In anticipation of the feast of the Holy Martyr Elesa of Kythira (Saturday 1 August), and with the blessing of His Eminence Archbishop Makarios of Australia, the Very Rev. Father Kyriakos Michael and the Rev. Father Dimitrios Papaikonomou organised a series of eight homilies on the theme of ‘Bearing Witness to Christ’ over the month of July at the Parish of the Resurrection, Kogarah. Mrs Angelique Tania Mattis, Mr Simon Spyrou, and I assisted in the undertaking, which featured contributions from our beloved hierarchs, His Eminence Archbishop Makarios and His Grace Bishop Emilianos of Meloa, in addition to faculty and graduates of St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College (SAGOTC). The topics ranged from Church history and the Divine Liturgy to the field of bioethics and the social problem of postmodernism. Yet all the talks were linked by their common purpose, namely, to encourage us to remain firm in our faith in this age of countless spiritual challenges.
On Saturday 4 July, our parish had the blessed privilege of welcoming His Grace Bishop Emilianos, Vicar General of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, for the first talk in its homiletical series. His Grace masterfully elaborated on the Gospel of St Mark (8:34-9:1), in which our Lord exhorts each of us to deny ourselves and take up our respective crosses and follow Him. Drawing on related passages from Scripture, as well as iconography and stories of various saints throughout the ages, His Grace discussed the need for us to eliminate our egos and empty ourselves so that we may be filled with Christ’s love and, in turn, able to humbly and patiently endure the inevitable burdens and struggles of this life – even death. His Grace affirmed that those who do in fact deny themselves become united to God and, therefore, Christ-like; genuine children of the Lord who align their wills with His, thereby attaining His likeness and sharing His authority to work for the good of humankind. Our Bishop also offered us tremendous consolation, reminding us through the example of Christ and His saints – especially Elesa and Simon the Athonite – that nothing can truly harm us so long as we remain children of the living God, united to Him in faith with confidence in the Resurrection. After a lively Q and A, we expressed our most heartfelt thanks to His Grace for his time and wisdom.
The following week, on Thursday 9 July, Dr Mario Baghos (Lecturer in Patristic Theology and Church History at SAGOTC) expertly delineated the religious background of the phenomenon of martyrdom, thus paving the way for the next two talks. More precisely, Dr Baghos defined martyrs as those who witness or confirm in their very lives the saving mission of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, as it was characterised by self-sacrificial love – even to the point of death for one’s hostile neighbours. Dr Baghos affirmed that martyrdom can in fact be ascribed to any kind of labour or suffering undertaken for the sake of the Church, as in the case of the holy ascetics. He asserted that the wondrous phenomenon of martyrdom extends throughout the entire history of God’s people, although it was especially emphatic during Elesa’s time. Dr Baghos subsequently focused on the spiritual themes behind martyrdom, including the idolatry and passions which have led to people taking arms against the faithful. He highlighted that the key reason for the conflict has been the perennial tension between the Edenic experience, best evidenced by the altruistic conduct of the saints, and the ways of this world contrary to God’s will; between humility and compassion directed towards people, and pride and selfishness focused on objects.
On Friday 10 July, the Very Rev. Father Anastasios Bozikis (Associate Lecturer in Church History at SAGOTC) delivered a wonderful presentation on the first Christian martyrs which perfectly complemented that of Dr Baghos. Father began with a discussion of the Holy Maccabean martyrs of the Old Testament, who bravely resisted the pagan ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, during the Seleucid subjugation of Israel, and whose experience was paradigmatic for the faithful during the persecution of the Church under the Romans. Father then explored the New Testament, noting the example of our Lord and His servant, St Stephen, in heroically facing unjust execution. He distinguished between martyrs (i.e. those who are formally tortured and executed for the sake of the Gospel) and confessors (i.e. those who suffer greatly for the same reason, yet not to the point of death) before listing the reasons for the initial hostility towards the Church on the part of both pagans and Jews: e.g. superstition, vile rumours, and envy. Via an exploration of Tacitus, Pliny, and other prominent historians of Late Antiquity, Father noted many parallels between the social and religious contexts of the early Church and those of contemporary Orthodox – such as moral relativism and political opportunism – before summarising the glorious martyrdoms of Sts Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. Furthermore, he noted the eucharistic mindset of the Church Fathers and their followers.
