Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Interview: Fr. Gabriel of the Holy Archdiocese of Athens

Fr. Gabriel Papanicolaou is a tall, tall man. But his theology, lofty as it may sound, operates on street-level.

As the Holy Archdiocese of Athens' Vicar General (or Chancellor) he has been an energetic supporter of immigrant integration. His efforts, including the establishment of "Church in the Streets" (a soup-kitchen alliance between the Orthodox, Anglican and African Pastoral Churches) have earned the respect and support of the Archbishop of Athens Ieronymos, who himself is well-known for having "a great pastoral heart."

At less than 40 years-old (and with a beard much shorter than many of his colleagues) Fr. Gabriel is thought to be one of the youngest to have held his high position. He may also own the busiest Blackberry in the whole Church of Greece and the waiting line outside his door can reach well over a dozen.

I interviewed him in that office on November 4 right after he returned from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's address to the Global Forum on Migration and Development , held in Athens this year.

(PHOTO: A still shot from a Solidarity video taken of Fr. Gabriel at the "Church in the Streets" soup kitchen in Omonia.)

Fr. Gabriel Papanicolaou: What I was impressed by… was that the prime minister himself (George Papandreou), that the secretary general of the United Nations (Ban Ki-Moon), all the other guests… they were speaking like they had adapted all the theology of the Church. Because they were speaking about human beings, that this is not just about policy, it’s about human beings. For someone that belongs to the Church, it’s quite impressive to hear from the lips of a politician, to express words and images and ideas of religious background.

George Mesthos: What is the theological underpinning of the Church’s work with immigrants as you see it?

GP: I think it’s very basic. It has to do with the incarnation. Jesus Christ himself as a God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, or the Triune God, was incarnated and he became a man as well as a God. So we believe that the second person of the Holy Trinity has two natures; human and divine. Because he became a human being, for that reason, he proved to us the great love he has for human beings, for his creation.

For just a small introduction, through the catholic letter from Apostle John you will see a very good verse there that says, “If you cannot love the one who’s next to you, that you can see him, and (that) in this person it is God Himself, how will you be able to love God and see God, if you cannot first of all love your neighbor?” So you see there is a very, very strong theology about the human person, first of all as an incarnated person, God Himself, but how we see that in our ordinary life by facing God Himself in the face of the other.

Remember that St. Gregory of Palamas, Bishop of Salonika, in the 14th Century, what he said. At that time, there was a big debate about how people are really about to take part in the substance of God. How is this possible? What he said was, “We cannot be part of the substance of God because we don’t know exactly what is the material, that He’s been made (of), but we can be part of this mystery of God through his energy.”

And what is this energy? It is the work of the Holy Spirit. And how do we see the work of the Holy Spirit? Through the human beings themselves. Because when you see someone that helps you, that he is next to you, then you realize that God is also with you because you need someone to love you. You need someone to be with you. You need to feel this solidarity, you need to feel this action of acceptance of being with someone, of company and to avoid the loneliness, to be by yourself. All those things give us…the impression that we cannot live by ourselves.

If we want to see God, this is the chance, in the face of the other.

GM: Why do you think Immigrant Integration is in the best interest of the Church, as an organization?

First off, we can’t speak of the Church as an organization. Okay. It’s an institution that has been established by God Himself, what is different is that the body of this institution is ourselves and the head of this body is Christ Himself, as according to the theology of St. Paul...

It’s not enough only to be present to be present to a liturgical service, but we have to implement in a way this belief, our faith to the society, to the real world...

We have now this problem, many people leaving their countries due to critical political situations there, because of the changes in the environment, is also a reason, and coming to Europe, where the situation is better than in their own countries.

So now the question is, what do we do? Politically speaking, I think we have nothing to do concerning the security, concerning the control of the frontiers. This is governmental issues. They have to do the job with that. What we have to do is tell our people, tell our congregations that these are human beings, images of God, their own creation. So we have to deal with them by that spirit and in that spirit. So that’s why the Church is now doing this action concerning this migration problem. First off, to inform our congregation that it’s not an enemy. It’s not another bad thing that comes to you but you have to see through Christian love and deal with that. And also to collaborate with the other institutions, moral, social institutions that have a link with that in order to deal with and face better with this problem.

