Thursday, February 07, 2008

Greece Gets a "Healer"

Earlier today, the synod of the Greek Orthodox church elected Metropolitan Ieronimos of Thebes as the new archbishop of Athens and All Greece.

Described as a moderate and a "healer," the 70 year-old cleric is expected to continue the path-paving with Rome taken up by his predecessor, the late Archbishop Christodoulos, who died last week. The new primate was runner-up to Christodoulos on his election in 1998.
Ieronimos, formerly the bishop of Thebes in central Greece, also has a record of good relations with the Ecumenical Patriarch, the spiritual head of all Orthodox Christians.

"This is a new beginning in the life of the Church," said Bishop Anthimos of Salonika who ran against Ieronimos, outside the Athens Cathedral where the election was held.

As the election result was announced the cathedral's bells pealed and scores of faithful gathered outside broke into cheers, before accompanying Ieronimos and his retinue in a tightly-packed procession to his new office.

"I hope that his election will... contribute to improving relations," Father Michel Roussos, head of the Jesuit mission in Greece told AFP, noting that Ieronimos once taught literature at the Leontios Catholic school in Athens.

The last archbishop, Christodoulos, who died on January 28, had already made a major contribution in this direction, inviting the late pope John Paul II to Athens in 2001 and in 2006 becoming the first head of the Church of Greece to visit the Vatican.

But he was also a firebrand nationalist who attracted criticism for meddling in politics, for calling homosexuality a "defect" and for saying he discerned "divine wrath" behind the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Unlike the outspoken Christodoulos, Archbishop Ieronimos is low-key and is expected to restore relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate that were strained by a dispute over the management of certain dioceses in Greece.

Ieronimos also opposed as "extremism" the mass rallies called by Christodoulos in 2000 against the state's decision to delete the compulsory mention of religion from Greek citizens' ID cards.

The mayor of Thebes in central Greece, where Ieronimos had been bishop since 1981, said the new archbishop was known for his democratic values.

"His election is a guarantee of good relations with the people and the Patriarch," mayor Nikolaos Svigos told Flash Radio.

The Church of Greece, which is constitutionally not separated from the state, has extensive influence in society and politics in a country where around 90 percent of the population are baptised into the Orthodox faith.

Ieronimos -- who had also been a candidate in 1998 but finished second to Christodoulos -- received 45 out of 74 votes from participating bishops after a second round of voting at Athens' Cathedral.
A longtime academic who's placed a priority on the education of his clergy, the incoming head of the Greek church studied for a time in Munich.

Burnishing relations with Orthodoxy is a key priority on B16's radar; once dismissed as near-impossible, the likelihood of a meeting between the Roman pontiff and the head of the largest Eastern church -- Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II -- has significantly increased in recent months.

PHOTO: AFP/Aris Messinis