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Excerpts from the Life of Elder Gervasios (Paraskevopoulos) of Patras (+1964)

By Hierodeacon Cyril (Kostopoulos)


1. The Zealot Parish Priest

Metropolitan Anthony of Patras assigned Father Gervasios as a parish priest to the church of Saint Paraskevi and subsequently to the church of Saint Demetrios. As a parish priest now Father Gervasios "was placed under the light, so that he could shine to everyone in the house." He knew all his parishioners personally. He turned with zeal mainly towards the youth. Catechetics, sermons, confessions, Divine Liturgy four times a week—the zealous parish priest did everything. He could be heard saying, "With zeal I was zealous for the Lord Almighty." Just as the sentence of the Apocalypse puts it: "I would that thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of My mouth" (Revelation 3:15-16). He would often repeat: "The Lord, my children, wants not only the workers of the word, but also all Christians, to be zealots and not lukewarm." ("Gervasios Paraskevopoulos". Our. Liapikou, Athens 1971 page 19-20). In the summer months, when almost everyone rested, Father Gervasios continued his pastoral activity.

When they asked him to discontinue at least for a time during those months, so as to rest a little and return with new strength to his work, he would answer with the Lord's saying: "My Father worketh hitherto... (St. John 5:17) and continue "but does the Devil ever give up? If we could at least close him up in a jar during the summer months, then we would also rest. It is precisely in the summer that he works and moves even more without making a truce even for a moment. Don't you see what is going on, how he has denuded us all with the excuse that we're hot? Don't you see what's going on in the streets, on the seashores? So we also haven't time to lose; we are obligated to work alongside, in our own area, without diversion, in order to safeguard the sheep from the wolf." ("Gervasios Paraskevopoulos". Our. Liapikou, Athens 1971, page 21).

In his tremendous zeal for anything that had to do with the beauty of the church and its appearance in general, Father Gervasios went ahead with some changes, or "innovations" in the view of many who reacted against them. He abolished the passing of trays and transferred the selling of candles to the narthex, so that people would not exchange money in the middle of the Divine Liturgy—we all know this dreadful evil today also. Furthermore, he opened the side doors of the church, so that poor Christians might be able to attend. Such people used to hesitate to come and pray with the other Christians because they wore unpresentable clothing or were short of money for the candles. This action of Father's irritated the board members of his church and other churches so much that they initiated various slanders to the Metropolis. The zealous parish Priest gave them the same response as the Lord had to His critics, the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees: "My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves, a house of merchandise" (St. Matthew 21:13; St. John 2:16). He forbade payment for the Sacrament of Confession, (At that time the spiritual fathers were paid) since grace is granted freely, as he used to say... He also abolished weddings of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd categories. ("Gervasios Paraskevopoulos". Our. Liapikou, Athens 1971, page 31-32)

What can we say about his exceeding love for church services? He was par excellence the kind of parish Priest who loved services [can there be any other kind?—ed.}. "I often heard him," says one of his spiritual children, "barely audible, whispering and repeating 'Lord have mercy' in such a way that it is difficult for me to express it in writing. That 'Grant this O Lord,' as the Elder pronounced it, is unique in its expression and it will remain unforgettably written in my soul. ("Gervasios Paraskevopoulos". Our. Liapikou, Athens 1971, page 33).

The Elder loved the Hours and Vespers enormously. He said the prayers of Vespers so compunctionately and slowly that one could not remain on earth when attending him. He was often seen weeping during Vespers.

He fulfilled his parish duties to the full, as an excellent pastor, but he did not abandon his personal askesis. This is very obviously illustrated by the following incident described by Ourania Liapikou, one of his spiritual children who loved him very much. "When his sister Helen was alive, simple and virtuous woman that she was, she used to sleep at her own request in their house, next to the church of the Prophet Elias, because she was alone. In this house of theirs down below he had he cell-office, and whenever he came he would stay there. The floor was single-board, and at that time, because I loved to observe his life, in the quiet of the night I frequently heard—very faintly, of course—his all-night prayers, usually the psalter. He would light candles and incense and pray, while he continued writing homilies and sermons for the press until the early morning hours, when he would set out for the church.

He recommended prayer at night as being more compunctionate, following the example of the Prophet-King David, with the amomos [Psalm 118], Orthros and the Six Psalms. He used to study the sacred Scriptures a great deal. He took particular delight in the sacred Psalter, the Voice of the Church", as he used to call it. ("Gervasios Paraskevopoulos". Our. Liapikou, Athens 1971, pages 34, 35).

