Archimandrite Bartholomew, Abbot of the Esfigmenou Monastery. (Photo provided by the Esfigmenou Monastery)
BOSTON – Archimandrite Bartholomew, Abbot of the Esfigmenou Monastery of Mount Athos, spoke to The National Herald spoke about the antivaccination phenomenon on Mount Athos, about fundamentalists, and the self-proclaimed ‘elders’ who influence the lives of many people outside the walls of the monastery. The Abbot also spoke about the continuous occupation of the Monastery of Esfigmenou by a group of monastics despite the many court decisions ordering them depart from the premises.
Abbot Bartholomew is a young clergyman, with broad horizons and a substantial theological education. He is outspoken, daring to call things by their real name names. The entire interview follows:
The National Herald: Fr. Bartholomew, what is the current state on Mount Athos regarding the coronavirus pandemic? Are there any monks or even monasteries that reject vaccination and, if so, how do they justify their refusal?
Abbot Bartholomew: Unfortunately, even nowadays some people refuse to get vaccinated on Mount Athos, like they do worldwide. They justify their stance either with novel pseudo-theological arguments or pseudo-scientific arguments that they have found on the Internet or their visitors have conveyed to them. Some are deniers for the sake of attracting followers, while some others have been misled.
TNH: In your opinion, why has fundamentalism taken root on Mount Athos, and how could it be addressed?
Abbot Bartholomew: In the second half of the previous century, the monasteries in Mount Athos were shorthanded because the people’s indifference towards faith was widespread after the Second World War. Various opportunists exploited this situation. They came to Mount Athos, not out of faith in God, but to use Mount Athos to exercise power over people, acquire followers and make a profit. A great example of this is the occupation of the Esphigmenou Monastery by GOCs, members of the ‘Genuine Orthodox Christians’ [Old Calendar] church) of the Synod of Auxentius in the 1970s. Fundamentalism, however, has generally infiltrated a part of the orthodox world. The symbols of faith are used for other purposes, such as serving nationalistic causes and new political forces. Ethno-phyletism [extreme nationalism] is considered a heresy by the Church. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has condemned it synodically. To counter the phenomenon of fundamentalism, there is a need to re-evangelize the faithful and analyze its psychological causes. Moreover, honest dialogue between all sides and the repentance of those faithful who think they are Orthodox – but are in fact idolaters of symbols – are needed.
TNH: How do you explain this novel phenomenon of ‘prophetologists’ and ‘futurologist elders’ in the form of gurus who end up “misleading and being misled”?
Abbot Bartholomew: Such phenomena have always existed in the history of the Church. In contemporary times, this phenomenon exists in the Orthodox World because of a systematic and long-lasting slandering campaign against the synodal institution of the Church and the hesitance of the clergy to defend it against the fanatics. Courageous pastoral and theological discourse is missing. The fundamentalists tried to achieve ideological domination based on false narratives of terror of the faithful, [speaking about things such as that of the ‘new world order’. They present themselves as the only saviors. The phenomenon took on explosive proportions because of social networks, the self-promotion of ‘elders’ on the Internet, and the ease of forming supporting teams.
TNH: How conscious are we today of what the Church is compared to what it is not?
Abbot Bartholomew: Unfortunately, nowadays, the mentality of many orthodox faithful has become protestant-like. Many faithful are lured and follow various self-appointed saviors, dividing themselves into groups, separating themselves from the unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. These faithful people believe only in external symbols; they become Pharisees to avoid inner spiritual work and repentance. Christians should be the “salt of the earth” that transforms the world and not a destructive sect.
TNH: What attracted you to monasticism?
Abbot Bartholomew: Each person chooses a path in life. In Church, we say that one must select either marriage or monasticism. Both paths lead to one’s salvation, and both ways are blessed when experienced according to God’s will. In both directions, someone can cultivate humility and virtue. Both paths have their joys and their difficulties. The monks should also engage in various livelihood ministries, and laypeople should also pray. Given the nature of monasticism, the time that a layperson dedicates to showing his love for his family, the monk devotes to the love of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Personally, I was drawn to monasticism by the spirit of calmness and simplicity of my elder, the late Chrysostomos Katsoulieris. The elder served the Greek community in England before returning to Greece and going to Mount Athos. Nevertheless, God reserved for me the position of abbot, against my wish for peace.
TNH: Why, after so many years and so many final decisions of the judicial authorities of Greece, does this unholy state of occupation of the building complex of the Monastery of Esphigmenou continue?
Abbot Bartholomew: We suppose that the state institutions do not implement the decisions of the judicial officials because of the political cost it may involve. There is a political cost because of the mobilization of the fanatical followers of the squatters, the threats of the squatters that they will allegedly be blown up, the distorted image of the reality presented by various media, the ethno-phyletism, the lack of ecclesiastical conscience among many faithful, the unjustified hesitation and puzzlement of the state actors in the face of illegally acting ‘men of the cloth,’ and the indifference of the rest.
TNH: What is your message to the Omogenia in America?
Abbot Bartholomew: If Greek-Americans want to preserve their ethnic identity for future generations in the environment in which they live, they should ensure at all times to be united with the Mother Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and set aside those who slander it. Let us not forget the Greeks of Cappadocia, who remained Greeks even though they spoke Turkish because of their devotion to the Church. Of course, nowadays, these challenges to Hellenism do not come from other states but from alleged men of the cloth, who pretend to be the holy super-orthodox elders, trying to distract the faithful from the Church. Eventually, the seduced ‘faithful’ will end up being just another one of the thousands of Protestant churches that exist in America, just using Orthodox symbols and robes. Cut off from the Mother Church, neither learning Greek nor parish celebrations with Greek cuisine will help preserve their ethnic heritage. Future generations will get bored with them and abandon them. That is why the Greeks should maintain the communal spirit of Orthodoxy and put aside divisions [and allegiance to] any kind of factions.
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