The streets of London echo an eerie silence, and the feelings of isolation and loneliness permeate throughout this once lively and bustling city.
I find myself in a new place, a new home, worshipping with new people, having arrived in the United Kingdom only a few months ago. However, even in the midst of this new situation, coupled with this current pandemic, there seems to permeate, at the same time, a distinct sense of rejuvenating peace.
Since I have been in London, I have found solace praying with the faithful of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain. I have also found joy in exploring new ways of reaching out to and engaging with the people here. And in addition to this, I must admit that I have found that my own stability and confidence have been strengthened by the resilient leadership of His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas.
Each day, there are new announcements by government officials and agencies concerning the spread and alarming death toll directly connected with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shaken the whole world to its very core.
Social distancing and separation, as well as working from home—together with the #ΜένουμεΣπίτι (#StayHome) movement—have all demonstrated the severity of this global pandemic. Indeed, our world as we knew it will forever be changed by what is happening now.
Our minds cannot help but be taken over by a storm of anxiety, insecurity and fear. Great Lent this year will be like no other we have ever experienced before, especially since the pandemic is so different than anything any of us have ever encountered. But with this health crisis, the work of the Archdiocese here in the UK shines bright as a vigilant and courageous beacon of hope and reassurance that better days are coming.
My relationship with Archbishop Nikitas
I have been blessed to know Archbishop Nikitas personally since the years of my youth. As is widely known, he was an assistant priest at Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Merrillville, Indiana, which is my home parish. His Eminence was also one of the priests at my baptism. Decades later, too, our paths crossed providentially as His Eminence was a member of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy and Sacred Synod, when I began my tenure as a layman there serving its English Office.
A few months later, when the “fullness of time” had arrived for me to become a clergyman, His All-Holiness our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew asked the then Metropolitan Nikitas to ordain me to the Holy Diaconate at the Phanar. Once again, I found His Eminence inaugurating me into another phase of my life in the Church. And since then, I had the great blessing to assist His Eminence on various programs and projects that he was spearheading on behalf of the Mother Church of Constantinople throughout my time serving at the Patriarchate (almost 12 years in total), most especially the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Task Force on Modern Slavery as well as on the official Youth Committee of the Patriarchate.
Just as I was surprised then, I was pleasantly surprised—and also honored and privileged—that, after all of this, Archbishop Nikitas would eventually be the one who would ordain me to the holy priesthood. And not only did he ordain me personally, but the ordination itself took place at the very parish where we officially met, where His Eminence served during my baptism decades ago.
My ordination to the priesthood on November 24th, 2019, went hand and hand with His Eminence’s request to His All-Holiness that I assist him in England, the Mother Country of our beloved homeland, the United States of America.
His response to the pandemic
As COVID-19 began spreading across the globe, I watched closely as our Archbishop monitored the situation in Asia. His Eminence served as the Metropolitan of Hong Kong for over a decade. So, of the religious leaders in the Church, he probably had one of the most well-informed assessments on the situation in those lands.
I listened to him intently as he asked important and poignant questions to better understand the threat, and over the last few weeks, I have watched him courageously tend to the needs of our Archdiocese here in the UK during what has undoubtedly been a most challenging and confusing time.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the Archdiocesan staff, led by Archbishop Nikitas, has worked around the clock to respond to all inquiries being made by the clergy and laity of our Archdiocese in the UK. He has also sent out regular Archpastoral e-mails and communications almost daily to all of the clergy, providing them with important and much needed guidance as they care for their own flocks. He has worked with the small Archdiocesan staff to help coordinate hospital visits to all those who are ill.
Overall, in facing COVID-19, the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain made a clear choice: to remain available at all times for all the faithful and for all those in need. Recently, His Eminence expressed:
“We are the Church and we are responsible for the care of both the body and soul; for, we have been called to minister to those suffering around us. It is for these reasons that I am communicating with all of you, as your Archbishop and father, for I will give an account for your souls and your service to the Church before the throne of Christ.”
The importance of his actions
His Eminence has lovingly encouraged all clergy who are able and not at risk to offer the scheduled Divine Services, of course, behind closed doors. While this is a painful directive for everyone, especially during this most beautiful time of the year, it is one that is done out of love and respect for the faithful.
Even though the doors to the churches may be closed, though, the Archbishop has emphasized his personal conviction that prayer and the Divine Services play a central role in our response to this pandemic. And always serving as the example, His Eminence has ensured that the services continue to be offered in the Archdiocesan Chapel, even though they are closed to the public. A few weeks ago, he wrote to the clergy saying:
“We have to make haste and visit the hospitals, minister to the suffering, serve the Divine Services, and attend to the many other tasks required of us all as clergy. While I know and understand that you might be tired and weary, also remember that people are looking to us for guidance and hope. The Church has always been the place where people find comfort, and we cannot deny them this, especially in these very difficult times.”
