Address by His Eminence Archbishop Stylianos
Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia
NATIONAL CONFERENCE ON ‘WOMEN OF THE CHURCH’
Sydney, January 23-25, 2005

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia – the furthest geographical region within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate – this year records 30 years since the providence of God and the unanimous decision of the Holy Synod in the Phanar (3-2-1975) elected the speaker Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in the fifth continent, which was at that time experiencing exceptionally turbulent conditions.

For those who know ‘first hand’, i.e. from direct experience and ‘truthful sources’, the entire historical journey of this literally ‘martyric’ Church of Australia, the past thirty years are commonly regarded as the most creative chapter of its development in God.

However, we shall not of course spend our time here on an evaluation of the overall work that has been carried out over such a long period of time.

At any rate, an honest and systematic account of relevant ‘actions’ and ‘omissions’ continues to take place every four years at our Clergy-Laity Congress. That is the highest official podium within the Greek Australian community, from where the responsible Archbishop, together with his co-workers (Clergy and lay, men and women) reports, with total transparency and complete substantiation, his personal testimony concerning the common life of the Church, in the presence of all interested persons or officials, both near and from afar.

During this National Conference on the sole theme ‘Women of the Church’, which takes place for the first time with – let us admit – inexcusable delay, our Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia would like to say completely symbolically, yet in the most official way possible, an enormous ‘thank you’ to the modern heroines of the Faith.

We refer here mainly to the women of the Ladies’ Auxiliaries, together with the Presvyteres, educators and Sunday School teachers who have contributed in the most silent yet creative way to the collective Church effort of the past 30 years.

The contribution and example that the Women of the Church have given selflessly and cheerfully in all endeavours of our Archdiocese is – in a word – the deepest prayer, in parallel to the official worship within the Church.

All male workers and Celebrants in the various institutions of the Archdiocese, recognise and acknowledge that, without these tireless ‘bees of God’ working for the common good in our community, our lives would be not only poorer. They would be literally inconsolable!                                   
(Translation: D. Kepreotes)

Could anyone possibly imagine them absent from Families, Schools, Welfare Centres, caring institutions (Nursing Homes, Aged Care facilities, Homes for children with special needs), or from Child Care Centres and every other charitable form of service towards the manifold needs of fellow human beings at every age?

It should be immediately pointed out that no-one is more obliged and in a position to confess, with sincere gratitude, due appreciation on behalf of all faithful of our local Church, than the Archbishop who is speaking to you at present.

It is first of all his responsibility to state here also the deserved praise and commendation of the Church, just as it was his fatherly pride and joy for so many years to see the countless efforts and sacrifices made by the Women of the Church, while never expecting any recognition, except as a blessing from God, who alone is just and knows our hearts.

In order to evaluate properly – at least within the framework of this special Conference – the multi-faceted and sacred task undertaken by the three mentioned representative groups of Women of the Church (the members of the Ladies’ Auxiliaries, the Presvyteres and Deaconesses, as well as the Educators and Sunday Schools teachers), it will be necessary to comment more extensively on the contribution of each, with the use of appropriate examples.

This however does not mean that we are attempting to compare or contrast the overall work of one category with another. In the spirit of the Christian Gospel and ethics, such a divisive approach would not only be inexcusably futile. It would be, to a greater degree, an evil and audacious overturning of the ‘merit-ocracy’ proclaimed by Christ Himself, when He told His disciples: “whoever wishes to be first among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:27).

Now if the contribution of all three categories of women whom we have gathered to honour can be condensed and identified with the words ‘service’ and ‘philanthropy’, then the act of cooking food and preparing sweets for charitable fundraising, or selling tickets for these events, is not at all less significant than being a supportive Presvytera in the purely pastoral work of her husband in the Clergy – thereby giving at the same time the first example amidst the activities of the Philoptochos Ladies’ Auxiliary – or teaching the fundamental truths of the Faith and our universal culture in Sunday School or other primary and secondary schools of the Church.

_________________

Let us begin, then, with the evaluation of the work of the Women of the Church through the Philoptochos (Ladies’ Auxiliary), which is inevitably very broad in scope and undefined, encompassing as it does all possible cases of selfless and discreet assistance towards our neighbour in need.