It should be noted that when he intended to celebrate the Liturgy he would not lie down at all the previous night, but would spend the whole night sitting in a chair. Consequently, he would celebrate the Divine Liturgy the next day, reduced to a shadow. It was impossible for someone to observe a Divine Liturgy celebrated by the holy Father, along with his fiery sermon, and not come out flying in heavenly spheres. Allow me at this point to say that if today the world has to a great extent become distanced from the Church and does not like to attend her services or her sermons, this is due mostly to the parish Priest, who goes up the steps of the altar or the apostolic pulpit without any spiritual preparation whatever.

Father Gervasios, however, was aflame with divine love. Aware of his sinfulness and the fearful service which the Heavenly Shepherd had entrusted to him, he used to say, weeping: "God took me from the sheepfold and made me a King... what more could I ask for?" He very evidently felt the pleroma [fullness] of joy and gladness, according to Metropolitan Hierotheos of Hydra, as he exercised the "reign" of his Priesthood. There was no void of some other nostalgia. He appeared like one holding a scepter when he stood before the steps of the Altar, or descended to the "jail" of his confessionals, or ascended the homilists bema [pulpit]. Blossoms of paradise bloomed around him when, because of his age, he could not walk any more. He exercised with amazing youthfulness and grace his beloved work of catechist, and especially of infants. "I see the angels of Heaven around me, " he used to say, "and hear their chanting... this work is of Christ, Who exists always and in the same way.' (Article of the Metropolitan of Hydra lerotheos, Religious and Ethical Encyclopedia, vol. 10, column 52).

But the good shepherd did not overlook the poor and needy. He was charitable both night and day. How many times was he seen, when thick darkness prevailed, walking the poor neighborhoods in order to practise the virtue of charity!

In the person of Father Gervasios we had discerned the spirit of the sacred Chrysostomos, Basil the Great, John the Merciful, and so many other pastors of our holy Church, being re-lived. He brought to our minds all the virtues of the first Fathers of the Church.

2. "The Preacher of Grace."

"The divine preaching, according to old and new teachers, is the soul and spirit of every sacred service, and especially of the Divine Liturgy. Without it, the holiest work of all, the execution of the Divine worship, is in danger of turning into a dry ritual, ritual worship, because many people are unfamiliar with the symbolism, not to mention the meanings of the words and expressions of the prayers and hymns" (Archimandrite Gervasios (Paraskevopoulos), Interpretative Overview of the Divine Liturgy [Patras, 19581, p. 129). Thus did Father Gervasios believe and preach in the city of Patras.

In order to understand what great significance Father Gervasios attributed to the service of the Divine word, it is enough for us to mention the typical Sunday program.

To begin with, there was a sermon at the nocturnal Divine Liturgy which he celebrated in the church of Saint Demetrios in Patras. Later on, he again preached a sermon that would serve as an example of a catechism to the male and female catechists, thirdly an afternoon sermon at Saint Demetrios and finally a fourth sermon in the afternoon in the Cathedral Church of Evangelistria. When he was finally relieved of his parish obligations he gave the sermons daily. He was not afraid to work. The holy father was always thinking of ways to snatch as many sheep as possible from the mouth of the noetic serpent. Neither old age nor the various illnesses which had been plaguing him from long before could moderate the zeal of Father Gervasios.

Especially during the last years of his life, when he could not getup from his bed, he preached to the multitudes who crowded around by taking a microphone in his hand and preaching from his bed into the special room outside his cell which was set aside for this purpose. In this way the good shepherd could maintain contact with his flock up to the last moment of his life. I also ascertained this when I expected to see the Elder coming out of his cell to preach, and instead of him I heard his voice coming from the microphone in the room. This naturally aroused the anger of his enemies who thought differently, and they began accusing him because of his continual Preaching. 'Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel!" (I Corinthians 9:l6) he would answer with the words of the Apostle Paul.

What zeal possessed Father Gervasios! "His preaching," writes Metropolitan Hierotheos of Hydra, "was scriptural—he had a very deep knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and especially of the Old Testament—and Patristic, full of edification but also of censure, full of consolation but also of warning. There are scenes which one could only encounter in the early Church. Those who listened to his sermons interrupted him and amid sobs confessed their gravest sins 'in public.' His great contribution is that he was not simply a charismatic preacher from the pulpit. He was the initiate of the word. His pulpit had in essence been established, as in certain ancient churches of the East, on the Holy Table, and it was from there that he received the Body and Blood of his Word'."

