The main feature of water is the flow, and when the water flows, it can hardly be intercepted. Even the biggest dams people build may seem powerless to stop it. In the Old Testament, namely in the Book of Genesis, it becomes pretty clear what “deluge” means.
However, water has another feature, its unifying power. Seas, lakes and rivers unite places, allow the passage of vessels, transfer knowledge and goods and contribute to creation, progress and unity. Let us also remember the Book of Genesis, where God’s Spirit “moved upon the face of the waters.” (Gen. 1: 2), and the beginning of the world’s creation became a reality.
Epiphany means the time of the sanctification of all things, man and creation, by the Grace of the unifying Spirit. Experiencing this truth a few days ago we, the Orthodox Christians of the newly planted Church of Congo-Brazzaville, headed for the banks of the Congo River in order to participate in the blessing of creation. We went to the river, which on that day was a mental image of our own Jordan River, where we were all spiritually renewed and saw Christ, the True Light that enlightens and sanctifies every man who comes into the world. The “King-River Congo,” according to a native expression, is the biblical Jordan River that comes as far as the African equator, since the water does not make discriminations, to irrigate the land of this Orthodox community and give life to it. This is the way God “Who has revealed Himself” gathers His Church and strengthens her.
We went out of the church of the Lord’s Resurrection, located in the country’s capital city, having partaken of the Body and Blood of Christ our Lord, aiming to go in procession to the banks of the second largest river in the world. The processions of the Orthodox Faith have a confessional as well as a didactic character, let alone for us here in Congo-Brazzaville, since the period in which we have been living – from the establishment of the local Orthodox Church until today – might as well be characterized as “Apostolic”! Besides, it is only thirty two years since then. Thus we are experiencing our own first Christian century in the year 2017, that is, symbolically speaking, we are in our own “32 AD”, whatever that means in practice …
This is the glory of the Church: Christ and His “children of light”, who tirelessly confess Jesus Christ as the world’s Savior and Redeemer! Here, our processions differ from the respective ones of our blessed homeland, since there is no official religion in this country. Here, our procession passes through our fellow citizens, who either engage themselves in traditional religious practices and rituals, or practice sorcery, or belong to another Christian confession, or experience the chaotic delusion of a sect (a person-centered “religious” group with a Christian disguise) hurt just as deeply by prejudice. The Epiphany procession is a collective expression of the Truth of the Triune God in a society enslaved to superstition and inequality, in a society characterized by lack of opportunities, in a society where the human person is most often devalued.
We tossed the precious cross into the Congo River, our own Jordan River. We can see that both rivers, the Congo and the Jordan, vivify God’s creation with their waters and that they are flowing at the same time. On our return to the Capital Cathedral we sang the psalm “who is so great a God as our God? Thou art the God that doest wonders”. Christ promised us that he would not leave us orphaned. We can see that in the Epiphany procession, which is growing year after year, increasing in attendance and participation.
Our brothers are seeking the Light! O Lord, keep Your Light shining for us, inundating with the momentum of the Holy Spirit not only the natives’ souls so that they can experience Your heavenly blessings, but also our Orthodox Greek brothers, so that they do not forget in the whirlpool of life the offer of actual love and help for these African souls who have just tasted the redemptive power of their own”Jordan River”!
In this gathering, we laid for veneration a fragment of the holy relics of Saint Luke of Simferopol and Crimea, which we had brought along for the blessing of the faithful. In the end, we gave out to everyone a book containing the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom translated into French…
Those who are out of Church belong to themselves. Those who are conscious members of Hers, belong to Christ. The Fathers say that the one who is in despair is under the power of Satan. So is the person who denies Christ and is not in communion with Him and His Holy Church except with himself. Here in Africa, those who cooperate with Satan through the relevant occult rituals, always move around their “ego”, always have speculations and ulterior motives, they only care about their own interest and always seek something for themselves whether that be wealth, social status or prestige, or whether they are driven by envy, jealousy or hatred for the other, his life or his progress. It is not accidental the fact that the sorcerers enjoy a lot of recognition in such societies, a recognition which has its roots in the inmost fear for the “powerful spirit” which only inflicts harm, even to those who are empowered to invoke it and are in virtual communion with it!