And because the names and descriptions we use in this cunning age have lost their original meaning (to the point where they are sometimes used improperly and express the exact opposite of the intended meaning in the word’s etymology), it would not be superfluous to make a brief clarification concerning two words used in the current terminology of the Church.

We refer here to the words ‘poor’ (ptochos) and ‘philanthropy’.

Both these terms define etymologically the vast, as well as sacred, field of action on the part of the ‘Philoptochos Sisterhood’, as our Church has formed and institutionalised it.

It is obvious that the term ‘Sisterhood’ applied to a multitude of members who, in other social settings, are normally called a ‘Society’, ‘Association’, ‘Club’ or ‘Fellowship’, first of all declares by its very name the sacredness of the bond between the members.

Up until this point, the relevant term employed by the Church does not encounter an open reaction from socio-political or other movements which, due to their ideology or even their self-centred strategic interests, are in undeclared rivalry or systematic (yet hidden) opposition to the Church.

However, the philanthropic work of the Ladies’ Auxiliaries is sometimes questioned or even underestimated, perhaps out of misunderstanding or prejudice, not only by those who are on the outside, but strangely also by the very people whom they systematically assist. This stems from certain unforeseen and unadmitted ‘innuendo’ created by the word ptochos, as well as by the adjective philoptochos which sounds somewhat paternalistic.

The cause of misunderstanding lies precisely in this ‘overlapping’, which is why we should explain it sufficiently in this Conference on the specific topic.

For the Church, the term ptochos (poor) has a totally different meaning to that understood by society in general, which mainly thinks in terms of economics and commerce, i.e. ‘superficially’ or, as we say today, ‘secularly’.

The Christian Church in this world, in accordance with the Gospel of Christ, is concerned – and is obliged to be concerned – with the everyday needs of the human person (a striking example of this is the establishment of the institution of Deacons which is described in the Acts of the Apostles, cf. Acts 6:2). No matter how true this may be, however, it must be stated that, for the Church, the ptochos is not primarily the person who is deprived of certain material goods (clothing, shelter, food and anything else necessary for a respectable existence).

Ptochos, for the Church, means every person in general, in whatever time of need. Ptochos therefore is anyone who is not ‘self-sufficient’. Anyone who feels in need of something (whether tangible or not is irrelevant), on account of which he or she feels helpless and unhappy. And as we have mentioned, every person can find themselves in that position at some stage or another! Only God is totally ‘self-sufficient’, which is to say in need of nobody and nothing!

We as human beings are – more or less – in constant need of material, mental, spiritual and other supplies, especially when we do not feel ‘sheltered’ by the invisible presence of God, i.e. by the power of Faith.

For this very reason we chant during the Service of the Blessing of the Loaves (Artoclasia): “The rich have become poor and hungry, but those who seek the Lord shall not be without every good thing”.

From everything we have recalled so far, it becomes apparent to all that, while   the multi-faceted work of the Philoptochos Sisterhood normally commences from the direct material or social needs of individuals and families, it soon discovers beneath material deprivation the one, great deprivation, which is none other than our fellow human being! It is the person whom the paralytic sought so anxiously at the Pool of Siloam, when saying to Christ: “Lord, I have no one…” (Jn 5:7).

In other words, a fellow human being is sought who will willingly listen to another’s troubles, keep company, respond to small or large questions, inspire optimism and hope among the disheartened and distant, the ‘alienated’ and ‘forgotten’!

When all these usually ‘unaccounted’ needs of wounded human dignity are dealt with in appropriate devotion and care - not however as a so-called ‘favour’ of the Good Samaritan, nor as the ‘charity’ of the rich and powerful - but as self-understood solidarity and love of neighbour (qualities that are treated with respect first of all by the women of the Church), then we have an unexpected miracle. Then appreciation is spontaneously formed with the grandest ‘frugality’ of the consoled soul. As the Greek saying puts it:

Your word alone has filled me,
so you can eat your bread

Following the above comments, we can of course say to those who are perhaps affected or annoyed by the term ‘philanthropy’ (as supposedly being anachronistic and worn out), that they may rightfully turn it into ‘anthropofilia’, if that satisfies them more fully. It is in this sense, at any rate, that the Ladies’ Auxiliary understands it.

