March 27, 2015 Length: 35:25
Our thanks to His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph for the generous amount of time he gave us in his office in Englewood, NJ for this open and honest interview. Hear his assessment of his first several months as Metropolitan as well as an understanding of his commitment to the Mother Church of Antioch, and his views on Orthodox unity.
Mr. John Maddex: Today we are in Englewood, New Jersey, at the headquarters of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, and with His Eminence, Sayidna Joseph, our Metropolitan of the Antiochian Archdiocese. Timing is interesting, Sayidna. Here we are today on the one-year anniversary of the repose of Metropolitan Philip of thrice-blessed memory. A lot has happened in a year, hasn’t it?
His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph, Archbishop of New York and All North America: Indeed, yes.
Mr. Maddex: And your election by the holy Synod of Antioch, what day was that?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: It was July 3.
Mr. Maddex: July 3, and then several weeks and months later, we had the enthronement and the patriarchal visit December 7. All right. And here we are now in March. But of course, all that time, from the time you were elected right up until this present time, you’ve been the metropolitan of the archdiocese. How would you describe these last several months in this first year of being the spiritual leader of the Antiochian Archdiocese?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: First and foremost, I give thanks to God, and I will tell you, John, thank you for what you’re doing.
Mr. Maddex: Thank you.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: And I appreciate what Ancient Faith Ministries is doing as well, and you have my love, support, and blessing.
Mr. Maddex: Thank you, Sayidna.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: Before I answer that question about myself, let me say a few words, especially [since] we are very close to that first year of the repose of His Eminence Metropolitan Philip, of thrice-blessed memory, so I chose the 22nd, which is closest to the 19th, because he passed March 19, and I chose this Sunday, the 22nd, to be the first anniversary of his repose, and I invited all the Church leaders, of New York and New Jersey areas, and we will gather again, one more time, at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Brooklyn on Sunday. We will pray. We will pray for him, for the Archdiocese, for the family, and for all the believers, and for the peace in the Middle East, of course.
We will ask for his prayers for us, because he is in heaven. He is in a better place than us. We will ask for his prayers. No doubt he left large shoes, big shoes, and I’m trying my best… No matter what I do, I can’t be like him, because he is something, and [I am] something else, and God made us this way, but at least he left a big legacy to learn from and to build upon, like we are not starting from scratch, but we will be building upon where he left us and what he left us. We will give a tribute to his accomplishments and achievements.
Now, July 3, 2014—since my election to this metropolitan[ate], I don’t think that I had one free moment, and everyone, like archbishops and clergy and laity, they say to me, “Please slow down,” and, “We don’t need you to get burned out or to get sick or to become weaker or become exhausted” and whatever. My answer is: I feel that, still I feel that I need now… It’s my turn now to work and to spread out the word of God everywhere. So that’s why I don’t feel that I belong to this office. So I need to be with the people. I need to be in the churches. I like to be with the children everywhere. I need to visit as much as I can, as many as I can. This is what I’m doing, although I spend some time in the office, not because I’m tired and I need some break, but the office demands and the Archdiocese demands me to be here, so that’s why: many demands and very many, many, many ministries have my attention, like the immediate, my personal attention. So that’s why I spend some time here.
And, as you know, John, that we are in the 21st century, and this Archdiocese is so vast. We have almost 300 churches around the nation. But from the first month after my election, I received many invitations.
Mr. Maddex: I’m sure you did.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: So if I have just to respond to the invitations, it takes me the whole year. But I looked at the invitations, and I said, “Let me prioritize.” And I am choosing. I am choosing where there is a need for me the most. So now I said to myself and I asked some of my friends who are psychologists and they know all these things, so I said, “I am thinking to visit the weak churches first, before other churches.” They said to me, “This is a wrong strategy.” I said, “Why?” They said to me they feel that because they are weak, so I’m going to fill the gap or I am going there to help them out or they might feel some embarrassment because of their situation.
Mr. Maddex: Yeah.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: So they said to me, they gave me an advice and I accepted that advice, that one day I visit a weak church; next time I visit a normal church. And this is good for me and good for them.
