TARPON SPRINGS — The words Nikitas Lulias spoke 45 years ago now seem prophetic.
He was 18 then, a freshman at the University of Florida, and he had just caught the cross thrown by an archbishop, out-maneuvering an eager crowd of fellow Epiphany divers.
Afterward, at the annual St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral celebration, he said he wanted to get a doctorate and teach. And when asked about his interests, he answered, “Nothing but the church — I like the church.”
On July 27, his Eminence Nikitas, a self-described “Tarpon boy,” will be enthroned and installed Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain, leading Orthodox Christians in that jurisdiction under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
A contingent of family and friends from Tarpon Springs and other parts of the Tampa Bay area will attend the elaborate ceremony at the Cathedral of the Divine Wisdom in central London.
The new archbishop, who comes from a long line of clergy on his father's side, back in Greece, said he wanted to become a priest since he was a child.
“My parents emphasized the values in all sorts of other things, both religious and those that a civil society should have,” he said, recalling the memory of Constantine “Gus” and Kally Lulias, now deceased. “My mother said something very important before she died. She said, ‘We didn't have very much, but we had everything.’”
He added: “We live in a day and time when we focus on individualism and what's good for me as an individual, as a human being. We need to reorient ourselves to what is good for our family, for society and for the world.”
The 64-year-old archbishop attended Tarpon Springs elementary, middle and high schools, which helps explain the large local group that is traveling to see him installed.
“He has a big family and a lot of them are going to London and many people from around the world are going to come, as are the people in Tarpon Springs, in our community,” said John Lulias, the archbishop’s older brother, who still lives in the city and founded the Levendia Dance Troupe, which performs Greek folk dances.
“There are nine first cousins that are going, because we are like brothers and sisters,” Lulias said.
For the next few months, the archbishop will juggle his time between his new home in Great Britain and Berkeley, Calif., where until recently he had been director of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute.
He said he remains a loyal University of Florida Gator, and makes annual donations to the school. “I believe education is critical and we need to support education,” he said.
He also believes it’s important to preserve “the real traditions of the Orthodox Church in a right and serious way,” he said. “We often make mistakes in confusing what our Orthodox faith teaches and what we think it teaches, and we need to make sure we preserve the truth.”
After graduating from the University of Florida, he studied at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts and in the graduate program of the Aristotelean University of Thessaloniki, Greece. He also studied Russian language and history at the St. Petersburg Theological Seminary in Russia and was ordained a priest in 1985.
After that, he served parishes in Indiana and Chicago, and taught courses on Orthodox theology at Loyola University Chicago. In 1996, he became the first metropolitan — “it is sort of like a cardinal,” he explained — of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. It was a position with challenges and rewards.
“The challenge is, of course, making yourself known, not only in the religious community but also to the civil authorities in a place where the Orthodox Church is relatively unknown,” the archbishop said. “You're distant and you don't have resources, but those things changed with the internet.”
A reward, he said, was the kindness he received.
He said he's concerned about the current political unrest in Hong Kong. Residents worried about losing their freedoms have gathered in huge crowds to protest an extradition bill that would allow some to be tried in mainland Chinese courts. The issues troubling the people of Hong Kong are related to human dignity and human rights, the archbishop said.
His brother is unabashedly proud.
“When he became the metropolitan for Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, he was the youngest metropolitan,” Lulias said of the archbishop. “His real talent is being able to touch people and understand them, whether they are from money, or just simple people from the villages. And even here in Tarpon Springs, he is able to get this thought across to people of all ages."
He said his brother's work in Asia included establishing orphanages for young girls and opening schools. “Now his passion is working against human trafficking and working on international conferences around the world to educate people about human trafficking,” Lulias said.
He always knew his brother would become a priest, he said. “He was always a leader in school and he was very accomplished, and languages came easily to him.” The archbishop speaks English, Greek and Russian and has a working knowledge of Spanish, Latin and Church Slavonic, a liturgical language used in Eastern Orthodox churches.
Their parents would have been proud of this latest achievement, Lulias said.
“They followed him everywhere. They went to Hong Kong every year for Easter to be with him. They went to India and they went to Russia,” he said. “Coming from the small town of Tarpon Springs and being able to reach these heights in our church is really something.”
Lulias traces all that has happened to 1974, when his brother caught the cross during Epiphany.
That day, when the traditional white wooden cross that Archbishop Iakovos had thrown into Spring Bayou was not quickly retrieved, the cleric took the gold cross he was carrying and tossed it toward the divers.
Nikitas Lulias caught the archbishop's gold cross. A distant cousin, Manuel Karvounis, found the other.
Tradition has it that the young man who retrieves the cross at Epiphany receives a year of blessings. But to hear the archbishop’s brother, it could be more.
“For him, it changed his life,” John Lulias said. “And for him, it became a lifetime of blessings.”
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.