Our brothers who come to Holy Baptism more or less know all these things that I mentioned before. They are well aware of the need for supremacy, the meaning of isolation or stepping on one another, or even cooperating with the devil. And this is so because a number of them, if not the majority, have had this sort of experiences without ever finding joy, hope or serenity in their life, as they themselves admit. Therefore, the renunciation of Satan before Baptism becomes a decisive act for the life of the African catechumen which will be sealed in Christ with the Grace of the Most Holy Spirit during the baptismal service. As workers of the Lord who conduct the sacred mystery of Baptism in Africa, each one of us has had experiences to remember of demons trembling at the sign of the Cross! All of us have had experiences of newly-illumined brothers, who at the sight of the sanctified water of Baptism changed their behavior and were turned into wild animals only to calm down later on when immersing into the same sanctified water that a while ago made the demons tremble with fear.
I had such an experience myself a short time ago with a young woman who had had a smiling face until the part of catechesis was over but who started feeling uncomfortable from then on. And this turned into body convulsions, inarticulate screams and a fall to the ground at the sight of the sanctified water, before the triple immersion. Invoking wholeheartedly our Benevolent God and begging for His mercy and power, I insisted on the poor woman’s entering the holy baptistery. “The servant of God … is baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. And it was then that the convulsions stopped and serenity returned to her face! When at the end of the holy mystery I asked that educated noblewoman to testify before everyone present what she had experienced a few minutes before, she boldly said that she had felt losing herself into utter darkness before immersing into the holy water, whereas when immersed into it, she felt “redemption from invisible ties”, as she mentioned word for word.
Satan rests where Christ is forgotten, where love is left aside. The societies that are ministered to by humble missionary laborers of the Gospel of Christ have had thousands of victims over the centuries, such as victims of witchcraft and sorcery, superstition, slavery, ignorance, illiteracy, war, the western civilization…In every case the victims suffered from those powers which are against anything God-driven, blessed or creative, anything that promotes spiritual development. And it is indeed a miracle of the Triune God the sowing of the Word in a land barren of love over the centuries, a true love, which springs from the empty Holy Sepulcher of the Resurrected Jesus.
Lifting up my eyes to the Crucifix, the One who stretched out His holy arms on the Tree of Life and joined the unreconciled things of this world bringing unity, I pray that He leads our brothers of this ecclesiastical province into the common doxology of our Church “with one mouth and one heart”, so that joined in one faith and in true love with all the Orthodox Christians all over the world, they magnify His Most Holy Name and live within the everlasting Light of His Grace.
In early February, by God’s grace we paid one more visit to Libreville, the capital of Gabon, which is the second country under the spiritual jurisdiction of our Holy Diocese. This pastoral journey started on February 2nd, when we met with the Orthodox flock of the city in order to support it spiritually.
The following day, we were visited by the Interior Minister of Gabon, responsible for religious affairs as well, who granted us the official recognition of our Diocese by the Gabonese state. This development greatly delighted us, since it opens the way for a broader mobilization and for the construction of new churches. This event made headlines on the public television, which featured our Church activities and asked us for an interview.
On the same evening, at the residence of the Serbian Consul, we conducted the Divine Liturgy and preached God’s Word. The service was prayerfully attended by Gabonese, Russian, Serbian and Syrian brothers. In this gathering, we laid for veneration a fragment of the holy relics of Saint Luke of Simferopol and Crimea, which we had brought along for the blessing of the faithful.
In the end, we gave out to everyone a book containing the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom translated into French. The expenditure for this publication was covered by an anonymous donation through the Orthodox Missionary Fraternity. We wholeheartedly thank the donor, because with this offer our flock is given the opportunity to deepen their understanding of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
When the Ambassador of Russia learned about St. Luke’s relic, he invited us to the Russian embassy, where we laid it for veneration and led a brief prayer service for the Orthodox employees of the embassy.
On the morning of February 5th, we left Gabon for Impfondo, a city in northern Congo, in order to visit the indigenous faithful. Immediately, we met with the parochial church council of Saints John the Baptist and Nicholas parish, as well as with the catechumens, whom we addressed with fatherly words in view of their baptism.
On the following day, February 6th, we had a long cooperation with the supervising contractor of the church being erected for the parish and we were pleased to know the progress of the works. Then followed the baptism of indigenous neophytes of all ages in the Oubangui river. Addressing the newly-illumined on the river bank, I made a theological interpretation of the meaning of the Sacrament of the Holy Baptism, expressed the delight of our local Church and exhorted them to become active preachers of the gospel and paragons of virtue for their fellow men, as Orthodox citizens of their noble country.
On Sunday, February 7th, we conducted the Divine Liturgy in the rented oratory, where the Orthodox faithful temporarily gather, and we offered them a copy of the Divine Liturgy.
