New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
On June 5 at the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, 18 finalists in the 27th Annual St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival presented their thoughts on under the close attention of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Reverend Dr. Frank Marangos, Dean of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York, Presvytera Haidee Marangos (Chair of the event) and Minerva Stergianopoulos (co-founder of the Festival, in 1983, who presented each speaker).
Competition was not the byword at the festival, rather it was participation in the festival that was significant, and importantly, many friendships were forged. Perhaps some were nervous, but for the observer, confidence reigned.
Through its huge range of interpretation of texts and the meaning of faith, the festival, which is now an important annual event, can be seen as providing an overview of the tenor of the view of Greek Orthodox youth of America.
At the luncheon following the presentations Archbishop Demetrios praised the speakers for their articulation, their research and the content of their presentations.
The Greek News spoke with the three finalists in the Junior Division, Grades 7-9, about their choice of topics: Alexandra Walsh, (DAD)*, who will be 14 in July and is going into the 9th grade, took 1st Place and was awarded a $2,000 college scholarship; Elias Selimos (Atlanta Metropolis), who will be 15 years old in August and is going into the 9th grade, took 2nd Place, was awarded a $1,500 college scholarship; and Nicholas Bilotto (Pittsburgh Metropolis), who will be 14 in July and is going into the 9th grade, took 3rd Place.
Ms. Walsh, who selected the topic, “In the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14), we see that the prayer of the Publican was pleasing to God. Discuss the importance of humility in our prayers and in our daily lives”, said that she chose that theme — which she had discussed with her peers in her church’s religious education classes and at the Metropolis of Boston summer camp — because the topic is “very meaningful” to her. “The parables are also important to me as I remembering learning about them and other parts of the Holy Bible from my Papou when I was a little girl,” she said.
“The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee raises a point about humility that is extremely important in the Greek Orthodox faith. I feel as if this parable can touch the lives of everyone, including my own life. In the first line of my speech, I quoted a verse from the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Luke:
‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ I think that being truly humble is one of the very best virtues, and a key component in living a Christ–centered life, which should always be our main goal.” She I felt that she could express her faith
and beliefs most clearly through this topic, said Ms. Walsh, who “tried not to preach” through her speech, “because I, too, have fallen captive to temptation and lack of humility–to pride, and the desire for praise.”
She focused on the importance of humility in daily life throughout her speech, said Ms. Walsh. “First, even the most respected person does not satisfy the Lord if he is self righteous and proud. A great sinner may please God more if he is truly repentant and humble. In truth, I respect a humble person more than one who is very accomplished but proud because of it.”
Ms. Walsh noted that perhaps this topic was the most important to her personally, because she feels that she has been “the Pharisee in many instances of my life. Through the events that left me prideful and desiring of praise, I was the one who was not being humble.” To illustrate this point, she described singing Ti Ipermaho during her Greek School’s 25th of March celebration: “Rather than focusing on the Theotokos, the Mother of God, I was prideful of my own accomplishment in knowing the hymn, when many of my classmates didn’t. In that example, I WAS THE PHARISEE!”
We need to realize how much we are really like the Pharisee and how far we are from the humble way of life the Lord wants us to lead, said Ms. Walsh, “We are pressured to be successful and powerful in contemporary society. I feel that these expectations can be grave spiritual dangers with have the ability to drag us away from our Greek Orthodox faith. Even if we achieve material success and other accomplishments, it is crucial that we not lose ourselves, and become desperate for others to notice. Really, it is not our brothers and sisters we should hope to impress. Furthermore, God is not impressed by material possessions. All of the gifts we have come from God, and it is wrong to believe that our trivial accomplishments are our own.”
We should be discreet, especially in acts involving charity and kindness, said Walsh, “The left hand should not know what the right is doing. God is the only one who should know, he always does. Living a Christ-centered life is our goal, not the knowledge that other people have discovered the good deeds we have done. My final point in my talk was that we need to keep the humble words of the Publican in our hearts and minds. The words he spoke should remind us of the Prayer of the Heart and its importance in our lives. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’
The festival was important to her because it was “an amazing way to express my faith based on my beliefs, especially with such defined points. As one finalist said, ‘It is not what we will do, but what we will be.’ That is the message–that we, through our faith, are the future and it must be taken seriously. A huge part of the festival’s importance for me was that it was a way for my free voice to be heard and a way for other young people to proclaim their faith.”
She is honored to have met the other orators, she said. “From listening to their speeches, I learned not only about their views, but I experienced little pieces of my religion. This festival was an amazing experience that I will always remember,” she said. “I was awed by how close we all became after only a couple of days together. Everyone was very kind and friendly and I hope to keep in touch with some of the great people I met that weekend.”
Elias Selimos chose the topic, “Icons bring to life the teachings of the Orthodox Faith. In the icon of the Resurrection, Christ is portrayed as lifting up Adam and Eve. Explain the meaning of this representation”, because the topic “really clicked” with him, he said.
“The main point was that Christ’s resurrection–his descent into Hades & back again–redeemed man, which is why he is portrayed lifting them up. This icon can also show us how much God loves us if he is willing to sacrifice his son for this cause, and also that we can be lifted back up to our rightful places as God’s holy creations due to Christ’s crucifixion.”
Mr. Selimos, who “has gotten to the nationals twice” said, “The annual festival always reminds me of the spiritual life that can sometimes be swamped by the world and its sinful ways. Being able to hang out & stuff with these other teens that also love God is a reminder that you can enjoy the world without living its sinful ways.”
Nicholas Bilotto, chose the topic of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, as did Ms. Walsh, because he believes that “humility is at the center of our life in Christ. I believe it is the one way that we can receive and fulfill God’s will for our lives. My speech focused on the true importance of humility in our daily lives, in prayer and action. Humility is foundation for faith in God, and for living our lives for God. Without humility, we live our lives for ourselves.”
The festival was very important to him, said Mr. Bilotto, because researching and writing the speech brought him closer to God. “Delivering my speech in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in New York on Sunday made me realize that with God’s help and guidance, the world presents many more opportunities than what I see in Mars, Pennsylvania.”
* The Direct Archdiocesan District, one of the eight Metropolises of the Archdiocese, is comprised of most of New York State, some of Connecticut, District of Columbia, and the Bahamas.
Junior Division Themes:
1. His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew is a champion of the environment. Present some teachings of the Orthodox Church that support environmental Protection and explain how it should be practiced today.
2. Icons bring to life the teachings of the Orthodox Faith. In the icon of the Resurrection, Christ is portrayed as lifting up Adam and Eve. Explain the meaning of this representation.
3. “Love and death depend on our neighbor,” according to St. Anthony the Great (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Anthony 9). Explore and expand on this teaching.
4. St. John of Damascus wrote many hymns for the major feast days of the Church. Tell us about St. John and his contribution to Orthodox hymnography.
5. In the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14), we see that the prayer of the Publican was pleasing to God. Discuss the importance of humility in our prayers and in our daily lives.