There is a new shepherd in town
by Mesh Moeti Interview
Having studied for two years at the Vatican on a bursary from the Catholic Church, Bishop Gennadios Stantzios has a personal testimony about efforts to heal the East-West rift with the Christian Church. At another level, he points to a joint statement by Pope Benedict XV1 and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox faithful worldwide, that Christians need to emphasise what unites them, and not the source of their division.
“Many years ago this was not conceivable,” he says.
Exactly six days after Stantzios’ enthronement as the first Bishop of the Orthodox Diocese of Botswana (on June 2), we meet in his Gaborone West office. He is a tall and imposing man whose frame somehow underlies his relative youth at age 42. If the new office comes with a heavy cross to carry, he has the shoulders crafted just for that.
In a country where the dominant faith is the branch of Christianity that is oriented towards the Western church, the new shepherd in town – who is here to minister to the spiritual needs of Botswana’s nascent Orthodox community – is something of an oddity. By his admission, the diocese he has been assigned is very new. Until October 2010, Botswana belonged to the jurisdiction of the Zimbabwe Orthodox Church, which also included Malawi and Mozambique. That arrangement made Botswana one of the less than five countries without an Orthodox diocese. Stantzios explains that what brought the change was that when the current Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, Theodoros II, was still bishop he had visited Botswana to see to the needs of Orthodox Christians in the country.
“He saw that Botswana was developing as a country and because there are other Orthodox Christians here apart from Greeks, he decided the country has a great future, and in October 2010 he proposed in a synod of Bishops of Africa to break Botswana from its previous jurisdiction and make it an independent diocese with its See in Gaborone,” he says.
Following that decision, Stantzios himself was elected the new diocese’s first bishop on October 8. There being no Orthodox church in Botswana, Stantzios’ enthronement as bishop was held in the Anglican cathedral – a sure sign if ever there was need for one of the rapprochement taking root between the two branches of the Church. It is in this light that I ask Stantzios what he makes of the late Pope John Paul II’s assertion that the two branches of the Church are essentially two lungs of the same body. He does not hide his deep respect for the departed Catholic leader, whom he labels, “a great personality”. But he is realistic that some wounds will take long to heal, and he makes the point that in both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, there will always be those with different opinions. But he feels the tide of unity is strong, and he spells out the various efforts – from both sides – towards finding common ground.
“But these [efforts] need more open minds and open views which will not promote the essence of problems and will not ignore the peculiarities, but in a spirit of shared brotherhood and mutual respect will progress towards facing all the historical differences which have developed following the schism of 1054,” he points out, in reference to the event that precipitated the final separation between the www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/177174/Eastern-Orthodoxy" Eastern Christian www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/115240/Christianity" churches (led by the www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/446582/patriarch" Patriarch of Constantinople, wwPERw.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/379884/Michael-Cerularius" Michael Cerularius) and the www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/507489/history-of-Roman-Catholicism" Western Church (led by Pope www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/336247/Saint-Leo-IX" Leo IX).
“Today the Catholic Church gives bursaries for Orthodox students to study at its universities. The Orthodox Church does the same. Youth conferences are organised. Heads of churches and bishops visit each other. They converse around the same table, sing the same hymns and prayers; pray together for the unity of all Christians. … [In Botswana] both Catholics and Anglicans allow us to hold our services in their churches. Both bishops of Anglican and Catholic Churches [Trevor Mwamba and Valentine Seane] understand well the importance and significance of the Orthodox Church in Botswana,” he says.
What he sees as his immediate task is the unification of all Orthodox communities in Botswana under one church, and underscores that the primary responsibility of the bishop is the spiritual development of the faithful under his care.
“The word bishop in Greek, EPISKOPOS, means that the bishop is constantly watchful and concerned,” he explains.
To better explain this, he refers me to one of the symbols of Episcopal office, the ceremonial staff on which there is a symbolic cross, and two snakes on either side of the cross. He explains that the cross and the two snakes symbolize the church among its visible and invisible enemies. When he holds the staff, it is a reminder that the bishop is the shepherd and guide of his flock.
“Symbolically when the patriarch gives the staff to the bishop at his enthronement, he tells him that firstly, this staff is to lead the rationale and logical flock of the church securely and safely far from negative influences of the great enemy of man, the Devil. The second meaning is for those who don’t obey [the conventions of the Church] it becomes the staff of example and even in some cases of spiritual punishment,” he explains.
Where he sees the Orthodox Church in Botswana making an immediate intervention is on the medical and educational front – and he makes it a point to emphasise in all its social programmes the Church will work under the guidance of the country’s relevant authorities. After his enthronement, the bishop was part of the Patriarch’s entourage that visited Princess Marina Hospital, and they were moved by the work done by the hospital’s staff, especially with regard to the country’s fight against HIV/AIDS – and he sees a role there for the Orthodox Church.
“The Patriarch and the Patriarchate in general have undertaken from a long time ago in cooperation with international organisations, governments and international figures an enormous campaign to fight against, and spread information about, the plague of HIV/AIDS. An enormous effort is also being made in many countries in Africa in cooperation with local governments and Orthodox bishops in those countries to fight against hunger, thirst, lack of education, and human trafficking,” Stantzios states.
After completion of the Orthodox Church’s cathedral, whose plot in Phakalane was blessed by Patriarch Theodoros II, the bishop states that the next target will be to build a school for children with special needs.
He concedes that among Botswana’s Christian community, little is known about the Orthodox Church. I ask him where he plans to start introducing himself to his new brethren.
“I would like to inform people that the Orthodox Church in Africa was established by Apostle and Evangelist Mark who, following the resurrection of Christ travelled to Alexandria, where he spread Christianity and he was martyred there. Today he is regarded as the Patriarch Saint and founder of the Church. The Patriarch of Alexandria, as the head of the entire Orthodox Church in Africa and President of the Synod of Bishops in Africa, is regarded through a ceaseless history as successor to the Apostle Mark.
“According to history, following the resurrection of Christ there were three Bishoprics established by the Disciples of Christ, in Jerusalem, Alexandria and Rome. They were the three thrones of rock. The most ancient Christian church, the church of Alexandria with a history of 2000 years through wars and problems and martyrdom, has maintained to this day this centuries old spiritual tradition,” he points out.
In a world that is increasingly searching for answers elsewhere and there is marked disillusionment with religion, the latest addition to God’s shepherds maintains that Christianity, “as the revelation of God to man”, answers all man’s spiritual searches.
“It provides answers and gives solutions. The role of the Church is not to have political responsibility and authority. The role of the church and its representative priests is only spiritual and this is what man of every age really needs because the problems that humanity faces are essentially the same problems which existed 2000 years ago or even 100 years ago. The difference is that man has changed and sees problems differently. The same problems appear in each age somehow differently, and that is where responsibility of the church, with spiritual leaders, comes in,” says the man who was ordained into the priesthood in 1990, after making an early life choice to go into the ministry, a decision that is probably traceable to the days when some of his teachers were priests.