Father Gervasios had thoroughly studied the passage in Acts: "And they continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (2:42). He wrote: "I perceived that the Divine preaching is insufficient without the Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist" (Interpretative Overview of the Divine Liturgy, p. 7). Therefore, when he intended to preach he previously celebrated the Divine Liturgy. "Only the harmonious combination of Divine preaching and Divine Sacraments provides us with the complete work, the Mystery of the Divine Incarnation of our Savior' (Interpretative Overview of the Divine Liturgy, p. 131).

From all this one could easily come to the conclusion that many preachers fail miserably because Divine preaching does not take place along with the sacred Mystery of the Divine Eucharist. As we know, this is literally Protestant and inappropriate for Orthodox.

"For this reason, when Father Gervasios spoke, he looked as if he were celebrating the Liturgy," writes Metropolitan Hierotheos of Hydra. "If one were to ask what he was chiefly—a celebrant or a homilist—his example gave the answer, which interprets in a revealing way that sacramental phrase of the Apostle Paul in Romans ("That I should be the minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, in the priestly service of the Gospel of God, that the offering of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit" [15:16]). He was a celebrant of the Gospel. You could not isolate him. The image of the homilist with his sinewy right hand raised up is inseparably associated with the image of the celebrant dressed in white—with a simple linen phelonion—with the barely audible censer slightly lifted up, with his lofty figure and deep voice, which imparted to the souls the awe of the heavenly powers standing before the throne of the Almighty. You would become contrite as you observed Father Gervasios celebrating," but also when he was preaching.

I remember with awe, when I would go to the chapel of Saint Tabitha in winter or to the room in the summer in order to hear Father Gervasios preaching, that my heart beat with sacred awe and joy. This occurred because I knew from before that on returning something would change in my inner world. I attribute this—not just me, but everyone who observed Father's fiery sermons—on the one hand to the shining example of his holy life, and on the other hand to the content of his homily. No sermon was inferior to the previous one. All bore the stamp of Holy Scripture, both Old and New, of the Holy Fathers and the sacred canons of our Holy Church. Thus, one who followed the preaching of the holy father entered into the Patristic Tradition of the Orthodox Church. Truly Father Gervasios was the preacher of Divine Grace.

3. The Founder of Catechetical Schools.

Youth had first place in the heart of Father Gervasios. He loved the youth enormously. He was unimaginably joyful that he was the pastor of young people as well. For this reason he undertook a spiritual crusade to safeguard the children who wandered in the wilderness of ignorance and neglect.

To begin with, he founded catechetical schools in Patras for the first time in the parishes in which he served as priest. But in the rest of Greece also there were no catechetical schools. Consequently, he was the first to found them in the year 1923 and the first to develop the idea of ecclesiastical nursery schools. His students numbered in the thousands.

"I remember him," writes Professor Panagiotis Trembelas, "at Saint Demetrios, where the catechetical schools functioned, surrounded by a multitude of children.., with what patience, what approachability, with how much love and calmness he stood! May his soul be blessed."

One would indeed see the austere and unyielding worker of the Gospel completely change his expression before the young people. When he entered the church or the room to catechize, he put up with all the idiosyncrasies of the young people joyfully and with an ever-youthful disposition right to the end. Amid the children he was like a child. "You older boys be careful, you will make society"; "You older girls be careful, the future of society depends on you," he would say to the young students. "There is nothing sweeter and more delightful than to tend the lambs of Christ," he wrote (St. John 21:15). He had separated his students into groups with captains in charge of tens and fives, in accordance with Deuteronomy 1:15. He paid great attention to the girls because he believed that the renewal of society and the future of the nation depended on the heart of the family, the mother. "Give me mothers," he used to say, "and if everything else is abolished, but the bond of the family remains unharmed, do not fear... the woman can prove to be vital to civilization, and she will not be forgiven if she squanders her precious treasure, the provisions she is endowed with, and her precious and invaluable time in unworthy matters and vain occupations." Father Gervasios wanted the woman, and especially the daughter, to be modest, prudent and sensible, and to invite respect rather than ironic smiles; just as her dress was necessary for this, so also were her gait, her conversation and even her laughter, which reveal and constitute her character. That he gave so much weight to the edification of mothers is evident from the fact that every Monday he instituted a special lesson for them. In these lessons, according to a spiritual child of his, he deployed the teachings of the Holy Apostles, the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes, the Psalter, the Wisdom of Sirach, Proverbs, the Fathers, the Evergetinos and the holy Ascetics. The content of his catechetical lesson in general was always such that the student could support the teaching both Scripturally and Patristically. That is, it began with the New Testament, continued with the Old Testament and the Fathers of the Church, and ended with the Rudder. This system of catechism was continued in my day too, but even today it goes on in the same way. A female student, who was quite old and had completed only second grade of elementary school, developed the doctrine of the Trinity in a manner so clear and understandable that it was amazing.

