Sunday, 13 December 2020

Christian Unity in the Pandemic

Christian Unity and Witness in the Midst of the Pandemic

By The Very Rev’d Protopresbyter Fr. Anastasios D. Salapatas
What have we learnt from the Pandemic?
Online Day Event for Young People
Organised by the Youth Office of the Archdiocese of Thyateira & GB
12 December 2020
First of all, I would like to offer my very many thanks and gratitude to His Eminence the Archbishop Nikitas of Thyateira and GB, for having under his Archepiscopal and spiritual care the Youth of our Sacred Archdiocese, for establishing a permanent Youth Office at the Archdiocese and for blessing our Conference today.
We also need to offer our thanks and appreciation to Alexis Florides, the Youth Officer of the Archdiocese, for his dedication and all the hard work that he has offered in order for this event to be a success.
I am really grateful that I was given the opportunity to speak to you about “Christian Unity and Witness in the Midst of the Pandemic”. Allow me to suggest that it would probably be better if instead of the term “Christian Unity” we used the term “Ecumenical movement” or “Ecumenical communication”, as I think the latter expresses more clearly and accurately what is actually happening in the field of the modern era Inter-Christian Relations.
In any case, I would be delighted to share with you, not just words and thoughts, but mainly my personal as well as my pastoral experiences, in the new environment that we live in.
We are living in strange and uncharted times. Since the beginning of 2020 all of humanity is experiencing a new and quite unique way of life. A life that is being lived behind closed and even locked doors. The spiritual experience though, is that while the doors (especially those of our Churches) remain closed, the souls of the dedicated Christians remain wide open.
In the United Kingdom we officially started the lockdown on Monday March 23rd, the day after the Veneration of the Holy Cross in the Eastern Orthodox calendar! It was a beautiful and sunny day, when the British Prime Minister Mr. Boris Johnson addressed the nation and introduced the new and confined way of life.
On the evening of that day the treasurer of my Parish phoned me to inform me that he had cancelled the order of the various kinds of candles for Holy Week. Immediately, I realised that what had actually been cancelled was not just some boxes of candles, but the Holy and Great Week itself. I had never had such an experience before and thus I felt disheartened! The night came, but I was full of thoughts and could not sleep at all.
The Orthodox Church, as all Christian denominations and all earthly organisations, found herself in the strange position of having to respond to the current need of communicating her message; she also has to make sure that her faithful are staying focused and remain close to the Church, while we are still away from our usual place of worship.
In my 35 years of priestly life, I never had the experience of such a Holy Week and Easter like this year’s one. We were celebrating all Sacred Services, without our faithful present, but we were quite blessed to have the use of modern technology, which transferred the Church into the homes of all our people, especially of those who are familiar with the relevant technological facilities.
The Services of the Orthodox Church are quite colourful during Holy and Great Week, full of flowers, beautiful smells of incense, colourful vestments and many interesting and unique customs (decorated tomb - epitaphios of Christ, various ribbons hanged in certain places within the interior of the Church, candles with the paschal light, red eggs, Easter cookies etc.). All these were either missed, or not personally experienced by our people this year.
It was very upsetting to hear the closed doors of the Church being hit and banged by the people, who couldn’t understand or accept why they were left outside (like the foolish virgins of the Parable), or to see certain others “attend” the Service through the Church window.

During Holy Week, I left in one of the front windows of the Church, palm crosses and the holy light, for the people to help themselves.
In my Parish’s particular case (at the time of the first lockdown) I have to emphasise the importance of having good relations with our local Group of Churches, as I was supplied with palm crosses by my local R/Catholic colleague priest when I needed them for our Orthodox Palm Sunday (which was Easter Sunday for Western Christianity this year).
It is important to highlight that, although our Churches were closed and even locked this year for Holy Week, the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ had actually happened and the open hearts and souls of our faithful had actually experienced this in a mysterious and supernatural way, enormously assisted by the live streaming of the Sacred Services and by the actual realisation of the Pauline idea of the “home Church”, which was experienced this year in a very powerful and spiritual way.
A parishioner had sent me a photograph showing his two kids “attending” one of our Services, by watching it at a large screen of their family computer. It was amazing to see that the two children were actually standing in front of the computer, holding candles! I was almost in tears when I saw that picture.

