When I was a kid and read about the desperate and strenuous efforts of the missionaries, who with the help and Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ spread the Gospel in the vast African continent, not even once did it cross my mind that one day I would have the blessing to partake of this experience myself, let alone that I would be in charge of the Bishopric ministry.
Impfondo: a city of 20,000 inhabitants at Likouala region, in the northern part of the Congo Republic. There, under the sleepless care of Fr Theologos Chrysanthacopoulos, Fr Sergio Mabelemo, (parish) priest of Saint Mark’s Parish, and the indigenous catechists Marios and Joachim, managed to constitute the first orthodox nucleus in this remote corner of the country. The flock, apart from the city dwellers, consists of fifty Pygmies, who refuse to adopt the modern lifestyle and live in the heart of the rainforest.
After plenty of efforts due to the difficult access to this area, my first pastoral visit to the region was finally set for Friday 7th June. The faithful gave us a cordial welcome. We were deeply touched to see them in two-wheelers (the most common means of transport in the north), forming a bustling procession as long as the entrance of Saint Mark’s Holy Church, which is actually a house whose larger room is used as a shrine. Early in the evening in the same Church we conducted a supplication to the Most Holy Theotokos and preached the Word of God.
Saturday 8th June: ten new souls will shine from the enlightenment of the Grace of the Holy Spirit and will enter Orthodoxy. They have been patiently waiting for this great moment at the banks of the Oubangui River since the dawn. A pirogue was used as a platform, from where, deeply touched, I baptized the new members of Orthodoxy in the calm waters of the river, glorifying the Benevolent God for this proto-Christian experience that I was granted to live.
Noon of the same day in the city market. Thanks to the most eager and brotherly support of the Orthodox Missionary Fraternity, the Holy Diocese bought relief items for the Pygmies in order to help them materially as well in their difficult struggle for survival in the forests. Machetes, axes, tools, knives and files were the things they chose as necessary for their survival in nature and their hunting lifestyle.
Sunday 9th June: the church and the yard have been overcrowded since the dawn by the faithful who are waiting patiently in order to participate for the first time in an Archieratical Divine Liturgy and take the Bishop’s blessings, discreetly touching the prelatic vestments.
An old table stood for the Altar, a smaller one for the Oblation. The psalms and the pulse of the youth inundate this blessed place and take you to the apostolic times. On this occasion, I preach the life and spiritual heritage of Apostle Mark, the Enlightener of the Alexandrian Church, and eventually, through the constant apostolic succession of the martyred Patriarchs of Alexandria, I end up with the contemporary fruitful ministry of our “Mother-Church”.
On Sunday afternoon visit to the reservation of the Orthodox Pygmies. Traversing the lush vegetation of the tropical forest, we reach the first houses. It feels like having set the time back. Around the mud-brick houses, one could see children climbing up the trees, or looking after the land, copying their parents’ moves. In the cooking pots, on a bundle of burning sticks, the goods offered by the forest through the omniscience of its Creator are being roasted.
The politeness of the ninety-year-old chief of the village is characteristic. The traditionally proud Pygmies, who of course are not aware of the fact that Homer and Herodotus spoke about them in their famous works, talked to me mainly about their life and very little about their problems, since they know how to accept and enjoy their life as the most valuable gift of God. They were grateful for the benevolence and the undivided love of the orthodox brothers.
As it is getting dark, we are in the hospitable residence of the Governor of the region, who requested officially the erection of a beauteous Orthodox Church in the center of the city of Impfondo in a plot that the Bishopric already owns legally. And if our Church manages to offer them a school as well, then “the joy will be complete”!
Monday 10th June: farewell time has come. As we are returning to the capital city of the country, Brazzaville, I am making a review of the journey. I express my gratitude to God, considering the burden of the pastoral and missionary responsibility, I envisage the Orthodox Church, only built of the traditional red brick, evident internally as well as externally, with a beautiful tiled roof and a low proto-Christian wooden iconostasis, carved by the skilful hands of the natives. The mind is full of beautiful images and the soul of spiritual exultation and strength for the continuation of the pastoral activities of the Bishopric, which geographically covers a total area 2.5 times larger than Greece, and which God has entrusted in my littleness.
+ Panteleimon of Brazzaville