On the same afternoon, we went to the rainforest where lives the Pygmy tribe, which has embraced the Orthodox faith. After the courteous welcome and speech of the centenarian tribal chief, the Bishop spoke in simple words about the liturgical life of the Church and the importance of our participation in it. Also, he provided them with a sufficient amount of salt for the preservation of meat, soap and matches, materials that are necessary for the hunting lifestyle of the indigenous people.
Furthermore, he made the venerable chief a suppliant request for the construction of a distinct place in the settlement, respectful of the traditional way in which they make their lodgings, so that the new parish priest of Impfondo will visit the tropical forest every month to conduct the Divine Liturgy there and minister to the senior Pygmies, who suffer from motion disabilities. The request was enthusiastically accepted by the chief, who will take care of its implementation.
This weekly tour constituted a great blessing not only for our Orthodox faithful, who came closer to our Church, but also for us. We praise God that nowadays, despite the adverse conditions, He draws so many souls to faith and transforms people’s lives. †Panteleimon of Brazzaville and Gabon
On October 26, the Church of Christ celebrated the memory of the Holy and Glorious Great Martyr Demetrius the Myrrh-gusher, also feast of our Diocese Cathedral. What does this celebration mean for the local Church of the Congo?
From the early years of Christianity, the Holy See of the Bishop was that place in which the sacred church where the spiritual shepherd officiated was located. Alongside this there has always been the holy baptistery, indicating an unbroken unity between the place where the Eucharist was celebrated by the Bishop and the celebration of the sacrament of Baptism. Then only he had the right to perform the baptism as a guarantor of good faith, which is why the baptistery was always located in the See: the Bishop was witness to the Unity of the Church, in charge of this sacred and unshakeable duty. He walked, taught and lit the darkness of heresy, namely the removal, decomposition, fragmentation of the seamless tunic of Christ, a work of the devil himself. Once, a monk, using an expression of old times said that the Sakkos (dalmatic) carries bells to “scare the heretics away.»
Look down from heaven, oh Lord: here, in Central Africa, Congo-Brazzaville, we are experiencing the same truths that the Church has lived since the Redeemer spilled His blood. Indeed, this place experiences early Christian times! We work in a land that was once scraping along– is it still? – in search of a «god» who works within the frames of a grim compatibility, a give and take relationship. The greatest difficulty in spreading the Gospel lies in the teaching of the Word that gives priority to the freedom and sacred uniqueness of the person. This is so because our African brothers, like the gentiles of the time, coexisted -and perhaps they partly coexist- with a religiosity blended with superstition and through it with slavery. Our brothers undergo an involuntary martyrdom every day in the places they serve, as well as thousands of other practices that seem to be incomprehensible to us; after all, we ourselves, despite having been Christianized centuries ago, have, indeed, compromised with our own attitudes, whether these are right or not.
We come to this land in order to speak to our brothers about Jesus Christ, the One and Only Truth, which affects slavery. Unfortunately, a deep-rooted feeling of fear creeps into their collective unconscious. Fear dating back to older times, a fear of the leader, the magician, the exorcist, the strong warriors, the strictly graded racial hierarchy, the settler-oppressor. A fear which depended primarily on the provision of food and grew through the systematic concealment of education and knowledge. Before the arrival of the colonizers at the richest continent in the world, Africa, when traditional structures and values were being monopolized, it was these groups managing the land, water and food, there was collective education, racial awareness and tribal knowledge, while religiosity, wherever it turned within the darkness of superstition, was part of their existence. Then came the westerners, who along with the other ills, stretched over a Christianity «enriched» with their ruthless pursuits, clergically developed, based on divine wrath which always lurks ..
And then it was our turn. We came here, materially poor but spiritually rich by preserving the unfaked, genuine character of the holy Gospel, listening to the voice of the indigenous people. That is how Orthodoxy reached these places. We live experiences dating back to apostolic times in places where fear is the sole ruler.
The hymns sung on St. Demetrius feast day, evoke precisely this absence of fear that the Martyr of Christ had. His answers to the questions in the court of the compromised. The judges of the martyrs, lovers of absolute nothing. Those who condemned, persecuted, killed Christians are no longer remembered. . Oblivion has swallowed them, since their memory and heart refused to see the Truth. By contrast, on his feast day from the cloud of martyrs emerges the young Great Martyr Demetrius: «Martyr of Christ, come forth», sung in French, and the Martyr of Christ can hear our call. For us, the Orthodox Christians in Congo-Brazzaville, the altar of the Cathedral became the plate of his tomb -like the early Christian Holy Altars- which was shed with myrrh, fruit of the grace of his martyrdom. And it is over this tomb that the Bishop of the local Church officiates, confessing the unity of Faith with heavenly Orthodoxy.
