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Day Sixteen: The Safe Return Home

Our flight to Los Angeles departed Belgrade at 6:15 a.m. on October 7. We were all tired but had plenty of time to sleep on the way home. Through the grace and great mercy of God, His Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH and the delegation of the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West safely returned to the United States following a most successful visit to many churches, monasteries and historic sites throughout Greece and Serbia. We were filled with spiritual refreshment and vigor after witnessing the beautiful life of these holy places. We drove an estimated 2,000 miles on the bus in these two countries. The delegation consisted of:

His Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH
V. Rev. Christopher Salamy
Rev. George and Kh. Janine Ajalat
Rev. Michael and Kh. Maria Habib
Dcn. Niphon and Sh. Suheila Sweis
Subdeacon Peter Samore
Firas Al-Zehlawi
Vida Chenich
James and Jasminka Gabrie
Dr. Andrew, Jeri and Marilyn Geleris
Christina Samore
Rowe Sergent

The sights of the beautiful churches, monasteries and people of these two countries, and the sounds of gorgeous choirs and tolling church bells, will form memories that will last a lifetime. On our last night in Belgrade, the delegation expressed tremendous gratitude to Sayidna JOSEPH for blessing this outstanding pilgrimage and to our hostess Jasminka Gabrie for executing it. We truly felt the love of these two lands thanks entirely to their efforts, and we hope that these photographs and stories made visitors to feel somewhat a part of this historic pilgrimage.

Photos by: Kh. Maria Habib, Mr. James Gabrie, Subdn. Peter Samore
Stories by: Subdn. Peter Samore

Day Fifteen: Patriarchal Divine Liturgy in Nish to Celebrate the 1700th Anniversary of the Edict of Milan - 10/06/13

The historic birthplace of St. Emperor Constantine the Great—Nish, Serbia—is a full three hours’ drive south of Belgrade. The Patriarchal Divine Liturgy would begin in Nish at 9:00 a.m., so Sayidna JOSEPH and the delegation left Serbia’s capitol at 5:00 a.m. to ensure that they would arrive on time. The long, early-morning bus ride did not bother them in the least, for it took them to what would be one of the most impressive and awe-inspiring liturgical celebrations they would ever see.

Let us start with the staggering attendance: 15,000 people came from all over Serbia (250 buses parked in nearby lots) to fill St. Sava Park outside of Ss. Constantine and Helen Church, which, naturally, was far too small to fit everyone inside. So, the Patriarchate built a huge platform at the west entry of the parish on which stood the altar table. An equally large awning covered all the serving clergy from above. Two choirs—one Byzantine, one Serbian—stood on the steps leading up to the church which, on this day, put them behind the altar area. No one in the crowd had a problem hearing anything because huge speakers hovered above the altar, projecting every amplified petition, prayer and response. Before finding places in the crowd, some of the faithful could venerate an icon of St. Constantine, where a priest could anoint them with holy oil.

Once again, four Patriarchs led the gathering in worship: His All-Holiness BARTHOLOMEW of Constantinople; His Beatitude THEOPHILOS III of Jerusalem; His Holiness KIRLL of Moscow; and the host, His Holiness IRINEJ of Serbia. Five other primates of autocephalous churches joined them: Their Holinesses, Archbishop CHRYSOSTOM II of Cyprus; Archbishop IERONYMOS II of Athens; Archbishop ANASTASIOS I of Albania; Metropolitan SAWA I of Poland; and Archbishop SIMEON, Locum Tenens of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. Representing His Beatitude, Patriarch JOHN X of Antioch were His Eminence, Metropolitan BASILIOS of Akkar and His Grace, Bishop DEMETRIOS of Safita. More than 60 other hierarchs celebrated this Liturgy with them, accompanied by hundreds of priests, deacons and monastics—many of whom had vested but could not fit onto the platform that served as the sanctuary.

