by Dimitrios N. Kagaris
We clergy are often reminded how few ‘parish priests’ inhabit our Church calendar. It almost seems as if martyrdom is our only chance. Men like Papa Dimitri show us clearly that this is not the case. He lived in Greece during the time when Communists were everywhere and intimidation and killing was rampant. The ardent and bold statements of this simple, faithful priest are an inspiration for all who will be facing the same soon. During my assignment in southern Illinois, I had the great honor of meeting Dr. Kagaris, the translator of Papa Dimitri’s life. He is a humble, pious man with a towering intellect.
We live in a complex world that grants simplicity a certain charm but favors sophistication. Many people are embarrassed or even offended by the thought that others might characterize them as simple. Even as Orthodox Christians, we may admire simplicity in others but we seldom make a conscious effort to nurture it in ourselves, quite forgetting that the Lord said plainly:
Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 18:3)
This neglected virtue is well illustrated by the life of Father Dimitrios Gagastathis, a simple Greek village priest of our time. If he had difficulty composing a sermon, his feelings of inadequacy were unfounded. As a priest-monk from Patmos wrote to him:
…What difference does it make if you don’t possess titles of worldly wisdom. Take for instance Saint Spyridon- what was he? A simple man, most simple, a former shepherd. But nevertheless he put Arius to shame. Not to mention Saint Anthony, the completely illiterate doctor of the desert! You, too, Father Dimitrios, possessing simplicity of heart and an ardent love towards the Lord, you attract the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. Besides, the Lord called you to work in a fold of simple men, villagers, who can understand you and you can understand them. You have had with the Lord’s Grace a great effect on their souls as a genuine priest and a true servant of the Lord.
From the time he was born, in 1902, Papa Dimitri lived in the small village of Platanos on the Thessalian plain. His family was poor, and before finishing the elementary grades he left school to work as a shepherd. In 1921 he was drafted into the army. He served a three-year term and then returned to school, completing the sixth-grade equivalency required to become a priest. After an additional six months’ study at a seminary, in May 1931, he was ordained to the priesthood. Papa-Dimitri was married and had nine daughters. He served in the Church of the Archangels, the parish of his youth, his pastoral work complicated by alternate threats from local communist rebels, German occupying forces, and hostile Turks. In 1966 he was diagnosed with cancer. An operation in 1969 provided him a few years’ reprieve, but the disease returned, finally claiming his life on January 16/29, 1975.
To move beyond these bare facts is to glimpse behind the veil, drawn closed by our sins, into the spiritual realm that is revealed to those of holy life. For Papa-Dimitri there was no perceptible boundary between the earthly and spiritual realms. In his autobiographical notes, he describes numerous of his encounters with angels, saints, and demons in a manner that leaves the reader amazed – as much by the writer’s guilelessness as by the incidents themselves.
From his childhood, it was evident that Papa-Dimitri belonged to God’s chosen. He loved the services at the Church of the Archangels, and even his games reflected his desire to become a priest: he built “churches” and performed various “services,” imitating what he observed while helping in the altar. As a youth he would take his flock and withdraw to some remote area to pray undisturbed. He consciously avoided worldly associations and strengthened his faith by studying the lives of saints and “whatever Christian book I could find.”
As he continued to build on this foundation, he became subject to demonic attacks.
“One night,” he writes, when he was still a shepherd, demons came to his hut “in the form of a violent wind and with many cries to sweep me off along with the hut and destroy me.” On another occasion, he had shut up the sheep and was going to church when, “Satan appeared to me in the form of a huge dog in an attempt to hinder me…”
When he became a priest, he frequently served at night.
“It’s at night and on an empty stomach that one can pray better,” he observed.
As many as thirty villagers, plus children, would join him for these nocturnal liturgies. The demons made evident their displeasure, trying by all means to disturb and discourage this practice.
“One night, as I was doing my usual service, some time after midnight, I heard shouts, songs, dancing and music. Most strange – given also that it was snowing outside and it was very cold. I went out and what should I see: The demons were having a wedding! I smiled slightly. I made the sign of the cross over them and said: ‘Wherever the grace of the Holy Archangels falls, the power of the devil is routed!’ as well as ‘Let all adverse powers be crushed under the sign of Thy Precious Cross!’ They all vanished immediately.”
“Several other times the demons attacked me: once in the form of a boar, another time in the form of a dog trying to pass under my legs while I was reciting the Salutations of the Theotokos, and still another time, in the form of a tall black man who attempted to strangle me while I was on my way to the Archangels to pray. In every instance, I prayed and they disappeared.”
Papa-Dimitri’s faith in the power of the Archangels proved itself repeatedly. He was serving liturgy one night when the demons
“came into the church and started overturning the chairs. The archdemon came into the sanctuary, shut the window and grabbed me by the throat to strangle me. I asked help from the Archangels, and when the rooster crowed in the morning, they all went away.”
Another time, after a successful exorcism,
“the demon got spiteful because we had chased it away, and came into the room while I was sleeping to devour me. It came … in the form of a herd of pigs… As soon as they entered the room and I heard their wild cries, I shouted, ‘Archangel Michael, save me!’ And behold, what a wonder! a young man killed the largest pig by his sword and told me: ‘Don’t be afraid, I’m with you!’ I saw him at the door with the sword… Of course, it was his duty to save me, because I have been serving in his church sixty years now, both as sexton and as a priest.”
His closeness with the angels and the saints gave him a wonderful boldness in addressing them.
“Tonight I want a miracle,”
he would say to them, or,
“Why do you stand idle? Give a helping hand.”
Among his writings we read,
“The simple man is neither wicked nor can he think anything wicked. He bears no resentment. He is like a child.”
