Thursday, February 28, 2013

Orthodox Mission in the Far East - in Volos

On Sunday evening, our Metropolis hosted a fascinating presentation about Orthodox missionary work in the Far East, featuring the Metropolitans of Hong Kong and Singapore (Ecumenical Patriarchate), who also happen to be brothers according to the flesh (pictured above).

Metropolitan Nektarios of Hong Kong spoke with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation full of photos and videos. It was an excellent presentation, no doubt given many times around the world in an effort to raise funds. In both metropolises, which cover about 3 billion people, including China and India, there are a total of 47 Orthodox communities, with 25 Orthodox temples for worship. I found that there were actually many similarities to the missions in the US - many of the worship spaces are converted spaces, and many are temporary, having to be set up every week. The "Metropolitan Cathedral" itself in Hong Kong occupies a single floor of a skyscraper, with half the space devoted to the temple and half to the offices of the metropolis.

Unlike the US, though, the surrounding cultures are not already Christian, and thus explanations of Christianity start from a much more basic point.

As you can see from the photo above, there was a quite a crowd to hear the presentation, and I would say that everyone was fascinated by the presentation. When they heard of people in Taiwan (where there is only one church serving 23 million people) traveling 5 hours each way by train just to attend Liturgy on Sunday morning, many were moved.

From the official press release:

The event, which was organized by the Volos Academy for Theological Studies, in collaboration with the Orthodox Missionary Association “The Three Hierarchs,” took place on Sunday evening, February 24, in the large hall of the Spiritual Center of the Metropolis of Demetrias. In addition to the invited speaker, Metropolitan Nektarios of Hong Kong, the event was also attended by Metropolitan Constantine of Singapore and Metropolitan Ignatius of Demetrias, as well as a large crowd of clergy and laity. The Director of the Volos Academy, Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis, opened the event with introductory remarks about the central importance of mission in the very constitution and life of the Church, as well as the inherently dialogical nature of theology. The philologist Ioannis Patrikos, President of the Missionary Association “The Three Hierarchs,” which co-sponsored the event, then spoke about the association’s history and missionary endeavors.
            His Eminence Metropolitan Nektarios of Hong Kong then took the podium and delivered a multi-media presentation on the missionary work being carried out under the aegis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the countries of the Far East, and particularly Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Indonesia, Taiwan, and the Philippines. He described the organization and structure of those Orthodox communities, the number of members/faithful, as well as the problems and challenges they face, especially the lack of missionaries and clergy, the immense geographical area covered by just two Orthodox metropolises of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the urgent need to translate liturgical texts into the dozens or even hundreds of local languages and dialects, the economic pressures and poverty, ethnophyletism, religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, and more. The Metropolitan also presented the missionary activities of the two Orthodox metropolises of the region (Hong Kong and Singapore), which include, among other things, translations of liturgical and theological books, seminars for clergy, classes for catechism and iconography, an online Theological Seminary (, missionary visits to different regions for the celebration of the sacred services, scholarships for potential future clergy, talks on Orthodox theology at schools and universities, presentations of Orthodox books, exhibits of Byzantine iconography, the publication of the quarterly journal “The Censer,” and catechetical materials in different local dialects. His Eminence also emphasized the importance of humanitarian and medical aid to peoples who often live in abject poverty and destitution, in those countries of the Far East with widely disparate economic and social inequalities.
            The event ended with concluding remarks by Metropolitan Ignatius of Demetrias, who, after recalling the deep spiritual bonds which unite him with the Metropolitans of Hong Kong and Singapore, who are also brothers according to the flesh, warmly thanked the missionary hierarch for coming to Volos and assured him of the full support of the Metropolis of Demetrias for the important work being done in the Far East.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Fr. Pavlos from St. Katherine's on Sinai

On Sunday, Feb. 17, Fr. Pavlos, a noted spiritual father from St. Catherine's on Sinai, gave a talk at one of the hotels here in Portaria. It was arranged by the presbytera from the adjoining village of Katohori, who is one of his spiritual children.