Hundreds of religious and civil dignitaries were seated in a pavilion to the right of the platform, including the President of Serbia, Mr. Tomislav Nikolic; the President of the Republic of Srpska, Mr. Milorad Dodik; the Prime Minister Mr. Ivica Dacic; Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic and Princess Katherine; members of the national and city governments, Serbian Armed Forces, diplomatic corps, other religious communities and organizations. More than 50 accredited news media teams captured this historic day in pictures and video. Of course, 1,000 police, military and security officials permeated the grounds—some with earpieces, some with firearms—but everyone was safe.

The massive crowd cleared a path for the Patriarchs and Hierarchs to enter Ss. Constantine and Helen Church, who gave their blessings along the way. Since the church would not be used for worship on this day, it would serve as the place where all of the Patriarchs and Hierarchs vested. But first, they venerated two very important relics: a piece of the true Cross of Christ, and the hand of St. John the Baptist. His All-Holiness, Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW led kairon (preparatory prayers) as the male Byzantine choir sang “Ton Dhespotin” (“Preserve, O Lord, our Master”) in Tone Seven, which Sayidna JOSEPH remarked was the proper way to offer the hymn during vesting. The Patriarchs and Hierarchs then lined up and processed outside the church to begin the Liturgy.

Serbian and Greek were the predominant languages, but even Slavonic and Arabic were used. But those who did not speak those languages had no problem following along. Everyone knew the Patriarchs and Hierarchs were praying for them; each one of them took turns blessing the faithful as their names were proclaimed following the Trisagion Hymn. The Patriarchs and Hierarchs no doubt remembered at the Prothesis Table while preparing Holy Communion these clergy and faithful who sacrificed greatly to be in Nish. Indeed, the Liturgy was outdoors, but on this beautiful autumn day, it felt like everyone was indoors. The scene could have been chaotic, but it was prayerful and reverent. The faithful stood for four hours and had to push forward through the sea of humanity if they wanted to receive Holy Communion from one of eleven chalices. The Patriarchs and Hierarchs were no doubt bombarded by all sorts of distractions, but they truly “laid aside all earthly cares” to focus on the miracle that occurred before them: bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

All 15,000 people had to bear in mind at one point that they could not be together in Nish on this holy, historic day, worshipping freely and openly the one God in three Persons had it not been for the precedent set by St. Constantine. The Edict of Milan ensures, even 1700 years later, that they could do so without fear of persecution or ridicule. Sadly, this God-given freedom is unrecognized and dishonored throughout the world. Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW made special reference to this in his remarks following the Liturgy. “Have we not been persecuted these days, our Christians in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria and the Middle East, just for spreading God’s word?” he asked. “They cherish everyone while being persecuted by everyone. They live in faith while being persecuted as villains.” Patriarch IRINEJ seconded those remarks, saying, “The spirit of religious tolerance should prevail everywhere.”

Then, Patriarch IRINEJ awarded medals and certificates to all the dignitaries to serve as tokens to remember this great occasion. The primates and civil authorities were inducted into the Serbian Church’s “Order of Saint Emperor Constantine.” As for the pilgrims and crowds, this momentous day serves as a reminder to thank God for the freedom to worship, and to thank St. Constantine for recognizing that this freedom comes from above and must be restored to all of God’s people.

NOTES: For a full treatment of the importance of the Edict of Milan, please read an Epistle prepared by Patriarch IRINEJ and the Holy Assembly of Bishops of Serbia here.

The Antiochian Diocese of Los Angeles and the West thanks the websites of the Orthodox Church of Serbia (, Reuters, Global Post and In Serbia for providing information in English for the reports of Days 14 and 15.

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Day Fourteen: Doxology Service with Four Patriarchs at Serbian Patriarchal Cathedral; Tour of Kalemegdan Park and Belgrade Fortress - 10/05/13

For the last twelve months, the Orthodox Church of Serbia had been celebrating the Edict of Milan of 313 A.D., one of the most important documents in the history of mankind. With it, St. Emperor Constantine the Great legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire so that, for the first time, the worshippers of the one true God could glorify Him freely and without persecution. Like St. Sava and his holy, royal family, St. Constantine holds a special place in the hearts of Serbians because he was born in Nish, Serbia in about 272 A.D. On the last weekend of the pilgrimage, Sayidna JOSEPH and the delegation were most blessed to join in the climax of the 1700th anniversary celebration of this local saint and his impact on the world… and the whole world gathered starting in Belgrade.

