Before And After Conversion

00 altarFather Gregory Cognetti (who fell asleep in the Lord April 14 – Holy Tuesday – 1998) led Italy to the Deanery of the Moscow Patriarchate in times of great difficulty for our faithful. The texts that follow (first appeared in the U.S.) is testimony of his integrity and commitment of faith in the revival of Orthodoxy in Italy.

I am a professor of biology, and faculty member at the University of Palermo (Italy), but above all an Orthodox priest.

I was born and raised in a Roman Catholic family, devout and traditional. In the past, many members of my family were priests, nuns, and even bishops.  My godfather was a cardinal!  I was educated in a school held by the Jesuits.  Among other things, I studied Latin (8 years), Greek (5 years) and philosophy (3 years), and the age of 17 I had a good knowledge of Roman dogma, and especially Thomas Aquinas. I chose the university chemistry department, and got his degree when I became an atheist I could not reconcile my scientific knowledge with that approach to God that I had been taught as the only existing, and the only true.

After graduation I began working as a researcher in various centers in the U.S. than in Italy. During this period I met my wife and we married in 1972. At the same time became assistant professor at the University of Palermo.  In Palermo there is a Uniate Church Italo-Albanian, purely by chance and went there to attend the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, celebrated in Greek. I was immediately fascinated vaguely perceiving that behind this liturgical form was something immense which I was not aware of in my years of attending Catholic church. I must confess, however, that my initial interest was purely cultural.

Probably because of my scientific training, I found an exciting discovery (for me) new field of knowledge. I had already examined the non-Christian religions, and I was convinced I know practically all of Christianity. My interest in the ancient Greek world was awakened, and felt challenged to learn more. I turned to a priest, request information, and shortly after I was reading books by various authors orthodox contemporaries as Evdokimov, Lossky, Meyendorff, and Bloom ware. I was deeply impressed by the theology of St. Gregory Palamas.

With amazement I began to realize that criticism of the Christian faith that had brought me to atheism were directed only at school, not the Christian faith itself! The distinction between essence and energy of God, the apophatic approach to God, contradicting my scientific knowledge, but it is the complement in a pattern of higher reality!  So I retrieved a faith still fragile: no longer a Roman faith, because I had lost it forever, but the Orthodox faith.  Even my wife, who already knew some works of  Evdokimov was with me.  Soon we became full members of the Italo-Albanian Church.

In 1975 we were in Houston, Texas. I do research at the MD Anderson Tumor Center.  Even if we were communicating in the local Ukrainian church, the rector of the Greek Orthodox church was kind enough to allow me to visit the library of the church.   I read as many works as possible. The history of the church and the Orthodox mystical theology were the topics that most interest me. I paid particular attention to the seven Ecumenical Councils and pseudo-councils of Lyons and Florence.  My wife was always by my side, and constantly discuss and evaluate new knowledge we were acquiring.

Gradually we became aware that the Orthodox Church is the true Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  Another important event in that period was his meeting with Father George Sondergaard.  Received from him the first idea of a mission Orthodox, and he planted the seeds of our future conversions.   Back in Italy, worked with zeal and energy with the Church Italo-Albanian, still believing (or rather, wanting to believe) it was possible to be Roman Catholics and Orthodox at the same time.

At that time we began to read the Fathers, because we in the U.S. bought the entire collection of “Ante-Nicene Fathers” and “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers” also published by Eerdmans.

We read everything we could find on Orthodoxy, in Italian, English and French.

In 1979 we were back in the United States. I worked at the department of chemistry at Duke University, Durham, NC Our spiritual growth finally came to fruition.  Realizing that it is impossible to have a still remained orthodox faith in the Roman communion, and out of true Orthodoxy. So we were confirmed members in the Greek Church in Raleigh, NC, Saturday in the dead of Pentecost in 1979. I took the name Gregory by St Gregory Palamas as a tribute of gratitude to the saint whose doctrine he had recovered to the Christian faith and the true Church.

After confirmation, the desire to engage increasingly in the church grew steadily in us.   We realized the enormous blessings that the Lord gave us, and that these gifts and knowledge that He had provided, they should deliver.

On the Sunday after the Holy Cross in 1982 was tonsured reader in the Greek Church in Greensboro, NC Reading the Gospel of the day could not have been more appropriate: we were taking our cross to follow the Lord.

I am very indebted to Father Dimitri Cozby, who at the time was rector of a mission close to ours.  It was very helpful with advice and concern. Was to introduce him to the world of Orthodox Church of America, and this was very important for our spiritual formation.  On her advice, we traveled several times in other parishes of the Orthodox Church of America, particularly in Atlanta and the monastery of Resaca (which also took part in a pilgrimage), and found the missionary spirit of orthodoxy.  We were deeply impressed by the Bishop Dimitri and his missionary mind. His model was perhaps the most important reference point in our future life. At that time I also wrote some articles for The Dawn. We were members of the local Greek church, for two reasons: first, because the Church is one, and the court is not so important, and also because our pastor had a great greek priest had debts of gratitude to him and to other priests Greek area, there was no reason for a change of jurisdiction that would certainly hurt.

In 1983 we were back in Italy, in Palermo.  I was an associate professor, leads a group of brilliant researchers, lived comfortably, and I had a lot of professional satisfaction, but from the spiritual point of view our situation was critical. In town there was an Orthodox church, and were closer to the continent, in Rome, Naples and Brindisi (600 to 800 km away, with the sea to cross.)  We traveled in one of these churches once a month to receive the Holy Mysteries, and why we did not want our son to grow up without the experience of a church.