His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas of Thyateira and Great Britain in his Easter Message this year had underlined:
«In the darkness of the night a small, but unwaning flame comes to an empty world of darkness.  It is the light of Christ and the message of hope, for he says to us - “fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).  He comes, once again, at this critical moment in history to offer us joy instead of sadness, hope instead of despair, and truth instead of deception. Although we will be apart, the joy of the Resurrection unites us and gives the strength to say to others that we still believe! We have the same faith and courage as the women who stood at the foot of the Cross, the same as the Theotokos who waited by the tomb, the same as the Myrrh-bearing women».
Easter 2020 had been celebrated and taken its place in both Church and social history. But, the enclosed way of life continued. In many different ways, this kind of life imitates the monastic life, which is one of the Christian paths of spiritual life, with a great and long history.
On Wednesday of Easter Week (22nd of April 2020), I had the chance to communicate and discuss with my colleagues at the Group for Evangelisation, which is a Committee under the Inter-Christian Organisation called the Churches Together in England. I have been a part in this Group for more than 25 years, representing our Sacred Archdiocese in it. This Group has produced some interesting works over the years and it certainly brings together important people for across the Christian Denominations.
Because of the lockdown we couldn’t meet in person, as we usually do, but with the help of modern technology we organised α Zoom meeting and we had the opportunity to exchange our news, as well as our views on the current crisis and on what we think that the future will be like, after the Pandemic. This meeting had taken place in a spirit of fellowship and reconciliation.
Of course, our time was limited, but from my point of view, I mentioned at that meeting, among other things, the following thoughts and experiences:
We feel, like everyone else, that we are experiencing intense inclusion, if not a strange form of imprisonment and confinement. However, in these circumstances we exercise a monastic virtue, that of obedience, since we humbly and strictly follow the instructions of our Ecumenical Patriarchate, our Holy Archdiocese, and obviously those of the British Government.
The way we operate in our Parishes is now impersonal, since we communicate with our congregation only online. This is done out of absolute necessity and obviously cannot remain for the future. Unfortunately, at this time we can not share with our faithful their joys and sorrows. Of course we can not visit them when they are sick, or when they have any kind of need. Also, it is impossible to offer them Holy Communion, or the other gifts of the Church, such as the holy bread (antidoron), the palm crosses, holy water, icons, incense, etc.
Then the other members of the Group spoke. Some of the very interesting themes -discussed there- were as follows:
- People today have developed anxiety, insecurity and fear of the unknown.
- Many Parishes have been severely challenged, because of the Pandemic, with huge financial problems, and some will not be able to open at all, when it will be decided to return to normality.
- The way to return to normality is not clear. What will happen if society decides to open up while the virus vaccine has not been found?
- We also do not know what to do about physical contact with people, such as handshakes and hugs.
- When we make online communications with associates and parishioners it is found that, because they speak from the comfort of their home, they are more comfortable, more open psychologically and do not have the formality, as when we are in church on a Sunday.
- At this time our world, in terms of our personal participation in it, is proportional to how far we can walk, and of course it is exclusively "earthly", since we do not have the ability to travel by sea and air.
These were some of the stimulating remarks and comments heard there at that meeting.
In the end, this was an interesting communication, which left us all with a sweet sense of cooperation and fellowship in the spirit of Christian love.
In the morning of Tuesday 20th October 2020, the members of the same Group for Evangelisation had gathered in person at the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Panteleimon and St. Paraskevi in Harrow NW London, where I was the Parish Priest at the time.

