Pope's ceremony in the Sistine Chapel


Faith is “the most precious thing in life: the most authentic and most beautiful reason to live,” Pope Benedict XVI said as he baptized 21 infants in an intimate ceremony in the Sistine Chapel, marking the end of the Christmas season in the Vatican City.

Standing under Michelangelo’s magnificent ‘Last Judgment’ fresco, Pope poured water on the foreheads of 13 baby boys and eight baby girls in a January 9 ceremony. Some babies screamed, other squirmed, some slept through it. Pope Benedict XVI prayed for their “life and health so they can grow and mature in the faith”.

He said that, today, in an ever-changing society without firm cultural references, it has become more difficult to educate children in the faith, and urged parishes and parents to cooperate. He voiced the hope that the sacrament would be the beginning of “a journey of sanctity and conformity to Jesus.” The Pope encouraged the parents and godparents of the newly baptized children to help them grow in the faith, warning that such help is particularly necessary today, “in the current social context in which the institution of the family is threatened on many side.” He added that parishes must also help young families, since “the collapse of stable points of cultural reference and the rapid and continual transformation of society make the task of education truly difficult.”


The annual ceremony is held the first Sunday after the January 6 Epiphany. Following tradition, the Holy Father baptized the babies - children of Vatican employees - on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Later, at his regular midday audience, the Pope told the crowd in St. Peter’s Square that the faithful should regain an active appreciation for the great grace of Baptism. He particularly urged parents to recognize the value of giving their children a distinctively Christian name, as “an unmistakable sign that the Holy Spirit causes man to be 'born again' in the bosom of the Church.”



