Unlike Chicago, which, with 250,000 believers, boasts one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Orthodox Christians, Des Moines represents a small outpost of the faith.

St George, the only Orthodox church in this state capital, has just 124 member families.

Moreover, the Des Moines parish _ as is common in small Orthodox communities _ is comprised of a half-dozen ethnic groups, plus a sizeable number of recent converts to the faith.

The patriarch, who is in the third week of a month-long U.S. tour, took note of that in his talk at the church, one of three he delivered during his whirlwind, five-hour stop here enroute to Dallas.

St. George, he said, exemplifies the Greek Orthodox ministry in many small cities across the United States and around the world.”It is a multi-ethnic community, bringing together people of diverse backgrounds,”he said.

His comment reflected both a prime theme of his U.S. tour _ which ends Nov. 17 in Pittsburgh _ as well as a prime dilemma facing American Orthodoxy, which claims as many as 6 million U.S. followers.

Since his arrival in Washington, where he met with President Clinton, Bartholomew has stressed adherence to what he termed Orthodoxy’s”2,000-year-old continuous history of the faith of the Apostles.” But the Greek church, while it dominates in the United States, is just one of the ethnic Orthodox churches with American followers, and the patriarch’s attempts to retain their allegiance under his authority and with a Greek cultural flavor does not always play well with independent-minded Americans.

A 1994 attempt by American Orthodox leaders to forge closer ties by overcoming the ethnic divisions and creating a more autonomous American church was rejected by Bartholomew.

But the Rev. Peter Case, the pastor of St. George and himself a convert to the faith, said support for unifying American Orthodoxy under independent leadership remains strong in Des Moines.

Indirectly addressing that controversy, Bartholomew said he understood it is”not an easy task”to firmly adhere to Orthodox tradition”living in a pluralistic society,”where”there is always the temptation to adapt and to change the traditions we have received.” But”believing Orthodox Christians,”he said”must make the effort to hold on to and to grow in grace and in truth.” At an ecumenical Christian service held later at the Des Moines Civic Center, Bartholomew touched on another theme he has stressed during his visit _ the environment.”All faith traditions have a moral and ethical responsibility in preserving the environment,”he told the audience of about 1,000.”The relationship between the creator and the created is at the heart of the religious enterprise.” Bartholomew, often called the”green patriarch”because of his strong support of the environment, is scheduled to participate in a major symposium on the subject in Santa Barbara, Calif., Saturday (Nov. 8).

MJP END RIFKIN

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