His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas of Thyateira and Great Britain, His Chancellor Fr. Nicodemos and Fr. Nephon, together with the clergy and the lay leaders of the Community had welcomed them there.
This interesting meeting had started with a Service at the Church, where the 1st Canonical Hour was celebrated in a traditional Byzantine manner, with our Archbishop presiding over it.
Right after the Service I had the opportunity to welcome to our Church the members of the Group, who most of them were actually entering an Orthodox Church for the first time in their lives. Because of that I thought of explaining in detail the actual setting of the Church, with all the special characteristics, from an architectural as well as from a decoration point of view.
I can tell you that they were all amazed with the beauty of the icons, with the splendour of the wood carving and with the magnificence of the theological symbolism of all those elements that are found in an Orthodox Church building.
Then the Revd Dr Benjamin Aldous, who is the Principal Officer for Mission and Evangelism at the Churches Together in England, offered thanks and kind words on behalf of all members of the Group attending the meeting.
His Eminence then spoke for a little while presenting to those gathered at the Church a summary of the Orthodox Faith and of our Holy Tradition. His words were full of biblical and patristic references and everyone was very pleased to listen to him speaking about the richness of Orthodoxy in a very scholarly way.
After the Church gathering, they all moved to the Community Hall where they were offered cordial hospitality by the local Community. After lunch, His Eminence spoke at length about his vision on Evangelism in the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain. The Archbishop offered a momentous lecture, in a manner of both traditional and inspiring way, by which he showed his commitment and dedication to evangelising, as well as re-evangelising, the flock that was entrusted to him by our Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The new Angel of Thyateira, Archbishop Nikitas, spoke at that gathering to members of other Christian Denominations with dynamism, honesty and realism about his vision to bring people together, to instruct them and offer them catechism on our Christian Faith and to make them experience in a very personal way the beauty of the Orthodox Faith and the richness of the Orthodox way of life.
In the official minutes of that meeting we read the following detailed reference to His Eminence’s lecture:
“Archbishop Nikitas shared for about 25 minutes on his vision and priorities for the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain. A synopsis of his talk is included below.
Speaking without notes Archbishop Nikitas set out his vision for evangelism and ministry in general in the Archdiocese.
Archbishop Nikitas explained that there are over half a million in the Archdiocese, 300,000 of which have their routes in the sadly divided nation of Cyprus. 150,000 Greeks from the mainland and a number of Romanians, Serbs, Russians, Irish, Welsh etc. He explained that the Orthodox are part of the soil and share the common saints and traditions of the land.
The problem with Christians is we tend to focus on what separates us rather than on what unites us.
If we don’t come together and work together, we are going to be a lost community in many parts of the world.
There is no such thing for me as social justice. It is the heart of Christianity. It’s simply the truth. We don’t have to separate it. Orthodox tend to see things in a different way. Why do we have to put things into different categories?
We as Christians, we as families, as churches have failed. We have failed society because Christ told us to go and preach and teach and baptise. The Christian churches today have really forgotten the idea of evangelising. It doesn’t mean you stand on a street corner and ask “Are you saved?” My response is “I think that’s God’s decision!”
The church has failed to fill that emptiness in the hearts of the people. We are losing the opportunity now, especially in this crisis period, because people are looking for the answer now.
Jesus is the answer to the savagery, the cruelty of the world. We have failed to develop the theme of Christ as the answer to our problems. We’ve made him unapproachable at times. We’ve made it too complex. We don’t know what words mean anymore. We’ve made things too difficult and complicated. So how do we change these things?
In our communities We have to forgive people, we have to love them and be a good example to them. Then we can lead them to Christ.
So, what are we trying to do as an Archdiocese?
1). Mandating that English should be used – some of our Parishes use only Greek. Liturgical and NT Greek or modern spoken Greek. 2nd and 3rd generations struggle. More English should be used. Attract younger people and help them comprehend.
2). We have a Greek liturgical discussion group and we are using Zoom all the time. Gospel of John via Zoom - 200 people joining. Average Orthodox believer knows very little about Orthodoxy. Evangelisation and understanding of the faith are not just for children. The icons are an aid to teaching and telling the stories of the faithful through the past ages.
We can do things together but we are still divided – if we had a faith commission, we would have to have many representatives from the Christian community and be careful where to place them. Even we Orthodox do not speak amongst ourselves.
That’s one of the saddest things because when you talk about preaching the gospel, we are a community which is divided and a house divided among itself will not stand.
Look at our world now. A world of pain and sorrow, people are hungry, political leaders want to tear the world apart.
The vision of the churches is in the wrong gear. We have forgotten ‘go and make disciples’.
In the Archdiocese we have more services in the chapel with doors open. And some people are curious and wandering in. We need to be more inviting. We have two basic questions:
1). If Jesus was in my place what would he do?
2). If the other person was Jesus what would I do?
We need to develop lay people and see how critical all roles are.
I’m asking my Clergy to be more inclusive and inviting. Aren’t we responsible for helping others? Actions speak louder than words. The answer is Jesus”.
On the afternoon of the same day, 20th October 2020, an International ecumenical Prayer Meeting for Peace took place in Rome at the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. The Meeting was organised by the Community of Sant’Egidio on the theme “No one is saved alone – Peace and Fraternity”.

