“Our Faith is alive!” Get to know Papa-Dimitri
The Holy Spirit descended upon the gathered disciples of the Lord, in the form of tongues of fire, to show that as He came to set fire on earth, burning their hearts, purifying them, renewing them, so that His followers would be set aflame, with an ardent desire in them to transmit the divine flame to all those who are receptive to receive it.
Our holy Church celebrates today1 the clouds of martyrs and confessors of faith, the known and unknown heroes of our faith. They were people like us, who, with God’s grace and their personal labors, reached the heights of holiness.
I hear your reservations: Times have changed. We cannot become saints! Yet God has His friends in every epoch. Allow me to introduce to you such a hero, a contemporary saint, who reposed in the Lord in 1975: Papa-Dimitri Gagastathis. A giant of a Saint; a towering, prophetic figure; a man of great faith; a man of prayer, whose feet were touching the earth, but whose head reached the heavens.
He was born in the village of Platanos, near Trikala, in Thessaly, Greece. Even as a little shepherd boy he used to play priest. But he was also praying, and reading the lives of saints, as he was taught by his pious mother. Such an intense prayer he had, that since the age of 15 he had extraordinary experiences. Being a shepherd, he couldn’t be at church often. So what did he do? During the time of the Divine Liturgy he prayed to God on his knees, imploring Him to forgive him for not being at church.
At 19 he enrolled in the army and was immediately dispatched to Asia Minor. Before leaving, he went to venerate his two heavenly protectors, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. He spoke to them as one speaks to friends: “I want you to strengthen me, to help me come back at your door safe and sound, and to rescue me from all difficult situations”. Indeed, he was rescued from many dangers many times throughout his life.
What characterized this holy priest more than anything else was his great simplicity and a great sense of his sinfulness. Here is an illustration of both: Whenever people would trouble him and actually persecute him because of his faith, he would invariably say: “My sins persecute me, not people”. His sin, like the psalmist’s, was “ever before him”. His confessor, Father Amphilochios Makris, himself a holy man, would write about him:
“His humility was most true, when he would say that he was ‘the last of all and unworthy.’ ‘Do not entreat God for me,’ he said; ‘I do not deserve it. While I am here, I bring loss to the Church and to the people. What fruit can I bear, the unworthy servant? I only weep for my sins and entreat God for all the world.’”
On Meatfare Sunday of 1945, the leftist guerrillas were ringing the bells and used loudspeakers to call the people to a rally, ignoring the fact the Matins had started. As the chanter was reading the Six Psalms he takes a bat, goes before the icon of St. Nicholas and says:
“Saint Nicholas, don’t you hear what’s happening outside? They don’t let us serve. [Notice the plural] You, Saint Nicholas, struck Arius, and they put you in jail. But Christ and the Most-Holy Virgin restored you [after you were deposed], because you were right... And now I’ll get them down from the bell-tower and I’ll strike them one by one. I’ll strike and you will be responsible for what happens to me.”
You can guess what happened. He drove those guerrillas out, without suffering any harm. Afterwards he said:
“I live to give testimony. They did not even say anything to me, because the grace of Saint Nicholas and of the Archangels did not let them.”
And concluded with one of his favored quotations:
“If God is with us, no one will be against us!”
My favored story is the following, narrated by himself:
“One day, I was out working in the field all day long, carrying water to an irrigation barrel from which an attached hose distributed the water into the field. Every time I emptied water into the barrel I prayed, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!’ In the evening, I prayed the Compline service there in the field and chanted various hymns afterwards. At that time, I heard a frog croaking as if it were calling all the others, and—a great wonder!—all the frogs in that place gathered around me at about two meters away and listened— quietly—to the hymns I chanted. One of them even came closer to listen. When I finished chanting the hymns, they took their turn singing and finally departed in order, as if they were rational human beings. I said to myself, ‘Behold, Papa-Dimitri, you are not worthy to preach to people; you are only fit to preach to frogs!’”
He called himself a simple, uneducated priest, but the power of the holy Archangels was with him. One time, he relates, eleven guerrillas on horseback were shooting at him:
“The bullets they fired pierced my cassock but they did not harm me.”
