Metropolitan Joseph's Formative Years: A Reflection
by Subdeacon Peter Samore
All he knew was that he was going to Balamand. Everything else was in God's hands.
In 1964, a 13-year-old Joseph Al-Zehlaoui had been recruited by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East to study at a newly established secondary school next to the seminary and monastery at Balamand near Tripoli, Lebanon. His parents, Georgi and Matilda, had consented to send their fifth of six children at a tender age to a sacred place to know our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ; and to learn how to serve His Holy Church.
Nowadays, the automobile drive between Damascus, young Joseph's hometown, and Tripoli takes just a few hours. In 1964, the drive took several days. And it took several automobiles – taxicabs – to transport the future Metropolitan of North America to his educational and spiritual center. He had some company: boys who would grow up to become Metropolitan Damaskinos Mansour of Brazil; Metropolitan George Abu-Zakhem of Homs, Syria; and Archimandrite Elias Bitar, a legendary priest of the North American archdiocese.
When he finally arrived at Balamand, young Joseph immediately thought that this was not the place for him. He now lived among forty teenage strangers just as apprehensive as he. The conditions were less-than-ideal (other students were told to bring their own bedding). The food was awful at best – clumps of pasta stuck together – but they ate it. Fortunately, young Joseph was taller than most of the boys, so he got his own bunk. On the first day, young Joseph already longed for his parents, siblings and the comforts of home. He told a priest he wanted to return, but the priest told him not to worry. "Soon," the priest said, "you will love it here."
That priest was right. On the second day, the young student encountered the man who would lay the very foundation for every aspect of his life, shaping how he would minister to the Orthodox Christians in the Middle East and abroad.
"He looked like a very powerful man, confident, and a highly educated person," Metropolitan Joseph said of then-Bishop Ignatius Hazim, the future Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch. "He was so charming and welcoming. He promised to raise us in a Christian environment. All of his promises became true."
In addition to classes, Sayidna Joseph remembers the twice-daily services in the church and the talks that his mentor and spiritual father would give – not just the words, but the man behind them. "The more he spoke to us, the more we became in love with him," Sayidna said. "The more he was harsh on us, the more we became in love with him because we started reading about him, how famous he was and how important he was. Everyone respected him, not only at Balamand, but in all the Middle East."
Bishop Ignatius would lecture throughout the Middle East, Europe and the United States not just to spread the word of God, but also to raise money for his beloved sons at Balamand. Whatever he earned, Metropolitan Joseph recalled, he used for their food and clothing.
All of the future Patriarch's students also came to know his parents who would stay with him and share all of his stories of his diligence, perseverance and humility. These would serve as the real inspirations of life in Jesus Christ to Sayidna Joseph and his classmates. He recalled learning of Patriarch Ignatius serving as a deacon at the Archdiocese of Beirut in the 1940s. "He came from Syria with 'not fancy' clothes on him, and everyone was making fun of him," Sayidna said. The deacon lived in the basement with moisture and mildew. "But he was serious and he used to come home from school with the highest grades," Sayidna said. "After he finished his day, he would wash his clothes – he only had one shirt, one cassock. He was humble and quiet, and he never complained."
But at the Archdiocese, even with his success in school, Patriarch Ignatius was not permitted to learn Byzantine chant first-hand when professors would come to teach the clergy and laity in the household. "So, he was listening from behind the window outside," Sayidna said. "He would learn more from outside than the people inside from the professors."
Sayidna Joseph called his mentor the best subject of study, "the best book." Patriarch Ignatius lived humbly and modestly with his students, who in turn drew from the wealth of his knowledge and spirituality. Hundreds of them became respected lay leaders, clergy and even metropolitans who serve presently on the Holy Synod of the Church of Antioch. The Patriarch trained all of his young men lead in one way or another, but Metropolitan Joseph did not even dream that, some fifty years after his first encounter with his spiritual father, that he would take the helm of the largest archdiocese in the patriarchate.
"As a little boy, I didn't even hear of the Archdiocese of North America," Sayidna said. "God prepares everyone for something, for some ministry." So, as a teenager, Sayidna had only one aspiration: "To become like Patriarch Ignatius, but, of course, it is impossible to become like him. When he preached, he was a new prophet, a new apostle, another John Chrysostom."
In 1980, Patriarch Ignatius recalled Deacon Joseph to Damascus and ordained his spiritual son to the priesthood, and in 1989, elevated him to the dignity of archimandrite. In 1991, Patriarch Ignatius and the Holy Synod consecrated Father Joseph to the episcopacy. He served as an auxiliary bishop to the Patriarch until he moved to Los Angeles in 1995. Even then, the "father and son" remained in constant contact until the Patriarch's passing in 2012.
"I would call him on his private line, and I never said 'I am Bishop Joseph, or Archbishop Joseph,'" Sayidna said. "I said, 'I am Joseph.'" And Sayidna recalled that his spiritual father treated him as an equal. "I was his student, but he never gave me the impression that he was treating me like a little boy or inexperienced person. He always respected my opinion."
Metropolitan Joseph says that, when he teaches and guides during his new ministry, his expansive church will come to know the holy man who shaped him. "What I learned from Patriarch Ignatius is for all ages and all levels, which I will keep until I depart this life."