His theme was "Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged." It was followed by questions and answers.

And because this would otherwise be a very short post, here are some more photos of the kids. Pres. Pelagia recently finished their reading loft, which is actually a transformed sort of attic space.

And here, Benny is a super-hero and Phoebe is a bride in a bubble-wrap wedding dress.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Parish Trip to Elassona, Part 2

After visiting Panagia Olympiotissa, we headed down the hill into Elassona, where we had arranged lunch for all 50 of us at a restaurant owned by a relative of a nun at the next monastery we were to visit.

The restaurant was great. While they were preparing the food, some of my parishioners handed out homemade snacks they had brought -- namely, tyropitas (cheesepies) and tsipouro, which I can attest was very, very strong! They claim it has medicinal properties.

The restaurant was located directly across the street from the Metropolis of Elassona's headquarters. Here we are getting back on the bus after lunch.

Our next stop was about 25 minutes away in Sykia, and Benny took the opportunity to have a little power nap on the way.

Here we are at the entrance to the Monastery of the Ascension of Christ. This monastery was founded in 1650 as a men's monastery and remained active until 1932. It was re-founded as a women's monastery in 1988.

Above and below are views from the entrance into the inner courtyard. The monastery is squared with the central church in the middle.

The sisters' elder was away for medical treatment in Thessaloniki, so we were honored to do Vespers with them. The frescoes inside the church are wonderful and date to the monastery's founding in 1650, although some elements (such as the icons on the iconostasis) are from recent renovation. 

After Vespers, the nuns invited us into their arhontariki for coffee. The kids had fun playing under the tables and entertaining everyone else.

Here's a great photo of Phoebe giving a hug to our friend Ezzat, my faithful helper in the altar. He is Egyptian but has been in Greece, married to a local Greek woman in Portaria, for the last 40 years.

On the side of the church, there is an ancient spring of holy water, from which many of us took bottles home. In the photo above, you can make out, underneath the talanton, the legs of a nun and visitor at the spring. I found the nuns here, and especially the abbess, very simple, unpretentious, warm, and open. Apparently, their elder is well-known and well-regarded. We'll have to visit again in order to meet him.

On the way home, we passed through Tirnavos, so we stopped to venerate the relics of St. Gedeon, the patron saint of Tirnavos. St. Gedeon was born in the village Glafyres, a little outside Volos and lived for many years in Velestino. He suffered martyrdom in Tirnavos in 1818, where his memory is honored οn December 30th. A large piece of his relics adorns our sister parish of St. Nicholas here in Portaria.

We arrived back in Portaria shortly before 9:00, tired but full of blessings.

For more photos from the trip, click here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Parish Trip to Elassona, Part 1

View Larger Map

On Saturday, February 16, we took the third in our series of monthly parish pilgrimages. This time, we went to two monasteries in the area of Elassona.

The kids like riding at the front of the bus and looking out the big windshield. In the photo above, Presvytera Maria, the wife of our driver Fr. Stavros, sits with Phoebe on the way to Elassona.

We left Portaria at 10:00 and arrived in Elassona shortly after noon. In the photo above, you can see the Monastery of Panagia Olympiotissa perched on the hill as we entered Elassona.

Here Benjamin and Phoebe are trying to open the doors to the monastery as we waited for the nuns to come.

This is the view just inside the gates. The monastery was founded as a men's monastery in 1296 on the hill known as Olympiotissa, in the foothills of the famous Mt. Olympus.

The inside of the katholikon is spectacular, with iconography dating from its founding, as well as renovation which occurred in 1634. This little-known monastery contains one of the most complete and best preserved fresco cycles of the late Byzantine period in all of Greece. It includes a portrait of the contemporary Byzantine Emperor Andronikus III Palaiologos, whose chrysobull of 1336 establishing the monastery as Royal still exists. There is also a sigillo (official document) from 1342 by Patriarch of Constantinople John XIV establishing the monastery as Patriarchal and Stavropegic, meaning that it belonged directly to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

In the photo above, you can see Fr. Stavros and Fr. Gabriel, a deacon in our Metropolis and a friend from Panorama, where he attended church while studying at the theological school.