Mr. Maddex: Yes.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: And no one can have it or can interpret it as a strategy, like I am only focusing on the weak churches. So in this way, I make some balance. And this is what I’m doing now. Some churches I visited already. They said to me, they assured me that they never have seen a metropolitan in their parishes. But, thank God, because of lack of bishops—no one replaced me in the Diocese of Los Angeles; no one replaced me in the Pacific Northwest Diocese, and other parishes—so I am visiting the East Coast of the United States and Canada, the West Coast in the United States, and I just came back, for example, from a trip into Washington state. I visited five places. We drove over 500 miles within four days. But I think this is our time and this is God’s time, too.
Mr. Maddex: I pick up a sense of urgency as you describe your travel and what is burdening your heart. What’s behind that urgency?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: You know, we are human beings, and some people do not have the Church education. Some people do not have the mind of the Church, so that’s why we are facing some serious matters in those parishes. Every parish is different. Every parish has its own, let’s say, pain or problems. So when I go to there, the urgency—I’m visiting the churches in order to help them. For example, when I sit with a parish council, I don’t speak politics. On the contrary, I am against any politics in the Church, so I try to heal them from politics. So I speak about how we do our ministry the best we can on the parish council. I teach them, I educate them how they respect each other and not to have long meetings and boring meetings, so when they finish within one hour or hour and a half at the most, they feel still they are in good shape, they are not exhausted, and [when] they go home the children [and] the wives are still up. But when it takes forever, like after midnight, he is angry, he is upset, he is frustrated, and he goes there—all the family went to bed already, so it kills him. It kills him. And [in] the morning, his day begins with frustration. So I’m trying [with] every parish council not to have a big discussion, a long discussion, like one matter or two at the most, in order to keep the joy in what they are doing.
Mr. Maddex: So as you’ve traveled around, Sayidna, what has surprised you? What didn’t you expect to see that you did see?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: One thing. One thing, because I’ve been doing that for 20 years in the West as the archbishop of Los Angeles and the West before my election, but now what I see the most: Some parishes, for example, if we talk about liturgics, in the West they are stronger than in the East.
Mr. Maddex: Interesting.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: This is one thing, for example. The other thing is, because of his illness, His Eminence, God rest his soul, because of his illness, the last ten years, they didn’t see him much. So that’s why there was a vacuum. There was a vacuum, not from only him as a person, [but] from not having a father. So that’s why, when I go there now, I don’t shame anyone; I don’t hurt anyone’s feeling. When I correct, when I do something, I do it with love and with gentleness.
So they don’t know me because they didn’t know me before my election, and now they see me all the time. They see me in the parishes, especially in the East Coast. So they are with a mixed feeling, let’s say. In the past, they didn’t know anything about me, but they knew that I am strong, I am powerful, I am this, I am that, and some people said, before my election, during the convention, nomination, they said I am too strict. So now, when they see me in person and they get to know me in person, they don’t say that any more. They say… I don’t want anyone to praise me, but this is what they see. They see, and this is what they feel, and they are not afraid of me.
And this is what [happens] immediately [when] I visit. When I visit some parish, I don’t know them, they don’t know me, so I keep the smile on my face, I don’t have a bad temper—I never had a bad temper—and I treat all the people with hugs, and the children with hugs and the families with hugs. So I think they need it.
Mr. Maddex: I’ve heard people describe your leadership style as “pastoral.” Is that how you want to be perceived?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: Absolutely. This is my whole life. If I have to say, that my only theology I have is to be pastoral. You know what “pastoral” means? It means to be the father of everyone, for everyone. So that’s why. I don’t need anyone to think of anything of me but a father.
Mr. Maddex: Well, in these times that we’re in and the types of social pressures and anxiety that many of us feel with the world circumstances, with the pressures, we need a pastor. So we are thankful that that is your intention as well.
Let me ask: what has been the biggest joy of what you’ve discovered in these first several months of being the chief shepherd here?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: The joy is big not because of the position itself but because I see that many horizons ahead of me, and my ministry is not limited to one certain, let’s say, to a certain region or diocese now. I am exposed to the entire archdiocese, and it gives me a joy. One day I visit this parish or that parish in this country or that country, in this state or that state, and here and overseas. The other day, I have the board of trustees meeting, I have the other meetings with departments and with the Order of St. Ignatius. So because of this position, I visited the White House twice so far, and I visited the State Department in order to defend the Christians and to push for peace in the Middle East. So all these things give me a joy, that I’m serving. And wherever I go I’m repeating the story and the same incident happened to me in the airport of Los Angeles. I don’t know that you heard it. Can I say it?