The memory of Saint Gregentius, Archbishop of Zafa


A Debate Between Saint Gregentius, Archbishop of Zafar, and the Jews

The saint labored especially among the Jews in his efforts to bring them from their error to true belief in Christ as the Messiah. This was also achieved by the grace of God working in him to do many wonders and miracles, which were mostly wrought by the wisdom of his words. The saint was learned and particularly endowed by God with the gift of interpretation and discernment. In every argument with the scribes and teachers of the Jews, he vanquished them by the word of God. Not one of them could gainsay the wisdom of his words or his understanding. There was one among the Jewish teachers of the law, Ervan, a man of letters and extremely crafty. It pleased him to contend with the venerable man of God daily, so that the vain and disputatious Ervan became a nuisance with his false reasonings and captious arguments. Nonetheless, the God-inspired Gregentius agreed to a public debate. Thus, the archbishop, by the grace of God, would reveal the Jew’s arguments to be as solid and firm as a spider’s web; the rabbi’s syllogisms were merely a series of subtle contrivances and sophisms (1).
The discourse between the most wise Gregentius and Ervan was scheduled. After forty days of preparation, the debate took place in the city of Zafar, before Abramios, the council, and the clergy. The Jews came forth with their scribes and rabbis. Ervan, their main orator, was well versed in the traditions and laws of his elders, the prophets, and profane learning. The essence of their talks produced the following dialogue.
Archbishop Gregentius opened the debate when he addressed Ervan and the multitude of Jews who had assembled: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness overcame it not [Jn. 1:5]. The darkness of night has ended and the Sun of righteousness has arisen with healing in His wings [Mal. 4:2]. Why do you Jews oppose His Light and deny Him?” Ervan answered, “We believe that you Gentiles oppose the Light, since you have abolished the law of God, which was given to us by God.”
The archbishop replied, “Who has created those people whom you call Gentiles?” “Why, God of course,” said Ervan. “Then if we are fellow creatures,” asked the archbishop, “why do you deem yourselves superior? What superiority have you acquired over us?” Ervan answered, “We possess the same superiority over you as we have over the Egyptians.” The archbishop said, “It is well that you have mentioned the Egyptians; but demonstrate how you are superior to them.” Ervan said, “Surely you have read the account of Moses and the wonders wrought in Egypt, the Red Sea, and the exodus into the wilderness? Have you not heard how the Egyptians perished in the sea and Israel was preserved?” The archbishop then remarked, “Well then, there is no difference between you and the Egyptians. Though Pharaoh and his host perished in the waters, thy fathers, on account of their sins, suffered and died in the wilderness. Who does not know that out of some six hundred thousand who departed Egypt, only two survived and entered the promised land, Caleb and Jesus of Navee [Num. 26:65]? In what way then did God honor you above the Egyptians?”
Ervan dismissed that query and asked, “Who received manna in the wilderness from God? Was it not us, and not the Egyptians?” The archbishop replied, “Which seems better to you: the meat you ate in Egypt or the manna sent to you in the wilderness?” Ervan replied, “It is evident that the manna from God is more to be preferred.” The archbishop then rejoined, “Why then did you wish to return? Did you not say, ‘We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt freely; and the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the garlic, and the onions [Num. 11:5]’?”
The debate then turned to the subject of the Holy Trinity. Ervan began: “The Christians confess three deities: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Lord God, however, gave the great commandment on Sinai: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord [Deut. 6:4].’ The Christians then transgress the law when they worship not the one God, but three.” The archbishop explained, “We worship one God, the Creator of all, in three hypostases, even as the Lord God was mentioned thrice in the verse just cited. Hearken now to the words of the Psalmist David: ‘By the Word of the Lord were the heavens established, and all the might of them by the Spirit of His mouth [Ps. 32:6].’ Observe how David also proclaims three hypostases, but a single divinity, coessential, co-beginningless, co-everlasting, and co-enthroned. The Lord is God the Father, His Word is the Son and Logos, and His Spirit is the Holy Spirit.”
The holy Gregentius then expounded upon the prophesies spoken to the Hebrews foretelling the Cross and death of the Messiah: “Thy Life shall be suspended before thine eyes [Deut. 28:66]”; and, “I, as an innocent lamb led to the slaughter, knew not: Against me they devised an evil device, saying, ‘Come and let us put wood into his bread, and let us utterly destroy him from off the land of the living, and let his name be remembered no longer [Jer. 11:19].’”
The archbishop then spoke of many other mystical forebodings and foreshadowings given in the Scriptures: Noah’s ark, the sacrifice of Abraham, the ram which took the place of Isaac when it was caught by its horns in a plant of Sabec [Gen. 22:13]; and when Israel (Jacob) did reverence, leaning on the top of his staff [Gen. 47:31], and blessed Joseph’s sons in the form of a cross, when he guided his hands crosswise [Gen. 48:14]. He spoke of the time when Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the water was divided [Ex. 14:21, 27]. He also discoursed on the mystical significance of Moses taking the rod of God in his hand–while Jesus of Navee set the army in array against Amalek–and Aaron and Or (Hur) kept Moses’ arms up in the form of a cross, so that Jesus of Navee routed Amalek [Josh. 17:8-14]. The archbishop then took up the subject of the significance of the brass serpent; for it is written: “Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a signal-staff: and it came to pass that whenever a serpent bit a man, and he looked on the brazen serpent, he lived [Num. 21:9].” He also explained the import of the incident when the people could not drink of Merrha, for it was bitter; so the Lord showed Moses a tree, which he cast into the bitter waters, and the waters were sweetened [Ex. 15:23-25]. These and many other mystical meanings and types were revealed.

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St. Gregory Palamas: on participation in God

XLIV. O[rthodox]. Hence, when we know His activity but not His essence, we do not commit an outrage to the supernatural character of His simplicity. And when we participate in His activity but not in His essence, do we make the undivided divisible? You heard him [St. Basil the Great] also say: “The activities of God are manifold, but His essence is simple.” [Letters 234] Just as he who is manifold according to His activities is not manifold and divided according to His essence, so in the same way, He will not be participable according to His essence although He is participated according to His activities. And since we participate in Him differently—we will therefore participate in Him according to His activities, according to which He is also manifold. But we shall not participate in Him according to His essence; for according to His essence He is the least manifold in whatever way you look at it. No, but we kn ow His goodness and power and wisdom. How much can we know of each of them? For how can a limited knowledge grasp that infinity, or rather the infinities of that wisdom, that power, that goodness? But he says: “God also reveals Himself to people on the mountain itself, on the one hand by coming down from His proper watchtower, (and) on the other hand, by leading us up from our humble state here on earth in order that the Incomprehensible (“uncontainable”) is contained by a created nature in at least a moderate and most safe way.” [Gregory Nazianzus Orationes 45,11]