Paul likes the eagle.

Here Pres. Pelagia is helping Phoebe light a candle near the monastery's famed icon Panagia Olympiotissa.

And here is the icon, in a special room just off the entrance to the katholikon. It is a rare icon -- very small (11 x 7 cm, surrounded by an ornamented silver frame from the 19th c.), with the Panagia standing alone without the Christ child. The exact date of the icon is not known, but it was originally located in a men's monastery in Karyas, Olympus, which was abandoned for unknown reasons in the late 1200s. The monks then took up residence in this new monastery, and brought the icon with them. 

The katholikon is dedicated to the Transfiguration, so the monastery has had dual feast days probably since its inception -- both Aug. 6 and Aug. 15. Additionally, since the city was liberated from 500 years of slavery in 1912, the people have honored the Panagia's divine assistance by processing the icon from the monastery down to the Church of St. Dimitrios in the town's center every year on Oct. 5.

Paul outside the katholikon.

A view from the katholikon down to the entrance. The monastery has a traditional design, with the katholikon surrounded by rows of cells on all sides.

Here our group makes its way to the Arhontariki for a coffee. There, I was surprised to see a photo of Elder Ephraim of Arizona prominently displayed. I asked the sisters, and it turns out they are one of the sisterhoods established by Elder Ephraim in the early 1980s before he left for the United States. Outside of Mt. Athos, where his contribution is well-known, I was aware of only three women's monasteries in Greece -- Serres, Thasos, and of course Portaria. I had often seen quoted that Elder Ephraim was responsible for the founding or re-founding of 20 monasteries in Greece (including Mt. Athos, I suppose), but I never knew about any others. The gerontissa told me that there is also another women's monastery, dedicated to St. John the Forerunner, in Livadi, located about half an hour north of them on the west side of Mt. Olympus. We'll have to go there sometime.

Another surprise came when one of the nuns came up and introduced herself as an American. She is of Carpatho-Russian descent and grew up in the Pittsburgh area. She has been at this monastery the last 13 years. The gerontissa was proud to report that her Greek had progressed quite nicely, despite the fact that she had come not knowing a single word (we can relate!).

Finally, here is a photo of Elassona from the monastery's perch on Olympiotissa hill.

I'll cover the second part of our trip in the next post.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hierarchical Liturgy in Neighboring Katohori

View Larger Map

On Saturday, January 26, our bishop, Metropolitan Ignatios, came to serve the Divine Liturgy in our adjoining parish of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Katochori. The church is right next to the kids' pre-school, about 1 kilometer down the hill from our house. 

Saturday marked the 40-day memorial of the passing of a friend of the bishop, so he came to celebrate Liturgy and the mnimosino in her village. We were four priests and two deacons.

We had an all-star group of chanters, including the head of the chanters' association of Volos, and the head of the national chanters' association (center), based in Athens.

Here are two faithful parishioners there bright and early in the small church for the beginning of Orthros at 7:30.

Here is the bishop during the Great Entrance.

And here we are at the altar during the reading of the Creed.

As is customary, a tray is set for the bishop for the end of the Liturgy.

At the end of the Liturgy, to my surprise, the bishop called Fr. Ioannis (the long-time parish priest in Katochori) and me to read the prayer to be a pneumatikos (spiritual father). As I tried to explain before when Bishop Maxim read this prayer over me in Thessaloniki, this is a bit of a theological gray area, but the Greek/Byzantine tradition, at least, is clear that, although it is inherent in a sense in the priesthood, the bishop must authorize who is hearing confessions in his diocese. It is considered a delicate and crucial ministry and is not usually entrusted to new, inexperienced priests. This is also why the bishop reads a special prayer, bestowing a particular charisma to enable the priest in this vital ministry. Thus, we have confidence that God supplies what is lacking.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Kids

And now for some photos of the kids. They like playing with my camera, and Benny in particular has a penchant for capturing some good shots. He took the one above of Pres. Pelagia and Phoebe.

