Every second Saturday of the month, 4 pm - Divine Liturgy in English of Sunday - Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, Duke Street, London W1K 5BQ. Followed by refreshments.
Next Liturgy: Saturday 9th September, 4pm

To purchase The Divine Liturgy: an Anthology for Worship (in English), order from the Sheptytsky Institute here, or the St Basil's Bookstore here.

To purchase the Divine Praises, the Divine Office of the Byzantine-Slav rite (in English), order from the Eparchy of Parma here.

The new catechism in English, Christ our Pascha, is available from the Eparchy of the Holy Family and the Society. Please email johnchrysostom@btinternet.com for details.




Monday, 1 November 2010

Why I decided to join the Catholic Church: Fr Georgios Ntagkas

My name is Georgios Ntagkas; if that`s Greek to you, please try George Dagas, which is the same.

I was born and raised up in Thessalonika – northern Greece - 38 years ago. My whole family are Orthodox, like 97% of the people living in my country. I was ordained a deacon to the Diocese of Thessalonika by Metropolitan Panteleimon II (Metropolitan would be equivalent of the “Archbishop” in the Catholic Church). The same man honoured me a couple of years later with the title of “Archdeacon”. This is where I would like to begin my story from.

The parish of “St.Mary Faneromeni” was infamous for its upheaval amongst its clergy. The priests there had taken legal action against one another, scandalizing thus the world of their parishioners. Something needed to be done and Archbishop Panteleimon decided to ordain his archdeacon and send him to that parish to save the day. I didn`t want to go, but I couldn`t say “no” either. Nobody could say “no” to Panteleimon; he was a holy man, but very firm in his decisions.

I went to St. Mary`s and stayed there for three years as the parish priest. After that time, the Bishop announced to me one day that he intended to appoint me to the Cathedral of St. Demetrius, wanting meeventually to become its administrator. It was a huge promotion and I wasn`t even thirty at the time! I didn`t want to leave St. Mary`s, however, as by that time I had loved it a lot and had become part of it. However, I couldn`t say “no”. It seems that the people of St.Mary`s had loved me too. After my last Sunday Mass there, when the news was announced out of the blue, the parishioners were waiting a couple of hours to say goodbye. I was totally tearful however, hidden behind the Iconastasis (thank God the Orthodox churches have one!), not being able to see anybody in that state. I had asked the sacristan to pass on that I was going to see them, definitely not, however, on that day. More than two hours later I had dared to step out of my shell, hoping that everybody was gone. That was the case indeed; not for everybody though! The teenagers from the confirmation group had prepared a goodbye “ambush” next to my car. None of them knew anything beforehand about my leaving, but they managed to find a paper sheet there and then, on which they put down: “Fr. George we love you very much”, followed by their signatures. That piece of paper was the most simple but also the most precious gift I have ever received in my life!

The years went by; I went to the Cathedral but the desire to live abroad, which I had had since I was a kid, was gradually building up within me. I guess it was all providential because when I applied for a place in Italy, a country which I love, it happened that the Archimandrite in Trieste died a few months later. The appointment was proposed to me and I was happy to accept it, even though I didn`t know Trieste before. For those not familiar with the city, Trieste is like a crossroads between the East and the West. It is located very close to Slovenia (only 10 minutes drive) and not far from Austria and Croatia. For both geographical and historical reasons, it consists of a multitude of ethnic and religious communities, which play an active role in the social and cultural life of the city. The Greek community has a predominant position there, as its founders were also great benefactors of Trieste.

Civil and religious authorities would always send invitations to the Greeks for every event, especially to the chairman and the Archimandrite of the community. Among the many invitations I received after my arrival, was the one from the Oratory of “Our Lady of Sion” for their 25th anniversary. The priest who had founded everything from scratch, Mgr. Ettore Malnati, was the central figure of the Solemn Mass. All authorities were present in a packed church and each one of them granted Don Ettore a symbolic gift during the offertory: the Mayor gave him a model, the Knights offered him a sword, etc. At the end of the long queue to the Altar, there were some little children from the catechetical courses of that local Oratory. They were holding something in their hands which I couldn`t quite distinguish from my place where I was. When they got closer, I saw - to my surprise - that they had a piece of paper in their hands with some childish drawing on it, whereas at the bottom it read “ Don Ettore to vogliamo bene”,  (Don Ettore we love you very much). You can understand what a huge bell it rang in my head!