The following evening, Dr Andrew Mellas (Senior Lecturer in Church History and Liturgical Studies at SAGOTC) superbly explored the life and martyrdom of the all-praiseworthy Elesa. To be more exact, Dr Mellas discussed key events in the life of the fearless martyr, including her transformation of the Kythirian wilderness through asceticism, and eventual beheading at the hands of her pagan father. He noted that, when commemorating Elesa’s memory in the Divine Liturgy, or reading or hearing about her glorious journey to the Kingdom of Heaven, we are invited to personally experience her sufferings, just like the salvific acts of our Lord. Most significantly, as a remedy to the selfish pleasures and fractured relationships characteristic of our age, the scholar highlighted Elesa’s wondrous transformation of the passions. To this end, Dr Mellas stated that, according to the Orthodox tradition, the body is not to be despised or endlessly satisfied; it is, in fact, our co-worker in salvation. He thus explained how Elesa’s Christian mother, Eugenia, taught her to see beyond the material world by filling her heart with ardent love for the Lord. The scholar explained how this love enabled Elesa to sanctify her emotions and impulses, and thereby remain pure; her hatred was directed strictly against sinful conduct; her pride stemmed exclusively from her confidence in Christ against unnatural passions like despair; her desire was directed solely to meeting God and His angels.
On Friday 17 July, I, for my modest part, presented on the conversion, mission, and miracles of St Martin the Merciful, fourth-century bishop of Tours in Gaul. I examined the Church Father’s wondrous ascetic struggle, apostolic labour, and pastoral care (otherwise termed ‘white martyrdom’) as articulated by his eloquent disciple, Sulpicius Severus. My purpose was to demonstrate how Martin’s practical asceticism and contemplation for the purpose of attaining union with God and, in turn, perfect love for the entire created order profoundly influenced our Western Orthodox forebears, whose legacy we ought to reclaim for the sake of mission and our own spiritual formation. To this end, I discussed how the holy ascetic and his chronicler, in imitation of Sts Antony the Great and Athanasius of Alexandria, triumphed over paganism by supplanting the prevailing religious and social values – such as military valour and literary fame – with those of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. More precisely, Martin and Sulpicius emphasised the need for each person to cultivate humility, self-denial, and altruistic compassion for even the smallest of creatures to realise their God-intended destiny. They were subsequently instrumental in the articulation and acquisition of holiness for countless generations of the faithful.
The next night, Mr Basilios Psilacos (Protopsaltis of the Parish of the Resurrection and Associate Lecturer in Worship and Liturgy at SAGOTC) deftly explored the historical development and spiritual significance of the Divine Liturgy. He began with an outline of the said development, chiefly: (i) its roots in the worship of Old Israel; (ii) its formal establishment by the Lord at the Mystical Supper; (iii) its basic structure in the early Church as attested to by St Justin Martyr and other apologists; (iv) its theological embellishment by the saints during Late Antiquity; (v) its preservation during the Middle Ages despite the Islamic conquests of the East (especially thanks to the Byzantine monks); and (vi) the twentieth century patristic contributions to its interpretation (particularly on the part of St Paisios the Athonite). Subsequently, Mr Psilacos thoroughly explained each aspect of the holy service, including its two-part structure (i.e. the Liturgy of the Catechumens and the Liturgy of the Faithful) and preparatory stages, as well as its sacred vessels and objects (e.g. prosforon). Drawing on Sts Maximus the Confessor and Nicholas Kabasilas, the scholar examined the different Scriptural readings and types of prayer constituting the service – namely, doxology, petition, confession, and thanksgiving – noting the central role of the Holy Spirit in this regard. Mr Psilacos emphasised that the Liturgy is not just a remembrance but also a re-enactment of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection in word and deed; we prepare ourselves for the reception of the King of Glory Who has offered Himself for the forgiveness of our sins. To this end, the scholar underscored that love is the precondition for the perfection offered in the body and blood of the Lord at each service.
On Friday 24 July, the Rev. Father Gerasimos Koutsouras (Presbyter of the Greek Orthodox Parish of Rose Bay NSW, and former Lecturer in Church History at SAGOTC) offered a masterful refutation of the postmodernist ideology that is increasingly dominating Western civilisation, particularly its academic, journalistic, and political spheres. The priest and historian defined postmodernism as a destructive attitude characterised by scepticism, irony, and vicious confrontation; an intellectual and social force which entirely rejects all forms of traditional thinking. This includes every religion that attempts to provide a holistic vision of reality – especially Christianity – as well as the secular, positivist approach introduced by the Enlightenment. Father affirmed that the latter, otherwise known as modernism, strictly recognised that which can be logically, mathematically, or scientifically verified, chiefly owing to its idolisation of reason. Father Gerasimos asserted that this was ultimately far less dangerous than the more current postmodernist trend insofar as it had neatly defined categories that could be civilly disputed from a faith-based perspective. He subsequently highlighted that postmodernism, in contradistinction, denies any conception of rationality and instead unjustly deplores human civilisation as consisting solely in struggles for power. For this reason, Father explored the associated Marxist ideology that likewise wholly rejected traditional forms of thinking as the product of tyrannical patriarchies, and which subsequently led to violent revolutions around the world in which millions of innocent people were tortured and executed – including countless martyrs of the Church. Encouraging us not to be complicit in the social constructionism currently enforced by the postmodernists, Father Gerasimos concluded his presentation by exploring the life and times of the much-celebrated Orthodox novelist of the twentieth century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; an outspoken critic of communism who was persecuted by the Soviet Union, and who boldly denounced ideological possession more generally.