In places where dissonance prevails, which in any way infringes on the intellectual freedom of our brothers living here, with profound religious, social and cultural roots, comes the holy candle of Orthodoxy in order to shine and take away the fear of death. Everyone’s ultimate fear is death and the defeat of fears is magnified in the Resurrection of Christ. A Resurrection experienced by the enlightened children of His Church, joined in its Body. Without this unity, the Church is not accounted for Church. A Church that was shed with the blood of Christ, of the martyrs, of Demetrius the myrrh-gusher, the Saint from Thessalonica that advocates for Peace and Unity in the distant from the place of his martyrdom Church of the African equator, which has recourse to him as its protector and intercessor to the Triune God.
It is this Church, oh Lord, that we ask you to “look down from heaven and see”. «Visit the newly-sprung vineyard. Protect your children, who now know Your Road to walk properly. Safeguard the Unity of the Church through the link of faith and peace. Enlighten people so that they can understand that love to Your Church primarily means love for its Unity. Grant spiritual strength to Your new children, our Church, and «take care of it, which Thy right hand hath planted.»
“O you Apostles from afar, being now gathered together here…”:
It sounds like a gentle touch that brings back childhood memories, somewhere in our home country, in the small picturesque church or the beauteous parish church, but always within the One Church of Christ, the Church of great sacrifices and major wonders. Hymns are sung to the Mother of the Redeemer, Mother and comforter of all Orthodox Christians, close and those from afar. The feast of the Assumption is the feast of the Church unity. It is from those distant places and from the ends of the earth that clouds grabbed the Apostles and transported them to the humble house of Gethsemane, to lay the body of the Most Holy Mother of God in burial. The All-Holy Virgin of silence, of tears, of pain, of the wronged, of strangers, of slaves, the Awesome Protection of those being persecuted, the Consolation of those in grief, the Blessed Virgin Mother of Life itself.
Following in the footsteps of the Apostles, we left the native land of the ancestors, “there, where pennyroyal and wild mint grew and earth sprouted her first cyclamen”, which is bathed in the grace of the Paraclete, and has remained steadfast in its faith in the Triune God for two thousand years now. And we came near the edge of the world, and now we send our voice to far-off places, a voice of early Christian times, the voice of a newly established Church. We appeal to our blessed brothers-countrymen, who still speak the language of the ancient philosophers and the Holy Fathers, whose people first accepted the preaching of the supreme among the Apostles Paul. The co-elect Church of Congo-Brazzaville knows where to turn to, even if her voice comes from afar.
The Apostles, present at the deathbed of the Most Holy Virgin, knelt before Her empty tomb… How could the Mother of Life be defeated by death? The laws of nature were truly defeated in You, Virgin immaculate! So on the ends of Africa, it is this Mother that we invoke and supplicate to, it is this Unity in the Church of Christ that we hope for and sing. We speak with filial piety to the same Mother, we nestle, rest and find peace in the same God-receiving bosom. It is Her that we resort to in times of trouble and affliction, different in nature from those of our home country, which, nevertheless, always remain causes of sorrow and distress. It is in Her, the same mother, that we find consolation and take refuge beneath the mantle of Her compassion.
We walk on a land so different from our blessed Orthodox homeland, but at the same time so thirsty for receiving the Grace of God, on a land that only in recent years has it learned to worship the True God and put up churches, sometimes makeshift, sometimes permanent, but it sets them up! And in them it has learned to plead with God, Who was revealed to humanity in Jesus Christ, in unbreakable unity with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, just like around the mournful, yet life-bearing deathbed of the Virgin, where the Apostles were called and gathered from afar.
We walk on a land where multiform and demonic temptations lurk to grab immortal human souls, mar the divine breath in them and lure them away to the dark and unredeemed paths of Hades through sorcery, sacrificial rites, idols and infernal ceremonies.
This is the voice coming from afar that we ask you to hear, brothers, and pray to the Mother of the Orthodox Christians for the consolidation of the missionary struggle initiated before us by bold and brave priests, remarkable spiritual strugglers. As for us, we continue on the way they paved in obedience to the Church. Brothers, be the bridge to the dissemination of the Virgin’s victory over death even in the most remote or inaccessible areas on this edge of the equator, so that the Name of the Most Merciful God may be glorified and praised in the arms of the same Mother “with one voice and one heart”, and His mercies may be “with all of you”.