And here's Benny running after a basketball in the courtyard around the church (next to our house). There's a small portable basketball net in one corner that the few neighborhood kids play with, so I take the kids out there to play. Benny is wearing his chef hat, as well as his knight outfit, while playing basketball here.

And here's Phoebe playing with us. She dressed up as a princess and holding her pink umbrella to fend off the light drizzle. The winter has been quite mild, temperatures usually in the high 50s, but we have been hit hard by colds and various viruses the last month or so, and I think we're ready for spring.

It's especially challenging to be inside with three lively kids in a small house. One of the ways Pres. Pelagia has kept them amused is by making Phoebe her very own bubble-wrap wedding dress. Phoebe loves it!

One Saturday, we all went down to Volos to do some shopping and take the kids to Goody's (like a slightly upscale McDonald's) with a playground they love. As you can see from the photo of Paul above, the kids loved it. (He's drinking the melting remains of his ice cream.) The weather was great that day and we took a walk along the waterfront, where the Goody's is located. Volos is in such a beautiful location!

On the way back, we stopped by a river that come down the mountain into the city and explored along the rocks for awhile.

For a few more photos, click here.

Finally, here's a video of the kids with our Columbian friend Maria, whom I mentioned in the last post. They're dancing as she plays "La Bamba."

Monday, February 18, 2013

Odds and Ends

About a month ago, I went to Thessaloniki for two days for a conference. There, at the theological school, I met an interesting Columbian woman who had just been baptized Orthodox as Maria 7 months ago. Her spiritual father, a Columbian who has been an Athonite monk for about 20 years, was also there. In fact, it was he who baptized here at a monastery in central Greece. It turned out she was a friend of another (the only other?) Columbian convert friend of ours who also lives in Thessaloniki. Anyway, Maria was a free spirit, in Greece to learn the language and soak up Orthodoxy, so I invited her to come back with me to Portaria to see some of the things in this part of the country. She agreed and came back and spent 6 days with us, exploring the churches and local monasteries. She was with us when we took our last parish pilgrimage to the Monastery of the Holy Archangels, and there the abbess gave her a blessing to spend another week with them at the monastery. Finally, she came back to Panorama and spent a day or two with us, then a weekend at the Monastery of Panagia Odigitria here in Portaria, before heading back to Thessaloniki, full of ecclesiastical experiences from Mt. Pelion.

One of the places we took her was to the Monastery of St. Gerasimos the New, next door in Makrinitsa (3 km away). The sisters don't have a permanent priest, so I was happy to serve Vespers with them. Here is a photo of the beautiful sanctuary.

I recently re-started my sporadic lessons in Byzantine chant. Our parish's new chanter and many others recommended Kostas, who holds a PhD in Byzantine chant theory and history from the most renowned Byzantine chant scholar, Prof. Grigoris Stathis in Athens. In the few lessons we had so far, we've had fascinating conversations about the history and development of the church's music. One Sunday, it happened that he was able to unexpectedly join us for Liturgy. Here is a photo of him at the chanter's stand with his students.

This photo is a nod to my friend Stephen Sugarman, who makes church candles, among other things. Here in Volos, our Metropolis has its own candle factory. We can take our used candles back to the factory where we get an exchange for new candles. Recently, I found a helpful parishioner to help me take all our candles, from our main church and all our chapels, over to the factory in his truck. We had 160 kg (350 pounds).

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Doxology for the New Year

We have two parishes here in Portaria. After our respective Liturgies on the morning of January 1, we gather at St. Nicholas to celebrate together the Doxology for the New Year, as well as the cutting of the Vasilopita.

Above, you can see, in the center, the protopsaltis at St. Nicholas, my friend Georgios.

Here we are, Archimandrite Agathonas and I, during the cutting of the Vasilopita.

In the background below, you can see the civil and military authorities of the region, waiting to receive pieces of the Vasilopita on behalf of their respective services.

For the curious minds, alas, I did not find the flouri (coin) in my piece.