Mr. Maddex: Yes, please!
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: Maybe it’s meaningful for the listeners to hear it. I don’t call myself a big shot or VIP or whatever, so I call myself a servant. Some incident happened in the airport of Los Angeles. I was traveling without a deacon or without a priest with me, and I had my crown carry-on, and he said to me it was my flight, it was six o’clock in the morning, and I was barely awake, and he was barely awake, the TSA man. And he said to me, “What’s that in that trunk or box?” I said, “This is my hat,” and he smiled. He said, “But it doesn’t look like a hat!”
Mr. Maddex: [Laughter] That’s some hat!
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: I said, “Call it whatever you like.” And I thought maybe this is the only discussion with him. He said to me, “Can I open it?” I said, “By all means.” He opened it. He looked at my crown. He said, “Wow! Are these real stones?” I said, “I wish.” The other question he said to me: “We know that only princes and kings wear crowns. Are you a prince?” I said, “Higher.” Again: “Are you a king?” I said, “Higher.” And he couldn’t find any other words to ask, and he said to me, “Really, who are you and what do you represent?” I said, “I am a servant in the Antiochian Orthodox Church.” I couldn’t find a better definition of myself. So the joy comes from me serving the others.
Mr. Maddex: As people look at changes that they perceive are happening in the Archdiocese here, I’ve heard some say it seems like our connection to the mother church is stronger than it used to be. Is that on purpose?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: Yes.
Mr. Maddex: And how would you describe that? What would be the reason, and what are you hoping to accomplish with that?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: I believe that we cannot survive, we don’t have any authenticity, we don’t have any history, if we don’t belong to the mother church. So that’s why we should have… We have a healthy mother church, the Church of Antioch, the most ancient church, the church which has effected many nations and many civilizations and many countries and many over the years and over the centuries. Why should we say goodbye to this healthy, loving mother?
So I see no reason to do that. The mother church respects our privacy, if we can say privacy or…
Mr. Maddex: Independence?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: Not independence, but…
Mr. Maddex: Okay.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: Independence means something big. The mother church respects our personal identity or what we are doing in general, and respects our being here in North America. And there is no fear, and we never had fear, any fear, by mother church or a threat by mother church. So therefore, why do we have to split from the mother church?
During the time of autonomy and everything, many, many, many believers, from converts and from cradle, they said to us, “After we found a mother, a loving mother; the Church of Antioch now is ours.” We are saying goodbye to the mother? It’s nonsense. So therefore I am the son of Antioch, and I am the son of this Church which raised me all my life, from age 13 until now, and I didn’t come into the Church because of lack of money. My family was just… out of their piety they introduced me to the Church and presented me to the Church, and I love the Church and I will never betray my Church. So Patriarch Ignatius of blessed memory was my mentor and my instructor and my bishop and my pastor and everything, and he raised me the way I am. Now the current patriarch, John, he was my classmate and my roommate, so we are close, and we understand each other, and we have to support each other.
And now, John, you have to know something, because your question brings me to this: the troubles in the Middle East… There is a lot of hopelessness. There is a lot of frustration. There is a lot of danger. There is a lot of fear. And many, many people are migrating these days from there to here. So if we were split from each other, these people, where to go? They would become like Protestants, and with all due respects to others, to other religions, to other denominations, to other… But when we act like a mother and a daughter—like here, for example, the Church of Antioch is the mother and the Archdiocese is the daughter—we can work together to keep these people in the faith and bring some hope to them.
