Wheeling Jesuit Alumnus Father John Panagiotou Brings Relevancy to Old World Religion
The following article is reposted with permission of The Post and Courier newspaper.
BY CLAY BARBOUR
Of The Post and Courier Staff
Enter the Church of the Holy Trinity and you are immediately treated to a feast of the eyes. On the wall behind the altar is a depiction of three angels visiting Abraham, a symbol of the church's hospitality. Stretching out from there are icons of the four doctors of the Eastern Church: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. John Chrysostom and St. Athanasius the Great. In front of the altar is a large screen made of dark, ornate wood with gold trim.
And above it all, nearly finished, is a beautiful ceiling icon of Christ, surrounded by cherubs and seraphs.
It is an opulent setting designed to inspire awe. And it does.
But on Sundays, with the pews full, a man who eschews pomp for practicality leads the faithful in worship. He is in many ways a departure from the norm; a beardless 35-year-old who never wears the bulky black robes and large hats often associated with the Greek Orthodoxy.
Nearly one year ago Father John Panagiotou (Panayotoo) took over the pulpit at Holy Trinity, Charleston's only Greek Orthodox church. He brought with him a theologian's grasp of the "Word" and a track record of revitalizing congregations.
Slumping attendance is a problem churches all over the world face, regardless of denomination or faith. But it is a problem hitting the tradition-heavy Greek Orthodox Church particularly hard.
Some say a church so heavily steeped in Old World customs cannot hope to grow in modern America. Panagiotou does not agree.
"It's just a question of relevance," he says. "A church must always be relevant."
Just to the right as you enter Panagiotou's office hangs a Norman Rockwell painting. In the painting a doctor sits by a sick girl's bed. Christ stands by the doctor, touching the girl.
"I love this painting," he says, pointing to the wall. "You see, the doctor could just as easily be a priest or a lawyer. It's all the same. It's not the man, but God through the man, who helps people."
It is not by chance the painting hangs in his office. The first time Panagiotou saw the Rockwell creation he was just a boy in his hometown of Wheeling, W.Va.
Wheeling is located in the Ohio Valley and had a rather large Greek community when Panagiotou was a boy. His father, George Panagiotou, was an electrician at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. It was a tough job, but a good one.
Panagiotou's mother, Lemonia, raised her son in the traditional Greek Church. And in young Panagiotou's case, it was not a struggle. Early on he felt a calling to do something with his life and was attracted to the strange and mysterious role the church played in the lives of its members.
"It always struck me that the priests of the church were in a position to confirm God's presence to those who needed it, to help them with their daily struggles, to guide them," he says. "I knew then, whatever I did, I wanted to help people."
Panagiotou did well in school and for a while considered law and medicine as possible career avenues. But by the time he graduated high school he had made up his mind to pursue a career in the church.
He attended Wheeling Jesuit University, majoring in theology, and followed that with a master's degree from St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y.
While in seminary he met Correna Lieding, a young female cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Lieding was half-Greek and a devout member of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The two hit it off immediately.
"He was so nice and open," she says. "I was pragmatic and practical, and he was sometimes nice to the point of being naive. But really, that's a special quality."
The two were married 14 months after they met.
The Greek Orthodox Church differs from the Catholic Church in that its priests can marry - with one stipulation. They must be married before ordainment. It's an odd stipulation, one that has caused more than a few conflicts within the Church.
John and Correna just made the deadline. Three weeks after their wedding John was ordained.
"I got the call on my honeymoon," Panagiotou says.
After his ordainment Panagiotou was named pastor of St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church in Clarksburg, W.Va., the birthplace of Stonewall Jackson.
Though young and relatively inexperienced, he quickly made an impression.
"He was refreshing," says Nick Stevens, at the time a member of St. Spyridon's Parish Council. "He was young, enthusiastic. He brought a lot of energy to the church."
