XVIth General Assembly of Syndesmos “Serve the Lord in Unity”: Some thoughts and reflections

Volume 7, issue 1 (summer 1999)

by Edip Aydın

The XVIth General Assembly of Syndesmos, The World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, was hosted by the Orthodox Church of Finland and held at the Valamo Lay Academy and Valamo Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration, in Heinävesi, Finland from July 17-25, 1999. The General Assembly gathered around 250 participants from among the Syndesmos members, in addition to observers from the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and from ecumenical and secular organizations.

This was the third time that the General Assembly of Syndesmos was held in Finland and the second time hosted by the Valamo Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration in Heinävesi, in the beautiful region of Karelia, the easternmost province of Finland. This is why, and rightly so, Dr. Dimitri Oikonomu, the former President of Syndesmos, in his address to the XVIth General Assembly said: “In choosing Finland as a venue for this General Assembly, Syndesmos has very much come home.” Indeed, The Finnish Orthodox Church, the second official Church in Finland after that of the Lutherans, with her 58,000 Orthodox faithful sustained by three dioceses under the auspices of Archbishop John of Karelia and All Finland, holds a special place in her heart and even feels a special responsibility for Syndesmos. Furthermore, Dr. Oikonomu in his President’s address stated:

“For thirteen years, from 1977 to 1990, the Secretariat was located in this land. From 1992 to 1995, Syndesmos’s President was a Finnish priest. For the first time in Syndesmos’s history, thanks to the indispensable support of the local Church, the secretary in Finland had a regular salary and a full time job. On both a human and a financial level, the responsible assistance of the Church in Finland has been enormous and decisive for the well being of the Fellowship. Even today the Finnish Orthodox members are the only ones in the world that unfailingly take up an annual collection from their Churches for the work of Syndesmos.”

Igumen Sergei, the spiritual head of the Valamo Brotherhood, which consists of six monks and four novices, cordially welcomed the Assembly. He said: “The Brotherhood is very happy to be able to serve the Orthodox world this way. Already the second time, Syndesmos held its general Assembly in Valamo last time in 1980.” Valamo, “the heart of Finnish Orthodox life”, was a great opportunity to the participants to learn about the prayer life and service that the Valamo Monastery is offering to the Finnish Orthodox Church as well as to 200,000 visitors (Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike) each year who come on a pilgrimage. For me, as an Orthodox rooted in the Syriac Tradition, it was a thrilling experience to go with Fr. Ephrem Lash to visit Brother Peter in his cell and learn more closely about his monastic life. As I entered his cell, my soul danced and my eyes feasted as they gazed upon the open Syriac Bible standing on a lectern and the Lord’s Prayer hanging on the wall and his study desk covered with Syriac books and dictionaries. When we were seated, he told us about his translation work from Syriac Fathers and ascetics into Finnish. He then added that his translations, with a long introduction about Syriac Spirituality, are going to be published in a form of a book as a service to his monastic community and the Finnish Church in general.

Under the theme: “Serve the Lord in Unity” (Zephaniah 3:9), the Assembly gathered to discuss, create new friendships and cultivate the old ones as well as learn about Orthodoxy and each other.

One of the keynote speeches at the General Assembly was given by Hieromonk Symeon, a Peruvian who lives in the hermitage of Timiou Stavrou under the Stavronikita Monastery on Mount Athos. He spoke about the division in ourselves and among us, and the union given by God, who is love. This was the first time in the history of Syndesmos that an Athonite monk was invited to speak at the General Assembly. It was a good and appropriate choice indeed, because it reflected the connection and fellowship that exists between Syndesmos and monastic centers. Also, it was a golden opportunity for the participants to hear the words of wisdom and learn from the experience of an Athonite monk and the Athonite monastic tradition. Furthermore, it was good for the women participants to hear and meet an Athonite face to face since no women are allowed on the Holy Mountain.

Syndesmos, being a fellowship of Orthodox Youth, was also very appropriate and rather significant to have Ms. Esther Hookway, a young woman who has been actively involved in the life of Syndesmos for many years, speak to the Assembly. She delivered her keynote speech entitled “Orthodox Youth self-awareness”. In her speech she talked about the relation of the world and Church and how to make a worthy contribution to society. She maintained that any contact with the real world is spiritually a beneficial one. According to Hookway, Orthodox self-awareness is about being a Christian in a real way. And one should change oneself before changing the world. Hookway noted that our Orthodox self-awareness is rather feeble. This, she maintained, is due to lack of education, which also means less witness of Christ in our life. She said: “It is important to be educated in theology and live theologically, that is to say to have a prayer life, to fast and do charitable works, etc., which have a profound and lasting influence on oneself and others.”

Among other things, the Assembly Working Groups deserve a mention here. Working Groups are some of the means by which the Assembly analyses and describes the current status of themes of interest and concern in the Orthodox Church and discusses the actions of Syndesmos in this field. The Working Groups list contained the following range of topics to choose from: Secularism as a challenge, Tradition and traditions, Liturgical language, Responsible participation in inter-Christian dialogue, Social service as Christian witness, Laity in the Church, Christian moral values today, Syndesmos’s commission on Orthodox Theological Institutions, and Orthodoxy and environment.