His All Holiness our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, along with Pope Francis as well as with other religious leaders, attended the Prayer Meeting.
The event took place at a time when the number of new coronavirus cases in Italy had been steadily increasing in the previous weeks.
In addition, the Ecumenical Patriarch gave an interview on the official site of the Vatican, where among other things noted that: “We completely agree with Pope Francis’ invitation to abandon indifference or even the cynicism that governs our ecological, political, economic and social life in general, including our self-centered form of unity, and to dream of our world as a united human family.”
He added also, “Economic development has not reduced the gap between the rich and the poor. Rather, it has prioritized profit, to the detriment of the protection of the weak, and contributes to the exacerbation of environmental problems. And politics has become the servant of the economy. Human rights and international law are elaborated and serve purposes alien to justice, freedom and peace. The problem of refugees, terrorism, state violence, humiliation of human dignity, modern forms of slavery and the Covid-19 epidemic are now putting politics before new responsibilities and erasing its pragmatic logic.”
He finally noted that, “The Christians of the nascent Church called each other “brothers”. This spiritual and Christ-centred fraternity is deeper than natural kinship. For Christians, however, brothers and sisters are not only members of the Church, but all peoples. The Word of God has taken on human nature and united everything in itself. Just as all human beings are God’s creation, so all have been included in the plan of salvation. The love of the believer has no boundaries and limits. In fact, it embraces the whole of creation, it is “the burning of the heart for the whole of creation” (Isaac the Syrian). Love for the brethren is always incomparable. It is not an abstract feeling of sympathy towards humanity, which usually ignores the neighbour. The dimension of personal communion and fraternity distinguishes Christian love and fraternity from abstract humanism.”
The Prayer Meeting concluded with the lighting of candles and the signing of the “Rome 2020 Appeal for Peace” by His All Holiness, Pope Francis, the other religious leaders and political representatives, including Mr Sergio Mattarella, President of the Italian Republic. The Appeal affirms, “[A] world that is amply connected … often lacks a sense of fraternity. All of us are brothers and sisters! Let us pray to the Most High that, after this time of trial, there may no longer be 'others', but rather, a great 'we', rich in diversity. … Let us work together to create a new architecture of peace”.
Meanwhile, my dearest friends, all people are trying to live life as normal as possible. But, going out, buying things, talking to others, are at the moment quite challenging issues, mainly because of social distancing. This is the new culture. Very different to what our people have been used to.
In the Orthodox Church and more specifically in the places were the Orthodox people originate from, this kind of distanced social behaviour is not a normal attitude. Orthodox Christians and in particular Greeks will hug and kiss, will touch each other, will talk closely to each other and they will generally socialise with closeness. It will most probably take quite a bit of time to return to this kind of open social and inter-human behaviour pattern after the Pandemic is over. 
Concerning Church going, we all look forward to open our Churches again in a normal way and gather together as we traditionally do in our places of worship, where the icons, the incense and the sacred music will fill up our souls with the beauty of Heavens.
Thank you for listening to my humble thoughts.

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