* A speech at Komotini on the 21st January 1994.
source: Translated by Olga Konari Kokkinou from the Greek edition: Αρχιμ. Εφραίμ Βατοπαιδινού Καθηγουμένου Ι. Μ. Μ. Βατοπαιδίου, Αθωνικός Λόγος, Ιερά Μεγίστη Μονή Βατοπαιδίου, Άγιον Όρος 2010.
Vatopaidi’s benefited the nation particularly with the creation of the Athonias Academy which tried to create a Greek Panorthodox Educational Institution in the Balkans. We will refer to this Academy later on. For many years, the Metropolitan of Xanthi was not convinced and several times attempted to acquire the ownership of the dependency but eventually his efforts came to nothing. In March 1835, the synod of the Patriarchate confirmed and sealed the property rights which Vatopaidi had for centuries over the Metochion. The decision was conveyed in a letter by the Patriarch of Constantinoupolis, Konstantine. (roughly translated)‘ The church of St Nicholas which is situated in the Xanthi area and the fish hatchery in the Mpourou lake has initially and over the centuries been proven by the Church to belong to the Metochion of the Vatopaidi monastery and enjoys all the rights of a stavropegic metochion… it always memorializes the name of the Patriarch in all official services’. The Patriarch wrote another letter in the same spirit on the 18th of January 1839, reaffirming these property rights.
Over the centuries the monks came down from the monastery and worked in fishing without disturbance. They were assisted by laymen because their monastic capacity did not permit them to preoccupy themselves entirely with worldly affairs. The monastery used any ensuing financial gain to maintain the Athoniada Academy.
These days the monastery offers one third of the income incurred from the pond to maintain the modern Athoniada Academy which operates as a religious high school in the footsteps of the ancient Academy, established and sustained by Vatopaidi in 1745. The earlier school was the first higher educational institution in the Balkans during the dark ages of the Turkish occupation; times when the Turks had imposed a total ban on education. Vatopaidi, having conceived that the enslaved Greeks had been immersed in illiteracy and were in danger of losing even their own language, could not avoid focusing on education. During 1749, it decided to establish the above named school on the hill opposite the monastery. It assumed all costs during difficult economic times, because of the harsh taxes imposed by the Turkish authorities. As a result it was profusely praised by Mother Church.
The establishment of the School boosted the moral of the enslaved nation and greatly enthused Patriarchs and scholars. Adamantios Korais praising the Vatopaidi fathers said: ‘Well done! Bravo honourable Vatopaidi fathers! Since you have paid your dues to our mother country, the state must be grateful to you as its benefactors and not as payers…’
The Academy was the largest Greek School in the Turkish occupied regions and boasted of up to 200 students at some point. Most hailed from other Balkan countries and not just from Greece. The first Head of the School was hierodeacon Neofytos Kausokalyvitis followed by the most scholarly of the Greeks of the 18th century, Evgenios Boulgaris. Apart from Boulgaris, Athanasius Parios, Panayiotis Palamas, Nicholas Tseroulis, and hierodeacon Kyprianos, the Cypriot, later Patriarch of Alexandria, taught at the School. Among the pupils were St Kosmas Aitolos, Regas Feraios, Sergius Markaios and Iosippos Moisiodax.
In 1750, Patriarch Cyril V issued a decree announcing the creation of the School and asking the faithful to contribute. At the same time, Vatopaidi dispatched hiernmonk Ioasaf to Thessaloniki accompanying holy relics, in order to collect money for the school.
Unfortunately discord and enmity contributed to the closure of the ancient School, which had produced such remarkable results in so little time, becoming legendary throughout Orthodoxy. The monastery, continuing its traditional lead in benefiting the nation, did not abandon the idea of reopening the school. It dispatched hieronmonk Gabriel to the Greek communities in Venice and Trieste, in Italy as well as in Austria and Serbia to raise funds. Despite these efforts the School did not reopen. A smaller one inside the monastery started operating instead, to meet the needs of the brotherhood.
Last year, 240 years passed since Evgenios Boulgaris came to Mount Athos, and 40 years since the Athoniada School reopened in the Vatopaidi Skete of St Andrew. Until this day it operates as a Religious School and Vatopaidi covers for all its financial needs through the proceeds from the use of the Visthonida pond.
This mighty goal was the brain child of this monastery, which always had its ears tuned to the cries of the suffering people, as we will see later on in discussing the Vatopaidi contribution to the people of Thrace.
Over the years, the right of ownership over the pond was disputed by the Turks, especially after 1821 when the monastery greatly contributed towards the Greek uprising. The Turks captured almost all the dependencies belonging to Vatopaidi. ‘Captain Passas occupied the Mpourou pond and the fish hatchery and burnt the dependency of St Theodores to the ground, whose ruins are visible to this day’. However, he did not send away the monks resident at the chapel of St Nicholas. As a result the presence of Vatopaidi in the region continued without interruption.
The monastery lost the pond for national reasons because the Turkish government authorised its capture to punish the Vatopaidi monks who assisted the Greek revolution. This capture does not warrant the writing off of the rights of ownership which the monastery had on this region. Therefore it was just that the Mpourou pond be returned to its rightful owner, Vatopaidi , after Macedonia and western Thrace were liberated. However, we are not aware why the Greek government did not recognise this illegal capture and return the pond to its rightful owners, rather than allowing the occupier Turks to be the owners of the pond.