The delegation arrived early at Holy Archangel Michael Cathedral to ensure it could stand inside; part of the crowd of more than 2,000 clergy and laity had spilled outside. At about 9:30 a.m. a throng of seminarians—teens and adults—formed a pathway across the street from the Cathedral to the Patriarchal Headquarters to stop traffic. Suddenly, bells tolled loudly and deeply, and His Holiness, Patriarch IRINEJ emerged with the Holy Assembly of Serbian Bishops, including our host earlier in the week, His Grace, Bishop JOVAN. They crossed the street in between them and waited for all of the dignitaries to arrive. News media jockeyed for the best possible spots to capture the arrival on video and in photos.

After several minutes, police cars with lights flashing pulled up to the Cathedral. They had escorted about two dozen black Mercedes-Benzes. Bodyguards then stepped out of the crowd to secure the location. Each car carried an Orthodox Christian primate or representative, plus an assistant. When they emerged, cameras clicked rapidly as the people, including the media, easily recognized the famous passengers. They were:

•    Ecumenical Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW I of Constantinople
•    Patriarch THEOPHILOS III of Jerusalem
•    Patriarch KIRILL I of Moscow
•    Archbishop CHRYSOSTOM II of Cyprus
•    Archbishop IERONYMOS II of Athens
•    Archbishop ANASTASIOS I of Albania
•    Metropolitan SAWA I of Poland
•    Archbishop SIMEON, Locum Tenens of the Czech Lands and Slovakia
•    Metropolitan BASILIOS of Akkar, representing the Patriarchate of Antioch
•    Bishop DEMETRIOS of Safita, representing the Patriarchate of Antioch

Joining them, according to the Serbian Patriarchate, were Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergam (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Metropolitan Emanuel of France (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Metropolitan George of Conakry and Guinea (Alexandrian Patriarchate), Archbishop Aristarchos of Constantia (Jerusalemite Patriarchate), Archbishop Macarios (Jerusalemite Patriarchate), Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk (Moscow Patriarchate), Bishop Sergiy of Solnechnogorsk (Moscow Patriarchate), Metropolitan Domentianos of Vidin (Bulgarian Patriarchate), Bishop Sioni of Velick (Bulgarian Patriarchate), Metropolitan Gerasimos of Zugdid (Georgian Patriarchate), Bishop Nectarios of Arsinoi (Church of Cyprus), Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Messinia (Church of Greece), Bishop Astios of Vilid (Church of Albania), Vicar Bishop George (Church of Poland), and the retired Archbishop Christopher of Prague. These hierarchs would convene the next day in Nish for the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy (more on that under “Day Fifteen.”)

Once everyone crammed inside the Cathedral, His All-Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW blessed the beginning of the Doxology Service. The choir sang beautiful hymns in thanksgiving to God for bringing everyone together for this joyous and historic celebration.

Following the short service, two of the Patriarchs addressed the gathering in Serbian and in Greek. According to reports published in English, Patriarch IRINEJ said that the Edict of Milan is the foundation of the civilization as we know it. He hailed it an opportunity to find a new way to overcome many of the modern-day problems in the life of the Christian community. Ecumenical Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW then expressed his wish that Serbia and its people may recover from the persecution and suffering of the past, and pursue their lives in the Christian spirit, adding that the first signs of spiritual rejuvenation in Serbia are already noticeable.

The delegation left the crowded Cathedral for a much more open afternoon excursion in Kalemegdan Park. It is one of the most important and historic areas in Belgrade, sitting just above the Sava and Danube Rivers. “Kalemegdan” is formed from two Turkish words that mean “open field.” The park overlooks the Austrian and French embassies, and it includes a monument built in gratitude to France for its support of Serbia in World War I. Crafted in 1930, it shows the Roman god of victory, Nike. The inscription reads, “We love France like she loved us.” Kalemegdan Park is also home to Belgrade Fortress which dates to the third century B.C. It is the oldest core section of Belgrade and has been home to Celts, Romans and other ancient civilizations which lived strictly within its walls.