___________________

Let us now turn briefly to the particular contribution of Presvyteres and Deaconesses in the general mission of the Church.

We mentioned earlier that the Presvytera and Deaconess, as the wife of a Clergyman, cannot realistically be detached from the forefront of service in all the initiatives and duties of the Philoptochos Sisterhood.

Indeed, there are occasions on which the Presvytera feels compelled to be the first to give the good example of humility. She therefore steps in to do the work of an absent member of the Auxiliary, quietly and without fanfare. Or else she may gladly assume responsibilities which might appear unexpectedly, in order to avoid delays or, worse still, unfavourable comments and complaints.

Yet, the major and irreplaceable role of the wife of a Clergyman is to be a ‘golden link’, not only between the women of the Church, but above all in terms of access towards her husband himself, who has general pastoral responsibility towards all the Parish and Church community.

This role, however, is especially difficult and delicate, in terms of avoiding the erroneous impression that the Presvytera leads the Priest ‘by the hand’ or, worse still, ‘replaces’ him – especially if she is sometimes by her very nature more dynamic, or possibly more equipped educationally or socially.

If, in an average Christian lay couple, the woman tries to truly complement the work and responsibilities of the man, rather than be a ‘rival’ (which only creates difficulties for him), how much more necessary is the unspoken balance in the Clergyman’s own family! In such a setting, neither the Presvytera nor the children should cause others to stumble or make unfavourable comments that are unfortunately never absent from human society, which includes superficial, envious or overly critical faithful as well.

And if it is true that the family home is the ‘realm of the woman’, who due to her nature and central position there can foresee, monitor and accordingly coordinate intra-family relationships and harmony, then the achievement and success in God of having a Priest’s family as the primary example for all other Christian families to emulate, belongs first and foremost to the Presvytera.

There is also however an almost ‘unconsidered’ contribution that the Presvytera makes:  while she gives of herself directly and very personally to her husband in the Clergy, so as to support and encourage him in the more difficult moments of his pastoral work, this naturally affects subsequently the spiritual peace and stability of the whole Parish, and sometimes beyond.

It is not only that the Priest’s wife assumes, almost by herself, all the cares of the family and the children in particular, who unfortunately rarely find the chance to even see or hear their Priest-father when he returns home exhausted after the day’s endless requests and problems, whether arising from the congregation itself, or from the organisations in the broader community where he is constantly called to give a witness to the Gospel and his responsible conscience. In the family home of the Priest, the main asset is the calm, level-headed and clear mind of the Mother, Sister and Wife (as the Presvytera is all three at once), being the most suitable and wise person the Priest can converse with. Together with the Presvytera, he will try to find the proper solution to problems, which can only be evaluated (according to their severity) in an atmosphere of complete trust and unselfishness.

To put it succinctly, if the Parish Priest – as the spiritual father of the flock in his care – is the ‘last refuge’ which every troubled and afflicted faithful person tries to reach for like a ‘lifesaver’ in the midst of the trials of this world, or if he is at least a close friend to whom one can open one’s heart with its fears, joys, guilt or hopes, then he himself also needs a ‘last refuge’. To take refuge here means to allow ‘breathing space’ for a while from the overwhelming problems, in order to continue pastoral service for the sake of his brothers and sisters.

Let us not forget that the spiritual giant, St Paul himself, found it necessary to confess: “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” (2 Cor. 11: 29).

We could say, then, that the relief which the Father Confessor provides as the closest and surest ‘refuge’ of the soul, by accepting the burdens that his flock place upon his stole, is somewhat similar to the spiritual relief which the Presvytera provides him, by listening to his own pain and reducing his burden with unreserved affection and loving understanding.

At this point a clarification must be made in order to avoid a major misunderstanding: In saying that the Presvytera’s spiritual relationship to her husband is approximately the same as his role among the faithful who confess to him, we do not mean that the Priest can convey and reveal to his Presvytera the problems and sins that are confided in him! These are strictly safeguarded secrets that the Confessor is forbidden to divulge. To not respect the confidentiality of Confession throughout his life is one of the most frightful sins a Confessor can make, and is directly related to the “sin against the Holy Spirit”, which Christ said will never be forgiven (cf. Matt. 12:31).

