JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It is the third largest religion in the world, and recently, one of its spiritual leaders chose Jacksonville to make his first pastoral visit.
Archbishop Elpidophoros was recently enthroned as the head of the Greek Orthodox Church of America. While in Jacksonville, he spoke to News4Jax about leading a traditional church in a modern age as well as the controversy surrounding a Greek Orthodox Church at New York's Ground Zero.
Archbishops of the Greek Orthodox Church may not be widely known, but they have been a part of the fabric of American life for generations. The most well-known being Archbishop Lakovos -- who made the cover of Life magazine after walking alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama in 1965.
The newest Archbishop is Elpidophoros. His enthronement in New York recently may seem a bit exotic to American eyes, but this is an ancient tradition of the Orthodox Church -- a Christian denomination that traces its roots to the Apostles of Jesus. It's estimated there are over 270 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in the world, third only to Catholics and Protestants.
"Many Americans don't know what Orthodox is. What would you like them to know?" News4Jax asked Archbishop Elpidophoros.
"I would like them to know that Orthodoxy is the church that prepared the foundations of our church and our faith as it is today. It was the Greek fathers of the church who wrote the main doctrinal thesis, who expressed the faith and composed the confession as we have it today," he answered. "It is the place or the center of the world where Christianity flourished for the first time, recognized for the first time as an official religion by the state."
Archbishop Elpidophoros is one of the youngest ever within the church. At 51 years of age, he was born and raised in Turkey, speaks six languages, and is a monk. In contrast to the Catholic faith, Orthodox priests can get married -- but not if they want to become hierarchs. Women cannot become priests.
Archbishop Elpidophorus takes over the American church at a tumultuous time, and it has to do with the half-finished church at the World Trade Center site.
In 2001, a 100-year-old church that sat at the base of the Twin Towers was destroyed in the September 11th attacks. More than $30 million was donated to rebuild the church as a national shrine -- a place for people to reflect on the tragedy. In 2017, construction of the shrine at the World Trade Center came to a stop.
An audit commissioned and released by the church concluded that $3,504,550 earmarked for the shrine, was instead used by the Archdiocese to fund a shortfall in its operating budget. The Archdiocese has since paid back the money, with interest.
"It is true, it's not the best image that we give the American society when we have a church, a construction, at the site where Ground Zero is, where it's a sacred place for all American nation," said Archbishop Elpidophorus.
"There are some reports, with respect to your Eminence, that there is a federal probe of the Archdiocese. Can you comment on that?" we asked.
"It is something that is out of our control. We respect what the authorities will decide and investigate about this case, and we will accept with gratitude whatever the decision will be," Archbishop Elpidophoros answered.
As far as when the shrine will be completed, that still remains to be seen, but the Archbishop says it's one of his first priorities on a checklist of things he'll no doubt want to accomplish in a country he's always admired.
"The United States is a reference point for democracy, freedom, human rights all around the world," he said. "You don't have that in history very often and that's why I'm proud of being in this country and serving as an Archbishop."
Archbishop Elpidophoros also said even though America is a secular society, he believes it to be a very deeply spiritual society and is looking forward to ministering here.