IGNATIUS OF MADAGASCAR
The Greek diaspora has seen Orthodoxy diffuse itself over a wide area, though until recently, it was generally confined only to the diaspora communities. With the fall of communism however, hundreds of ‘forbidden’ lands have suddenly become accessible and Orthodox Christianity has seen a remarkable resurgence, not only in its traditional homes but also in the Africa and Asia, as well as the Developed World. Orthodoxy for example, is the fastest growing Christian religion in Britain, while as a whole it enjoys such respect and importance worldwide as has not been enjoyed since before the Great Schism of 1054.
Putting to rest the threadbare stereotype of the Orthodox Church as merely a Balkan “ethnic” or “national” church, native Orthodox Churches now exist in such far flung corners of the globe as Indonesia, and thanks solely to the personality of Patriarch Bartholomeos, Cuba. Much of this resurgence is due to a new type of monk, one who following in the footsteps of St Cyril and Methodius, tread in unknown lands, there to spread the Gospel.
Australia is not so removed from this general resurgence as can be first imagined. It was not so long ago that a cleric from Adelaide, Nectarios Kellis, decided to abandon his home and preach the Gospel in out of the way, third world Madagascar. In less than a decade, as Bishop, he presided over a native Orthodox Church, comprising of 15,000 parishioners, tens of churches, schools and medical clinics spread over Madagascar and Mauritius. His loss, in the same helicopter accident that caused the demise of Alexandrine Patriarch Petros was a tragedy not only for the Church but was also deeply felt in the Greek Australian community, especially within the thousands of families that were inspired by Bishop Nectarios’ superhuman feat and contributed financially to his charitable work there. Regular readers of this publication would remember the inspired interviews he granted us during his several visits here and those lucky enough to have met him, his saintly bearing.
“Australia is now a major centre not only of Orthodoxy, but of missionary activity in general,” Bishop Ignatius remarked to me during his recent visit to Australia in March. Bishop Ignatius was ordained as bishop of Madagascar on 14 November 2004, filling the void left by the untimely death of our own Bishop Nectarios. “I have come to Australia to pay homage to the Church and the community that nurtured such a great hierarch. His legacy will live on both in Madagascar and Australia and I am sure that we will continue to be astonished by further gifts from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia in the form of outstanding clerics such as the late Nectarios. Australia is an inseparable and important part of the Orthodox world.”
Much like the later Bishop Nectarios, Bishop Ignatius’ life reads like a Byzantine Odyssey. Originally a monk of Stavronikita Monastery in Mount Athos, he soon discovered that his true calling transcended the contemplative life. “I meditated over and over again on the words of our Lord: «Πορευθέντες μαθητεύσατε πάντα τα έθνη.» I came to the conclusion that this was an unequivocal injunction and I would be remiss in my duties as a monk if I did not obey it. I felt that I should travel to those parts of the world that had not heard of Orthodoxy and preach the word of God. In obeying that injunction, Ignatius soon found himself in Korea, where he worked within the native Korean Orthodox Church there. Subsequent to that, he traveled to Calcutta, where from 1990-2004 he was instrumental in the organisation of a missionary Church that boasts a huge orphanage that houses 200 girls, a stone’s throw away from the headquarters of Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity, a school for the blind, a technical college as well as schools for destitute and impoverished children.
“With the help of God, every Monday the mission in Calcutta distributes food handouts to thousands of poverty stricken families and we have been able to provide mobile medical clinics to service the needs of the poor. Calcutta is the city of slums and thousands of people live in the streets afflicted with diseases that you probably wouldn’t have even heard of.”
Bishop Ignatius’ work in India has not been easy. “Be careful what you write… or rather I should be careful what I say,” he says. After 14 years of excruciatingly difficult work, the Church in Calcutta, comprised of 5,000 souls, in small and fragile. “The Indian government seems to look upon our work in Calcutta with suspicion. This is despite the fact that we do not proselytize. We merely help the poor. If they want to espouse Orthodoxy, that is our reward but we do not actively try to ‘grab’ converts. Unfortunately, Indian converts to Christianity are discriminated against. They are denied access to senior positions in government and the corporate realm and are publicly ridiculed. We have come up against many problems but there is no sense to talk of them now,” he hints. This is disturbing yet true. I recently saw an Indian comedy whose purpose was to show that out of two Indian rivals who were after the same girl, the one that prayed to Shiva eventually ended up with her, while the Christian lost out. In Bishop Ignatius’ case, the reality is starker. Despite fourteen years of philanthropic activity, he was recently denied entry into India.
“Madagascar is like a breath of fresh air,” Bishop Ignatius exclaims when asked how he compares his previous experience to it. “There the government actually appreciates the material difference we are making to its citizens’ lives and goes out of its way to accommodate us. There is no nationalistic bigotry here and there is freedom of movement. In India you couldn’t move from place to place without arousing suspicion. In Madagascar, all of the inhabitants are genuinely pleased to see you and work with you. Much of this good favour is based upon the groundwork created by the late Bishop Nectarios and it is on that sturdy foundation that I want to continue building the Church.”
In answering whether a conversion to Orthodoxy results in a loss or discarding of one’s traditional culture, Bishop Ignatius has this to say: “No. The Orthodox Church has always respected and encouraged the retention of tradition, from the time of St Cyril who invented an alphabet for the Slavs and translated the liturgy and bible into their own tongue to make it more relevant to them. It is our respect for our parishioners; traditions that has established our church as a ‘native’ church, rather than an ‘imposed’ one.
Already Bishop Ignatius has applied himself with gusto to the task at hand, looking to establish even more Sunday schools, technical colleges and hospitals. In the immediate future, he is striving to build an orphanage and old peoples’ home. “There is much work to be done. The Church in Madagascar comprises of 15,000 people. We need to cater to their needs, as Madagascar is an extremely poor country with little infrastructure. Their standard of living is extremely low and poverty relief is a priority for us. But it is wrong to confine our activities to just the faithful. This is where Bishop Nectarios was a true pioneer. We need to continue contributing to the wider Madagascan society. Already we have become an important institution within that society. I hope in this to follow in the late Bishop’s footsteps. I draw strength from his example and from the well wishes of the Greeks of Australia who have given so much and continue to do so, so that these people can live a decent, dignified life.”
How then does this itinerant Bishop see us here in Australia? “You are blessed with a strong, vital Church under the guidance of an enlightened Primate in Archbishop Stylianos. With his blessing, I hope to be able to come here often and advise you of our progress. Remember, for us in Madagascar, Australia is a mother Church and we look to her for spiritual guidance and material help. Orthodoxy is a treasure. But like all treasures, if you do not polish it, if you do not use it, it becomes clouded and you can’t see it. When you do apply your own effort to it, it outshines the sun.”
(The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Missions Committee collects funds for the mission in Madagascar. Those wishing to support the work of the Orthodox Mission can make a donation at any branch of the Commonwealth Bank at: Greek Orthodox Missions Fund No. 3215 902128)