When major religious leaders die, it's traditional that public figures -- secular and sacred -- release letters expressing sorrow and sending their condolences to the spiritual sheep who have suddenly found themselves without a shepherd.
This is precisely what Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis did, acting as chairman of the assembly of America's Eastern Orthodox bishops, after he heard about the death of Metropolitan Philip Saliba -- the leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Christians in North America for a half century. His letter was kind and gracious, but contained a hint of candor that spoke volumes.
"For more than 15 years I have had the opportunity and privilege to work closely with Metropolitan Philip," wrote Archbishop Demetrios, noting that the Antiochian leader served as vice-chairman of the assembly of bishops. Metropolitan Philip was a pastor to his people, but he also "passionately supported a common witness to our Orthodox faith in the world. It is well known that he spoke his mind openly on a number of important issues and would often challenge inactivity surrounding serious issues, which he felt Orthodoxy could address in unique and important ways."
That's one way to put it.
Metropolitan Philip -- who died March 19 -- was more than an advocate for Orthodox life and faith. He was more than a pragmatic strategist who helped his flock grow from 66 parishes to 275, while opening youth camps and a missions and evangelism office.
The Lebanese-born archbishop was also a fierce advocate of Orthodox unity in the United States, to whatever degree possible among Greeks, Arabs, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Serbians and others. After living his adult life in this land, he made the controversial decision in the mid-1980s to embrace waves of evangelical converts (I am one of them). These converts affected all levels of his church including, as much as anywhere else, seminaries and, thus, at Orthodox altars.