"A Candle in
Front of the Savior"
Part 1: The Formative Years
Archbishop Anastasios has a white beard and moustache. Mainly bald, what hair he has retained is silver. His glasses have tortoise-shell frames with gold stems and exceptionally thick lenses, though what you notice most of all is the twinkle in his welcoming brown eyes. His words are often echoed by hand gestures. While he never seems to hurry, he leads a busy life, as I was to see at close range during many days of travel at his side or visiting him at the Metropolia in Tirana. He rarely glances at his watch, but when he does it is not so much to know the hour as to signal that it's time for the next thing he has to do.
When Archbishop Anastasios flew to Tirana from Athens n July 16, 1991, he was arriving in what had recently been the world's most militant atheist state. The 440 clergy that had served the Orthodox Church 60 years earlier had been reduced to 22, all old and frail, some close to death.
While Archbishop Anastasios could recall occasionally citing Albania as providing one of the most extreme examples of religious persecution since the age of Diocletian, it had never crossed his mind that Albania might one day become his home and that he would become responsible for leading a Church that most of the world regarded as not only oppressed but extinct.
Born November 4, 1929, in Piraeus, Greece, it was by no means certain Anastasios Yannoulatos would become more than a nominal Christian. He grew up in a period when life seemed mainly shaped by secular ideologies, wars, politics and economics, with many of his peers regarding the Orthodox Church as little more than a decorative social vestige surviving from the past.
When he was six, an army-backed dictatorship lead by General Ioannis Metaxas was established in Greece. Metaxas liked the titles "First Peasant," "First Worker" and "National Father." He led a fascist regime, though one independently minded and non-racist, resisting alliances with its counterparts in Germany and Italy. From bases in Albania, Italy invaded Greece in 1940. Anastasios was ten. While Italian forces were quickly pushed back into Albania, the following year the German army arrived in force. Greeks found themselves subject to a harsh tripartite German, Italian, and Bulgarian occupation, with civil war breaking out between factions of the resistance -- the royalist right versus the Marxist left -- even before occupation troops began to withdraw late in 1944. Anastasios was nearly 20 when civil conflict in Greece finally ended, the United States having weighed in on the side of democratic forces.
"I have many memories of the Second World War and the civil war in Greece that followed," he told me. "This made me ask: Where is freedom and love? Many found their direction in the Communist movement, but I could not imagine that freedom and love could result from the Communist Party or any other party. Very early in my life there was a longing for something authentic. During the war we had no school -- we were more free. I read a lot, so many books! Not all of them helped my faith -- Marx, Freud, Feuerbach. But there was a turning point. I can remember as if it were yesterday kneeling on the roof of our home, saying, 'Do you exist or not? Is it true there is a God of love? Show your love. Give me a sign.'
"When you say such a prayer, the answer comes. It does not come with angels singing but you realize God is there, in front of you and what He says is 'I ask for you -- not something from you.' You understand in such a moment what is important is not to give but to be given.
"That prayer was when I was a teenager. You can see why I have such a respect for teenagers. It can be a time when you ask the most important questions and are willing to hear the answer that is without words. Love and respect is shown to young people not in words but in the way you approach them, how you see them. It is the same with very old people in difficult times, people who are suffering."
In his teens Anastasios studied at a gymnasium in Athens. "My main strength, it was discovered, was in mathematics, my main weakness in writing essays. My grades were high -- I was at the top of my class. A certain path in life seemed obvious to everyone, but within myself there was a sense of being called toward the Church, not something everyone I knew sympathized with! At a critical moment, wrestling with the question what is essential, I turned toward freedom and love. It was a turn toward Christ, in whom I saw the only answer."
Finally he applied for the Theological Faculty of Athens University. "It was, of course, the age of technology. My decision to become a theology student was a scandal. What a waste! This is what many of my friends and teachers thought at the time."
