|Holier Than Thou
New biography defends controversial Archbishop, paints lurid picture of GOA
Justine Frangouli-Argyris' The Lonely Path of Integrity, now available in an English translation, is the story of a Greek boy from Tarpon Springs -- an ordinary kid who liked soccer and motorcycles, and who grew up to be Spyridon, Archbishop of America. His father, a surgeon who was "Greek from head to toe," fervently hoped his son would undertake the priestly vocation he himself had desired. Young George Papageorge dutifully complied. After a steady rise through the hierarchy, he found himself appointed to one of the most powerful positions in the Greek Orthodox church.
Sadly, his father died without knowing of his son's crowning achievement. On the other hand, Dr. Papageorge was spared the inglorious aftermath. After three quarrelsome years, Archbishop Spyridon was dethroned. He now spends his time in Portugal, surfing the internet and mulling over what went wrong.
So what did go wrong? Spyridon's defenders charge that he was undercut by a cabal of sycophants, schemers, embezzlers and double-dealers -- many of them former yes-men answering to his strong-willed predecessor, Archbishop Iakovos. His detractors, meanwhile, blame Spyridon's personality flaws. He was impossible to work with, they claim. Arrogant. Autocratic. A man with a chip on his shoulder.
Frangouli-Argyris, drawing not only from interviews but from the former Archbishop's personal diaries, has set out to vindicate her subject. In a sense, she does. Most readers will put down the book convinced that Spyridon is a man of integrity, and also something of a loner. They may also put down the book alarmed at the graft, pettiness, and nepotism which apparently add up to "business as usual" among the mandarins who govern the church -- and its pursestrings. The house was, and arguably remains, in dire need of a cleaning. But was Spyridon the right man for the job?
The book portrays the controversial Archbishop as a well-intentioned reformer blocked at every turn by the status quo. He prudently suggests buying an official residence, rather than wasting money on rent, but the contract is rejected and embarrassment ensues. Villains lurk in every corner. The "wily cleric" Father Alex Karloutsos is out to conceal misuse of church funds. Michael Jaharis, "an influential man...surreptitiously advancing his own plans," is busy with questionable real-estate deals. At the Clergy-Laity conference, sinister Mafioso types wield walkie-talkies and huddle in smoke-filled rooms. Nobody cares about important causes such as promoting Greek education or bringing back Byzantine hymns. Instead, the bishops fuss incessantly about not being elevated to Metropolitans, and secretly plot against the man each of them hopes to replace. Patriarch Bartholemew, overseeing the church from distant Turkey, becomes riled that his man in New York is not following instructions. And a coterie of "Patriarch's friends" jets back and forth across the Atlantic -- at parishioners' expense, of course -- bearing misinformation and slander.
Yet even in this highly Spyridon-friendly account, indications abound that the new Archbishop's problems were partly of his own making. He seems to have lacked the strength of personality, the political savvy and psychological insight, and the determination needed to command his mutinous crew. A revealing phrase occurs midway through the narrative. "Spyridon," Frangouli-Argyris tells us, "was unfamiliar with the counters of the political landscape." He was slow, the book suggests, to gauge the alliances forming against him. When he did take action, it was abrupt: he dismissed the entire gaggle of "Patriarch's men" in one ill-considered swoop, then wondered why Bartholemew reacted with panic. Frangouli-Argyris is lamentably evasive in her account of the most notorious incident of Spyridon's tenure: the alleged sex abuse at the Holy Cross seminary. To Frangouli-Argyris, the charges were deliberate fabrications, part of -- you guessed it -- the Great Conspiracy Against Spyridon (also known as GOAL). To a perhaps less informed reader, the scenario looks rather different: confronted with a damaging scandal, Spyridon minimized the problem and punished the whistleblowers.
The book is well-written, if at times woodenly translated, and reflects its author's extensive background in journalism. Striking passages evoke the vibrant intellectual and spiritual atmosphere at Halki, the legendary seminary closed down by the Turkish government in 1971. We eavesdrop on theological debates, meet venerable and commanding hierarchs, and vicariously experience the rewards -- and the pains -- of a clerical vocation. Frangouli-Argyris also does a remarkable job of humanizing a figure often portrayed as detached and arrogant. His love for his family and reverence for his father offer a powerful contrast to the cheap, sordid politics detailed in later parts of the book. We are left with the sense that, whatever his shortcomings as an Archbishop, Spyridon remains a serious, decent, and dedicated man of the cloth.
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