March 28, 2017

My Teacher Fr. John Romanides and my Spiritual Father Fr. George Florovsky

By Protopresbyter Fr. Stephanos Avramides,
Secretary of the Synodal Committee on Inter-Orthodox and Inter-Christian Relations

With this evening's book presentation of the Holy Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, you have given me the opportunity to outline a bright and outstanding personality who set a mark upon modern theological thought. I thank His Eminence the Holy Metropolitan of Nafpaktos for the honor he has given me to submit my simple and humble thoughts and memories of the late Fr. John Romanides.

My acquaintance with Fr. John goes back to 1959, when as a third year student of the Theological School of the Holy Cross in Boston I had him for the first time as a Professor of Dogmatics.

His personality, but also his way of teaching had the power to sweep you up. He spoke in a simple and understandable manner, and his lectures took place sometimes in the Greek and sometimes in the English language, of which Papa John was an excellent handler.

Furthermore Fr. John was like me, of Karaman Cappadocian descent. But also like me he was a Greek-American, since, although born in Greece, at the age of four months he came to America where he lived, grew up and studied. Thus, he knew the American mentality: how we children of Greek migrants think, and what meager knowledge we had of Orthodoxy, knowledge which we derived from the various informative pamphlets which were occasionally issued by the Holy Archdiocese of America.

The main feature of these pamphlets were their use of Roman Catholic arguments against Protestants and respectively Protestant arguments against Roman Catholics, thus creating the impression that we Orthodox did not have a clear and unified theological line, but that we are somewhere in between the two and that our theology is regulated by the excesses of the other.

Before I met Fr. John I had the feeling that there was no relationship between what was written in these introductory informative pamphlets, with the piety and simple spirituality of our parents, with their continuous and rigorous fasts, with their endless prayers and by sending us daily to the homes of our poor neighbors with dishes of food. And indeed this feeling was reinforced by observing the Roman Catholics, whose Mass lasted about a half hour, and who only fasted on Fridays when they could eat anything they want except meat. Even meat juice was allowed as long as it was drained enough so that there were no traces of meat inside. On the other hand, for the fifty days of Great Lent and Holy Week our parents would not even give us oil, except on Saturday and Sunday.

Fr. John however opened our eyes and we realized, that this ascetic way of life of our parents was meant to teach us about selfless love, which does not seek its own, and that this way of life helped us achieve the purification of the passions. Therefore the piety and reverence of our simple parents was in practice the application of the Orthodox therapeutic treatment.

Fr. John gave us to understand, that the doctrines of Orthodoxy are best expressed - as much as humanly possibly - through the revelatory experience of the deified Fathers and Saints of the Church. But doctrines are only signposts. When each of us, depending on the grace given to us by God, experience our own Pentecost, that is, when the Holy Spirit guides us "to all truth", then we will understand that experience exceeds doctrine, and that God is neither a Triad nor a Monad, but He is beyond Triad and Monad.

In his first lessons, he recommended us to read his thesis: The Ancestral Sin, as an introduction to Patristic Theology and the primitive Church, and - let this not seem strange - he had us study all the various philosophical systems - ancient and modern - with an emphasis on the philosophical systems of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. His purpose was for us to know the way Greeks thought and the mentality that prevailed at the time our doctrines were formulated.

In this way we could understand why certain heretics fell into heresy in their attempt to apply certain philosophical predicates of thought to the doctrines of the Church.

Then, that we may be able to understand scholastic theology, we had to know well the philosophy of Aristotle, since the scholastics applied almost the entire philosophical system of Aristotle in their theology, equating God with the "prime unmoved mover". The consequences of this is of course known: the teaching regarding created grace, the identification of essence and energies, etc.

He then emphasized the difference between the Patristic teaching on justice and justification with that of the Scholastics. For the Fathers justice equals enlivening: "I came that you may have life and have it more abundantly." While for the Scholastics justice was a juridical matter: the satisfaction of Divine Justice, of the wrath of a cruel and impartial God, who required an infinite sacrifice for the satisfaction of an attack against His infinite justice.

Fr. John emphasized all this, since we were Orthodox in America who lived in a sea of Roman Catholic and Protestant people, some of whom were aggressive in their efforts to proselytize us to their error, and the teaching of Fr. John was almost always in contrast to what our Latin and Protestant neighbors believed.

Because my subject is not the dogmatic teachings of Fr. John, which are beautifully and extensively developed in the two volumes of the Holy Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, although it is very difficult to separate the man from what he believed and taught, I will summarize and limit the description of his lessons as follows.

In order to help us distinguish the Orthodox teaching from the false, he taught us the following theological principles that govern Patristic Orthodox theology:

1st: the distinction between created and uncreated. God alone is uncreated, and therefore God alone is naturally immortal. Everything else is created and naturally mortal. Even the soul is not immortal by nature but by grace.

2nd: the complete difference between uncreated and created excludes the esteemed analogia entis of western theologians, and

3rd: the distinction between essence and energies.

Then we were taught the theology of the Sacred Augustine, how it deviates from Orthodox Patristic teaching and how it configured the various theological movements of the West.

This was followed with the teaching of ascetic theology and the progression of man from purification to deification, with an emphasis on where this is indicated in the writings of Saints Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory Palamas, as well as what we see in the lives of the saints.

Lastly he taught us about the Synods and the Dogmatic and Symbolic Monuments of the Orthodox Church.

Having Fr. John as a professor for four consecutive years - because studies at the Theological School of Boston lasted seven years - we became very close.