Mr. Maddex: Some people would say to that, “Well, that’s all well and good, but we’re Americans, so there’s lots of ‘mother churches’ out there that have sons and daughters here in this country. When will this country come of age and be its own ‘mother church’?” Speak to that.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: It is of age. No question. And no one questioning that. Because this daughter is of age and because we are in North America, we are American by birth or by choice, so here the Orthodox people are not split from each other, are not divided from each other. We must be ready to help our brothers and sisters overseas, because our roots are there, and our history, the meaning of the history comes from there. Therefore, here we’ve been in this continent like a hundred years or more, but the sanctity comes from there, and the apostolic succession comes from there, so that’s why. We are one entity, like mother and daughter. We are still family, and we are still obligated to support each other, especially during these troubles.
Mr. Maddex: Yeah, and yet you’ve demonstrated that having that commitment and that dedication to the mother church is not at the expense of unity among Orthodox…
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: Not at all.
Mr. Maddex: ...which was exhibited by, most recently, at the beginning of Lent, you helped to orchestrate a Sunday of Orthodoxy here in the New York/New Jersey area. Tell us about that.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: You know, it took me lots of efforts to organize the bishops in the West before my election. And I took the initiative, and I brought the bishops of the West together. And we organized pan-Orthodox clergy retreats and Sunday of Orthodoxy every year, and youth rally and lectures and other activities, other events, and we visited monasteries together. So here the bishops in the East heard about that, and they contacted me, and they said, “Would you do it the way you do it in the West?” I said, “That’s why I’m here.” So I took the initiative. I called myself. First I called every Church leader. I spent most of the day calling everyone, and I spoke to everyone, those who returned my call, they called me later, during the day or the next day. So I invited all the Church leaders, and I said, “How about if we do it this way: We do it in our cathedral in Brooklyn, at St. Nicholas in Brooklyn, in the morning; and in the evening we go somewhere else.” So I was the host in the morning, and Bishop Michael (Dahulich), [of] the OCA, was the host in the evening.
In the morning we had five bishops in the Liturgy in the morning; in the evening we were three bishops, because of the snowfall, and we lost that priest, God rest his soul.
Mr. Maddex: Yes.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: Fr. Matthew.
Mr. Maddex: Yes.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: So many people couldn’t make it, because they were stuck in the snow, and it was dangerous. But, thank God, it’s a good start, and I accept even a humble start. I consider it better than nothing, so therefore this will be repeated again and again and again. So Sunday of Orthodoxy is the whole substance of our Orthodox faith, and we will do it together, God willing.
And the next morning, after Sunday of Orthodoxy, was supposed [to have] me to lead a pan-Orthodox clergy retreat, and I gave that lecture at St. Tikhon. Someone reminded me of that: holy diaconate, holy priesthood, holy episcopacy, and holy nation. And they asked for that, for the clergy to hear it again. And I was ready. I prepared myself. I made many corrections and additions and everything, and was prepared, but when we saw the snowfall… So we canceled that, and we will reschedule it very soon. Therefore clergy… bishops, clergy, and laity, those who were in attendance in the morning and in the evening were so hopeful and so happy to have the clergy initiate that Sunday of Orthodoxy, because they used to do it on the level of priests here or there or there or there, but now hierarchs are doing that.
And, by the way, talking about Orthodox unity and mother church and whatever, so my being related and very close to the mother church will never stop me and will never block me from working for the Orthodox unity in this nation, and I am the vice-chair of the Assembly of Bishops, so I am very active in the Assembly of Bishops as well.
Mr. Maddex: Yes. As you know, we just recently lost one of the prophetic voices in Orthodoxy, Fr. Thomas Hopko. Did you know him personally?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: Yes. God rest his soul.
Mr. Maddex: Tell us about him and what impact you feel he had on the Church.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: I loved him so much, even [though] we didn’t know, we didn’t have history, we didn’t know each other for many, many years, but I heard of him and I listened to his lectures, to his speeches. He touched me in many ways as a speaker. The first time I met him in person was at St. Nicholas Camp in Frazier Park. He was conducting a youth retreat, and a lot, like 150 of them were there. And I was the bishop of the West at that time, so I went there and I sat in the back. I didn’t want to interrupt the retreat. I don’t know whether he recognized me or he saw me, because we never saw each other before. So after he finished his remarks and they asked—they raised a million questions—and one of them was about the Archdiocese, the Antiochian Archdiocese. And all of a sudden he referred to me. He said, “The right man is there, sitting there, so…” And that was the first meeting.
