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The Church’s New COVID-19 Realities Illuminated by Dr. Chrysostomos Stamoulis

BOSTON – Dr. Chrysostomos Stamoulis, professor of Dogmatic and Symbolic Theology at the Department of Theology of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, in an interview with The National Herald, discusses and analyzes the Church’s new reality in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A distinguished Orthodox theologian, Stamoulis’ thought opens broader horizons of understanding and appreciation for Church tradition, presenting it in a contemporary way. He studied at the universities of Thessaloniki, Belgrade, and Durham and has visited the United States many times.

The full interview follows:

The National Herald: What are your thoughts regarding this year's Holy Week and Easter?

Chrysostomos Stamoulis: This year the faithful experienced the Passion and the Resurrection of Christ in an unprecedented way. There is no doubt about it. Also in a way that has challenged many certainties that characterized the life of the church for centuries. I have the feeling that no one could have imagined, until the beginning of the pandemic, a Holy Week and Easter with empty church pews. We all went through a tough test. We all have felt the painful feeling of abstinence from Church worship to the maximum. But at the same time, in spite of the difficulties and pain we felt, the appearance of a new solidarity among people was experienced. A new togetherness serving human needs was appreciated. The Church was not absent from this togetherness, despite the efforts of some.

TNH: As a theologian, but also as a chanter of ecclesiastical music, what thoughts went through your mind seeing empty churches without the presence of the Church community?

CS: I'm not a chanter. My father was a chanter. He taught me a few things about how to assist in chanting. I studied European music and I have served as the director of St. John Chrysostom Choir since 1991. We have made several performances throughout the years, both in our local church and in other churches in Greece and abroad. This year was the first time after 29 years that we did not sing Holy Friday’s Lamentations and did not participate in the other Church services. It was not easy to abstain from church worship. The Church is our home. We were spiritually born in the Church. We spiritually live and exist in the Church. It was a violent but necessary separation. It broke the certainty of the wish that we say every time after the end of an ecclesiastical celebration: “Let’s do it again next year." Thus, through this necessity we became aware of the importance of living the moment in life appreciating meaningful relationships. We realized that people sometimes ignore their temporary existence, reaching the brink of committing hubris, due to a lack of necessary self-awareness. They forget that God rules the history of the Divine Economy.

TNH: What are your thoughts on the Eucharist, and of the faithful’s obligatory absence from the Divine Liturgy and from receiving Holy Communion?

CS: There is an excellent song by Thanos Mikroutsikos, with lyrics by Alkis Alkaiou, performed in a unique way by Dimitris Mitropanos. Every time I hear it, the lyrics always stay in my mind: "How the need becomes history/how history becomes silence." In two phrases, the poet emphasizes everything that is important. This forced absence from the sacrament of Holy Communion, imposed on us by the COVID-19, has now become history. It was a necessity, which give way to a long silence, until we face a new challenge imposed on us by life itself in the future. The point of meaning is, for all of us, to discern the most important task at a particular moment. Our ecclesiastical tradition and life refers to this human agony, showing us and to the whole ecclesial community the way of spiritual discernment, allowing for temporary adjustments in our decisions.

TNH: Should the way of giving Holy Communion be changed? After all, for centuries the offering of Holy Communion was done in the way that bishops and priests follow to this day. What answer could one give to Greek-Americans of the second, third, and fourth generation, scientists, businessmen, etc. who believe, but have difficulty receiving communion through the use of the common spoon?

CS: All things around us mature and change at an incredible rate. As Olga Tokartsuk says, we are "vulnerable creatures, made of the finest material." Today we are here and the next moment elsewhere. The basic principle of theology and its pastoral practice from its foundation until today has been the principle of necessity. St. Cyril of Alexandria, responding to Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, who accused him of modernization and anti-traditionalism, because he used the term ‘Theotokos’ (a term absent from the biblical, synodical and patriarchal tradition – with a few exceptions – until his time), remarked the following: "The Synod did well not mentioning the term Theotokos because no such issue was raised at that time regarding the Virgin Mary; so there was no need to bring what was not challenged in the middle of the discussion. However, the Synod knew, interpreting the deeper meaning of the words, that the holy virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos).” Such is the case regarding the way of offering Holy Communion. Some today are frightened not only by hearing about new methods of giving Holy Communion, but even by the idea of returning to the ancient traditions before the practice of offering communion through the common spoon. And I mean the offering of the body of Christ (the Holy bread) that has been dipped in the Chalice containing the blood of Christ (the Holy wine). This is the ancient practice and tradition.

The Church and its theology have never identified the way in which Holy Communion is offered, with the sacrament. Any view that denies the possibility of changing the way of giving Communion, in favor of the members of the ecclesiastical body, favors a particular habit rather than the truth of the Church. The great mystery of the Eucharist is the communion with Christ. Everything else follows, everything else serves this communion, this union, for the sake of which the Church exists and everything that happens in its life.

In order to appreciate the variety of ways of offering Holy Communion in the history of the Church, from biblical times to the present, it is worth remembering the 101th canon of the Ecumenical Council that convened in Constantinople in 692. This canon condemns those who do not accept receiving the Holy gifts in their hands but prefer instead the use of containers made of gold or other precious material. And this is what the rule notes: "They are condemned because they prefer lifeless and inferior matter to the image of God."

After the ninth century, the Church proceeded with the method of giving communion through the common spoon that we all know today. It did well because that was the need of the time. Today, under a new need, perhaps the time has come for the Church to reconsider the issue. It could make a change, in the name of love, that does not affect at all the core of the ecclesial dogma, serving the "weak brother” according to the apostolic command- "We who are strong must bear the sicknesses of the weak" (Rom. 15: 1) – and not allowing the development of any arguments claiming that the coronavirus is transmitted through the practice of receiving communion at the Church. Let's not forget that “the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath”.

TNH: Do you think that the institutional representation of the Church, but also the Church in general, does not theologize today?

CS: As long as there is a living Church, there is also theology, the birth of which takes place, as the great teacher Nikos Matsoukas used to say, amidst sorrows and pains. Everything must happen at the right time and moment. Although, honestly speaking, our theological reflexes did not work in the best possible way during the first moments of the crisis –(with the noteworthy exceptions of several hierarchs and local Churches), there was ultimately sufficient and substantial progress in theological responses, which will help the Church to move forward after the end of the pandemic.

TNH:  How does one interpret the conversion of the Faith, from a relationship with God to a religious ideology of religiosity that can be supplanted by another ideology?

CS: Unfortunately, people easily surrender themselves to a guaranteed prophecy that presupposes the lack of personal freedom. The miracle of the Faith is a great mystery that stands against a magical understanding of religion. It requires personal responsibility. It is not something that we can experience without effort. As the poet would say, it's not "play and laugh."

TNH: What is your opinion about the Greek Omogenia of America? What are we to you?

CS: Greeks abroad are twice as Greek and twice as Orthodox, because their national and religious identity is tested in places where they do not constitute the majority. The Greek Diaspora was exposed in the dialogue with cultural and religious otherness and gained experiences of coexistence before the Greeks who live in Greece [experienced it]. We have to appreciate and learn from these experiences, the experiences of our ecumenical Hellenism and of our ecumenical Orthodoxy.


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