The Park and Fortress now house two houses of God: one in honor of the Nativity of the Theotokos; the other in honor of St. Paraskeva the Serbian. The first church has chandeliers made of bullets and other metals used in World War I. It also has fresco iconography on the ceiling of Serbian kings carrying churches as endowments back to God for His blessings upon them. The second church has a spring well that runs underneath and, as a result, hosts many baptisms. Mosaic icons adorn this church.

The delegation finished its last Saturday early, as it braced for a very early morning and long, yet historic, Sunday ahead.

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Day Thirteen: Visits to Rakovica Monastery and St. Sava Cathedral - 10/04/13

Rakovica Monastery is modest in construction and nature, just like the famed patriarch who chose to be buried here. Patriarch PAVLE (1914-2009) found solace in Rakovica and could make a quick retreat when he needed a break from his duties as patriarch. One of his predecessors, Patriarch DIMITRIJE (1846-1930) rests next to him. The monastery is not far from the patriarchal headquarters. Since it is located on a main road and not secluded, Rakovica suffered great damage during the NATO bombings of 1999.

The monastery dates to the 14th century and was built during the reign of Tsar Lazar. The church is dedicated to the Archangel Michael (built 16th-17th centuries) and gold leaf is used extensively on the frescoes. Pencil sketches on some of the walls mark the future homes of beautiful iconography. Atop the iconostasis sits a rare icon of Pentecost which also includes the Virgin Mary; usually, it just includes the Twelve Apostles receiving the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire. The Obrenovic Dynasty of the 19th deemed Rakovica to be a royal monastery, and it has enjoyed prominent roles of Serbian monastic life since then. It housed a school for monastics where they would learn future obediences, a seminary and an iconography school. Rakovica has undergone significant renovations during these times as well. It has housed nuns continually since 1958.

Abbess Evegnia welcomed Sayidna JOSEPH and the delegation, and then the conversation centered around the late Patriarch PAVLE. Sayidna said that he had only met this holy man and true shepherd once, but that the whole Orthodox world knew of his example of love. The Abbess is thankful that Patriarch PAVLE is buried here because the eleven nuns can always remember his examples and ask for his prayers and intercessions before God. She added that the late Patriarch loved Rakovica and served the Divine Liturgy here as often as he could. But most importantly, His Holiness was humble and modest: he ditched chauffeured cars for public transit; he sewed his own vestments; and made his own shoes.

Patriarch PAVLE spent the last two years of his life receiving treatment in a military hospital, and many of the staff had never even seen a clergyman. Abbess Evgenia says his presence changed the whole spirit of the hospital, and even the staunchest doctors and military personnel believed in Jesus Christ through him. They had even established a chapel in the hospital. After these stories, the delegation venerated the graves of the Patriarchs and left Rakovica, which by now had police waiting outside the gates. His Holiness, Patriarch KIRILL of Moscow was about to make his official visit.

The pilgrims next stopped at one of the most important sites in Belgrade. In 1592, Ottoman Turks cremated the relics of St. Sava, First Archbishop of Serbia on a hilltop for all of the Serbian people to see. It meant to demoralize the nation, but the action inspired the nation instead. Now, this hilltop boasts St. Sava Cathedral, a massive house of worship that is several decades in the making. It is modeled after Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople (Istanbul) and reflects the enduring spirit of the Serbian people. Construction began in 1936, but World War II, communist oppression and lack of funding have stopped it over the years. Now, without any more hinderances, the cathedral should be ready for consecration in 2020.

For now, twenty levels of scaffolding reach from floor to ceiling, rising with the marble pillars near the central dome that weighs 4000 tons. Crews lifted buckets of water and concrete with ropes. Four teams of artists are constantly at work for sculpting, flooring, mosaics and fresco iconography. Dry concrete, dirt and dust cover the floor for now, but when the cathedral is completed, it will stand 15,000 people and have three choir lofts for 900 singers.