Finally, on Saturday 25 July, we had the tremendous honour and blessing of welcoming our gracious Primate, His Eminence Archbishop Makarios, who closed our homiletical series by introducing us to the modern and unique branch of science known as bioethics – in which he is a renowned expert – chiefly from a pastoral theological perspective. Our Archbishop highlighted that the current form of bioethics stems from the military tribunals held in Nuremburg by the Allied Forces soon after World War II. More precisely, having prosecuted those who had planned and participated in the Holocaust and associated war crimes, the Western powers formulated specific moral principles as concerns medical experimentation on the human person. His Eminence then highlighted the central role played by the United States in the definition of bioethics, particularly from September 1962, when a formal scientific committee was first established in Seattle to determine the criteria for the selection and prioritisation of certain citizens requiring dialysis treatment. Our Archbishop revealed that the committee could not reach a consensus and thus sought the assistance of philosophers, theologians, and legal experts. From then onwards, many interdisciplinary committees of this kind were formed throughout the globe, publishing widely in academic journals, and establishing bioethical departments within different medical, philosophical, theological, and sociological institutions.
His Eminence subsequently discussed the involvement of our Ecumenical Patriarchate in the field of bioethics since 2003, including its publication of Παντοδαπά τῆς Βιοηθικῆς (Everything on Bioethics) for the sake of the wider faithful; the first volume of which has already been released and is in the process of being translated into multiple languages. In addition, our Primate outlined how the bioethical concerns of the Church are steadily increasing owing to the rapid development of technology independently from Christian theology. Our Archbishop indicated that the issues encountered daily by our clergy are of the most relevance, including (amongst other things) questions of abortion, antenatal care, in vitro fertilisation, and euthanasia. His Eminence underscored that all such pastoral problems may be divided into three categories, namely, the beginning, the duration, and the end of human life. His Eminence thus offered an analysis of each category. For instance, as concerns matters of conception, our Archbishop examined if we have the right to have children when and how we want, asking whether the mapping of the human genome will ultimately help humanity or result in the tragedies and disasters of WWII, such as eugenics. Our Primate affirmed that we must not fall into the trap of considering the highest qualities of the human being in terms of physical characteristics and intellectual capacities. Rather, we must give more weight to the virtues that may be acquired through participation in Christ, especially humility, which is sorely lacking in our epoch. Our Archbishop thus implied that virtuous human beings cannot be fashioned through medical or technological means, but through spiritual maturation within the context of the Orthodox Church.
After brilliantly examining the current and potential dangers of the medical sciences – whilst at the same time highlighting their positive contributions to our quality of life and warning against superstitious attitudes against them that may lead to fundamentalism – His Eminence concluded his presentation by noting that the Church must engage in the field of bioethics so that the wider world does not repeat the mistakes of the past. More to the point, our Archbishop sagaciously emphasised that we must bring our knowledge of the Church Fathers and holy canons to the current bioethical dialogue so that we do not face a social and medical catastrophe akin in scope to the current ecological crisis. Needless to say, a fascinating Q and A followed, and the audience was incredibly moved and grateful.
It was a privilege for our parish and esteemed guests to hear His Eminence describe how Orthodox theology – especially the doctrine of the human person’s creation in God’s image with a view to attaining His likeness – can positively transform the field of bioethics. It is, indeed, a tremendous comfort for all of us to have a shepherd in Christ who is so well versed in such matters. In fact, each of my fellow speakers boldly bore witness to the Lord by fully making use of their God-given charisms to proclaim and defend His Gospel. I pray that I may one day imitate their common example, and I thank Fathers Kyriakos and Dimitrios for inviting me to participate in this wonderful event.
PhD candidate in the field of hagiography,
University of Sydney
Note: six of the eight talks may be viewed on the parish’s official YouTube channel. Search ‘Greek Orthodox Parish of Kogarah’ on www.youtube.com.