By Thirza Buijkx
From 18-24 July 2022, a group of young Orthodox Christians from over 20 countries came together in an Orthodox monastery/seminary in Supraśl, Poland, for the first international Orthodox youth festival in a number of years. With the war between Russia and Ukraine ever present in the background, the significance of this youth event became even more apparent. While the Church hierarchy is fighting for power and influence, the youth at the festival testified to the potential for Church unity in diversity.
The festival program included various workshops, lectures, excursions, services and festivities. The workshops that were offered showed the enthusiasm of the youth involved: ‘Theology of Creativity,’ ‘Orthodoxy & Ecology: theology and practice,’ ‘How to be a Peacemaker?’ (led by Nick Sooy), ‘Organizing Pan-Orthodox Youth Events,’ ‘Social Media,’ ‘Missionary work,’ and a discussion with Fr Basileios Thermos, who had given an excellent lecture earlier that morning.
Both the beginning and the end of the festival were marked by a call to action. The festival was opened by Metropolitan Sawa of Poland, who encouraged the youth to be active (‘you must act’) because the unity of the Church is in danger. The end of the festival consisted of two plenary sessions where the youth were invited to reflect on the needs of the Church and ways to respond to them. The main need identified was that of unity and connection. Many young people feel lonely and disconnected on a personal level, but the Churches are also separated from each other at the organizational level by nationalism and war. During the conversation with Bishop Gabriel from Wroclaw, the main question repeated by the youth was: ‘how can the Church support war?’ Nick’s workshop on Peacemaking was overbooked twice and all the youth who attended it were incredibly enthusiastic about it afterwards. The need for unity in the Church is being felt now more than ever.
Divided by nations, languages and cultures, the youth were united in their love for Christ and their tangible enthusiasm for the Church. Whenever we visited a Polish church or monastery, all the musically talented participants were eager to sing their favorite hymns to Christ, the Mother of God, ,or the Saints. In the monastery of St Catherine, near the border with Belarus, Mercy from Kenia sang the Troparion for this dearly-beloved saint in the presence of one of her relics. In one of the largest and most beautiful women’s monasteries of Poland, the Serbian youth sang the ‘Axion Estin’ to the Theotokos. And in a beautiful, blue monastery church, the youth from Romania sang one of their favorite hymns in the traditional singing style. The liturgy was sung by six choirs: Byzantine/Greek, Slavic/English, Romanian, Serbian, Albanian and an Arabic/Lebanese choir. The prayers before dinner were sung/read in Dutch, French, Swahili, Arabic and many other languages.
Although the Church is haunted by nationalism and pride, the ‘cultural evening’ of the festival showed the rich diversity of Orthodoxy. The Lebanese brought hummus and taught us a Lebanese dance; the Greeks brought ouzo and sang ‘exe geia panagia’, the Dutch sang the hymns of their national celebration of St Nicholas (‘Sinterklaas’) and the Romanians, all dressed in national apparel, transformed the entire room into a true folklore festival. The cultural diversity, far from separating the youth, was the cornerstone of their unity and joy. At its deepest level, the Orthodox Church is not ‘Russian,’ ‘Greek,’ or ‘Oriental,’ but it is the universal Bride of Christ, consisting of people all over the world.
This is not to boast about the youth of our Church but to illustrate their enthusiasm to serve. These were not young people waiting for their leaders to invite them to act; these were dedicated Orthodox Christians eager to witness to the Gospel of Christ. And what is this Gospel? In today’s Church, it is hard to discern the meaning of the Gospel while looking at its upper reaches. Christians are fighting each other in war, patriarchs deny the humanity of their fellow human beings. The urgency of peace and unity in the Church has never been as evident as it is now. We cannot change the war, but we can testify to the mystical unity of the Church through friendship and love.
One of the most important needs for youth work is precisely to develop this bond of unity. The people present in Suprasl, Poland, came together as human beings, as Christians and as members of the Orthodox family. Meeting fellow Orthodox Christians from all over the world and creating friendships, they found unity in their love for Christ—a unity in which their differences were celebrated, not denied. The bond of unity (literally ‘Syndesmos’) was created by being members of one single family: the family of the Orthodox Church. While our ‘parents’ are fighting amongst each other, the children are united in Christ. We drank from the same cup and experienced the joy of companionship. As the Psalm says: ‘How wonderful it is for brothers to dwell in unity’ (Ps. 133).
Young people feel more and more lonely and isolated. When I was a teenager, there were only a handful of young people who regularly attended Liturgy in my parish in a small city in Holland. But even in traditionally Orthodox countries like Greece or Russia, young people feel isolated from their peers, who may be culturally Orthodox but don’t see the point in actually going to church. The friendships we built last week in Poland are friendships that will stay for life and friendships that will help us to keep our faith alive when we return home.
One of the most important needs for youth work is precisely to develop this bond of unity. It is from this bond of unity that we can change the Church from the inside out. Not through activism and pamphlets, but through the silent voice of friendship and love. It is precisely this friendship, crossing all borders and jurisdictions, that allows the Church to grow as the unified Body of Christ. Indeed, Christ’s beatitude ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ may be translated into ‘blessed are the youth workers,’ for they witness to the unity of the Church.
At the end of the Festival, I found myself humming the Exapostilarion of the Dormition through the monastery halls: ‘O ye apostles, assembled here from the ends of the earth...’ This was the spiritual reality of the Orthodox Youth festival in Poland. The youth, assembled in Supraśl from the ends of the earth, truly are apostles. Whether they are leaders in their home communities or only just discovering Orthodoxy, they will take their experience in Suprasl with them for the rest of their lives and become apostles of Christ’s love and peace.
May Christ bless all the friends we made in Poland and may he bless the Orthodox youth all over the world.