[Now that’s a bullet-proof vest we would all like to have, wouldn’t we?] He continues:
“They encircled me at about fifty meters shouting: ‘Where are you going to go now, bearded devil, eh?’ (They cursed me meanly.) I lifted my hands to heaven and cried from the depth of my soul: ‘Archangel Michael, I am in danger—save me!’ And, behold—what a wonder!—Archangel Michael appeared like lightning! He cut the bands of their chief’s saddle with his sword, threw him down from his horse, and caused him to break his spinal chord. The other ten men froze on the spot. One of them finally spoke saying, ‘Forgive us, my priest—go on your way! You have high protectors!’ ‘Thank you,’ I said. I forgave them and prayed to God to enlighten them so that they might repent and become good men. ‘Always speak the truth,’ I told them, ‘and may God be your help!’”
Later, after the Divine Liturgy he told the crowd:
“We are glad, because we have a living religion...”
Indeed, time after time, one extraordinary event after another, he would repeat:
“Our faith is alive, our religion is a living religion!”
This, my friends, is also the title of this humble homily in his honor, and in honor of all the Saints, commemorated today. The reason that I narrate extensively from his life is to show precisely that the Faith is alive today, even in the midst of our ungodly times. Father Dimitri didn’t live thousands of years ago; he wasn’t a monk (although there is nothing wrong with that). He was a contemporary family man, a simple village priest, a husband and a father of nine daughters at that. I’m tempted to say, with ten women in the family, by force you either become a saint or you are driven mad (I fall so easily into temptation...)
With the miracles that I related to you, you may feel intimidated. How can you reach the heights of this man? Well, here are some more “mundane” examples of his holiness, worthy of imitation by all of us. Father Dimitri writes:
“A lady with her younger sister came to visit me on the afternoon of July 15, 1967. I took them home for a sweet and then went off to the Church of the Archangels to venerate the icons and clean the church. While the lady took a nap, her sister began lecturing Presbytera and our daughters on modernism and other such things. First she posed the question to Presbytera, ‘Why should the girls stay behind the times when it comes to the cinema and contemporary fashion?’ and then suggested, ‘They should change their lifestyle.’ Presbytera accepted these things as true. As soon as our guests left that evening, she pestered me with her newfound ideas. She accused me, among other things, of keeping the girls behind the times, planning for them all to become nuns, and being incompetent for not being able to marry them off successfully. She even spat on me and tried to hit me, but—glory be to God!—I was granted such patience that I was able to hold my tongue without being disturbed. I then went to sleep, praying to God, the Most Holy Theotokos, and the Archangels to enlighten Presbytera and to continue to grant me undisturbed patience. I fell asleep easily and peacefully, as though I had not been present to hear anything distressing. As a doctor injects a drug to numb a patient prior to an operation, so I too became numb to the disturbance. This was a great miracle God performed for me, a sinner! In the morning, I went to the Church of the Archangels, prayed, and that was it—the turmoil was over.”
This of course was not the last time Papa-Dimitri’s wife troubled him. Another time, he writes,
“...Presbytera pestered me again about Chrysoula’s issue for two full hours. I was reading the Lives of the Saints and pretended not to hear anything. The whole time I was praying to the Most Holy Theotokos, entreating her to provide enlightenment to Presbytera, patience to me, and strength to Chrysoula.”
And it happened. Later he would write:
“Whatever I suffered from her actually did me good. She worked to give me a crown, so that I might also expect some wages from God.”
[So I was right in what I said earlier - He did become a saint of her account!]
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: Our holy Church places before us the countless number of our brothers and sisters in heaven, for imitation, so that we may enjoy the same blessings God reserves for those who love Him with their whole heart, do His holy will, and live a God-pleasing life. It is possible, even in our times, to become saints, as Papa-Dimitri proves to us, as long as we truly want it, because we have as helpers, Christ and His Holy Spirit, His holy Mother, and all the Saints. Let us become imitators of the saints, so we can become worthy of their glory on earth and in heaven.
The life, miracles and spiritual counsels of Papa-Dimitri Gagastathis are available in an English translation by Dr. Dimitri Kagaris. May the Lord bless you.
- All Saints day