OAKLAND — When the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America today enthrones His Eminence Gerasimos Michaleas as its new metropolitan bishop for California and six other Western states, it will install a leader many hope will work for common ground in a church that has been beset by internal divisions.
Austere-looking as a desert monk, introspective and, in the view of some, a little too informal for a prelate, Gerasimos becomes chief shepherd of the church's Western region, whose membership has doubled in the last 25 years to as many as 200,000 believers. It has 65 parishes, three monasteries and 80 priests. It reaches to Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Nevada.
Though a long-running controversy over how independent the U.S. church should be from the international mother church has subsided, tensions remain. The American church is a province of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey, which is led by the patriarch His All Holiness Bartholomew.
Part of Gerasimos' task will be to balance his allegiance to Bartholomew and to the Phenar -- the Orthodox Vatican in Istanbul -- while leading an increasingly Americanized church. In 1999, internal struggles forced the resignation of the church's then-U.S. Archbishop Spyridon, whose autocratic style grated on a church that had grown beyond its immigrant roots.
Gerasimos apparently is off to a good start in his new position, formally known as the Metropolitan of San Francisco.
Priests and laymen say they view him as accessible and a good listener. Some in the church, Gerasimos said, even think his comparative informality in little things -- such as avoiding references to his high office in imparting a blessing, or calling himself "Bishop Jerry" -- are unbecoming.
In an interview this week at Ascension Cathedral in Oakland, where he will be enthroned in an ancient ceremony, Gerasimos said his leadership style would vary from that of Metropolitan Anthony, who died in December after leading the region for 25 years.
"I'm different, I think, than Metropolitan Anthony, of blessed memory, who was very spontaneous, a very in-your-face person," Gerasimos said. "That was his great gift of captivating people, and at the same time, his great downfall of making people alienated altogether. I don't have that kind of zest.
"I'm much more a person who gets to know people from where they're at and build relationships from there. I'm passionate about what I believe and what I want to do. And I intend to do whatever I intend to do."
Others, such as layman Peter Haikalis, said he would reserve judgment until he saw whether Gerasimos followed through. Haikalis is a member of the national board and is immediate past president of Orthodox Christian Laity, which campaigned for a more autonomous church in America.
"I hope he becomes a really good listener and tries to interact with as many people as possible before he sets a course," Haikalis said.
Gerasimos, 59, was born in Kalamata, Greece, to Nicholas and Anastasia Michaleas. In 1970, he enrolled at Hellenic College in Brookline, Mass., where he received a bachelor's degree with honors in 1973.
He was ordained to the diaconate in 1979 and served as archdeacon to His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos, the then-prelate of America. During the same period he was dean of students at his former alma mater in Brookline. He earned a master's degree in counseling and school psychology at Boston College in 1984, and his doctorate in counseling and school psychology in 1993. He was elected a bishop in 2001.
Now, as he faces the daunting task of running his sprawling territory, he says he has wondered whether he would have to be even more disciplined in maintaining a spiritual life.
"You ask me about my spiritual life. It's on a good road, but I think I'm going to have a hell of a fight from now on," he said, smiling. He said he took hope in the lives of the church's desert fathers: late 3rd and early 4th century monastics in the Egyptian desert beloved for their spiritual guidance.
"Many times there is a huge desert in our lives, and I try to water my desert with their wisdom as much as possible," Gerasimos said. "If I don't do that, I would literally become withered spiritually and I am not able to be happy."
In a wide-ranging interview, Gerasimos spoke of such things as the TV show "Desperate Housewives," gay marriage, the war in Iraq and the politicization of the Terri Schiavo case.
He admitted he is an unabashed fan of "Desperate Housewives." Said Gerasimos: "That little bit sultry TV program has so many truths in it. I'm watching it every time it's on." He said the show is popular because it depicts what goes on in many families and connects with viewers.
"What I'm saying to the church is, can we do that?"
One of his first plans, to be unveiled at his enthronement today, is to launch an institute to serve families and educate priests on family issues.