______________________

Moving on to the contribution of Teaching and Catechism, as carried out by Women of the Church, we must first of all recall how Christ Himself evaluated this field long before us. He drew a parallel and almost equated this with the work of Parents themselves!

To teach someone the truths of life and science is not simply a form of ‘assistance’ or an incidental ‘service’. It is more like giving birth to that person once again. Birth into a world that is broader, better and more noble than the real world around, with its increasing slyness on the part of fallen man.

It is therefore a task that is not only difficult and highly responsible, for both the present and future. It is also a task that goes beyond the human, such that it is almost unheard of!

Strictly speaking, only God Himself could be considered a ‘Father’ and ‘Teacher’ at the same time, as the only authentic source of both life (Father) and truth (Teacher). And this is what Christ categorically stated to His disciples, saying “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven” (Matt. 23:9), and immediately following “Do not be called teachers, for one is your Teacher, the Christ” (Matt. 23:10).

Yet it is clearer than the sun that the purpose of this austere language used by Christ could not possibly be to undermine respect towards one’s parents, nor to condemn or discourage teaching in general and catechism in particular. Christ did not do away with the Mosaic Law to “honour your father and your mother” (Ex. 10:20). On the contrary, He raised it to another level, having assured us that He did not come to “abolish” but to “fulfil” the Law. Furthermore, when He sends His Apostles out to “make disciples” of all nations “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:29), He does not discourage them from teaching and catechising, but instead exhorts them to do just that.

So the strictness shown by Christ concerning the use of the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Teacher’, had (and will always have) the aim of highlighting the incalculable value and the greatest responsibility that should be felt by all who have had the fortune of becoming parents, or of being a teacher and educator, no matter in which level of education.

Of course, one could say that these Biblical comments concerning the mission and responsibility of parents and teachers sound very theoretical and idealistic. It is a fact that the modern world has unfortunately become, almost by definition now, a world of apostasy and self-destruction. This is why it does not accept to be ‘tutored’ to any extent in the truths of divine Revelation, while       these same truths remain for the Church ‘non-negotiable’.

For us, an authentic response to each issue relating to human instruction can only be given – through their daily experience – by those who are first of all dedicated parents and teachers, in each historical period. And we all know that such ‘testimonies’ have been recorded for centuries in writings that are considered to be classics of worldwide literature.

Allow me here to share my personal estimation and admiration for the enormous feat undertaken, particularly today, by parents, teachers and catechists, in their effort to teach others, with the use of a characteristic example:

I will briefly tell you what I had written – even before meeting her in person – to the well-known Child Psychologist of Athens, Mrs Anthe Doxiadi-Trip, of the pioneering institution called ‘The Little Garden’ (for emotionally disabled children!).

In the 1980s, the Athenian magazine ‘Gynaika’ published a brief selection of articles written by Mrs Doxiadi under the title ‘As a Mother to a Mother’. Her small book had the same title. I read with interest about the perceptive and wise observations she made concerning how people ‘react’ to their environment at every moment, from babies onwards. And although I was still in hospital after a serious back operation, I hastened to do the following, almost as a reflex reaction:

a)     I wrote to the author herself on the very day I finished reading her book, with admiration and appreciation, admitting that, according to my humble opinion, her booklet could have been called ‘A Manual of Human Formation’! The modest response I received from the insightful scholar and mother was the beginning of a sincere friendship that has continued to this day, not only with herself, but also with the extended family of her legendary father, the town-planner Doxiadis.

b)     I requested the Book Centre of our Archdiocese to order at least 100 copies of the small but precious book.

c)      I wrote an Encyclical letter to all our Priests throughout Australia, recommending that they definitely obtain a copy and read it, in addition to bringing it to the attention of others, especially Presvyteres, teachers, Sunday School catechists and, above all, mothers.

However, that which verifies more formally the general admiration and acknowledgement of us all for the multi-faceted work undertaken by the Women of the Church in our Archdiocese, and in the Greek Australian community as a whole, is this very Conference, which was organised especially for them.

For this purpose, we could think of no lady more appropriate to invite from Greece, to honour the ladies of our Church through her presence and keynote address, than Mrs Alexandra Mitsotakis-Gourdain, who is conducting major humanitarian work in the so-called ‘Third World’.