Stevens says the result was an almost immediate turnaround in church membership. Church participation increased by more than 50 percent. And to Stevens it seemed Panagiotou's approach appealed especially to younger members.
"There is a debate in America about the direction of the church," he says. "We have a lot of priests from the old school, and the old way of doing things is something the American Church has a hard time embracing. Father John was American. He watched American sports and movies. He understood what it meant to live here and practice our faith here."
Stevens says Panagiotou was part of the new wave of Greek Orthodoxy: intelligent, academic and, yes, hip.
"He made his lessons relevant to the modern age," Stevens says. "And he ignored dogma, focusing instead on the 'Word.' We hated to see him go."
But go Panagiotou did. After just four years the Bishop of Pittsburgh promoted him to the position of Chancellor of the Diocese. His job was to assist the bishop.
"I was a paper-pusher, a bureaucrat," he says. "I didn't really like it. I was flattered and I worked hard, but I missed being with people."
One year ago a door opened for Panagiotou, a door that allowed him to return to the pulpit. The Bishop of Atlanta invited him to take over Holy Trinity, a plum Greek Orthodox parish with about 500 families.
"The bishop said he wanted someone experienced, educated and good with people," Panagiotou says. "I was flattered that he wanted me. And I wanted badly to return to a church."
George Omiros worked with Panagiotou at the Pittsburgh Diocese. He says it was their loss and Charleston's gain when Panagiotou left.
"He is one of the most spiritual and intellectual people I have ever met," Omiros says. "His grasp of the role the church plays in our life was remarkable. I lament the loss of him to Charleston."
Panagiotou took over Holy Trinity last March and almost immediately church members noticed a change. "He is just so warm," says Mary Lee Lavelle, a 30-year member of Holy Trinity. "He is a catalyst. He has revived this church with his vitality."
Like he did in Clarksburg, Panagiotou instituted an open-door policy to everyone in the church and made it known that he was not someone who looked down from on high. He was one of them.
He also made his mark with intelligent, but down-to-earth lessons that spoke to members in very real, very modern ways.
"It's about making the church relevant in people's lives," he says. "That's what it's there for, to help people. I think in this way the church has dropped the ball. Relevancy is making God real for everyone."
That doesn't mean he has revolutionized church services or turned them into sideshows.
"You come here you're not going to see 'N Sync," he says. "You might see James Taylor acoustic."
His methods have worked. The church has added 20 members since he started, a number that is much higher than it sounds.
"It's unprecedented," Lavelle says. "Converting to Greek Orthodox is not that easy. It takes a while. You have to take classes. For him to have attracted so many new members says something."
To Panagiotou, it just says he has found his place.
"I have always thought of church as a spiritual hospital," he says, pointing to the Rockwell painting again. "Our job is to heal the soul. That's why I'm here, to help in that process. And now that I'm here in Charleston, I don't plan to leave anytime soon. I'm here to stay."
BIRTHPLACE: Wheeling, W.Va.
EDUCATION: Wheeling Jesuit University; master's from St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary; doctoral candidate at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
FAMILY: Wife, Correna; no children.
JOB: Pastor of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity.
BEST ADVICE TO OTHERS: "Never let negative people or ideas hamper your dreams. And trust in God's providence."
BEST ADVICE GIVEN TO YOU: "My mother always told me, 'Always persevere and get on a payroll.' "
FAVORITE BOOKS: "The Brothers Karamazov," "Paradise Lost" and, of course, the Bible.
FAVORITE MOVIE: "Citizen Kane" and "Gladiator."
FAVORITE MUSICIANS: Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, George Strait.
HOBBIES: "I enjoy watching classic old movies, traveling and swimming."
SOMETHING PEOPLE MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT ME: "My dream job would be to be the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers."
PHILOSOPHY: "God has placed us here within his providence. For the Christian, nothing that occurs is random, by chance or by coincidence. Our task here on Earth is to discern at any given time what God would have us do and to have faith that everything will work out for the best in accordance with God's divine cosmic plan."