It was not until 1941 that the then Greek government justified Vatopaidi claims on the pond after many years of unlawful attempts to trample upon the monastery’s rights. Several learned opinions expressed by the university of Athens professors K. Polygenous, S Straight, K Rally, D Papoulias confirmed that the Sultan’s arbitrary acquisition of ecclesiastical property does not convey to him the legal title. Therefore, the above mentioned property remains under the ownership of the Monastery without having been expropriated. Several other legal opinions, e.g. by Raktivan, Papoulias, Dinga, Saripolou, Rally, verify that the Ottoman occupation did not nullify the pre-existent Byzantine ownership over the disputed pond. Vatopaidi is correct in offering as evidence of its ownership the titles bestowed by the Byzantine emperors and the capture of the property by the Sultan was illegal. At the same time, the State Council justified the claims by Vatopaidi in its decision 41/1929. Under these circumstances the Greek state issued an absolute title of ownership of the Mpourou pond to Vatopaidi.
The use of the pond for fishing is decided by public auction. Today, the pond is leased to the Fishing Cooperation of the Visthonida pond ‘St. Nicholas’. It is worth mentioning that the revenues from this operations have recently been greatly reduced for various reasons. The most important of which are: 1) the revenues are shared with the state after deducting the maintenance cost for the Athoniada School, 2) there was a reduction of the proportion of general revenues from fishing from 40 to 25% -between the state and the monastery and 3) there was a reduction in the fish population because the waters are polluted from sewerage, and the pond has been reduced in size and depth.
We believe that the monastery plays an important role in the region through the presence of monks’ in the metochion of St Nicholas. This dependency has become the point from where the Holy Belt of the Mother of God is being offered for worshiping to the people of Xanthi and Komotini at times of special hardship. This is something which has contributed to the dependency being held to a high esteem throughout the centuries. We will talk about this issue later on, however, when we refer to the Holy Belt.
As a rule, the monks who were sent out to manage and administer the huge assets of the dependencies were highly regarded and some even excelled in their holiness and their influence on the imperial courts, advocating in favour of the enslaved nation.
These Vatopaidi fathers not only consoled the suffering people and assisted them in their salvation but also protected them from the critical influence of the heterodox and heathen neighbouring countries.
The presence of Vatopaidi in the region became equally crucial when it sent enlightened monks and hieronmonks to the dependency of St Nicholas. Along with their spiritual mission, they were also trying to raise the national conscience of the people of Thrace. Such monks must have been quite a few. As an example we refer to hieronmonk Gregory, who is extensively mentioned in a letter sent by the Royal Greek Council of Porto Lagos. The letter expresses sincere thanks and immense gratitude because the Monastery had sent out Gregorios as its representative at the metochion. It says that the people of the region were also pleased. It describes him as a competent and virtuous man, who ought to become a model for other monasteries of the Holy Mountain to imitate if they were to assist the nation during its difficult hour. The letter also attacks those Bulgarians who were trying with every available means to deprive the Greeks of their national identity, by turning them against the Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate from which they themselves had defected. These had been trying to steer the Greeks away from their national identity and distort the Greek language through deceit.
There are also letters in our archives, written by the head fishermen at the pond who were requesting the dispatch of an ‘enlightened’ priest who would be able to comfort the faithful and administer the holy mysteries. Similar letters are written by shepherds who were asking for a priest ‘spiritually and morally perfect’ to establish an ideal ecclesiastical environment at the metochi. There are also letters, dated 1875, written by ‘Christians from Karagats’ (Porto Lagos) and Abbot Damianos, requesting that a larger church be built in order to meet the needs of the faithful in the area, since the existing church was not large enough and they had to attend the service at the chapel of St Nicholas. This was a burden for them because of the great travelling distance. Thus they even asked the monastery to build another church in the Karagats region. These letters show that the people of the region wished to attend Church regularly and have their own priest at the metochion. They also demonstrate how important the metochion was for the area.
The monastery agreed to the request and built a larger church, whose ruins are seen to this day. Today the monastery, acknowledging the similar needs of the people of Thrace and as an indication of its affection for them, built a church in honour of the Most Holy Lady Pantanassa on a nearby small island and installed a faithful copy of her Icon. The Icon has been performing extraordinary miracles for the benefit of the people and especially curing incurable diseases, like cancer. We have witnessed such miracles ourselves. Another copy of the Icon of Pantanassa is equally performing wondrous signs to the people of Komotini and Xanthi.
These days, the Vatopaidi fathers continue to administer the holy mysteries and especially the Holy Confession as they did in the past. They also hold all night vigils along with the rest of the liturgical services.
Our holy monastery owned dependencies throughout the Thrace region according to evidence we hold at out monastery. The dependencies were in the towns of Erakleian, Charioupoli, Kallipoli, Ainon, Andrianoupoli, Yampoli and in Filippoupoli. Emperor John Paleologos refers to the first two dependencies in a golden seal in 1356. He also mentions other dependencies as belonging to the monastery and those at ‘Erakleian and Charioupoli’. He signs the document as ‘John, faithful to Lord Jesus, king and emperor of the Romans, Paleologos’. However, since this issue is particularly extensive we will not say anything else, but concentrate on the reference to our existing dependency of St Nicholas instead. Nevertheless, we pause briefly to comment on the way the emperors signed their seals, referring to themselves as ‘faithful to Lord Jesus’. Usually the first part of these documents has a theological content, sometimes referring to the beginning of the creation then to the salvation offered by Jesus and ending with the Second Coming. It is evident that they would call upon the Lord as a matter of duty before any deed. Similarly they were not embarrassed to declare their Christian attribute; on the contrary they deemed it an honour to be described as ‘faithful to Lord Jesus’.
End of part 2