Recognizing the detrimental effects that this pandemic has had and will continue to have on our community and society at large, Archbishop Nikitas has encouraged local parishes to form “task forces” and “hands of mercy” in order to collect food, non-perishable items, over-the-counter medicines, to visit those who are shut in and to deliver necessities to all those in need.
Preparing for Pascha amid the pandemic
The response of the devout people of this Archdiocese to His Eminence’s call has been extraordinary and overwhelming all at the same time. This includes a call on the faithful to support yet another initiative: the preparation of food packages for Pascha.
Again, people of goodwill from all over the Archdiocese are already responding with love and concern for their neighbors. Our goal for Pascha this year is to prepare as many care packages as possible and to make them available for distribution to those in need.
Essentially, in anticipation of the most Holy and Great Feast of feasts, the Lord’s Pascha, His Eminence moved swiftly to ensure that—when our faithful proclaim the ever sacred words “Χριστός Ανέστη”—they will also have a proper meal, making sure that no one goes hungry and that no one remains in need while we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Most recently with the closing of day schools, His Eminence has tried to find ways of providing meals to school children, who come from families facing unprecedented financial challenges. Thus, through this philanthropy, our Archdiocese is exemplifying the fullness of our Orthodox Faith by considering every aspect, every circumstance, every predicament brought on by this pandemic.
Psychological support for our faithful
Unfortunately, it must be said that the uncertainty and instability of the present situation has also brought psychological dysphoria to many members of our community. To address this challenge, our Archdiocese has arranged for Greek Orthodox Psychotherapists to voluntarily offer their time and professional assistance to members of our Archdiocese. Because of this, counseling services are now available online or in person for anyone in need of psychological support.
Furthermore, with everyone socially isolated from one another, our Archdiocese has been meeting with many of the faithful by means of live video conferencing. We have offered a series of Lenten lectures in the English language. This lecture series has grown in popularity as stay-at-home measures have become stricter, and there have been large numbers of faithful who have been participating on a weekly basis.
The lectures have provided them with a platform, where they can see, speak with, and learn directly from their Archbishop. It is quite obvious that he has been ready and more than willing to face and address every challenge presented to his community.
Having the most historic and the largest eparchy in Europe, His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas demonstrated personal interest and solidarity with the neighboring Orthodox eparchies of the Ecumenical Throne, communicating with their Metropolitans about ways in which our own Archdiocese can be of assistance to their ministries. These simple and modest actions have strengthened their bond of love in Christ and has demonstrated the solidarity of the Orthodox hierarchs in the UK in a tangible manner.
A true spiritual father
As it is easy to become dismayed by the storms and winds of the present pandemic, God has provided the faithful believers of the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain a loving and dynamic shepherd, a true spiritual father—one known for his kindness, charity and compassion.
Our loving God has blessed His Church throughout the world with visionary leadership, especially in the person of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, as well as Archbishop Nikitas here in London. These hierarchs inspire us, encourage us, and remind us by their Archpastoral love that God is always with us.
In Archbishop Nikitas’ enthronement speech less than a year ago, His Eminence stated:
“I come to Great Britain in a time when the world is shaken by many inequalities and sufferings. For this reason, I have as a priority for us to cooperate all together—lay people and clergy—so as to hold the pilot light of Orthodoxy burning in Great Britain, and renew this light with a genuine and undistorted oil, that is, the oil of the Orthodox Faith.”
Now more than at the time of his enthronement, our world is shaken. And yet, as the whole world trembles with fear of the unknown, the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain has personified a Church that stands next to us, embraces us, guides us, loves us and nurtures us.
As our whole Archdiocese prays for the strength and courage of all the self-sacrificing people around the world, who are striving to restore health and peace for humanity, the people of our Archdiocese add a prayer of thanksgiving for our Archbishop, who we have been blessed with—that he be blessed with many years of good health and wisdom, keeping us connected to Christ and bringing us together as a community, so that the light of our Archdiocese may always burn bright with the truth and love of the Orthodox Faith.
About the author
A native of Indiana, the Very Reverend Nephon Tsimalis served for many years as a Patriarchal Deacon at the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. In 2019 he was ordained a priest and elevated to Archimandrite and sent to assist Archbishop Nikitas in London where he now serves as a full-time priest of the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain.
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