To be a father is a noble undertaking.

In our society, we have long realized the great importance of a father to his children and family. The same can be said of leadership in the church; in the Orthodox faith, a spiritual leader is both a shepherd of the local community and a father.

For the Orthodox, that role of father is played out to an even greater degree in the person of the bishop. To best understand this role, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the hierarchy of the church.

Early church leaders, following the pattern found in the New Testament, organized an ordained clerical structure of deacons, presbyters (priests) and bishops. A bishop is literally the overseer of the church. The Greek term used in the New Testament, Episkopos (ἐπίσκοπος), comes from the words “epi,” meaning over or above, and “skopos,” referring to an observer or a watchman.

The bishop’s role is one of oversight, guiding the direction of the church and overseeing the spiritual growth of his flock.

Recently, my church lost a great father -– a bishop, a pastor, and truly a chief shepherd — who bore an ancient title as the overseer of the church of an ancient city.

Patriarch Ignatius IV, who fell asleep in the Lord on Dec. 4, 2012, served since 1979 as the bishop of Antioch, the city in Asia Minor mentioned in the Book of Acts where Paul and Barnabas ministered, and where “the disciples were first called Christians.” (Acts 11:26).

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The Holy Synod of Antioch, the governing body of the jurisdiction, met Dec. 17 in a special session in the Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand in Lebanon to elect a new patriarch. Afterward, the synod announced that it had elected a successor to Ignatius IV:

After praying for the repose in peace of the thrice-memory late Patriarch Ignatius IV, and asking the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the nomination process took place. Afterwards, all the fathers went to the Church of the Dormition of Our Lady where they prayed and proceeded to a secret ballot. After the votes were counted, the holy fathers proclaimed Metropolitan John (Yazigi) of Europe as successor of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul on the Holy See of Antioch. Hence, His Beatitude John X (Yazigi) is Patriarch of Antioch and all the East. 

The Secretariat of the Patriarchate will announce the formal arrangements for the enthronement of the Patriarch and reception of the pastoral staff.

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In the Orthodox Church, all bishops share the same authority; one cannot interfere in the jurisdiction of another.

Within the ranks of bishop there is a system of seniority: Senior bishops in charge of large jurisdictions are known as metropolitans. In the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, this position belongs to His Eminence, the Most Reverend Metropolitan Philip (Saliba), who oversees the archdiocese, together with his Synod of Bishops, comprised of parishes throughout the United States and Canada.

Above the metropolitans are a number of bishops known as patriarchs. The patriarchate of Antioch was one of five original patriarchates, dating back to the earliest days of the church. These five patriarchates, including the Churches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, were the key centers of an undivided Christianity throughout the first millennium of the church.

In the middle ages, numerous attacks greatly reduced the population of the city of Antioch. As a result of hostility and changing demographics, the patriarchate was relocated to Damascus, Syria, in the 14th century, where it remains today on the famous “street called straight.”

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Patriarch Ignatius IV was born near Hama, Syria, in 1920. At the age of 16, he moved to Beirut to study literature, and later to Paris to study at the St. Sergius Theological Institute. After completing his studies, he was ordained as a priest and, alongside other Orthodox leaders, worked to organize “Syndesmos,” a world-wide Orthodox youth movement.

He was consecrated as a bishop in 1961 and later served as the dean of the Balamand Orthodox Theological Seminary in northern Lebanon. He was subsequently elected patriarch of Antioch in 1979.

Patriarch Ignatius was a prolific writer, whose works include one English language book, “The Resurrection and Modern Man,” published in 1985.

Of particular interest is the patriarch’s commitment to working for peace and understanding among both Christian and non-Christian groups.

Patriarch Ignatius IV, who died Dec. 4, 2012, was committed to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.

Patriarch Ignatius IV, who died Dec. 4, 2012, was committed to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.

Anne Glynn Mackoul, who represented the patriarchate to the World Council of Churches, said that Patriarch Ignatius “was committed to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, reflecting the particular witness of the patriarchate of Antioch living for centuries as neighbors face to face with Islam, and side by side with other Christian churches. Such a presence, as [Patriarch Ignatius] has written, is informed by the witness of a church that 'is sharing fully [in] the suffering of our peoples, in patience but also in courage, a church that does not maintain itself in a survivalist conservatism and in an ethnic and linguistic particularism, a church dispersed like salt, seeking its identity in its vocation.'”

While Patriarch Ignatius will no doubt be remembered for his writings and commitment to peace and mutual understanding, his impact is also felt as that of a father.

Patriarch Ignatius made two official tours of the North American Antiochian Archdiocese, one in 1985 and a second in 1999. His most recent unofficial visit to the United States came in October 2012, mere weeks before his recent passing. His goal during this visit was to set in motion a cooperative effort between the University of Balamand and the Antiochian House of Studies, a theological “school without walls,” that seeks to provide theological education for nontraditional students. During this visit, His Beatitude stated that it was his vision to “extend the reach of the Orthodox Faith through education and to insure that this education touches the lives of people in positive ways.”

Patriarch Ignatius was truly a 21st century leader of a timeless Orthodox Church. He lived and worked amidst the sometimes-difficult religious tensions of a pluralistic culture, in regions where Christianity is a minority group. His influence, though, will forever be remembered as a bright spot in the history of our archdiocese.

May his memory be eternal.

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