While studying theology, he found himself drawn into Orthodox youth activities through which opportunities arose to meet young Orthodox Christians from other countries, an experience which made him realize that Christianity was far larger than Greece. The seeds of missionary thinking were planted. He began to wonder why it was that the Orthodox Church did so little to reach out to those who have no faith. "How had it happened that a Church called to baptize the nations was so indifferent to the nations? Saint Paul brought the Gospel to Greeks. Who were we bringing it to?" It was a pivotal question that would shape the rest of his life.
After being drafted into the Greek army for a term, where he served as a communications officer, he returned to academic life, now going further with developing communication skills -- homiletics and journalism. At the same time youth work continued, which always included religious education. He began training other catechists, finally designing text books for a three-year program of religious education for youth. More than a quarter century and eight editions later, the books are still standard in all Greek Sunday schools.
In 1959 he founded a quarterly magazine, Porefthendes (Go Ye), devoted to the study of the history, theology, methods and spirit of Orthodox mission. "With all my talk about mission, I was regarded at first as slightly insane, but gradually people began to understand that a Church is not apostolic if it is not carrying out mission. Apostolic means to be like the apostles, every one of whom was a missionary." The journal lasted only a decade but its existence occasioned the resurrection of the mission tradition in the Greek Orthodox Church.
In 1961, thanks to decisions made at the fifth assembly of Syndesmos, the Orthodox youth movement, a center also named Porefthendes was established in Athens with Anastasios as director. This in turn involved him in international ecumenical meetings on mission, events often organized by the World Council of Churches. Anastasios became a member of the WCC's Working Committee on Mission Studies. He has since held a number of WCC leadership positions.
It was the desire to serve the Church as a missionary that finally brought him to ordination as a priest. "When I was 33, at Christmas time, I went to the monastery on the island of Patmos. This is a period of the year when there are few if any tourists. You experience absolute silence and isolation. During this time I again considered returning to missionary activity. The question formed in my mind: What about the dangers you will face? Then came the response: Is God enough for you? If God is not enough, then in what God do you believe? If God is enough for you, go!"
Following his ordination he went to Uganda where he learned to read and speak two Africa languages, Galla and Swahili.
"I thought finally my life had really begun. Africa, which I had thought about so often and with such longing, would be my home for the remainder of my life. So I hoped. But malaria ended that dream. It was the malaria of the Great Lakes, which can attack the brain. The first symptom was loss of balance. Then I had a fever of 40 degrees. It was my first experience of being close to death. I remember the phrase that formed in my thoughts when I thought I would die: 'My Lord, you know that I tried to love you.' Then I slept -- and the next day I felt well! But this was only a providential remission. There was a second attack when I went to Geneva to attend a mission conference. Fortunately doctors there were able to identify the illness and knew how to treat it. But I had a complete breakdown of health. When I was well enough to leave the hospital they said I must forget about returning to Africa. This was a second death for me. It was only to serve in Africa that I had become a priest. Otherwise I would have taken a scholarly path. Friends said to me. 'You don't have to be a missionary -- you can inspire others to be missionaries through your teaching.' But it had always been clear to me that what you say you must also do -- how could I teach what I wasn't living? Only I had no choice. I had to return to the university."
By 1972 he had been elected by the Faculty of Theology of Athens University as assistant professor of the history of religion. The same year, in recognition of the importance of his academic work with its special emphasis on mission, he was ordained a bishop. Four years later he was full professor, teaching courses on African religion and other living faiths, being the first at the university to introduce Islam as an area of study.
His eventual recovery from malaria made it possible in 1981 to return to East Africa, arriving when the Orthodox Church in Kenya was in a state of division and severe crisis. His work extended to Uganda and Tanzania as well. After nearly a decade in Africa, he could begin to imagine eventually returning to the University of Athens and devoting himself to teaching and writing. Instead something altogether unimagined intervened in his life: neither Africa nor Athens but Albania.
THE RESURRECTION OF CHURCH IN
Voices of Orthodox Christians, WCC Publications,