From 3rd to 6th April 2015, His Grace Bishop Panteleimon paid a pastoral visit to the Parish Community of Impfondo in Northern Congo. At the city airport, he was welcomed by the Parish Priest Fr. Sergios Mabalemo and the parish council. Later on, he was welcomed by the elder Orthodox leader of the Pygmy tribe at the house serving as the temporary place of worship.
During his stay in Impfondo, Bishop Panteleimon had the opportunity for a lengthy collaboration with Fr Sergios and the members of the parish of Ss. John Forerunner and Nicholas on the progress of the pastoral work. He also met with the faithful regarding spiritual and other issues and inspected the progress of the building works of the Holy Church of Ss. John Forerunner and Nicholas, the first Orthodox church in the north of the country.
On Palm Sunday, April 5, he conducted the Divine Liturgy, preached the homily and gave out mosquito nets to all the faithful for their protection from the contagious malaria disease that is transmitted by mosquitoes.
In the afternoon, he traveled to the tropical forest where the Pygmies live. Following the kind welcome and the address of the respected leader of the tribe, His Grace spoke simply about the importance of the Holy Week and the Resurrection of the Lord. He also distributed clothing to the children of these indigenous people.
On April 6, he departed by air for the capital Brazzaville. From the Holy Diocese
The Saint Efstathios Orphanage is an Orthodox orphanage situated in the city of Dolisie, in southern Congo-Brazzaville, which has been operating since 2007. This institution currently hosts 24 young boys aged 6-17, who are attended by 10 salaried employees that minister to their needs.
Its mission is to protect the Christian upbringing of the orphaned children, always under the social principles, values and beliefs of their homeland, provided these are consistent with the timeless mandates of the Gospel. As future Orthodox citizens of the country, the children are taught to respect their parents, teachers, family and social hierarchy as well as the sanctities, moral values, customs and ancestral traditions.
However, this effort is not easy. Lack of family environment from the very beginning of their life, different backgrounds, age and intellectual diversity, the communal lifestyle they have to adapt to, the psychologically complex stage of puberty, modern influences as well as the western way of life, all these factors sometimes create behavioural problems, which make their upbringing more difficult. Love, dialogue, rules of conduct and the required limits, order and discipline, always in the light of the Orthodox faith, are our criteria for raising these little orphans. Naturally, preventing conflicts and handling youth tension successfully is not always feasible.
Apart from these important issues, the operation of an institution in Congo-Brazzaville is a complex process. The Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, as a former French colony, follows the legal standards of France, to which our institution has to conform. Therefore, lawful payroll, uninterrupted payment of insurance contributions for employees and strictly protected labor rights in conjunction with occasional modifications to the legislation and periodic state inspections, make the legitimate operation of the orphanage absolutely essential to its viability.
The recent visit (on August 9) of Her Excellency Mrs. Emilienne Raoul, Minister of Social Affairs, testifies to the proper functioning of the institution as she not only publicly expressed congratulatory wishes for its excellent living conditions, but also delivered the document of its permit renewal to its Director.
However, the proper functioning of the orphanage requires large amounts of money as well. The full board of the 24 children with three meals per day, clothing and footwear, the school costs, the purchase of medicines, the maintenance of the building complex, the wages of the employees as well as the fees of the technical schools for the vocational education and training of the older children, are a permanent concern of the pastor. Besides his paternal anxiety for the orthodox upbringing of those young orphans, ensuring the total amount of 3,000 euros per month needed to address these costs is a continuous struggle for the Bishop.
Therefore, it is easily understood that the words of praise, the expressions of compassion and understanding, the wishes for progress, strengthening and fruition of this struggle, despite the good intentions of the well-wishers, are not enough…
Who can understand the anguish of the Shepherd, when the night finds him anxiously praying to God for the revelation of a practical and effective solution which will ensure at least the food for these 24 children…?
Who can feel the pain of his soul when he makes entreaties for a little money for the orphans, but receives negative responses due to the current economic downturn…?
How many souls can realize that an Orthodox orphanage is not only a place for the children’s survival and protection, but it is actually one Christian family in which the life-stricken child should be moulded into a responsible orthodox person and an honest member of the society …?
The loving support and financial assistance of the Orthodox Missionary Fraternity meets the needs of our young children only partly. Despite their brotherly intentions, this blessed support is not sufficient, since the costs are constant, the difficult times and the needs of the Orthodox Mission all over the world plentiful and urgent.
