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Greek Orthodox Priest Took an Unorthodox Path

Camarillo: Cyril Loeb's search for meaning led him from Judaism to Catholicism and finally to St. Demetrios church.

July 08, 2001|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After being quietly baptized at age 17, Cyril Loeb was in no hurry to tell his Jewish parents he had become a Catholic.

"They got suspicious when I stopped eating meat on Friday," he recalled. "I said I wasn't hungry."

He finally told his mother, who had a doctor standing by when she broke the news to his father.

"She thought he might overreact," said Loeb, 63, now a priest at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Camarillo.

Given his background, Loeb seemed destined for anything but the priesthood.

His parents, especially his stern German-immigrant father Carl, were nominally Jewish but often ridiculed organized religion.

"He didn't deny being a Jew, he just never tried to incorporate that into our life. He saw no need for religion," Loeb said. "I occasionally went to the synagogue but felt no attachment to it."

Yet he found atheism arid and empty and so began searching for meaning elsewhere.

His quest took him from Judaism to Catholicism and finally to the incense, icons and oil lamps of Eastern Orthodoxy, a religion whose hallmark is its unchanging nature.

To make the point, Loeb leans forward in his chair and tells a joke.

"How many Orthodox priests does it take to change a light bulb?" he asked, pausing for effect.

"Change?" he answered, wide-eyed, as if baffled.

There is great virtue in sameness, he added.

"We don't have a Burger King theology--you can't pick and choose," he said. "Christianity is not a cakewalk. It is the utmost challenge to the human person to be as much like God as grace and human frailty will allow."

Loeb doesn't speak Greek fluently but has risen high in the Orthodox Church, representing the bishop in Russia and traveling to church headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey. He is an archimandrite, just below bishop.

Loeb was celibate when he entered the priesthood and must stay that way to remain a priest. The Orthodox faith doesn't require celibacy from priests but if they are not married when ordained they cannot get married afterward.

About half of the 135 members of his Skyway Drive church are converts, neither ethnically Greek nor originally Orthodox. Loeb said the unchanging quality of the faith attracts those who want a straight, unbroken line to ancient Christianity.

Yet his own path was anything but straight and unbroken.

Growing up on Chicago's North Side, most of Loeb's friends were Irish Catholics. One day he was invited to church.

"I wanted to know what was inside that box on the altar," he said. "I found out it was the Eucharist. I wanted to know how bread became the body of Christ.

"I read the catechism but the priest said I would need permission from one parent before getting lessons in Catholicism. My mother gave me permission. She felt nothing would come of it because there was nothing at home to water the seed."

But the seed sprouted. Loeb even considered the priesthood before settling on a law career. He was hired as a civilian lawyer defending American soldiers near Stuttgart, Germany.

"It was a tremendous opportunity to see another culture," said Loeb, who speaks German, Latin, some Greek and some Russian. He eventually quit law to pursue the Catholic priesthood.

But during his third year in the seminary, he began having theological problems with Catholicism. The ideas of purgatory, papal succession and the authority of the pope became harder to accept.

He was attracted to Eastern Orthodoxy, which broke with Western Catholicism in 1054, in what is called the Great Schism. The reasons for the church split include disagreements over the authority of the pope and the enforced celibacy of priests, which the eastern church rejected.

Loeb also split from Catholicism and entered an Orthodox seminary in Brookline, Mass. After being ordained, he worked throughout Southern California before becoming a priest in Honolulu.

While there, his mother Ruth came to live with him, then entered a nearby nursing home. As her health deteriorated, she became more interested in her son's faith. After church one day, Loeb visited her.

"I asked if she wanted to be baptized and she said she did," he recalled. "I did it in Greek. She had a look of relief and tears in her eyes. She died the next day."

Loeb left Hawaii to become chancellor to the Greek Orthodox bishop representing the western United States in San Francisco.

In 1993, he was made priest at St. Demetrios in Camarillo.

His parishioners don't seem to mind that he is a convert.

"The fact that he is not Greek is an advantage, because if he was Greek he might assume he knew it all," said Chris Pulos, 69. "I used to ask my former Greek teacher about things, and I would always be told, 'It's a mystery.' I'm sure Father Cyril asked a lot of questions when he converted. He is very compassionate and very intelligent and he certainly knows his biblical history and he can relate it to us."

The avuncular Loeb enjoys world travel and has a deep interest in classical music, archeology and reading church history. His favorite books are those of Orthodox scholars and theologians such as Jaraslav Pelikan, John Meyendorff and Alexander Schmemann.

But he still feels connected to his Jewish past.

"Any child is impoverished if he or she doesn't have exposure to his roots," he said. "To have a ho-hum attitude toward that does an injustice to it. We are not people of the streets. We are people with a history. I think I've got the best of both worlds."

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