Saturday, April 20, 2019


“Valar Morghulis,” quoth Jaqen H'ghar, in the Song of Ice and Fire series. “All men must die.” Not being conversant in High Valyrian, our community was completely unprepared for the death of our own High Septon, Archbishop Stylianos. I will always remember however, how he responded, years ago when, conversing about ‘Game of Thrones,’ I explained the High Valyrian counter-phrase “Valar Dohaeris” – “All men must serve.” He was profoundly moved.
In the aftermath of Archbishop Stylianos' recent death, the focus of certain sections of the community has fallen with almost obsessive fervour upon the succession. Will one of our own local bishops be elevated to the Archbishop’s throne? Will any of them be moved to another diocese? Will any be promoted? Will a hierarch be appointed from outside Australia, with all that implies for his ability to appreciate the complex demographic and cultural make-up of the Australian church? Is the Ecumenical Patriarch going to follow up on his recent public ponderings as to whether it would be beneficial for Australia to have the Archdiocese divided into separate Metropolises as recently took place in America? What implications will that have for a Church around whose primate, power increasingly became centralised? What will happen to the much discussed Church Property Trust? Will certain ‘exiled’ former hierarchs of Australia make a triumphant return in the aftermath of such a division? These questions and many more are taxing the members of a Church that, in the wake of its longest serving primate’s death, is in transition, insecure and fearful about the future.
With all the whispering, rumour-mongering, manoeuvring, plotting and lobbying that is currently taking place within certain quarters Constantinople, Greece, Australia and beyond, one thing is sadly being overlooked: the fact that there exist out there in the parishes of Australia, a multitude of young, committed, talented and resourceful Australian-born priests, connected intimately to their local communities and parishes, possessed of a deep understanding of the social problems of their region and, silently undertaking vital work in keeping our local micro-communities, the ones that are generally not served by secular community organisations, alive. They are the lifeblood of the Church, the vivifying force that it cannot do without.
 In some regions, such as Queensland, these dedicated priests travel immense distances in order to keep isolated and historically significant Greek communities connected to our broader discourse as Orthodox Greek-Australians and in many cases, are the sole factor in ensuing that those communities retain a sense of their Greek identity. It is the combination of age-old ritual, moral teaching and social fellowship that mitigate against total assimilation into the mainstream narrative.
Some of our young priests minister to the forgotten and silent members of our community who are languishing in prison. Given both their daily conditions and the stigma attached to their situation by their own community, these priests offer prisoners more than just comfort. They constitute a powerful link with the outside world, bearing as they do, a message from One that cannot be constrained by prison walls. Other priests offer chaplaincy and counselling to law enforcement officers, a service that is appreciated greatly by our State authorities. Others still can be found regularly by the bedsides of those experiencing a great deal of pain, or facing the most difficult and fearful moments of their lives, in hospitals, nursing homes, or among the housebound. It takes a good deal of sensitivity, moral conviction and kindness to provide meaningful comfort to those who cannot make sense of their suffering or who are called upon to face their terminal decline.
The young priests of our Archdiocese run soup kitchens, or organise food aid, such as the recent “Feed 500” initiative at the  Saint Panteleimon Dandenong parish, and the “Our Daily Bread” endeavour to assist the homeless in the  Presentation of Our Lord parish in Coburg. Many concern themselves with raising money and securing goods for needy families, assisting parishioners with their Centrelink forms and providing welfare services that often transcend the bounds of the Orthodox faithful and instead, extend to all members of Australian society.
Significantly, the parish priests of the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia deal with drug addiction, gambling addiction and family violence, often unsupported by professional development resources. Within a post-modern society in constant flux, they are often called upon to advise those suffering from gender dysphoria or conflicts in sexual identity. They mediate in family tensions brought about by mixed marriages. In many cases they prove instrumental in healing rifts in relationships. Their key position of proximity to the daily lives of Greek-Australians results in them acting as social barometers and they are  among the first to anticipate or identify shifts in values, mores or demography within our community, long before our secular community organisations are able to do so. One of those, which they are still negotiating, is the transition to expressing Hellenism and Orthodoxy in languages other than Greek. In this, they truly are pioneers. Nonetheless, they largely remain unconsulted and unengaged by those stakeholders who purport to plan for our future as an ethnic sub-group.
In most of our municipalities, these devoted Greek-Australian priests are often the only point of contact for Hellenism with otherwise disengaged Greek-Australians who display no interest in participating in community organisations, even if that contact with Hellenism is limited to a visit to church on Holy Saturday or for a wedding, or baptism. Most importantly, the young priests of our Archdiocese are primarily , the first point of contact of our community with broader Australian society and it is these priests who engage with the predominant cultural and social narratives as Greek Orthodox Australians, and with the mainstream discourse on a close and almost daily level, more so than most secular community organisations, articulating the Orthodox world-view in an increasingly fragmented dialectic.
This is not because there is some insidious or deep, dark nefarious plot on behalf of the church to subvert and control the Greek-Australian ontological identity and its manifestations but rather, because these priests are there, on the ground, among the grassroots , relevant to the daily lives of Greek-Australians in the suburbs where most of their lives are lived, in a way that no other entity can be and yet, in our academic and public discourse, not only their valuable services but also their unique insights in being so close to the diverse and multi-faceted people of Greek-Australia, are  overlooked. To do so is a perilous undertaking, for our parish priests know something that our regional brotherhoods do not: that it is no longer tenable for future generations of Australians of Greek origin to define themselves by their grandparents’ birthplace in Greece and its counterpart brotherhood organisation in Australia. Instead, a Greek-Australian Orthodox identity will be formed by sharing one’s life with other Greek-Australians in the areas in which one lives, juxtaposed against and reconciled with other cultures that also form part of their identity.
It is the fostering and appreciation of the talent and ethos of these invaluable and outstanding members of our Church and Community, the examination of ways that resources can be harnessed in order to support them in their vital role as the veritable glue that holds our suburban communities together, thus ensuring their continued existence, that should be at the foremost of consideration, when planning for the future of the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia. It is to be hoped that the voices of those contributing to the vitality and pertinence of the Church in this country are taken into account when the decision as to who will occupy the hierarchal throne will be taken, lest we remain unprepared for the Winter that is Coming…


First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 April 2019