My brethren, allow me to express my humble view of the mission: it is neither a story of romance nor one of adventure, and it is definitely not a field of collecting challenging experiences in Africa, this ever- fascinating in terms of natural beauty continent. The mission is a joint task of the heavenly ecclesiastical Body (i.e., the church militant), in accordance with the Sunday sermons, the Apostolic and Patristic tradition and the two thousand-year old church history, order and experience, without discrimination. “Thy kingdom come, Thywill be done in earth, as it is in heaven.”
And as the King Jesus Christ on the Day of Judgement will judge us on the basis of our love for the fellow man, according to His words, ” For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me…’ (Matthew 25:35-39), let us all consider honestly the size of love that prevails in our hearts, that kind of love which, if we genuinely accept as a way of existence and as a natural outcome of the Orthodox convictions, knows how to eliminate long distances, surpass physical barriers, financial crises and personal priorities; ”for God loveth a cheerful giver” (ΙΙ Cor. 9:7). Amen!
It is almost a year since my arrival at the newly established Holy Diocese of Brazzaville and Gabon. A year of apprenticeship in the principles and mentality of the Congolese brothers, a year of anxiety for their spiritual progress – always in accordance with the Orthodox teaching and tradition, a year of exhaustive tension for the administrative reconstitution of the Diocese- according to the Holy Canons, the Patriarchal Clauses of the Second Throne Church of Alexandria and the legislation of the republics of the Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon. Also a year of conscious silence as an answer of pastoral responsibility to extremely dangerous for the cohesion of the newly founded local Church external blows… However, the Lord, “who only doeth wondrous things”, is the living God!
Meeting with the Orthodox Pygmies
This year I experienced the most intense feelings in my life and the secret way of God’s answering in the innermost recesses of the soul. The first meeting with the Orthodox Pygmies in North Congo is what dominates my thinking. A very old tribe that lives in the rainforests on anything nature can offer, inherently noble and good-hearted. When I first met them, they did not talk to me either about problems or future plans. They experience in practice the constant present of the ecclesiastical time, without planning for tomorrow. They did not fail to mention the benevolence and undivided love of the Orthodox Greeks who they came to know through Orthodoxy, the way this was expressed through the Orthodox Missionary Fraternity, which offered the amount of 7,380 euros for the purchase of valuable primary necessities for their difficult living conditions in the woods. Axes, knives, files in order to grind their tools, and also cooking utensils were those items that they chose in advance as absolutely necessary. This amount also helped cover the annual rental for the small house that is used as a temporary “Church” for their operational needs as well as the monthly stipend of the trained Parish priest, Fr Sergio Mabelemo.
It is with emotion that I remember the christenings on the banks of the serene river Oubangui. A pirogue was the stand from where I performed the baptism of the neophytes, glorifying the Most Gracious God for the early Christian experience I was living.
Six months later, the Benevolent God spoke in the heart of an anonymous donor, unknown to me as well, and on the Feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos, anniversary of my first Episcopal election, It was with trembling hands that I laid the foundation stone of the first Orthodox Church of John the Theologian and Saint Nicholas, so that it would light up North Congo like a far-shining spiritual lighthouse.
At “Saint Efstathios Orphanage”
The living concerns, life, death, joy, dancing and singing are interrelated in Africa. Its inhabitants know how to deal with the totally different situations of their daily routine. However, when one is responsible for little orphaned children, things become more serious. To these pure souls food, clothes, shoes, medicine, school stuff, toys, are as important as Christian catechesis and proper upbringing. Being a celibate cleric myself, I have to admit I was not aware of the fact that being in charge of the Episcopal “Saint Efstathios” Orphanage involved parenting 25 boys aged 5-17, who have exactly the same needs, material as well as emotional and spiritual, with all the other children in the world. Now I understand that I must be a child with the toddler and an adolescent with the adolescent, but at the same time I must remain their spiritual shepherd, coordinator and employer of the twelve–member-staff that looks after them. Apart from moral strength, what is definitely needed is money, too. Money for clothing, food, wages, social security contributions… Again, our charitable brothers lent a helping hand through the Orthodox Missionary Fraternity by contributing with another 8,000 euros to this “home of love” during the last year.
Material and spiritual reorganization
Having to talk about finding the funds required at such difficult times for our dearest country, is something that made all of us here in Congo well aware of the need to look for resources within the country itself. This can only be achieved by means of numerous legal acts, endless and time-consuming procedures for the safeguarding of resources that could sustain and support the future operation of the Diocese. There have been a large number of flights to the capital city of Brazzaville for meetings with the appropriate authorities, various obstacles on the way, complex legislation of the former French colonies, plenty of disappointments and tension…
And since mentally we are in the beautiful city of Brazzaville, it is worth mentioning the totally new for the believers experience of the blessing of the waters on the Epiphany Day, which was first conducted with the immersion of the Precious Cross into the rushing waters of the River Congo.