I don’t think that when the municipality, the government, NGOs, are doing something for the integration of the migrants, the Church needs to be out of that. Because if we are not responsible for the human person, than who else is? So that’s why we’re doing this job.

GM: And how do these programs affect the Church’s role in society?

GP: In many, many ways.

Firstly, I will say that it’s like a school... for the priests themselves. It’s an opportunity for them to see how they have to work. How they have to deal with human beings. How they have to be as pastors. Not only to Christians but to every human being despite color, religious or national ethnicity. So it is something very good for the priests themselves.
Also, for our collaborators. People, lay persons who are in the Church...

(Secondly,) it is a matter of a testimony. The Church gives a witness to society, that we are there. You have a problem and we are with you. We are not high to our traditional system and being there like a traditional voice that speaks only on moral issues and nothing more than that. But we have also an action. We are with you, next to you. Into the society.
I think firstly, it’s an educational form, secondly it’s a witness.

Thirdly, that we have the possibility to raise up the awareness of that issue (immigrant integration) to the people. Because, you know, the media always have different ways to present the issues. So the Church because it has a real voice without an interest behind it, we have to be responsible and raise up awareness to that specific issue. Make the people understand that they have to be involved in that issue of integration, not to be outside of that.

GM: Are there plans or is there a strategy to raise awareness of the Church’s programs? Both in terms of grass roots, so the migrants know more –

GP: Through the parishes. We are doing that through the parishes. Through our website, the newspapers that we have, magazines.

But mainly you said a very good word, “grass roots.” What is the theological term for that? Parishes, congregations.

This is the grass roots. Because into a congregation you can see all the people inside. Rich and poor people. Highly educated and uneducated people. All of them have their own space in the Church, in the congregation. First the priest needs to be aware and then through the sermon, through the social action of the priest, but also through the official voice of the Church, through the website, people in the grass roots can be aware of what is really happening and what they have to do to that issue.

I can recall a speech that I made … on the Areopagus. Every 29th of June we celebrate there a vesper to the memory of St. Paul when he first preached the gospel to the Athenians. I had the honor and the privilege to give a speech there, invited by the Archbishop himself, and I said to the politicans and the media there, my one point, through the migration issue, theologically speaking. I said that we cannot be in a country that gave birth to Democracy, a country that gave birth to a free spirit and now having fear for the other, for the stranger. As well as now, this country has also been one body now with Christianity.

When St. Paul came here, he spoke to the Athenians about a New God. It was nothing different but a real god. A real god whose face was love, and nothing more than that. Then who are we now to say no to that, to that message?

GM: Do you think it’s been effective so far?

GP: I think yes. And the reason why is that I see the young people have an interest to come and learn about that. I can say to you my personal example in my school where I am as a teacher. Many students of my class come and give me their service voluntarily. It is much more difficult for me to convince them to come to the Church than it is to come to the streets to see how they can help the people. To be part of the liturgical life of the Church, it is difficult for them to understand, is through these actions it is easier for them to adapt themselves to the real spirit of the Church. (Fr. Gabriel teaches at Athens College)

GM: How does someone volunteer in one of these efforts? Do they have to go to their parishes? Is there a website that they go to?

GP: Every priest is informed about that. I am now preparing the new website of the Archdiocese. I’ve given interviews to the newspapers and through the radio of the Church that we have, but mainly mouth-by-mouth, is the most easy way.

Why I am saying that? It’s not the most rapid way but it’s the most stable way because for someone that wants to do something, that wants to believe in something different, needs to see first. And mouth-by-mouth he has already been experienced to that so he transfers his experience to the other. So this is how we are doing it. But we are quite at the beginning.

GM: Is there more of an effort to connect the Synod to the parishes?

GP: It is an effort and it is always going to be an effort...

Besides Christians, we are also human beings and we have also our weaknesses. Sometimes it is difficult to understand what we have to do.

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