Papa-Dimitri himself was like a child in this regard: he never thought evil of another. Because of this, he was at first taken in by the pro-communist guerrillas with their patriotic slogans, and he and his villagers began supplying them with food and clothing. Very soon, however, his error was revealed to him, and he determined to preach against communism, which he saw was an enemy of the Church, country, and family. He realized that in so doing he was placing his life in danger, but after praying to the Archangels to assist him in this struggle, all fear immediately left him. Papa-Dimitri possessed great authority among the villagers, and the communists were anxious to destroy him. Several times Papa-Dimitri was sentenced to be executed, and several times he took leave of his family, fully expecting he would never again see them in this world, but each time he was miraculously delivered.
Once, when the guerrillas were pursuing him, he hid in the mountains, wandering for days without food or shelter. He finally met up with two nationalist soldiers:
“At night we heard wolves howling. A whole pack was coming our way. From the depths of my soul I entreated Christ, the Theotokos, and Archangels to help us. Suddenly, I saw an unknown man walking around the pack and turning it away.”
He was alone again, still wandering and thoroughly exhausted, when he came to a swollen stream:
“I tried to cross it, but I just couldn’t. I remained there for a while entreating the saints to help me. While I was praying, I heard a strong bluster, and I saw a young radiant rider passing in front of me and greeting me. I neither saw nor heard anything else-just the greeting-and, all of a sudden-O great wonder!-I was on the other bank of the river.”
At one time the guerrillas thought to entice Papa-Dimitri by offering him an office. They were going to give him a horse and four bodyguards if he would go around the villages and preach communism. On hearing of this proposal from the villagers, Papa-Dimitri turned to the Archangels:
“They want to destroy me, but you thwart all their machinations!”
When the communists came with the written order, he refused point-blank:
“I just can’t do it. Such a job requires an educated and experienced man. And anyway, I’ve declared openly that I want to die as a priest, not as a clown. I won’t take this job. Be it now or never, I’m ready to die for Christ any time you wish!”
In the village lived a teacher who was a communist sympathizer and who had worked to have Papa-Dimitri eliminated. The tables turned and he was arrested by the nationalists. He was being hauled off to be executed when he saw Papa-Dimitri:
“Pastor, help! Save me!” he cried. “I perceived that God presented me with my enemy to test me,”
writes Papa-Dimitri in describing the incident. He ran alongside the soldiers, trying to persuade them not to punish the teacher, but they were unwilling to change the order. Finally he said,
“I’ll sacrifice myself together with him! I have to, since the Lord said, I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10:11).”
When they saw the priest’s determination, the soldiers released their prisoner. Afterwards Papa-Dimitri told the teacher simply,
“Be a good Christian. I deserve no thanks; give thanks to God and glorify Him!”
The persecution of the communist guerrillas was difficult to endure, but even more hurtful to Papa-Dimitri were the conflicts he experienced with his presbytera. She tried to persuade him to be more like “other priests,” those who, for the sake of their own safety, compromised with the communists, if only for the sake of appearances. Every time he set out on a forty-day series of Liturgies, she tried to hinder him, telling him that it was unnecessary, that it would undermine his health. Under the influence of a worldly visitor, she argued with Papa-Dimitri to allow their daughters to dress more fashionably, accusing him of wanting them all to become nuns. When their younger daughter left to join a convent without telling her mother, the latter berated Papa-Dimitri, and for hours gave him no peace.
Through prayer and patience, Papa-Dimitri weathered these outbursts and frequently witnessed a remarkable, and speedy, change of heart in his presbytera. He realized that these conflicts were temptations. His presbytera was at heart a good woman: she came to appreciate their daughter’s decision, and during Papa-Dimitri’s final illness she read for him the cycle of services and never left his side. As for Papa-Dimitri, he was grateful:
“Anyway, what I suffered from her did me actually good. She worked to give me a wreath, so that I also might expect some wage from God.”
Papa-Dimitri always had candy for children and money for the needy. He organized religious excursions for young people. It was said that he had a “restless love” and sought to bring everyone to Christ. One of the doctors who attended him during his final illness observed:
“He would never turn away anyone who came to see him, no matter how tired he was. He always had a good word, a piece of advice, for everyone. Or he would relate a miracle from his life, repeating each time, ‘Our faith’s alive, my children, our religion’s alive!’ and giving glory to God, while tears flowed from his eyes.”
In June 1962, Papa-Dimitri visited the Holy Mountain at the invitation of the Most Holy Theotokos herself. There he was present at a gathering of hierarchs and clergy, when the Archbishop of Athens turned to the assembled company and said, indicating Papa-Dimitri:
“Take a good look at this elder. We need priests like him!”
Gleanings from the Writings of Papa-Dimitri
The purpose of whatever prayers and services we do is to come closer to God and get to love Him more.
God saved us from communism, but Satan delivered us to materialism.
Both clergy and laity today have lost spirituality. They constantly talk only about material and political things.
No one can hold two watermelons under one arm. That is, no one can seek office and be humble at the same time.
Prayer is a telephone, a wireless, by which one communicates directly with God. You dial the number on the telephone of prayer to speak with God and He answers. You hear Him clearly, you feel Him very close.
Where there is no love and obedience to the local bishop, everything is ruined.
Miracles happen every minute, but we don’t perceive them because we are stone-hearted.
Soft-heartedness and simplicity are what’s needed. Never be afraid for a man who loves. In him God dwells.
Compiled with excerpts from Papa-Dimitri Gagastathis, the man of God (1902-1975), translated and edited by Dimitrios N. Kagaris, Orthodox Kypseli Publications, Thessalonika, 1997.