There are plenty of events, concerns and joys that have taken place since last year. The constant training of the priests, the finding of spiritually healthy clergy candidates, the pastoral and administrative reconstitution of the nine Parishes, the reorganization of the Radio Station “the Voice of Orthodoxy”, the smooth and lawful functioning of our Orthodox Schools with the 289 students and the 26 teachers, the utterly important for the activation of the young “Orthodox Youth Convention”, the subscription of the people in need, the ineffable feelings during the first ordination which I performed, that of fr Paul Diafouka.
A recent event was the pastoral visit to Gabon. By the Grace of God, Orthodoxy takes its first steps there as well. A lot of things are needed: the first Orthodox Church, the first Gabonese cleric, the establishment of the first community…
History is nothing but a “sequence of events”. The history of the local Church of the Congo only started 30 years ago. The first Orthodox Congolese and later first priest, the late Floribert Tchizibou, sowed the seeds of Orthodoxy. The faithful who were baptized by his own hands are still alive.
The Most Reverend Metropolitan Ignatius of Pentapolis and former Central Africa, having Fr Theologos Chrysanthakopoulos as his prime mover, who completed fruitfully his missionary ministry in this corner of the African land, gave a big boost to the advancement of the local Church. And the highly experienced missionary of Africa, its Patriarch, my Father, Master and Benefactor, His Beatitude Theodore II, with the unanimous decision of the Holy Synod of our far-famed Patriarchate, decided that this Church grew mature enough to become a Diocese and have its first own Shepherd.
When I was a little kid and people asked me “what will you be when you grow up?”, I would answer “a priest”. What I could never even conceive of though, was the cross and resurrection prelatic ministry in the African Equator and the thrilling experiences that this ministry involves!
When I was a kid and read about the desperate and strenuous efforts of the missionaries, who with the help and Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ spread the Gospel in the vast African continent, not even once did it cross my mind that one day I would have the blessing to partake of this experience myself, let alone that I would be in charge of the Bishopric ministry.
Impfondo: a city of 20,000 inhabitants at Likouala region, in the northern part of the Congo Republic. There, under the sleepless care of Fr Theologos Chrysanthacopoulos, Fr Sergio Mabelemo, (parish) priest of Saint Mark’s Parish, and the indigenous catechists Marios and Joachim, managed to constitute the first orthodox nucleus in this remote corner of the country. The flock, apart from the city dwellers, consists of fifty Pygmies, who refuse to adopt the modern lifestyle and live in the heart of the rainforest.
After plenty of efforts due to the difficult access to this area, my first pastoral visit to the region was finally set for Friday 7th June. The faithful gave us a cordial welcome. We were deeply touched to see them in two-wheelers (the most common means of transport in the north), forming a bustling procession as long as the entrance of Saint Mark’s Holy Church, which is actually a house whose larger room is used as a shrine. Early in the evening in the same Church we conducted a supplication to the Most Holy Theotokos and preached the Word of God.
Saturday 8th June: ten new souls will shine from the enlightenment of the Grace of the Holy Spirit and will enter Orthodoxy. They have been patiently waiting for this great moment at the banks of the Oubangui River since the dawn. A pirogue was used as a platform, from where, deeply touched, I baptized the new members of Orthodoxy in the calm waters of the river, glorifying the Benevolent God for this proto-Christian experience that I was granted to live.
Noon of the same day in the city market. Thanks to the most eager and brotherly support of the Orthodox Missionary Fraternity, the Holy Diocese bought relief items for the Pygmies in order to help them materially as well in their difficult struggle for survival in the forests. Machetes, axes, tools, knives and files were the things they chose as necessary for their survival in nature and their hunting lifestyle.
Sunday 9th June: the church and the yard have been overcrowded since the dawn by the faithful who are waiting patiently in order to participate for the first time in an Archieratical Divine Liturgy and take the Bishop’s blessings, discreetly touching the prelatic vestments.
An old table stood for the Altar, a smaller one for the Oblation. The psalms and the pulse of the youth inundate this blessed place and take you to the apostolic times. On this occasion, I preach the life and spiritual heritage of Apostle Mark, the Enlightener of the Alexandrian Church, and eventually, through the constant apostolic succession of the martyred Patriarchs of Alexandria, I end up with the contemporary fruitful ministry of our “Mother-Church”.
