RTE: Can you tell us now about your own life?
IOANNIS: I grew up in a Protestant family because my grandmother is a
pious Christian. She was the only Christian in the family but, as you may
know, in the Chinese tradition the grandmother is a very strong figure.
Because of this, when I was a small child I went to a Protestant church
almost every Sunday. I was not baptized, though, because Chinese
Protestants are usually evangelical and do not baptize children.
When I was about twelve, I wanted to be baptized very much and
Grandmother took me to the pastor, who said, "You are too young, you have
to wait." I was angry, and replied, "But I want to be baptized, and the Lord
Jesus Christ said, 'Don't forbid the children to come to Me,' and 'the
Kingdom of God belongs to children.'" The pastor listened with pleasure,
but the final answer was no. He gave me many theological reasons, but they
weren't very helpful to a young boy. Theology is theology, but the greatest
mystery is love. I wanted to receive this sacrament with love and I knew that
no one should refuse me.
I was so unhappy that I didn't go to church for almost a year; I only
prayed at home. When I was thirteen, I entered middle school and bought
a series of books on the history of the Christian Church. I began to read
them slowly and I was very surprised. The Protestant church has lost so
many traditions, and not only traditions but many important beliefs. I
found that I not only needed baptism, but also Holy Communion, which
doesn't really exist in the Protestant churches. In Shanghai there were many
Protestant and Catholic Churches, and it was very easy for me to find a
Catholic parish. So, I began to attend mass. I didn't tell my Protestant
friends or my family, but after a year I decided to be baptized Catholic.
When I told my grandmother, she wasn't against it. She said, "The most
important thing is to love and believe in Jesus Christ." I cannot say that this
is only a Protestant view. It is right. It's a good view…
However, my father was very against this decision; perhaps he was afraid
I would become a priest. Nevertheless, with the support of my grandmother I was baptized Catholic. After middle school, I went to the university to
study philology and economics and then entered the Catholic seminary in
Shanghai, as my father had perhaps foreseen. I began studying Latin, and
after a year I could read the Church Fathers and liturgical texts with the
help of a dictionary. However, I soon found myself in a dilemma. Liturgical
reform had begun in China and everyone was confused.
RTE: Catholic liturgical reform in the U.S. and Europe started in the 1960's,
after Vatican II. Why was it so late in coming to China?
IOANNIS: It only began in Shanghai in the 1990's, when the Catholics could
once again communicate with the Vatican and world Catholicism. They had
been forced to accept autonomy as the national Chinese Catholic Church,
which was very difficult for them. In Orthodoxy it is normal to have this
decentralization, but in Catholicism there is no context for it. If you are not
under the authority of Rome, you are not Catholic.
I was very confused, as were many people, and the Catholic Church
entered a difficult period. I studied Latin intensely to find an answer to this
confusion in the writings of the Holy Fathers, the early Christian saints,
bishops, teachers, and the liturgical texts. It was extremely difficult at first,
but I finally realized that some of the changes my church was going through
weren't in line with the teaching of the fathers, and I was uncomfortable
with this. Of course, Catholics would say that the theological emphasis
changed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but, nevertheless, I felt it
wasn't quite orthodox, in the general meaning of the word.
RTE: How did you know what was orthodox? Had you already discovered
modern Orthodoxy, or were you just feeling from your reading that there
were some discrepancies?
IOANNIS: It was the reading, combined with many small things. One simple
example was that, at that time in Shanghai, the Catholic church turned the
altar around to face the people. It happened overnight, with no explanation.
The priest himself did not know why. He told us to ask the bishop, and when
we seminarians did ask the bishop, he said to ask the pope. This was upsetting to many Chinese, as the east and west symbolize two very different
things. Christian altars have always traditionally faced east, towards
Jerusalem. The Holy Fathers also wrote about why we face east in prayer,
that we reject the darkness from the west. This goes very far back in scripture, but I found that many Western Christians didn't seem to mind the
change; they didn't think it was important.
There were many things like this, and it was not just the technical, physical problem of whether you face east or west, but, inwardly, I sensed a different spirit entering the church and I was afraid. I went to my spiritual
director in the seminary, not to try to force answers from him, but to find
some peace of heart. My spiritual father was a very good man, with a good
mind, but he was also confused and had lost inner peace over the changes.
Finally, I decided to leave the seminary. The director of the seminary was
very surprised at my decision and talked to me all night, but I finally said,
"Father, I'm sorry, I have to leave."
Afterwards I returned to the university to continue my study of philology.
I did a lot of thinking during this time, not only about my own future, but
about the future of the Church. I couldn't forget the light I had found in the
writings of the Holy Fathers. So one day I took the books and my questions
to my friend, Andreas. I was surprised to find that he felt the same. He was
still in the seminary, and we decided to call Fr. Gregory Zhu in Harbin, at
Pokrov, which we knew was the only open Orthodox church in China. He
was the last Orthodox priest still serving, our last hope in mainland China.
Everyone in China who has an interest in religion knows about this
church. There are ten thousand Catholic and Protestant churches, but only
one Orthodox church. His answer was, "I'm sorry, I am very old and sick,
and I can't come to Shanghai to see you. If you come to Harbin, perhaps I
can baptize you, but I'm not sure." He was already dying.
Finally, Andreas and I decided to contact the Greek Metropolitan of Hong
Kong, Nikitas, who after several months came to Shanghai and baptized
Andreas and me, my cousin, my mother, and Andreas' sister.
RTE: How did you find him?
IOANNIS: Simply. Through the Hong Kong Yellow Pages in the library.
I was eventually baptized and later decided to study for the priesthood. I
have to say, though, that this isn't exactly a continuation of my desire to be
a priest when I was Catholic. I have a different mind about it now. Liturgy
is no longer confusing; it's a peaceful, wonderful grace for me and I feel that
I can serve with all my heart.
RTE: I'm very glad. What are your hopes for the Chinese Church in the near future?
IOANNIS: I am not a prophet but I hope that Chinese Orthodox clergymen
will soon be ordained to serve and rebuild the churches. I also hope that we
will have our own bishop. I don't care what level he is on: bishop, archbishop, metropolitan, but since the government only accepts native Chinese
clergy, if we don't have our own bishops, we will have to seek ordination
outside of China, which would be very difficult.
RTE: Will the government allow you to seek ordination outside of China?
IOANNIS: As of now, I have no permission from the government, so my trip
to Greece is half-secret. Of course, it is not a secret. I left Shanghai legally.
The government knows I am a student, but we still have no clear permission
for ordination and I don't think that the government would be willing to have
the Orthodox Church in China led by foreigners, even if they live elsewhere.