Saturday, May 28, 2022



As far back as I can remember, every year on my nameday, which also happens to be my birthday, at exactly the same time, I would receive a telephone call from my parish priest Father Panayiotis, conveying wishes. Every year that is, except this year, for he died on that day. 

I had visited him in hospital just the week before. As soon as he saw me enter the room, his eyes grew wide and he attempted to rise from his chair, snorting in disdain when he failed to do so. «Ο Θεός σε έστειλε,» he exclaimed and then, transfixing me with his gaze, he observed: “I do not fear death.” I shrugged this awkward comment aside. There is something innately uncomfortable about having the priest who welcomed you into the church on the fortieth day of your life, who baptised you, gave you communion week after week, married you and baptised your children speak of death. Yet this same priest around whose life our own are inextricably entwined also buried every single member of my family that has gone to rest. There is not one important event of our lives, familial, communal or otherwise that he has not been part of. As the congregation of our parish was originally largely comprised of members of both of my parents’ villages, he knew us intimately, understood how we interrelated with each other, the intricacies of our interactions and the context which informed our thoughts and actions. In knowing us, he was our firmament, the fixed point upon which the rest of our lives revolved. To contemplate the loss of one’s fulcrum is inconceivable. 

Indeed, I did not accept the possibility of Father’s passing. After all, this was a man who, having had his license taken away from him at the age of ninety, for age-related reasons, managed to have it returned to him. Every day without fail, for the forty-eight years that he served our parish of Saint Dimitrios in Ascot Vale, he would drive to church. Driving past the church on my way to school, and in the years that followed, on the way to or back from work, I would see him standing upon the steps at the entrance to the church. “Father Panayiotis is in church and all is right with the world,” I would think. “For as long as I can stand on my feet, I will serve the liturgy,” Father Panayiotis would remark. “There is no such thing as retirement for a priest.”  

Years later he would speak to me of his experiences serving the people of Darwin and battling the forces of nature in the outback in order to reach isolated members of his flock. It is that sense of pioneering indomitability, the conviction that nothing is impossible and all must be made possible in the service of his people that informed his attitude towards his vocation and provided the foundation for our community. Highly driven as he was, for him the priesthood was not a job. It was the meaning of his life and every single gesture, every single word, every single glance was subordinated to its purpose.   

At the altar serving the liturgy, at the pulpit giving a sermon, his was an intense presence. There was no attempt to court popularity or fame, to indulge one’s ego or seek familiarity. For him the Liturgy was an awesome mystery and in the austere manner in which he performed it inculcated deeply in all of us, a visceral understanding of that which cannot ever be fully described in human tongues. All my life, I have loved watching him raise his arms proclaiming:  Let us lift up our hearts,” and then bowing deeply and reverently towards the icon of Christ, his arms across his chest, declaring: “Let us give thanks unto the Lord!” At that moment, his eyes invariably closed and one could perceive in this intercessor on behalf of all of us, the humility and gratitude he felt. 

He was a deeply reserved man, taciturn yet never withdrawn or distant from his interlocutor. Instead, his eyes would scan yours intently, reading more from your body language than the words themselves which he could deconstruct and reduce to their essence, stripped of flattery and self-justification, in seconds. There was simply no time and no room for self-delusion. Instead, Father Panayiotis would tell you what he felt you needed to know, rather than that which you may have wanted to hear. And each and every word was underpinned by endless compassion, bolstered by almost a century of wisdom. 

I remember listening in astonishment discussing with a visiting prelate, the legacy of Eleftherios Venizelos, that astonishment growing exponentially when I realised that Father Panayiotis’ life spanned a time in which that historical figure, so seemingly remote to us now, was current events. I also remember shivering as he narrated harrowing experiences in the Civil War, culminating in his emerging from a hiding place in a barn, only to find the corpses of murdered fellow villagers lying on either side of the road. These were eyes that had seen and known much, but there was no self-pity, only a desire to bolster and uplift humanity. 

He bore the loss of his wife at a much too young age stoically, applying himself, along with his priestly duties, to selflessly and quietly looking after his large family. A few years later, my grandfather died and I remember Father seated in the living room describing to my grandmother, the various stages of grief. Father had not ever undertaken any training in psychology or counselling. He was neither a self-help, well-being pundit nor a therapist. But he had suffered and felt the pain of others deeply. And in their moment of need, there was no effusive monologue of consolation, peppered by well-worn cliches providing the semblance of sympathy. Instead, with a simple gesture, a hand on a shoulder, a squeeze of the arm, he conveyed down to earth, practical advice designed to help the bereaving party through their grief.  

It was this approach that saw many people beyond his parish, turn up at his door, seeking his insight and no one was ever turned away, for long before empowerment ever became a buzzword, Father Panayiotis eschewed the role of a guru, instead, providing each person in his care, the moral and ethical building blocks from which to construct their own solution to their problem or find ways of coping with the challenges they faced. Those building blocks invariably came from the teaching of the Church but they were couched in straightforward, unostentatious language, with direct relevance and application to people’s daily lives. Though he seldom spoke of it, he also read widely. I remember him coming to my classroom when I taught at the parish Greek school, holding a compendium of the writings of the Ancient Greek philosophers. “This is for you,” he stated, placing the book on my desk. “I learned a good deal from this and I’m sure you will appreciate it too.” Before I could thank him, he was gone. 

As he grew older, Father Panayiotis’ dark sense of humour became more pronounced. Fearless as he was, I remember him telling a visiting bishop who was expounding his own vision of church and community: “I don’t know pappouli. The problem is that sometimes, when you bishops put on your mitres, you forget that you come from the people and you can’t see people as people.” The bishop, considerably younger than him, taken aback, agreed. When asked what could be done to address this problem, and in particular to allow him to see people as people, rather than just as an amorphous flock, Father Panayiotis remarked: “Just take the mitre off from over your eyes, once in a while.” Simultaneously, he shot me a stern look to ensure I did not burst out laughing. 

As an acute reader of people and a fierce critic of hypocrisy, Father Panayiotis’ fair and uncompromisingly honest judgment and counsel was highly sought after by his superiors, especially in matters of discipline. For this and his long service to the Church (he was ordained in 1960) he was, on the initiative of Archbishop Makarios, made an archimandrite of the Oecumencial Throne in 2019. When I congratulated him on achieving this singular honour, he attempted to shrug it off, stating: “It’s nothing, it’s nothing,” in his usual self-deprecating way. Yet his eyes were shining and his face was beaming. It was a fitting pinnacle to a lifetime of altruistic, self-effacing service, one that continued through the pandemic, where he continued to serve the Liturgy as well as tend to the needs of his flock via telephone. 

“I have to go now,” I told Father Panayiotis on my last visit, having detailed to him the labyrinth of tangled tales I had to tell in order to be granted access for I had arrived outside of visiting hours, causing him to cluck his tongue in mock-derision. Squeezing my hand so tightly that it began to ache, he replied: “So do I. Take me home.” 

I did take him home that night, and every other night, in my heart and in my memories, recalling his enigmatic smile, mulling over every word he had ever uttered in my presence, re-evaluating and re-interpreting each gesture and finding in all of them, previously undetected depth and significance. For Father only revealed of himself and his knowledge as much as you were ready or willing to comprehend and I will be forever seeking to strip away the layers of my experience with him in order to arrive at his core, knowing that it has been there, at the centre of my own consciousness, all along. 

When Father left this earth on the anniversary of my birth, in my grief, I initially completely misunderstood the point he was trying to make. Henceforth now, I shall mark the days of my own sojourn against those of his departure, knowing that he is, as he had always been, beside me, overlooking my works and deeds with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 May 2022