It is impossible for a student to have come out or to be coming out of the catechetical schools of Father Gervasios today and not to be moved simply at the names "Fathers" or "Sacred Rudder." The catechists of Father Gervasios would break into tears when they spoke about our Sacred Tradition. Here is another very striking characteristic: never in any instance were songs foreign to the hymnography of our Church ever heard. The catechetical children were introduced to liturgics, dogmatics and at the same time to Byzantine music. I admit that I recall most of the Church hymns I happen to know from the catechetical school. For Father Gervasios songs of a Protestant nature and European music were completely foreign. The influx of such songs and music into catechetical schools and groups is probably the reason why our Church suffers from a lack of chanters with an ecclesiastical style and attitude.

The activities of Father Gervasios for the youth who suffered terribly do not stop here. Besides continuing catechetical schools during the summer months, he created summer camps. In 1946 he established the first of these in the area of the Prophet Elias, which is now a women's monastery. Afterwards he constructed permanent buildings especially for this purpose at Sichaina near Patras, to which he transferred the summer camps. Thereafter they remained in that place.

Just as in the catechetical schools, so here also the beginning and end of Father's entire pastoral activity was the sacramental life. The center of the whole summer camp life was the church. Inside the chapel of Saint Paraskevi he celebrated the Divine Liturgy two or three times a week. The campers very often went to confession. He believed that this was the only way of reforming our youth, who had in many respects gone astray. Within this chapel events often took place which reminded one of the early Christian times. In the evening, when the shepherd and the flock were gathered inside the church for a report of the day's activities, a "public" confession on the part of the campers would take place. One would admire the good shepherd and at his good- hearted sheep.

Through all of these means—catechetical schools, catechetical nursery schools and summer camps—Father Gervasios sought one thing: to offer as many saints as possible to the Church of Christ. (pp. 36-53)

Interpretative Overview, pp. 19-20).

He also imparted this spirit to his spiritual children. It was moving to see young people aged 12 and 14 saying in their conversations with others: "The Fathers do not say this," or "Thus says the Tradition of our Church." Everything performed in the Church, the sacred vessels, the sacred vestments, the outward dress of the Clergy, the iconography, the ecclesiastical music, the services—"everything," he used to say, "must be in harmony with the sacred Traditions of our holy Church." He would fervently inveigh against the innovative Papists. "The reception," he says, "of the deceptions and claims after the schism and particularly the infallibility of the Pope, who continually, unhesitatingly and unreservedly churns out whatever dogma and deceptions serve his aims and advantages, from the 'deposit' of the dogmas, as those under him consider it, is a denial, is a betrayal of Orthodoxy, that is, of the correct dogmas, as the teaching of the Lord, the Holy Apostles and those Apostolic Fathers and teachers with them handed down in traditions and in Oecumenical Synods unadulterated." And he continues: "Great care and sensitivity is needed, as much in matters of the faith and the dogmas, as in the sacred Traditions and the appearance and form of the things which the Church has been handed down. How many of those Fathers who maintained and handed down Orthodoxy unadulterated, were tortured, maimed and suffered in every way, and particularly from those Popes themselves, as occurred in the pseudo-synod of Florence? How many shed their blood, in order to water the God-planted heavenly tree of our orthodoxy persisting in the God-ordained decrees, denying subjection, and betrayal of the Orthodoxy of our spotless Church?"