The second time, I invited him to lead my clergy in the West in a seminar, clergy seminar. We spent five days together in one place, and day and night we were together, and we ate together and socialized together, plus his lectures there, five days. We worked hard. And we invited him to be our speaker at the Parish Life Conference more than once, and I never missed his lectures. He was impressed with my presence and with my respect for him. So we knew each other this way. Of course, his good reputation went way before him and all over, here and outside of the country, so we respected him. Now I consider that a big loss, a big loss in the Orthodox, let’s say, presence in all North America. So may his memory be eternal.
Mr. Maddex: Yes. Sayidna, as we wrap up here, we are past now the mid-point of Great Lent. We’re on the journey. We can see down the road: Pascha coming. Give us a word as we finish our lenten journey, would you?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: That is the most prayerful and most important part of our Orthodox faith. We cannot celebrate any feast if we don’t go through Lent and go through Pascha. For us, this is our identity. For us, this is our strength. For us, this is our whole theology. Lent is not [fasting] from food and from drink. As St. Paul says, God will destroy both, this and that, but this Lent is for purification, purification of mind, soul, and body. So it means repentance. Repentance means to change, to change from the top to the bottom, so that the mind has to change, the attitude has to change, the behavior has to change, the way we eat has to change, the way we do things in life in general has to change. This is the Orthodox way.
The Orthodox way is not only the way we go two hours in some way and we move our lips in some way music and chant—no. I encourage and I urge all the believers not to count how many days are fasting, but even the last hour God will reward us even the last hour like those who came the first hour. God is not harsh and without mercy, to count how many hours and how many days. We do as much as we can. We do the best we can. God will strengthen our weaknesses, and we do it.
I’m not boasting, but I arrived here yesterday. I arrived here very, very late; very late. I was exhausted, without sleep, and driving 500 miles in four days, and six hours on a plane and everything. I just went to my room, I grabbed my jibbe, my rasso, and—straight to the chapel for great compline. If we are teaching, we are teaching by example. And we are doing that for ourselves, for our salvation and for other people’s salvation.
We cannot say we are tired, we are hungry, we are… These are human, and they will go with us to the grave. But we should not miss the opportunity of thinking of the kingdom of God. We should not miss that. The whole Lent, the whole philosophy, the whole theology of Lent is to keep the remembrance of the kingdom of God in our life. The Bible tells us the kingdom of God is at hand. “Is at hand” means now, not tomorrow or after tomorrow—now, right now.
This wonderful Lent is so rich and so Orthodox and so theological and doxological. Fr. Hopko used to use this word…
Mr. Maddex: Yes, yes.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: “Doxological.” It means that we do it with joy. We are not punished. Some people said, “Why are you not eating chocolate?” for example. It’s not about punishment. It’s about freedom. It is about freedom. We are doing that with all our free will. This is a necessity. We feel that: I need it.
Mr. Maddex: Where do you go, personally, for spiritual refreshment? Are there books during Great Lent that you tend to gravitate toward?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: Yeah, I read a lot. I read a lot. I listen to… I used to listen to Fr. Hopko, for example. And on a plane, I don’t sleep; I don’t sleep: I read or I close my eyes and I listen to lectures. Sometimes I doze off, but still my mind, [is] chewing that. I go to my spiritual father, [who] unfortunately is not in this country. But now I go. When I go to monasteries, I have some good spiritual friends, so we talk. But as [regarding] confession, I am deprived from that.
In order to answer your question in a simpler way, I am encouraged by visiting weak churches as well. When you go to a weak parish, there is fear, there is a fear like you’ve become negligent or lazy or something like that. No, on the contrary, when I go even to weak churches I get all my strength from there.
Mr. Maddex: [Laughter] Well, you’ve been very generous with your time, Sayidna. Thank you so much, and may we visit again sometime?
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: Absolutely.
Mr. Maddex: We’ve been talking with His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, and we’re here in his office in Englewood, New Jersey—one of his offices. He also, of course, resides and works out of his office in Los Angeles. Thank you, Sayidna, for your time.
His Eminence Metr. Joseph: Thank you, John. Thank you to you. God bless you, and blessed remaining [days] of the Fast.
Mr. Maddex: Thanks be to God.