Eastern Orthodox Christians will witness a once-in-a-lifetime event July 2, when Patriarch Dimitrios I, the spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, arrives in the United States.
The visit by His All Holiness Dimitrios, who will be in Buffalo and Niagara Falls on July 25, will mark the first time that an ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, present-day Istanbul, Turkey, has been to the United States.
As the 269th successor of St. Andrew the apostle, the 75-year-old patriarch heads the Greek Orthodox Church with the title of archbishop of Constantinople.
In addition, by virtue of his position as patriarch of Constantinople, he is "the first among equals," the most honored of all patriarchs of all jurisdictions of Orthodox Christianity. In that capacity he serves as the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians of the Russian, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian, Romanian, Albanian, Antiochian, Bulgarian and Serbian jurisdictions.
"For members of the Greek church, it is like a visit by the pope would be for Roman Catholics," said the Rev. James A. Doukas, pastor of the Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, which is at West Utica Street and Delaware Avenue.
But Ike Pappas, director of media operations for the patriarch's visit, emphasized that it "is not a Greek Orthodox event."
"It should be considered an Orthodox event, although the Greek Church is taking the lead for obvious reasons," said Pappas, a former CBS News correspondent.
The Rev. Rastko Trbuhovich, pastor of St. Stephen's Serbian Orthodox Church in Lackawanna, agrees.
"The visit is significant for all of us (Orthodox Christians) because he is the most most honored -- the most important -- patriarch in the Orthodox Church," even though he has no direct authority over jurisdictions other than the Greek Church, Father Trbuhovich said.
Father Doukas, whose church will host the patriarch's stop on the Niagara Frontier, said the Church of the Annunciation is one of only eight that Patriarch Dimitrios will visit during his 28-day tour of the U.S.
There are 550 Greek Orthodox parishes with an estimated 2 million church members in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America.
In the United States alone, there are an estimated 8 million Orthodox Christians.
Although there are only about 3,000 Greek Church members in Western New York, Patriarch Dimitrios decided to visit Buffalo and Niagara Falls for two reasons, Father Doukas said:
To honor the Church of the Annunciation for serving as host to the first Clergy-Laity Congress 30 years ago, which was presided over by Archbishop Iakovos, who heads the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America.
So Patriarch Dimitrios can see the mighty cataracts at Niagara Falls and greet some of the 150,000 Greek Church members who live across the border in Ontario.
During his U.S. stay, the patriarch will spend 11 days in Washington, D.C., presiding over the archdiocese's 30th biennial Clergy-Laity Congress.
When he visits the Church of the Annunciation, Patriarch Dimitrios will preside over a prayer service at noon July 25.
His U.S. itinerary also includes stops in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston and a visit with President Bush.
In Perth Amboy, N.J., the patriarch will meet with leaders of the large community of Carpatho-Russian Christians. In Allentown, Pa., he will visit the Ukrainian Orthodox community.
The purpose of U.S. visit, Father Doukas said, is to "bring the message of Orthodoxy -- which is one of rapprochement, of reconciliation, of church unity and peace -- to the citizens of the Western Hemisphere."
Orthodox Christianity separated from the Roman Christianity in the Great Schism of 1054. What had been a united church under Rome split into the Latin West, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Byzantine East, the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Although the ecumenical patriarch historically has been restricted to Constantinople because of strained relations between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Turkish government, Patriarch Dimitrios has emerged as a traveling patriarch, much like Pope John Paul II.
In 1987, he made an historic yearlong pilgrimage to the homes of the patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Romania and Georgia. He also visited the churches of Greece and Poland; the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland; Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie in London, and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.