I myself chose the Working Group on secularism with its moderator Fr. Heikki Huttunen, a former president of Syndesmos. It was interesting to hear what Fr. Heikki, who is a Finnish Orthodox priest in the secular country of Finland, had to say about secularism as a challenge as well as to hear the views and comments of the participants who represented countries of different political outlook, faith and religion. Fr. Heikki said: “I think secularism should be taken rather as a circumstance in which we live and not as a positive nor negative thing in itself.” Besides enlightening us on the subject, The Working Group also was a good way to get to know each other better.

The program of the General Assembly also included excursions and trips to some of the churches and religious centers of Orthodox Church in Finland. These trips and excursions exposed us to the life of the Orthodox Church in Finland. One such trip was to Ilomantsi, which is at the heart of Finnish Orthodoxy, with a community established in the 14th century. There we visited the Church of the Prophet Elias, which is the largest Orthodox wooden church in the country and only dates from the last century. On Tuesday, July 20th, which marked the feast of St. Elias, the patron saint of Ilomantsi we were privileged to attend the hierarchical Divine Liturgy celebrated in honor of St. Elias. Following the Liturgy, there was a procession to the nearby lake for the service of the blessing of water. Later, we shared an agape meal under a tent and listened to the address given by Archbishop John of Karelia, welcoming all to the parish of St. Elias and giving a brief account of the parish life and the Church in general. He touched upon ecumenical and friendly relations that the Finnish Orthodox Church enjoys with the Lutherans, Catholics and Oriental Orthodox in Finland. [In fact, I later learned that in Helsinki, where a small community of Oriental Orthodox live, these faithful are allowed to receive communion in the Helsinki parish of the Finnish Orthodox Church. This is something that is rarely practiced elsewhere between Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches]. This was followed by a musical performance played on the kantele by two young girls from the parish. Kantele, a stringed instrument resembling the Middle-Eastern Qanun, is the Finnish national instrument. The instrument originated in Karelia, which is known as the Land of Kantele Music and Song. From there we visited the Joensuu Orthodox parish and the Orthodox Seminary, meeting with representatives of the local Syndesmos members, Orthodox Youth Association (ONL), PISTIS and Orthodox Student Association (OOL).

On Saturday, July 24th, we travelled to the Lintula Convent at Palokki where Mother Marina, who personally took us around the convent and the church, received us. The convent is home to a dozen nuns and open to visitors only during summer. They get about 20,000 visitors in a season. They are self-supporting, maintaining a small farm with sheep and goats but their main activity and income is the candle factory, which produces all the candles used by the faithful of the Finnish Orthodox Church.

On Saturday afternoon, coming back from Lintula Convent, we assembled at the tent for the official closure of the XVIth General Assembly of Syndesmos. After the newly elected Governing Bodies and Auditors of Syndesmos had been officially announced and the past Governing Body as well as all those who worked hard and made the Assembly such a successful event were thanked, the General Assembly was officially declared closed by Manos Koumbarelis, the new President of Syndesmos. The Assembly then sang a cheerful prayer in Greek.

This was later followed by an all-night vigil with the Sunday Divine Liturgy at the Valamo Church of Holy Transfiguration to offer thanks to God Almighty for all that Syndesmos has done and has accomplished for the glory of His Holy Name. Then all faithful shared an agape meal in the Monastery refectory.

On Sunday July 25th, there were two post-Assembly optional excursions. One of these was a pilgrimage to Old Valaam Holy Transfiguration Monastery on Lake Ladoga, Russian Karelia, and St. Petersburg, Russia. The other one was a Finnish Summer camp for the Youth Exchange held at the Kaunisniemi Orthodox Youth Center, Southern Finland. I chose the latter, which I enjoyed immensely. The three-day summer camp was something that I shall never forget. The program included daily worship and introduction to Finnish Orthodox Church life, particularly that of the Helsinki Orthodox parish and its youth work. There was evening entertainment, a traditional Finnish campfire, with multicultural participants singing cultural and religious songs in different languages while enjoying the grilled sausages. Above all, relaxing in the Finnish sauna (the eighth sacrament of the Church!), swimming in the beautiful Loppi Lake and taking trips by boat to the nearby islands was something I shall never forget. In short, the occasion was very enjoyable, relaxing and culturally as well as spiritually enriching.

On the departure day, July 28th, we visited Helsinki and its Orthodox sites, which was a joyous and memorable event in itself.

My final comment on the XVIth General Assembly of Syndesmos is that it was a successful and an enjoyable event. It was a golden opportunity for me to deepen my understanding of Orthodox Church and Tradition as well as to further learn about Syndesmos and appreciate the excellent work and service that it offers for Orthodox youth and the glory of God. Furthermore, it was an enriching experience to witness the vibrant and living Church of Finland with her dedicated priests and many devout faithful. A final word of thanks and gratitude goes to St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and staff for selecting me to represent the Seminary at the General Assembly and making it possible for me to participate by contributing towards the costs of the trip and event.