The humanitarian dynamism of this young woman has been deservedly reported and promoted in reliable Greek and foreign language media outlets, highlighting the almost ‘missionary’ dimension of her efforts which knows no borders.

We shall soon hear her speak about the programmes that our officially invited guest is developing within ActionAid.

For our part, we express above all our congratulations and warm wishes for the unimpeded continuation of her noble ambitions well into the future, and we thank her for responding to our invitation so willingly, in spite of her many travel commitments – particularly after the recent disaster in S.E. Asia.

In addition, the fact that another distinguished lady, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir, Governor of NSW, gladly accepted to perform the Official Opening of our Conference proceedings, expresses no less honour to the Women of the Church. We therefore thank Her Excellency also most warmly for her presence and relevant address, accompanied by her husband Sir Nicholas Shehadie, an Orthodox and valued friend of our community for many years.

There are two further events taking place in the framework of our Conference which should briefly be mentioned, as they are both part of the message we would like to convey to the public in general, which has to do with how we appraise the active role of the Women of our Church.

I refer, on the one hand, to the special anthology of poems titled ‘Mother’ and to the official Opening of the sacred Monastery of ‘Holy Cross’ (Mangrove Mountain), on the other.

I should point out that the bi-lingual collection of poetry ‘MOTHER – A moving reflection of God’ contains the successful translations of American friend Peter Constantine, while ATF Press of the Australian Theological Forum has taken the initiative of publishing it through Mr Hilary Regan, an ecumenically-minded theologian and friend of Orthodoxy.

The official book launch of the mentioned anthology was made yesterday by another special lady – indeed a Roman Catholic Nun and scholar – who is a friend and co-worker in our Theological College, Dr Vivienne Keely. That event had a highly symbolic significance: a Nun comments with such sensitivity on poems that pay tribute to the Mother, in a book that is interspersed with artistic features, from the image of a ‘pregnant’ cloud to various other forms of the female in nature and the animal kingdom, as well as in humankind, culminating in the Theotokos herself. All underline in a moving way the close proximity of spiritual and physical Motherhood.

I express thanks and congratulations to the Organising Committee of the Conference, Chaired once again by His Grace, my Assistant Bishop Seraphim of Apollonias, as well as to all who have collaborated honourably from among our Parish-Communities throughout Australia, especially the hosting Parish-Community of St Euphemia, Bankstown,

As your Archbishop, I have an obligation to make a necessary clarification in order to avoid misunderstanding: the fact that we restricted the formal participation in this Conference of ‘Women of the Church’ to representatives of the Ladies’ Auxiliaries and the major institutions of the Archdiocese, does not mean that we underestimate or forget the work and valuable contribution of other women’s groups in the Greek Australian community, especially organisations such as AHEPA, the Greek Young Matrons’ Association – with its generous support of Church institutions – the Hellenic Lyceum etc. For this reason, representatives of the media, whom we also thank for their co-operation, are requested to give due consideration to the ‘representativeness’ of this Conference.

I could not imagine a more sincere or condensed form of praise on my behalf for the contribution of women in our lives, than the poem ‘Magnificat’, which I had written way back on April 3, 1989. It was published in my collection of poetry Nostalgia Parametron (Athens, Domos publications, 1990).

In thanking each of you for your attention and patience, allow me to conclude with that characteristic poem.

MAGNIFICAT

To you the simple lady of toil

the first daughter of the people

belong praise and glory unreservedly

who with the simplicity of a natural gesture

teach the most indispensable lessons of life.

You told us with what water soap does not foam

how we must boil endives

so that they remain green

you measured to what extent different foods last

inside and outside the fridge

and you recorded countless other details

which the vainglory of the many

would have refused to note.

Your hands, a sacred canopy

over the Holy Altar of the world,

guard even the last pearl of the Host

from decay or desecration

and though you may never be ordained

you are a Priestess consecrated from birth.

 

Address: 806-808 The Kingsway Gymea N.S.W. 2227
Postal Address: P.O. Box 170, Sylvania, N.S.W. 2224
Tel: (02) 9526 6577
Priest's Mobile: 0418 511 212