No, it wasn`t that piece of paper that made me decide to become a Catholic. What it did though was that it brought down all the barriers of prejudice which I had towards the Catholic Church. You see, all Orthodox people - even the most open minded among them - have these barriers which define somehow their attitude towards the Catholics.  “Catholics are Christians like us”, the most tolerant would say, “but we need to keep a safety distance until they understand and acknowledge their doctrinal errors”.  For the most fanatic of course, Catholics are nothing else but evil, the Pope being the Antichrist himself. I would always consider myself, however, with the former, rather than the latter. I was formed, therefore, with those barriers too, even though open minded. Nevertheless, what that piece of paper did was that it made me realise and say: "well, it seems after all that the two Churches are much closer than I thought they were".

After that I could see very clearly and make comparisons with the most objective of the ways. The first thing I realised was that in the life of the Orthodox Church there was not much peace and co-ordination. I was aware of that from my country too; living there makes you feel the whole globe is like that, given the fact that you don`t come across any major diversities, communities or churches. When I say there is not much peace and co-ordination I mean on all levels; from the top down to the bottom, the parochial one. The reasons for that always vary; the result however leads to lasting unrest. Let me give you a tangible example. When the Metropolitan of Thessalonika, Panteleimon II, died in 2003, a huge fight broke out between the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Archbishop of Athens. The argument in question was the jurisdiction of the “Nees Chores”, the Dioceses of Northern Greece, Thessalonika being the most important among them. Both Patriarch Bartholomeos of Constantinople and Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens wanted to establish there a man of their choice and approval, who would thus guarantee a strong influence of either Constantinople or Athens over the Nees Chores,the “New Territories” (they are called `New` because they were the last ones to be liberated from the Ottoman Empire and thus join the other Greek regions). Regardless of who was right and who was wrong, the result of that fight was that the Apostolic Church of Thessalonika, founded by St.Paul himself, was left without a head for more than a year. And that was not all: both Athens and Constantinople were trying to influence the tide of popular opinion against one another. Newspapers and media were the means often used; and the scandal in the eyes of the faithful was huge. The situation finally settled down with the intervention of the Minister of Religious Affairs, a politician who forced the heads of two Apostolic Churches to make peace.

Scandal of course is not something strange within the Catholic Church either. Nevertheless, there is a critical difference here: the situation I`ve just described was not related to personal weaknesses and limits (sexual, financial or others), but it was the inevitable consequence of an intrinsic, a structural, problem within the Orthodox Church. And it is not only about these two important Churches: ever since 1054, the year of the major schism between East and West, the Orthodox Church has never managed to call an Ecumenical Council like the Councils of the first Millenium. There are many issues that need to be answered by such a Synod on a Pan-Orthodox level; it seems impossible though to hold one as there questions such as who is going to call it, who is going to preside, on what criteria will decisions be made etc. If the easy answer seems to identify the Chair of such a Synod as the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, being the first among all Orthodox Patriarchs, how would the Russian Church - the biggest by far - react to such a proposal, for instance, when Bartholomew is treated like he is by his own Greek people? If the answer is that no one needs actually to preside at such a Synod and decisions can be taken by vote, then why don`t they call one? The last one took place back in the 8th century AD, when the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches were still together, of course.

It`s good to remember at this point that the Orthodox Churches share communion over the chalice with one another, whereas they consist of so-called “National Churches”, from the administration point of view. Each nation has an independent Synod, whose head is the local Patriarch or Archbishop. This sounds fine – but only in theory. The major prejudice of the Orthodox people towards the Catholics is that the figure of the Pope is a "dynastic" one for the whole Church. This is in fact the only reason why East and West were separated in 1054; the office of the Pope. All other potential reasons presented were merely excuses which were used to justify the rejection of this office by the Byzantines.

