Some years back, when still working in the oil and gas industry, I recall a year when my company did not meet earnings forecasts, in fact had suffered losses. It was rumored there would be no salary increases or bonuses that year. I was miffed. It had been a year when my group - Investor Relations and Corporate Communications - had worked extraordinarily hard, putting in many long, extra hours per week throughout the year. I had, in fact, been seconded to many other departments, along with my ordinary tasks, and was feeling the strain. The “rumor” was in fact, true. No one in the company, including top management, got a raise that year; no one got a bonus.
A couple of years later, my colleagues and I faced yet another blow to our personal incomes. Management had decided, after an intensive review by outside consultants, that employee benefits were too generous. Along with my other colleagues, I saw my portion of the health care cost contribution raised from $2.50 per month, to $250.00 per month – a one hundred-fold increase.
I bring up these incidents as an example of what average, ordinary workers in the country are facing. I then consider what I heard in Sunday’s General Assembly and I am astounded at the disconnect. I might add that the non-clergy employees of our community have faced somewhat similar conditions. Many of their benefits have been drastically cut.
On the surface, we might well laud Fr. Michael and Fr. Elias for their magnanimity in declining (or is it deferring?) their annual cost-of-living increase. Further, we might, in better times, understand Fr. Matthew’s decision in insisting on the raise, for whatever reasons he may feel are valid.
However, for most working people these decisions are moot. No economic entity gives most salaried workers the option of whether to “graciously decline” or “reluctantly accept” what were heretofore routine cost-of-living raises. No one, for that matter, gives workers the option not to be laid off. In general, employees are not consulted when these decisions are made. This is the stark reality for the vast majority of working people in this city, this state, this country. Conversely, our priests are, at present, shielded from this reality that is part of everyone else's life. Let us also keep in mind that median income for a family in the Wasatch Front area in 2007 was $45,140 – significantly lower than any of the three priests’ salaries, without even taking benefits into account.
In pondering this disconnect, an example from the past comes vividly to mind:
During the Second World War, when Greece was suffering under Nazi Occuption, the Germans started rounding up Jews. During that time, about 600 Greek Orthodox priests were arrested and deported (to concentration camps) because of their actions in helping Jews. Many Jews were saved by the Greek police, the clergy and the resistance. Archbishop Damaskinos and Chief of Police, Angelos Evert, faced the threat of death for their efforts. Archbishop Damaskinos ordered that false baptismal certificates and new identity papers be created by the Greek Orthodox Church in order to help desperate fleeing Jews. The Archbishop also ordered monasteries and convents in Athens to shelter Jews, and urged his priests to ask their congregations to hide the Jews in their homes. As a result, more than 250 Jewish children were hidden by Orthodox clergy alone.
Further, Archbishop Damaskinos spearheaded a direct appeal to the Germans, in the form of a letter composed by the famous Greek poet, Angelos Sikelianos, and signed by prominent Greek citizens, in defense of the Jews who were being persecuted. The letter incited the rage of the Nazi authorities, who threatened the Archbishop with death by a firing squad. Damaskinos' response was, "Greek religious leaders are not shot, they are hanged. I request that you respect this custom." The simple courage of the religious leader's reply caught the Nazis off guard, and his life was spared.
It should be noted (and a source of deep pride to all people of Greek descent!) that the appeal of the Archbishop and his fellow Greeks was unique; there is no record of any similar protest to the Nazis during World War II that has come to light in any other European country!
"In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion... Our holy religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek' and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences. Our common fate both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race..."Our clergy and hierarchy would do well to consider, and we would all do well to remember, Archbishop Damaskinos' words. In past times of trouble our clergy protected not only their own flock, suffering with them, but also felt the pain of, and protected others as well.
- Barbara Billinis Colessides