XLV. How then is He participated in and contained wholly when He is contained in a moderate way? And how is He not divided, when He is contained in a moderate way and remains altogether Incomprehensible (“uncontainable”)? . . . The great Basil stated well that “the activities of God are manifold but His essence is simple.” [Letters 234] And again: “The holy Spirit is simple according to His essence but manifold according to His activities.” [On the Holy Spirit 9,22] For all those things belong to the activities of God. And according to them we participate in God in a moderate way and, according to them, we see and think of Him dimly, one person more, the other less, one by his intelligence, the other by a godlike power; each of us participates in them in agreement with his own purity and reflects on them and on the basis of them draws his conclusions about Him who is altogether imparticipable and unthinkable according to His essence. Nevertheless, one could well state that God as a whole is participate in and though of on the basis of those activities according to a pious insight; for the divine is divided in an undivided way and not as bodies. But His goodness and His wisdom are not a part of Him and the greatness or the foresight are not other parts. But He is wholly goodness and wholly wisdom and wholly foresight and wholly greatness. For because He is one, He is not cut up in agreement with each of those activities, but in relation to each of them He is properly whole; through each of them He is known as one and simple and undivided, as being everywhere present and active as a whole. 

XLVI. In that way those who participate in the activity of God participate in God as a whole, but not because we also participate in His essence in itself which is imparticipable and simple and undivided, and (we do) that all at the same time, but everyone differently. . . .

XLVII. . . . the things which are only sensible do participate and they participate in God as a whole because He is undivided, but only according to their being. But they do not partake of the vivifying power of God in whatever way, lest, when their own proper being is taken away, heaven itself is done away with together with the foundation of everything under the sky; i.e., the four elements and the beings without soul and perception which come forth from them. And things which have the property to live only according to perception participate through that perception in God as a whole, God who is participated in in every respect in an undivided way, but not also on the level of reason or intellect lest the irrational beings become rational. But because they do not participate on the level of reason, it is not true, therefore, that they do not participate in God as a whole. And the beings which participate in God on the level of reason or intellect do not all participate on the level of spirit as well, lest the wicked continue to be divine and spiritual people although they still abide in their wickedness. In that way, too, divine and spiritual people, participating in the grace of God but not in His essence, also participate in God as a whole. As a whole, because God, being present and active in them as a whole through the proper grace in a unified and simple and undivided way, is also known by them as a whole. But they do not in the least participate in His essence because they do not continue to be gods by their nature.

St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, XLIV-XLVI, XLVII



The cleric suspected of thefts at monasteries


Police in Ioannina, northwestern Greece, believe they are on the trail of a gang that has been stealing religious icons and other valuables from monasteries in the area after arresting a priest who is alleged to have played a major role in the thefts.

The cleric, who was not named, was found to be in possession of 48 stolen icons, wood carvings and various books. It is believed that some of the items were stolen from a monastery in Ioannina last year.

After arresting the priest, officers took another two men into custody. They also searched a monastery in the Pamvotida municipality and the two suspects’ homes, where they found more relics, a handgun and some 500 bullets.

The other two suspects were not named and the police said that the value of the stolen items was as yet unknown.


Vatopedi's scandal goes on

A series of parliamentary investigations into corruption scandals that have plagued Greece over roughly the last decade are set to begin next week, it was decided yesterday.

Following discussions in the House, it was agreed that MPs will debate next Monday and Wednesday which of their colleagues will sit on the first two committees that are to probe graft in public life.

At the request of the ruling PASOK party, investigations will be launched into the possible involvement of politicians or state officials in the manipulation of share prices between 1999 and 2008, whether any public servants or party representatives accepted bribes from Siemens Hellas, the purchase of structured government bonds by pension funds at allegedly inflated prices, the exchange of land between the state and the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos and Cosmote’s highly costly purchase of the Germanos electronic goods retail chain.

However, the government has decided that the Siemens and Vatopedi cases will be the first to be looked into. An investigation into the land swap could prove damaging for New Democracy, as it is the most recent of all the corruption scandals and could involve conservative politicians such as former Economy and Finance Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis being called to answer questions.

ND has accused PASOK of using the committees as a smoke screen so attention is not drawn to the government’s failings.

“I do not believe that the government is trying to distract people’s attention, nor do I think there is a threat to the consensus needed between parties due to the wider [economic] problems,” said Parliament Speaker Fillipos Petsalnikos.

Last year, a cross-party parliamentary committee failed to bring corruption charges against any official or politician implicated in the Vatopedi scandal, in which the monastery is alleged to have obtained prime real estate from the government in exchange for land of a lesser value. However, the inquiry was riddled by infighting between the parties.