Disinformation on Orthodoxy was (and indeed still is) enormous. The vast majority believed (and still believe) that the Orthodox are a kind of Protestant prior to the reform, who refuse to obey the pope.  The Roman Catholics leave people to think that Orthodoxy is nothing more than something exotic (“beards, incense and endless tasks”) for the Greek or Russian, although recognizing that “despite the schism” some Orthodox have a good degree of spirituality.

Everything was expected, at all levels of information (newspapers, magazines, TV, etc..), to give the impression that the Orthodox would soon return to the fold (now, however, the tendency is to blame the Orthodox as unrepentant rebels ). There was a great missionary work to be done, since many were very dissatisfied with their Roman Church. The proliferation of sects, the inside and outside of Roman Catholicism, had started in Italy precisely at the time.  We started talking Orthodoxy around us, with opposite reactions: some were very interested (but how to address them?); Others, especially in our family, took a firm attitude of contempt and condemnation against us. Two of our cousins have refused to see us from that time onwards.

As a reader in the Patriarchate of Constantinople, I was in Italy was preceded by a letter of recommendation from the local bishop, Gennadios in Naples. (At that time I did not know – I learned it many years later – that is another letter, this time from my parish to join once I had before). My first impulse was to visit the bishop and tell him that I wanted to help organize a community in Palermo (at that time there were two thousand Greek students at the University of Palermo and about fifty mixed families), where a priest could do visits regular.   My enthusiasm got a cold shower.

“We do not proselytize,”

the bishop said, beginning to talk. He added that it was necessary to avoid any chance of upsetting the Roman Church, they will damage the good relations between Rome and Constantinople.   We could not have organized a community in Palermo, because the Uniates would not welcome. I asked permission, as a reader, functions to celebrate in my house, which I granted, provided the thing that kept completely private.

I tried hard to follow the Church calendar every day with my family (my wife, my three year old son and my wife’s sister, who had become too orthodox in America).  I sang the Hours and Compline, Vespers on Saturday, and Sunday Morning and Typika.  I must confess to not being totally obedient to the Bishop Gennadios; allowed a small group of close friends to join us in secret.

We were a church, we were not a community, we were nothing. Nothing that is dedicated to St. Mark of Ephesus. We thought that he would be more appropriate to the patron, as he met very well the feeling of being in Italy, alone, to fight for the Orthodox faith with the opposition of Roman Catholics that they wanted the union of the Orthodox!  Once a month we continued to bring us into an Orthodox church on the continent.

The memory of the missions of the Orthodox Church of America was burning in us. Our situation seemed to have reached an impasse. Easter is approaching and we wanted to follow the functions of the Great Week.  We planned to go to Rome, but since we forgot to book in advance, the hotels near the church were all full.So at the last moment changed his mind and decided to go to Brindisi. There they met an Italian Orthodox priest, Father Antonio Lot, the Patriarchate of Moscow, who concelebrated the Greek church.

I had not addressed the jurisdiction of Moscow, since at that time knew that in Italy there were only two churches, whose priests had a bad reputation. Father Anthony explained that these two priests were recently suspended, and that the Bishop Seraphim of Zurich, responsible for Italy, had them replaced by ordering young Italians with a good education, a job and a family, to restore vitality to Orthodoxy Italian.  He also offered to write to Bishop Serafim about the situation of Palermo. After receiving permission, Father Antonio was in Palermo and a Sunday celebrated the Divine Liturgy in our living room, in the presence of a small number of people, and promised to return regularly.  It was a great day for us!

But again, the Lord decided otherwise: I received the offer of a chair for six months at the University of Zurich! We left for Zurich on June 10, 1984.  I was carrying a letter signed by a few members of our community and not-myself, calling the Bishop Seraphim of opening a mission in Palermo.

The meeting with Bishop Seraphim was dramatically different from that with the Bishop Gennadios. I told the whole story, I gave him the letter, and assured him that if he left a priest in Palermo we would have taken pains to accommodate it as best as possible.   He listened very carefully, showed solidarity, but so far no reply.  Instead, he invited me to serve as a reader in his church, urging me to learn the Slavonic.

But I felt in him a warmth and kindness that made me a great impression. So, after many years of Greek, start exploring the Slavic language and customs.  I served as a regular reader, and a day the Bishop Seraphim told me to want me to speak in private.   When we were alone, told me he had decided to open a community in Palermo, but have no one to give it as a priest.

He smiled and added:

“Unless you yourself do not want to be that priest …”

As I said before, after confirmation I wanted more involvement in church, but frankly, I did not see the priesthood as a short-term goal. I rather a deacon, and, perhaps, to the priesthood late in life. Bishop Seraphim did not want an immediate response, so remember to have spent much time discussing with my wife. We reached the conclusion that if we really wanted a church in Palermo, we had to accept, because it was very difficult for us were given a second chance. So I agreed, and was soon ordained subdeacon and deacon, and shortly later, a priest.

I would like to recall an important episode. The day before departure from Zurich to Palermo, I called the phone it Michael Hieromonk at Resaca. I told him about the recent developments in our situation, and asked his prayers.

I recall that said:

“I will pray that you return as a priest.”

I was shocked by this unexpected reply.  The day before I called him my ordination to the priesthood, and was told that Father Michael had been admitted to hospital after a severe heart attack.  He died on the day of my ordination, September 2, 1984. My primary function as a priest, after the liturgy of ordination, was a Panikhida for him, and his name is on my disk since then.

At the end of my stay I returned to Zurich to Palermo, where he became professor. But now I was an Orthodox priest.  My wife, in his role with the faithful, and my sister as choir director, played a huge role in community building.

The “Orthodox Parish of St. Mark of Ephesus” was a reality.

 

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