WESTLAND, Mich. - In the child-friendly tradition of Jesus of Nazareth, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, not only gathered young people around him, he even fed and danced with them on his historic visit to the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Detroit.
This three-day visit is his first appearance in the area since the patriarch ascended to primacy of the Orthodox world in 1991. As a spiritual leader, Patriarch Bartholomew ranks with Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama; of the three, His All Holiness, 60, is the youngest. The Turkish native is considered “first among equals” of the five Orthodox patriarchs worldwide, hence the title, Ecumenical. He is one of only four religious figures worldwide to have been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Inside the Hellenic Cultural Center next to SS Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in this Detroit suburb, about 1,200 people - including 800 or so children as young as 5 months - were growing restless. Some had come from as far away as Little Rock, Nashville, and Buffalo, home to some of the 45 churches in this seven-state diocese.
By 9:20 a.m., the motorcade had arrived and the patriarch was being whisked down hallways accompanied by strobe flashes, hand-held videocams, and foam-encased microphones bobbing like large birds over the procession.
Through the double doors swept the short, white-bearded figure in long black robe, tall clerical hat, and head drape. Tiny hands waved patriarchal flags and piping voices rose in cheers as the patriarch, priests, and somber, ear-plugged bodyguards moved to a small dais along the back wall.
Like a purple flash, Persilla Zervos, director of the Hellenic Dance Company from Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Toledo, kept her pepped-up charges in hand as they waited for their moment to dance for the visitor.
“We were the only dance company invited to perform,” Mrs. Zervos said proudly the day before their trek north. Dancers in the 85-year-old company range from 4-year-olds to young adults, and Mrs. Zervos had prepared a carefully choreographed 18-minute program.
But many wanted to show their best. After a brief blessing, the patriarch ended with “Kyrie eleison. Enjoy!” Buffet lines opened and the program began. A video offered glimpses of parish youth at work on good causes and at play. There were carefully rehearsed speeches, and a small girls' ensemble sang.
Meanwhile, Patriarch Bartholomew greeted people who managed to slip around his bodyguards, allowing them to kiss his ring, offering a blessing. He posed for photos with proud children. Handed a baby, he fed it a bit of food from his breakfast plate and kissed its cheek before handing the child back.
By the time the Toledo dancers performed, about 10:35 a.m., at least half an hour late, the crowd was growing as restless as the patriarch. Musicians struck up their instruments and tiny dancers circled the floor in eager, careful steps. Immediately a crowd gathered, blocking all views, even that of His All Holiness, who consoled himself by holding another infant carefully and dancing her to the music on the table.
Mrs. Zervos regretfully announced an early halt to the dancing. It was time for the patriarchal address.
Apologizing for his speech - he commands seven languages, including Greek and Latin - His All Holiness plunged into the message, a no-nonsense reminder to stay true to Biblical commandments and “to retreat from harmful relationships, substances, and behaviors.”
“Don't be sidetracked by superficial distractions,” the patriarch said in clear, accented English, urging his enrapt listeners to turn away from potentially dangerous short-term pleasures to reach the long-term goal of a fruitful life and usefulness to society. “Walk the path of virtue towards love,” he added. “Happiness and rewards require a certain effort.”
Afterwards, John Pizanis, a teenager from East Lansing, called the speech inspirational. “He knew what it is like for a teenager.” Mary Beth Danckaert, of Fort Wayne, concurred. “He addressed well the problems facing Orthodox youth. And he managed to get across a valid message, even though he joked about his English,” she said.
Meanwhile, the limo bearing the Ecumenical Patriarch was headed east, en route to a service in the bright new Annunciation Cathedral in Greektown, where the downtown's third casino was celebrating its opening. After a gala dinner tonight in the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, His All Holiness will board a jet for Washington.