Alongside Father's zeal, there also was his understanding in all matters. Characteristic is the Elder's answer when he was asked by his spiritual children what position they should take after the change of the Calendar. The prudent clergyman answered: "What was done is not correct, because no one has the right to change and alter anything at all, except after the calling of a general synod, such as the Oecumenical Synods, because whatever the Fathers decreed in Synods by the descent of the Comforter from on high, which so many centuries respected, and which they sealed well with their blood and handed down to us, is for every Orthodox the only appointed thing. Nevertheless, be careful lest they proceed to other innovations arbitrarily, because as I see it, this is the first step towards Papism. For the time being we will obey these innovators, remaining on guard for subsequent changes. We are being attacked from all sides. May the Lord preserve his flock, may God enlighten them."

Father Gervasios was not intolerant, nor was he an imprudent clergyman. On the contrary, he loved everyone. When you approached him and conversed with him concerning matters of faith, then you looked at the wise Pastor who was also inflamed by divine zeal for our most sweet Orthodoxy. When he spoke about Orthodoxy he became all aflame. I cannot present to you with the pen even dimly his burning love for the Traditions and sacred Canons of our holy Church. "But Orthodoxy for us," the holy Father characteristically writes, "is nothing other than God and the sacred Canons. Ignorance of them is the main cause of the spiritual downfall of the whole Orthodox pleroma, along with many of the shepherds of the Church, not a few of whom, even though they are not ignorant of the letter of these, nevertheless do not live according to their spirit." Many of the modernist theologians maintain that the sacred Canons are later inventions with no relation to the teaching of the Lord, or they consider them to be archaic manuscripts. Father Gervasios, however, was grieved when he saw the indifference, the coldness, and also the shamelessness of these theologians or clergy. He writes with pain of soul: "It is grievous that on what is today the naked and uncultivated field of the sacred Canons a spirit of coldness and indifference is put forth. In word the Canons are honored by the majority as the foundations of Orthodoxy, but in deed they are seldom implemented. Freezing indifference deadens the voice which dares to defend the angelic guardian of Orthodoxy. The Canons are considered to be archaic manuscripts. They are in general a mighty corpse and honors are conferred on them, a retired general who once led the armies of the Church to triumph." The ringing of this small semantron was not enough for Father Gervasios. He longed, if it were possible, "for the bells of the whole of Orthodoxy to be rung, calling an alarm, so that this destructive delusion might cease." However his weak strength, as he himself used to say, would not allow it. The various voices which were heard at times against the "guardian angel of Orthodoxy", as he used to call the sacred Canons, he took to be "signs of the times." He attributed every failure of ecclesiastical administration in problems of every kind to not keeping the sacred Canons of the Orthodox Church. He wrote characteristically: "How is it that we are working on the roof when the foundations are being shaken? How is it that we await the blessing of God for a work which ignores basic laws of the great spiritual matters? 'Seek ye first the Kingdom of God,' the Lord said, 'and all these things shall be added unto you' (St. Matthew 6:33; St.Luke 12:31). The first things are those which the Oecumenical Synods and the Fathers decreed and handed down to us." And the holy Father adds: "The pioneers of this undertaking are the pastors, the bishops mainly and their clergy. The bishops are the guardians of the sacred deposit of the Canons. Like other lions and eagles—eagles and lions adorn the bishop's throne—they defend and attack, they inspire and raise up their faithful, battling for the keeping and implementation of the Canons. Woe to the generation of those Christians, whose bishops neglected or ceased struggling for this battle above all." The eternal motto of the holy Father was: "Back to the Canons and the Fathers." Of course he was considered to be an old-fashioned clergyman, a man of extremes, more strict than necessary, etc. However, he would not yield even in the least, for he was a pastor in all respects Orthodox and Patristic. Are not the genuine shepherds today who seek the faithful keeping of the sacred Traditions and the sacred Canons of our holy Church viewed in the same light?

Nevertheless, the exhortation of the holy Father, "Back to the Canons and the Fathers", is the only road for us newer clergymen and theologians to follow, so that we may not lament becoming witnesses of undesirable states and misfortunes. However, for this sacred battle, fighters are needed with very deep faith and Christian heroism, as the holy Father also used to say. May God grant that such fighters appear. Already though, let us not despair, for there do exist such fighters and they do fight. (pp. 70-77)

From Elder Gervasios (Paraskevopoulos) of Patras: His Life and Pastoral Work (Thessaloniki: "Orthodoxos Kypseli" Publications). Trans. By Fr. Nicholas Palis. Ed. by Patrick Barker. Posted July 4, 2006.