Gunmen kill 7 at Egypt church after Christmas Mass

CAIRO — Three men in a car sprayed automatic gunfire into a crowd of churchgoers in southern Egypt as they left a midnight Mass for Coptic Christmas, killing at least seven people in a drive-by shooting, the church bishop and security officials said.

Egypt's Interior Ministry said the attack Wednesday just before midnight was suspected as retaliation for the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man in the same town. The statement said witnesses have identified the lead attacker.

The attack took place in the town of Nag Hamadi in Qena province, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from the famous ancient ruins of Luxor. A local security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed that seven were dead and three seriously wounded.

Bishop Kirollos of the Nag Hamadi Diocese told The Associated Press six male churchgoers and one security guard were killed. He said he had left St. John's church just minutes before the attack.

"A driving car swerved near me, so I took the back door. By the time I shook hands with someone at the gate, I heard the mayhem, lots of machine gun shots," he said in a telephone interview. He said he saw five bodies lying on the ground when he first looked at the site of the shooting, about 600 yards from where he was.

The bishop said he was concerned about violence on the eve of Coptic Christmas, which falls on Thursday, because of previous threats following the rape of the 12-year-old girl in November.

He got a message on his mobile phone saying: "It is your turn."

"I did nothing with it. My faithful were also receiving threats in the streets, some shouting at them: 'We will not let you have festivities,
'" he said.

Because of the threats, he said he ended his Christmas Mass one hour early.

He said Muslim residents of Nag Hamadi and neighboring villages rioted for five days in November and torched and damaged Christian properties in the area after the rape.

"For days, I had expected something to happen on Christmas day," he said. The bishop said police have now asked him to stay at home for fear of further violence.

Qena is one of Egypt's poorest and most conservative areas.

Christians, mostly Coptic, account for about 10 percent of Egypt's predominantly Muslim population. As Islamic conservatism gains ground, Christians have increasingly complained about discrimination by the Muslim majority.

Clashes between Muslims and Christians are not uncommon in southern Egypt and in recent years have begun seeping into the capital. An Amnesty International report said sectarian attacks on the Coptic Christian community, comprising between 6 million and 8 million people in Egypt, increased in the year 2008. Sporadic clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims left eight people dead.

Vendetta killing is also common among southern Egyptians, and is usually over land or family disputes.

The bishop said he had an idea of who the attackers were, calling them "Muslim radicals."

"It is all religious now. This is a religious war about how they can finish off the Christians in Egypt," he said.


The Church of Greece about classroom crucifix


The Church of Greece yesterday criticized a European Court of Human Rights ruling that the presence of crucifixes in classrooms is a breach of human rights after hearing a case brought by a mother from Italy.

“It is not only minorities that have rights, the majority has them as well,” said the head of the Greek Church Archbishop Ieronymos, adding that the matter would be discussed by the Holy Synod if necessary.

“Youngsters will soon not have any symbols to inspire and protect them,” said Bishop Nikolaos of Fthiotida. Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki said he hopes Greek officials will appeal any decision that could lead to the removal of religious icons from classrooms. The court found that the right of parents to educate their children according to their own beliefs, and children’s right to freedom of religion, were breached by the presence of a crucifix in classrooms.


Church of Greece about its land


Archbishop Ieronymos yesterday appealed to the state to release land and other assets expropriated from the Church of Greece, noting that the Church would respond by creating a welfare fund to support charitable causes.

Addressing the Holy Synod, Ieronymos noted that if these assets were returned to the Church the income they would generate would help cover its “huge” operational costs. A close cooperation between the Church and the state – “involving honesty, transparency and binding state guarantees” – would result in the best exploitation of Church assets, he said. Comments made by the Bishop of Ioannina, Theoklitos, made it clear that clerics are preoccupied with the impending taxation of Church property, as pledged by George Papandreou before he became prime minister. “The issue now is how we convince the government to handle the issue fairly, proceeding with taxes for land belonging to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Catholic Church.”


Archbishop Ieronymos calls for new form of administration


The head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos, yesterday proposed a restructuring of the institution in his opening speech to the Holy Synod. Ieronymos said forces who wanted to “dechristianize Greek society and alienate it from its true traditions” were “no longer far away, they are within our walls.” Speaking after reports suggested that some 1.2 million euros collected from worshippers had been used to pay Church expenses rather than go to good causes, the archbishop said that “we have to re-examine the way we organize and administrate our affairs.” Ieronymos proposed that the Church hierarchy meet twice a year, not once.