An Incredible Calling in Life
by Fr. Luke A. Veronis
Grigor had an advanced stage of esophagus cancer. He had reached the point of not being able to swallow anything, even his own saliva. He received food through a tube in his stomach. Doctors gave him little time to live, maybe at best a month or two. I sat down with Grigor to talk with him. I prayed with him in Albanian, anointing him with Holy Oil, and offering parts of the Paraclesis Service in the hopes of a healing. Then I began talking about the possibility of death, and heard Grigor’s confession. Although seventy-five years old, this was probably the first time he ever gave his confession to a priest, and ultimately, it was his last one.
A deep peace reigned in the room. We talked about his life — a life of much persecution, injustice and even imprisonment for seven years. Discrimination against his family continued until the fall of communism in 1991. His was a story of suffering, and yet, no bitterness or anger remained in him. He confirmed that the past two years — years with cancer and continuous painful treatment — had blessed him in a special way. During this period, he developed a deep relationship with God. He came to see life from a totally different perspective, even to the point of facing his impending death with serenity and hope. “I want to live, and feel that I still have much life left in me,” he confided in me. “Yet, if I die today, I am prepared to meet my Lord and Creator.”
This interaction left me quite humbled and inspired. I thought, “Isn’t this what our Faith is all about?” St. Paul said it best, when he wrote to the Corinthians, “Death has been swallowed up in victory! O Death, where is your sting? O Death, where is your victory?”
This is one of the privileges and blessings a priest experiences in his ministry — to journey with people through the highs and lows of life. To rejoice with others during a birth, a baptism, and a wedding, while also holding a person’s hand during an illness, a tragedy, and even death. Few other vocations allow one to enter so deeply into the lives of others. It takes a special calling, and privilege, to participate in this part of life’s journey with other people.
What made this memory even more special for me, however, was the context in which it occurred. My wife and I served as missionaries in Albania for more than ten years. As a newlywed couple, we entered a new culture, learned a new language, adapted ourselves to a new lifestyle, and were adopted by a new people. Over the years, we tried to become Albanian, understanding and identifying with the people and culture. Sure, it was hard at times. Yes, we made plenty of humbling mistakes on our journey of learning. We definitely sacrificed certain comforts of America but, looking back, we realize how the entire experience incredibly enriched us. The sacrifices seem insignificant compared to the blessings we received!
As third generation Greek-American, both my wife Faith and I are proud of our Greek and American heritage. We have always felt our Greek ancestry has enhanced our American identity throughout our lives, just like so many other children of immigrants. As long-term missionaries, however, we added and adopted a third culture into our lives, which has expanded our worldview and experience of life all the more. This is one of the unique blessings of being a missionary.
Grigor’s last confession came in the context of this missionary setting. What made these last days with Grigor all the more special was the six-year journey that had led up to that last confession.
You see, I had known Grigor’s daughter, Georgia, for the past six years. She was one of the dynamic and exceptional young students who discovered Christ as a student at the University of Tirana, and grew in her relationship with Him through the University ministry we ran. I remember meeting her and her friends in 1994, full of questions and doubts. We watched Georgia grow spiritually over the years, eventually becoming my co-worker after graduation as our University Ministry Coordinator. She helped me run our events, offering a wonderful witness on campus, while leading three Bible Studies a week in the dormitories.
The unexpected news of her father’s cancer in 1998 frightened Georgia, but did not devastate her. Her newfound faith gave her the strength and peace of soul needed to face the situation in a totally unforeseen way. Our first obstacle was to confront the strong cultural traditions of the day. According to Albanian customs, when someone is seriously ill, the norm is NEVER to INFORM the patient of his diagnosis. It is unthinkable for the family ever to mention the word “cancer” to the sick person and, of course, one would never talk about the possibility of death. The family and the patient live a facade for as long as the patient survives.
I began by encouraging Georgia to talk with her father about his illness, and even about the possibility of death. At first, she thought this would be impossible. I slowly helped her realize, however, that as Christians we should not be afraid of death. The essence and foundation of our faith is precisely Christ’s victory over death, and the promise of life for all those who believe. If we truly believe this, then why would we hesitate to talk about death. Of course, we always hope and pray for healing. Yet, while hoping and praying, isn’t it better also to talk lovingly and compassionately about the possibility of death, and even help one prepare for it?!
As the months passed, Georgia did overcome her initial doubts and hesitations. She eventually began sharing her faith and beliefs quite openly, and even broached the subject of cancer and death with her father. Although Grigor came from an Orthodox family, he had lived most of his life under militant atheism, and thus possessed a limited understanding of our faith. Like numerous parents in Albania today, he began learning from his daughter’s example and words. He came to believe in a sincere manner, and through such faith found a deep peace during his last months of life.
Following that first and last confession, we sat down with the entire extended family and gently talked about the reality they faced. For some, it was uncomfortable to talk so openly about death. They preferred to deny that possibility. Yet Grigor himself was peaceful. Gradually, most members in the family began to open up. We dismantled a facade, and opened up channels of meaningful communication. Some began to see the beauty of what true faith is all about.
Grigor died four months later, but his family passed those last months in peace. For sure, everyone dearly feels the loss of Grigor. We also know, though, that he is not gone, but waiting for his beloved to join him in the dwelling of the saints.
What an incredible calling in life! To enter a new culture, to learn strange customs, to plant and cultivate and spread the eternal Gospel, and to watch people discover a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ for the first time. This calling demands certain sacrifices, but they are all well worth it when compared to the immeasurable meaning in life it gives someone. For me, there can be nothing more thrilling and blessed than to serve our Lord as a priest and as a missionary!
Courtesy of the
March 2006 issue of The Word magazine.