The students who dedicated themselves to serving their Church in Crete as stewards of the Holy and Great Council are preparing to celebrate Christmas with their loved ones. Those who will be travelleling far from their schools and will be speaking to friends and family for the first time since last June will spice their holidays with some remarkable stories of their participation in a great moment in the history of the Orthodox Church.
A historic gathering like the Great and Holy Council (GHC) is more than rooms full of distinguished people. Infrastructure had to be built and human resources gathered, and the GHC was graced with an extraordinarily talented and dedicated group of young people, the stewards.
Their main task was to be the contact between delegations and the organizing committee of the GHC as people traveled to and from their hotels, council sessions and special events.
The future of an ancient Church depends on the transmission of the love and passion for the faith to the younger generations, and judging from the energy and spirit of the GHC stewards the future of Orthodoxy in America is very bright.
Archbishop Demetios of America hosted a special dinner on Crete for the HGC volunteers.
The organizing committee of the GHC was tasked by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to provide stewards as part of its logistical requirements. With the blessing and support of Archbishop Demetrios of America and under the leadership of Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, Chairman of the GHC organizing committee, Michael Karloutsos and Andrew Veniopoulos, Executive Director and Deputy Executive Director of the committee respectively, moved forward.
“We thought that the seminaries would provide large pools of talent” said Veniopoulos, who handled airline and hotel arrangements and assigned stewards their responsibilities.
He said “they are all very enthusiastic about participating in the Council,” a quality they were looking for when he and Karloutsos went on recruiting trips to the various seminaries. “We wanted to pick the best of the best. We developed a questionnaire but we also wanted to personally meet them, Veniopoulos said.
“They are the best,” Karloutsos, echoed, “but what’s incredible is that none have ever done anything like this before…to do what they are doing is nothing short of a miracle…I’m so proud of them.”
Some arrived on June 8 and others on June 12. The first group had more responsibilities and they did advance work, travelling to different sites in Crete. Most will be leaving after the Council ends on June 27.
The endeavor was strongly supported by Fr. Chris Metropulos, the President of Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, and Fr. John Behr, the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. The former asked for students at the college who were not on the ordination track to also participate because “they are laymen and they are part of the Church and the future.”
More than 50 young people applied at HC/HC. They knew they would not be paid – it was more than an unpaid internship however as airfare, meals, and accommodations on the wonderful island of Crete were covered – but they were eager to help and to serve.
Approximately 20 came from Brookline – about six from the College and the rest seminarians – and there were also three students from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological School.
Many of the stories are similar – about half were Greek Americans and the others are a testament to how strongly Orthodoxy speaks to contemporary issues and crises. Among today’s parallels – there are of course many differences – with the times of the early Church councils, is the that philosophy appears to be a favored path into Orthodoxy.
The intellectual pull is secondary to the spiritual, however. Many converts arrive at Orthodoxy after a desire to discover the roots of Christianity turned into a journey in search of the True Faith.
Jordan Parro, born in Albuquerque, NM, even drew his own family into Orthodoxy a few years after he converted.
“I was in Southern California studying for my degree in philosophy and I had a friend who invited me to his Orthodox Church. Nothing happened all at once but the rest is history. “
His early religious influence stemmed from his parents, non-practicing Catholics, and the evangelical school he attended. After graduating from University of New Mexico with a degree in philosophy and math, and when his wife completed her college degree, they decided it was the right time for seminary.
“We sought the blessing of our parish priest and our Metropolitan, Isaiah of Denver and I left my position as a math teacher and moved to Boston,” Jordan said.
In Crete he was assigned to the delegation of the Patriarchate of Serbia.
Daniel Greeson has just finished his first year at St. Vladimir’s after earning a degree in religious studies and philosophy at Western Kentucky University.
“I grew up protestant and my father and grandfather were ministers,” he said. “I went to a bible college for my first two years and I basically read too much,” he said with a smile, then added, “I wanted to know about the history of the Church and how to understand the bible and step by step eventually I wanted a Eucharistic-centered Church with the Divine Liturgy.”