On Sunday afternoon visit to the reservation of the Orthodox Pygmies. Traversing the lush vegetation of the tropical forest, we reach the first houses. It feels like having set the time back. Around the mud-brick houses, one could see children climbing up the trees, or looking after the land, copying their parents’ moves. In the cooking pots, on a bundle of burning sticks, the goods offered by the forest through the omniscience of its Creator are being roasted.
The politeness of the ninety-year-old chief of the village is characteristic. The traditionally proud Pygmies, who of course are not aware of the fact that Homer and Herodotus spoke about them in their famous works, talked to me mainly about their life and very little about their problems, since they know how to accept and enjoy their life as the most valuable gift of God. They were grateful for the benevolence and the undivided love of the orthodox brothers.
As it is getting dark, we are in the hospitable residence of the Governor of the region, who requested officially the erection of a beauteous Orthodox Church in the center of the city of Impfondo in a plot that the Bishopric already owns legally. And if our Church manages to offer them a school as well, then “the joy will be complete”!
Monday 10th June: farewell time has come. As we are returning to the capital city of the country, Brazzaville, I am making a review of the journey. I express my gratitude to God, considering the burden of the pastoral and missionary responsibility, I envisage the Orthodox Church, only built of the traditional red brick, evident internally as well as externally, with a beautiful tiled roof and a low proto-Christian wooden iconostasis, carved by the skilful hands of the natives. The mind is full of beautiful images and the soul of spiritual exultation and strength for the continuation of the pastoral activities of the Bishopric, which geographically covers a total area 2.5 times larger than Greece, and which God has entrusted in my littleness.
The addiction to the violation of nature, which is a creation of God, captures the mind into pain. It makes big efforts to escape, seeking the supremacy of serenity. It expects to see images of purity of daily existence.
A journey to Africa, bathed in a reverie of love, takes as far as the mouth of the legendary river Congo and its tributaries. It is there, in the tropical rainforests, where the diminutive Pygmies live. You see them crowned with “leaves of truth” on the forehead, because they ignore the meaning of “lying”. This word has never existed in the vocabulary of their race.
The meeting of the Pygmies with history takes place mainly in the central basin of Africa. They were already known to Homer and Herodotus due to their short stature. The average height of men is no more than 1.45 m. Their name is owned to the Greeks since the word “pygmy” refers to their height and compares them to the fist (’pygmi’ in greek).
The Pygmies were the first people to settle in the area of Congo, followed by the big negroid family called Bantu. Later they were repulsed by the latter, and today they are dispersed in small groups known by different names: Babongo, Bagyeli, Batwa, Bambuti, Babenga, Aka….
Nowadays, a part of them has become hooked on the bait of technical social development, working in the cities. However, their picturesque villages still impart a tasteful touch to the image of the jungle. Every circular hut, like most of them, is thatched and is supported by little tree trunks. The circumference remains open so that the air can go through and cool them from the suffocating heat and humidity.
When the dawn bids farewell in the night, it finds them ready to participate in their daily working routine. Some go hunting, others go fishing in the rivers in their pirogues and others climb up the huge trees in order to collect fruit, even honey from natural hives.
Only women cultivate “manioka”. From the dried roots of this bush they produce flour with which they make a kind of gruel. It is usually eaten with meat or fish and a variety of fruit.
From infancy the children of the Pygmies are trained in archery while women around the huts knit their hunting nets with thin branches of vine. They are 40-80 m long and 80 cm high. A 12-year-old boy is ready to grow into a man by hunting with a bow and carrying a net on his shoulders. He encircles the animal by spreading the net, and then it is easy to aim at it with his arrow.
Many times the long marches in the forest make them spend the night in trees and continue the next morning until they achieve their goal. However, when they return to the village carrying an antelope, they all start a joyful dance that shows acknowledgement of the hunters’ dexterity. The most formal dance is that of the Elephant, which is indicative of the hunter’s big strength.
Times goes by, leaving the Pygmies in the freedom of the jungle.
The Orthodox Missionary Fraternity, showing great sensibility towards the tribe of the Pygmies, has affectionately embraced one of their villages on the banks of the Ubangi river, near the little town of Impfondo in the northeastern part of Congo-Brazzaville. The missionary Fr Theologos humbly crossed the threshold of their heart! His simplicity and kindness were united with their own merits and made spiritual fruit flourish in their souls, by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!