The Orthodox, therefore, feel comfortable with such a “polysynodal” administrative system, enjoying the communion among them over the chalice. The life of the Church, the life of any church, is not only about Sacramental Communion. Administration is a very important dimension of this life; in fact, it guarantees that sacraments within the Church are valid. The situation described before over the vacancy of Thessalonika is just one of many. With such a system, I mean, how will the unity of the Orthodox Church be manifested? The Creed of Nicea-Constantinople, recited at nearly every Orthodox Mass, proclaims the Church to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. With self-governing (or autocephalous) National Churches though, it feels more like they all live independently in a parallel dimension, rather than together.

Unity however, or “One Church”, is more than that. The Catholic Church is different. Even though 4 times bigger than the Orthodox (1.2 billion to 300 million), it is much more united and homogeneous. It is  One and it feels like it. It is just not a question of numbers to boast about here; that, on its own, would have been silly. My point is that you usually find more intense currents within a bigger team. The smaller a group, the easier it keeps together and the other way round. This natural law however is reversed in the Catholic Church. I cannot give other explanations myself here, rather I give credit to the Holy Spirit. Mind you, I don`t mean, for God`s sake, that the Orthodox or other Christian Churches lack the presence of the Holy Spirit or that everything is perfect in the Catholic Church. I just mean that peace, harmony and co-ordination rule the life of the Catholic Church. You get problems and disputes here as well, due to our human nature; but they are just the exception to the rule – not the rule itself.

When I first expressed my desire to Don Ettore to become a Catholic, he said: ” Why don't you remain an Orthodox priest, so that we can both work from each side for the unity of the Churches”. I appreciated very much these wise words; I replied however that I couldn`t do that. I had decided when I was young to serve God and His Church on earth by giving myself completely to these two realities. God is Holy, and the same needs apply for His Church. I had just arrived at the conclusion that the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” was the Catholic one, rather than the Orthodox.

It wasn`t easy, from the moment I took the decision until it happened, more than 5 years had passed. That was time for reflection, scrutiny, continuous prayer and, eventually, preparation. In fact, part of the reason why I am in England is that I wanted to release some of the anticipated tension from my former Church, with my change. It wasn`t easy for them either in the light of the uniqueness of the case, at least among the Greek clergy. Even though I did move to London, I did have some hard times; but now it`s all gone. On the contrary, over the last couple of years many good friends from the past, Orthodox priests, tried to trace me through my family and see how I was doing. I met quite a few of them during the last summer stay in my country and they were all extremely kind, assuring me that I would always be their friend no matter what. You can image what sort of balm those words were to my heart!

I love and cherish the Orthodox tradition and spirituality. I was brought up with it and this cannot change. It is and will always be a big part of me. My whole family, as I said, are Orthodox. I often get
the question whether I believe that the two Churches will be one day reunited. I do not know what to answer; I guess nobody does for sure. What we can do however is to work towards that. I didn`t follow Don Ettore`s advice, I know. I just couldn`t. A priest`s life is not like a layman`s, who goes to the church one or two hours a week and then it`s finished. A priest`s whole life is the Church and from this point of view I thank God every day for having become a Catholic. I feel somehow in between the two Churches, having seen both realities rom the inside or rather  lived in them. We know that Jesus` will was that His disciples may be One, as He and the Father are One. We all need
to work towards this unity, I perhaps being among the first. What I have put down in this article is honest, without the least intention to be judgemental. It just comes from a man that has never spoken
publicly until now and a heart that has suffered a lot. The heart however, will never cease hoping…

Fr George came to serve in the Diocese of Westminster in London, at the Church of St Mary in Chelsea, for several years before returning to Greece to serve the needs of Catholics in his own country.

Post a Comment