Fr. Behr made an announcement that helpers were needed for the Council and he put the interview date on his calendar – but then forgot about it. “About a week later my friend Demitrios Nikiforos told me ‘you should go, you should go!’ and I sent in my application,” Daniel said.
“It’s been an incredible experience on every level. I’m not used to seeing all these hierarchs from all over the world come together and it’s fascinating to see so much collegiality and jovialness” he encountered among the Church’s highest officials.
“I am a steward for the Romanian Church and they have been very warm and kind group,” he said but he also appreciates new friendships with students from other seminaries. There is an inter-Orthodox seminary movement, but people like Daniel, who is married with children, don’t have much time to participate.
Dimitrios Nikiforos is from Kavala in Greece. “My father is a cardiologist and my mother is a social worker and I have two younger sisters,” one of which lives in New York with him, he said.
He was excited about the GHC from the start, but he did not expect the honor of being a steward for the Church of Greece and working with his Metropolitan.
Dimitrios studied law at the University of Thessaloniki with a specialization in Constitutional law and in 2013 he attended New York University for a second Master’s in legal theory. That prompted him to finally pursue a Master’s in Theology at St. Vladimir’s.
“Law and theology share, I think, a common goal in the search for truth” and the just and the good. “Each day at vespers we chant Fos Ilaron, which refers to Christ as Ilion Dikeosinis – the Sun of Justice.”
Sam Kim has is also a St. Vladimir’s student. He said he has a “pretty conventional story” about coming to Orthodoxy. “I grew up fairly religious…and Evangelical…and if you are religious you start reading books on theology and history and there is the trajectory that brings you to the Church…The further back in history you go the less Protestant it looks and the more Orthodox it is.”
He just received his Master’s in Divinity from St. Vladimir’s and as an under graduate he double majored in philosophy and religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
Asked which philosopher made the greatest impact on him he said it was more the task of philosophy “the pursuit of wisdom,” rather than particular thinkers that attracted him.
The desire to go deeper than the surface of the world had for him a spiritual dimension.
As a student on scholarship from the Antiochian Archdiocese he will be called to serve them in some capacity. “That is usually ordination and that is probably in my future,” he said, but not immediately, and helping with the Council is part of his path.
“I am very grateful to be here and to be a part of history,” he said.
Diana (pronounced Dee-a-na) Khalil was born in the City of Homs in Syria and grew up in a nearby village. Her father came to America to work and prepare immigration papers for the rest of the family. She grew up in Pittsburgh, “in the Antiochian Church, which was the center of our lives and the source of our values,” she said. She has numerous Greek friends and koumbari- her cousin is married to the son of Father George LIvanos and she says “I feel no difference other than the language. It’s the same culture.”
She always had a strong relationship with God, which was reinforced by attending her Church’s Antiochian Village summer camp during her junior year in high school, and Diana is now a sophomore at Hellenic College.
She had a good time her first year at Slippery Rock University but she said, “I was not growing there as a person…in high school I regretted not getting more involved and challenging myself, and did not want to do that again. I wanted to be challenged academically, mentally, and spiritually and by the Grace of God I found myself at Hellenic…they do a great job of teaching the students how to place Christ and the Church at the center of everything you do in any profession.”
At the Council she plays a key role in coordinating the work of all the stewards by organizing information on the activities through spreadsheets and schedules and relaying them to her co-workers.
“I have been here since June 8. All I can say is that it’s been a blessing and I am completely honored to be here and feet totally unworthy. Any room I walk into, I am in awe. It’s completely beautiful,” she said.
Stavronikitas Damianakis is from Tampa. FL and has roots in Lesbos and Crete, which he visited for the first time. “It’s beautiful. It’s one of the best places I’ve ever been,” he said, but it’s not a vacation by any means.
The stewards, some of whom arrived ten days prior to the Council, work from early morning until evening.
He is a sophomore at Hellenic College and was already on track to become a priest, nevertheless he called the trip “a life changing experience.”
Stavronikitas hopes to stay in Greece a couple of more weeks after the Council, in Athens and hopefully for his first visit to Mount Athos.