Fallen Religious Leaders Remembered

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Gordon Hinckley, president of the Mormon church, died this week at the age of 97. Also, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, died at the age of 69. Michael Kress of Beliefnet.com, a Web site focusing on spirituality, talks about the loss of both leaders and the future of their movements.


I'M Lynn Neary, in for Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up in our Faith Matters conversation, we learn more about a new movement called Humanistic Judaism.

But first, we want to tell you about two influential religious leaders who passed away this week.

Thousands of Mormons are expected to be in Salt Lake City tomorrow for the funeral of Gordon Hinckley, who led the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church. Hinckley died last Sunday at the age of 97.

Another important religious leader passed away this week. Archbishop Christodoulos, head of the Orthodox Church in Greece, died of cancer Monday at the age of 69.

Here to talk about the legacies of both these men and what's ahead for their respective churches is Michael Kress. He's assistant managing editor for Beliefnet.com, and he joins us now from our New York bureau.

Michael, thanks so much. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL KRESS (Assistant Managing Editor, Beliefnet.com): My pleasure. Thank you.

NEARY: Let's start off with Gordon Hinckley. He became president of the church in 1995. He was a church leader for many years before that. But what will he be remembered for - mainly?

Mr. KRESS: I think there are two main parts to his legacy and both are related. One is this growth in the church. The Mormon Church has seen incredible growth in the last few years. There are an estimated 12 million Mormons worldwide. Although there are some questions about how accurate those numbers are, but it's growing rapidly. It's now the fourth largest religious group in the U.S. So, it's seen huge amount of growth.

Together with that, he has really increased its public profile, most memorably through the Salt Lake City Olympics. But day to day, through media outreach, through traveling - he logged something like 250,000 miles in his years as president visiting all sorts of countries in the same way that Pope John Paul made the papacy an international position. He was out there meeting with Mormons and non-Mormons.

So, he really - and the other big part of it was building temples. Temples in Mormonism are not your local parish. There are local parishes all over the place. Temples are big cathedrals that are there for major sacraments, like marriages. And he doubled the number of those. So it's a very public building that is a symbol of Mormon growth and Mormon prosperity.

NEARY: Thomas Monson is expected to be the next leader of the Mormon faith. Can we expect that he's going to follow Hinckley's path - the path that Hinckley established?

Mr. KRESS: I think that's a very safe bet for two reasons. One is Hinckley was very successful so we can expect his successor to build on that. The other is that in Mormonism, the new leader is without fail chosen from the old leadership. So, the new leader will be the longest serving of the currently - of the surviving leaders. So, he was at Hinckley's right hand the whole time that Hinckley was president.

NEARY: And Archbishop Christodoulos of the Greek Orthodox Church died Monday. Tell us about him.

Mr. KRESS: He was a very interesting, colorful character. He was repeatedly named the most popular public figure in Greece. He increased the membership in the church after years of decline, invited, especially, young people to come in as they are, come with your piercing germane skirts, your tattoos. He embraced AIDS patients. So, he was very inviting and warm in that way.

But this didn't signal any, sort of, theological liberalism. He was - he made anti-Muslim, antigay comments. He believed that the church should be a very powerful institution in the state.

And he - his most memorable moment was when he met with John Paul II in Athens in 2001. It was the first visit by a pope to Athens in something like 1,300 years. The archbishop used the occasion to call for an apology from the church. And John Paul II obliged and apologized for various grievances over the year.

NEARY: Now, is it clear who might be leading the Greek Orthodox Church next?

Mr. KRESS: I don't think it is. The leadership of the church will be meeting next week to choose a successor.

NEARY: Yeah. And who are some of the possibilities? Is that known at all or what, if any, what direction they may go in in terms of the future with the church?

Mr. KRESS: Unfortunately, it's not clear to me.

NEARY: What about the relationship between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church here in the United States. There's been - some tension over the years there, hasn't there?

Mr. KRESS: A little bit. It's hard to tell where any of that is going. So much of the Archbishop Christodoulos' legacy was wrapped up in his personality that it's really hard to see where that might go. It really depends who his leadership is - who his successor is. Unlike Hinckley, where so much of his successors is bound up in the institution and in the grown of the institution.

NEARY: Yeah. And just returning for a moment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I wonder if you can tell us - I understand that you were inside a Mormon temple before it was consecrated. And I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about that experience before we (unintelligible).

Mr. KRESS: I actually wasn't inside it. I greatly regret not having been able to go. It was several years ago when I was living in Boston. There was a temple being consecrated there. The story is that - non-Mormons are actually not allowed in temples once they're consecrated. It's for card-carrying members in good standing only.

So what they do as part of this outreach, in the heart of becoming more of a public presence, they invite non-Mormons into the churches - into the temples, rather, before they're consecrated. So they had this big public coming-out party for the temple before it was consecrated.

Unfortunately, I was out of town and not able to go. People have said that it was just very beautiful, very moving. But unfortunately, I was not able to be there. This, incidentally, is the temple in Belmont, which is where Mitt Romney lives. So, it's - there's that Romney connection there.

NEARY: Great. Thanks so much for joining us this morning, Michael.

Mr. KRESS: Thank you very much.

NEARY: Michael Kress, assistant managing editor for Beliefnet.com. He joined us from our New York bureau.

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