First of all I had a love for his lessons. After this we had a common heritage. Third we had a common spiritual father. As we know, Fr. John had Fr. George Florovsky as a spiritual father, teacher and mentor. I also had the special blessing of having Fr. George as a confessor, who was not only a distinguished theologian but also a holy cleric with much humility, understanding (comprehension not recognition) and above all a lot of love. Often I would visit Fr. George either at the Russian Church of the Holy Trinity in Boston or at his home near Harvard Square in Cambridge.

Unfortunately I was not fortunate enough to have Fr. George as a professor at the Theological School of Boston, because during the first two years of my studies, Fr. George was teaching in the higher classes, and the year I arrived at these classes Fr. George had departed from the School. However, when I was given the chance, I would attend his lectures along with other fellow students, as many as were open to the public.

Apart from the many things that I gained from these lectures and his writings, which I read two and three and countless times (in the English language of course), I gained even more from my visits to the Church of the Holy Trinity where he liturgized. Truly, I don't know why, when I saw him liturgize bent over with a completely bright face, it reminded me of Saint Gregory the Theologian. Especially when I visited his house, besides confession, I would present several questions and concerns, which he responded to with much love and patience. And much of what he said to me at that time has accompanied me until today and I try to apply it in my life.

He also had a venerable and benevolent presvytera, Matushka Xenia, who was an iconographer, and indeed quite a good iconographer. She would paint icons in the traditional Russian way, holding the icon in a supine position, repeatedly applying transparent colored layers. About a year ago when I was brought a photograph of Saint Matrona of Moscow, I immediately thought of Matushka Xenia. It seemed that the resemblance was amazing.

I will return to Fr. John. The fourth common element we had in our relationship was the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Boston.

In 1958 I arrived in Boston and Monk Panteleimon Metropoulos was being hosted by the School. Although he was an American he had gone to Mount Athos where he was tonsured a monk at the Russian Monastery of Saint Panteleimon, and he was also a member of the brotherhood of the Venerable Joseph the Cave-Dweller. Two years later, with the blessing of Bishop Athenagoras of Boston and later the Archbishop of Thyatira and Great Britain, he founded near the School the Monastery with the name Divine Transfiguration.

The Monastery became a pole of attraction for many seminarians, among whom was I myself. Every Thursday evening and Sunday after the Divine Liturgy I would visit the Monastery. There in a separate cell the eldress mother of Fr. John was hosted, Yiayia Romanides as we called her with much love and tenderness as students. Eldress Eulambia was at an advanced age. As soon as I met her she asked me in a heavy Cappadocian accent: "My child, you do not look like the others, perhaps you come from our parts?" Indeed from that time, and even until today, I myself confuse her accented words for "you" and "me". Since then we became friends and she would tell me a lot about her homeland, the habits and traditions. She also told me a little about the villages of my parents. So, we would often find Fr. John at the Monastery who would come to visit his mother. Over time I became paired with Fr. John with a close and long friendship.

The last year at school I had to make certain decisions about my future. I thought about continuing my theological studies at Harvard, where my spiritual father Fr. George Florovsky was teaching, and indeed with his help I received a full scholarship from this University to continue my studies there. In the meantime, however, with the encouragement of our Dean, the late Fr. Nikodemos Ballendras, who later became the Metropolitan of Patras, and who was very excited about my sketches and iconography, I sent some of them to the late Mr. Photis Kontoglou, who was later my mentor when he accepted me to come and study near him. And because the late Holy Archbishop of America Iakovos would send me now and then counsel to marry and get ordained, although I had not yet decided if I would marry or remain unmarried, I decided to leave Boston. So I asked for a scholarship from the Archdiocese of America and I came to Greece for two years to study near Mr. Photis and his students.

When Fr. John heard that I would come to study at Athens, he provided me with an introductory letter to Mr. Photis and he arranged for me to be hosted in the home of the late shipowner Panagou Patera, being closely associated with his family.

In Greece I met my presvytera, got married, got ordained, and I returned to America, where I served as a parish priest for two years. Then, for family reasons, towards the end of 1966 we returned to Athens.

So when in 1968 Fr. John was elected Professor at the Theological School of Thessaloniki, I had the honor to host him in my home, until his appointment was ratified. Certainly I took advantage of his presence in order to present him with many and various issues, to which he responded very profoundly. I could not get enough of having late discussions with him, beyond midnight. And when he acquired his own house in Kalamaki and would travel to and from Thessaloniki, on Sundays by rule he would be in Athens and rarely was he absent. He would come and attend church at the parish in which I served, at Saint Haralambos Ilision, and he always communed of the Immaculate Mysteries, and sometimes on major feasts we co-liturgized together. After almost every Liturgy he always had coffee with us and he would speak to us about various issues. The result was that the entire parish came to know him and love him. Almost unfailingly we had him with us every Sunday until November of 2001, when he reposed in the Lord.

Furthermore he often visited me in my Office at the Holy Synod, because I was Secretary of the Synodal Committee on Inter-Orthodox and Inter-Christian Relations, and we had an administrative cooperation, because Fr. John was for many years not only a Member of the Synodal Committee but also a representative of the Church of Greece in the Central Committee of the WCC, the Committee on Faith and Order of the organization, and theological dialogues with the Anglicans, with the Non-Chalcedonians, with the Roman Catholics (the Technical Preparatory Commission) and with the Lutherans.

When on the 1st of November in 2001 he left us to go near Christ whom he loved and served, to all of us who knew him and loved him and with his personality and teachings he indelibly left his mark, he left a void within us, which until now time has been unable to heal. May his memory be eternal.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ὁ διδάσκαλός μου π. Ἰωάννης Ρωμανίδης καὶ ὁ πνευματικός μου π. Γεώργιος Φλωρόφσκι", January 2011. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.