On Monday morning, Father Alex Karloutsos answered the phone in a reflective mood. It was his first day without his official title as vicar general of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America — and, not to mention, his 51st wedding anniversary.
This deliberately chosen date, May 3, set the stage for the priest’s new batch of priorities, which include spending more time with his wife, Xanthi, their three children and nine grandchildren, and continuing to lead the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Shinnecock Hills.
All the while, he carries on in his pursuit of “why” — the question that has given him purpose, substance and meaning for much of his life, he said.
And, yet, he still doesn’t have his answer.
“I’m 76 and I’m still trying to figure out the ‘why,’” he said. “You look at where Saint Paul writes, ‘Now, we see dimly, because we don’t have the answers. But when we meet the Lord, we will see clearly and we will be able to ask the questions of, “Why?”’”
In 2019, that quest led the priest — who has served the archdiocese in some manner for over five decades — to accept the national position, serving as an assistant to Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, who actually declined Father Karloutsos’ resignation attempt last year.
“If you have people staying on until their late 80s, early 90s, then that means that there’s really no growth in the church,” he explained. “Jesus Christ himself left at the age of 33 — and he left us the Holy Spirit. I tried to convince him, ‘What would Jesus do? Jesus left at 33. You don’t need to stay ’til 99.’”
He burst into a booming laugh. “It’s my nature,” he said. “I cannot speak about something if I don’t put it into practice myself. So the archbishop then said, ‘Well, give up your titles,’ and then I said, ‘But I will not give up my tasks.’”
As chief fundraiser for the St. Nicholas National Shrine project, Father Karloutsos will still oversee its completion at the World Trade Center, which is adjacent to the September 11 Memorial, before the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that also destroyed a church there.
Leaning on his relationships with prominent philanthropists, he raised $45 million in 45 days for the church, designed by Spanish-Swiss architect Santiago Calatrava, which was halted in late 2017 when the diocese ran out of money to finish the project.
“Our archdiocese went through a crisis because of our previous management, so St. Nicholas was stalled — and it was an embarrassment,” Father Karloutsos said. “With the new archbishop, Elpidophoros, we had an opportunity to renew our drive.”
The priest will continue working on the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Endowment Fund, as well, and serve as a spiritual advisor to the Archons and the “Friends of St. Nicholas.” And, by August, the iconography at the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church will be finished — a project that feels deeply personal to the priest who has called the East End his spiritual home since 1998.
But Father Karloutsos wasn’t always religious.
After his mother died when he was just 9 years old, it was a tragedy that turned the young boy away from his faith and against God as he watched his father, who was a priest himself, raise six children on his own, moving state to state — from Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, West Virginia and Ohio to New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and Iowa, having left their native Greece behind.
“It was difficult,” Father Karloutsos said. “I started having a resentment toward God because He took my mother away, and then as I started thinking about why, you have to come into a relationship with God when you ask the question, ‘Why?’ That started making me think.”
His questions led him to the clergy, where he started out in youth ministry as a “scared priest in his 20s, with a wife who trusted and had faith in me,” he said.
“We started serving the communities and they said, ‘You’re a great youth worker.’ I could play basketball and shoot pool, and I could preach and talk at the same time,” he said. “Then, from youth ministry, things went wrong in Washington, so the archbishop said, ‘Everybody loves you and you might be able to open up doors in Washington.’ And I did that. I didn’t know I had a gift to open up doors like that.”
Now long considered one of the most influential clergymen in the Greek Orthodox Church of America, he has raised $300 million for the cause, helped build the non-denominational chapel at Camp David, accompanied the ecumenical patriarch on trips, dined with Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace, and even kissed the hand of Nelson Mandela.
He has met three popes — Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis — who each gifted him a cross, an honor typically reserved for bishops.
“I was climbing on these stairs, but I wasn’t realizing I was ascending into any august position,” he said. “All it was, was saying yes to the needs of the church, and those needs became opportunities of growth for me.
“When you see a crisis, it’s also an opportunity,” he continued. “When you see a need, that’s also an opportunity to grow. I have no fear of fulfilling God’s word. I have a fear of not doing God’s word, and I felt that he was calling me to do the things that I did.”
In his work, he has met every United States president in the Oval Office from Jimmy Carter onward — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, “who is probably my closest friend,” Father Karloutsos said.
“I have a very unique relationship with the president,” he said. “I just love and respect him very much because of the suffering he went through. He and I have something in common — it’s always the ‘why.’”
The pain that Father Karloutsos was referencing is President Biden living through the deaths of his first wife, Neilia, and their 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, in the same car accident in 1972, followed by his son, Joseph “Beau” Biden III, losing his fight with brain cancer in 2015.
When the president visited the Shinnecock Hills church in 2016 — then as vice president — and lit a candle, Father Karloutsos said he knew he was thinking of them.
“The president and I have a connection that’s really a spiritual connection,” he said. “Religion for him, outside of politics, is his way of life. He is a deeply religious man and I think that’s where we connect. Remember I told you, it’s the ‘why.’ When you’ve gone through that kind of suffering, it actually gives you a greater depth and understanding of the emotion of the other. That’s why he’s such a great president, in my opinion.”
President Biden’s second visit to the church came in 2019, then as a presidential candidate, said Father Karloutsos, who quickly dispelled any speculation that he will assume a position or ambassadorship in the Biden administration. It simply doesn’t fit into his journey.
“I can tell you that, along that whole ‘why,’ if anyone looks at the way I’ve lived my ministry, I think the why is answered,” he said. “Some of the good things I did that people do know about, it’s apparent. The better part of my ministry are the things that are not known — the lives you touch, the people you’ve helped.”
Shortly after his arrival in Southampton, Father Karloutsos baptized a little boy named Michael Kessaris — and as he grew older, his parents, Lisa Liberatore and Dimitri Kessaris, could tell that something was different about their son.
“He had a hard time coming in and receiving communion. He was fearful,” the priest said. “Then it became apparent that the child had autism.”
In partnership with the church, the couple founded Luv Michael, a non-profit that produces organic, gluten-free and nut-free granola, while committing to creating and providing meaningful culinary jobs to the autistic population.
Out of that experience, a sister organization was formed, U.S. Autism Homes, which houses autistic adults and relies on the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox for certain programming, as does East End Disability Associates for events like prom nights.
“When I baptized Michael years ago, I did not know that this ministry would be, through him, for all of these other families — and we’re doing something for other young people with autism,” Father Karloutsos said. “Then it expanded to East End Disability. So that is the most important part of my ministry.”
Despite his retirement from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, his role at the Shinnecock Hills church will not change, said Father Karloutsos, who gave the title of presbyter, or pastor, to his son-in-law, Father Constantine Lazarakis, as he remains protopresbyter.
“Death has always played a role in the way I think in my life,” he mused. “Live every day as if it’s your last and you’ll enjoy it as if it’s your first. I also think that even the concept of retiring from something is a small death. And small deaths prepare you for the big death, that you know is the day of judgment, that there’s finality to this life on this earth. And I think I needed to do that even to prepare for my own — one day, many years from now — when I do pass on.”
Even so, for the foreseeable future, Archbishop Elpidophoros will keep an office for Father Karloutsos at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in New York, to visit and work as he wishes — and for as long as he’d like.
“I may not have the title or the great honors of the title, but I have the honor of continuing to serve — and that makes me happy,” he said. “If I can serve for the rest of my life, I’m honored to serve both God and my fellow human beings.”
As published in the Southampton Press