The dean of the cathedral, Fr. Radivoy Panic, and the head iconographer, Mr. Jovan Antonaskovic, led Sayidna JOSEPH and the delegation on an extensive tour. Fr. Radivoy said that something holy has always rested on this site: from a small cross or chapel to a huge cathedral. Following a look at the main level, the pilgrims descended into the crypt where artisans busily worked. This will be another church where future patriarchs will be buried and where 9000 people can worship. The length of the crypt matches that of the Diocesan Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Los Angeles.

Two elevators will bring the faithful up and down St. Sava Cathedral, but for now, the delegation climbed stairs to the choir lofts. There it got an up-close look at the iconography that will adorn this holy house. Mr. Antonaskovic leads the iconographers, but the church is trusting them to work together and match each other's styles for complete visual harmony. Teams of experts review their work to this end. One icon that stood out included two angels lifting up the empty Cross of Christ which also had a wreath symbolizing victory, as well as the spear, sponge and four nails. Another was of the myrrh-bearing women which boasted such exquisite facial details.

Fr. Radivoy said that the cathedral has perfect acoustics for singing. Of course, Sayidna JOSEPH, his clergy and some of the men had to test them by chanting "To Thee, the Champion Leader." Fr. Radivoy was right: they were perfect because they had no echoes and each man could hear the other.

After the great tour of "big" St. Sava Cathedral, the pilgrims paid a quick visit to "little" St. Sava Church next door. Patriarch VARNAVA (BARNABAS, 1880-1937) rests here, as do important icons of the Virgin of Kazan and St. Sergius Radonezh. The latter's relics are kept here, and these were all gifts from the Church of Russia in 1999 as consolations following the NATO bombings.

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Day Twelve: Visits to Nativity of the Theotokos Church, St. George Church and Karadorde ("Black George") Museum, Ss. Peter and Paul Church - 10/03/13

The delegation bid farewell to Kragujevac and began the bus ride to the Serbian capitol of Belgrade. It traveled through Topola, the famed city of Serbian hero Dorde Petrovic, known as "Karadorde" ("Black George"). The group would learn much about his legacy and dynasty as it made visits to his museum and three churches in that area.

The first stop was the small Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos. Its bell tower is the fourth oldest structure in the city. Petar Nikolajević Moler, one of Karadorde's generals, painted the icons in the church when it was built in the early 19th century. Eighteen carvers crafted the wooden iconostasis, the most famous part of the church, over three years. It features 3,000 Old Testament images and is the only work of its kind left in Serbia. Its four wooden columns spin; the center pair features scenes from the lives of St. Sava and the Nemanjic family. The iconostasis was set to go on display at the World Expo in Montreal, Quebec in 1976 but it could not leave Serbia -- no shipper would insure it.

Next door to the church is the Karadorde House and Museum which features all sorts of artifacts about the Serbian hero who lived here. He earned the nickname "Black George" because, during the First Uprising of the Serbian Revolution in 1811, his military victories against Serbia's enemies left thousands of enemy widows. Inside the museum was Karadorde's first canon that he never used. It was missing its right handle; Karadorde's grandson, King Peter I, took it and placed it in his crown in 1903. Other personal items included icons, clothing, paintings, pictures and correspondence.

Karadorde built another church nearby in honor of St. George the Great-Martyr, and only one phrase can describe it: JAW-DROPPING. From ceiling to floor, mosaic icons adorn one of the most beautiful churches in the whole world. The pilgrims took turns guessing how many tiles comprised them, but they all fell short of the correct answer: 60 million, and 15,000 colors. Members of the royal Karadordevic dynasty built this church from 1911-30 as a monument and tomb to their ancestor and his patron saint, which would also serve as their final resting places.

The pilgrims could not get over the majesty of this holy temple, which has the rare featue of two domes -- one over the nave (featuring the apostles with their scrolls), the other over the sanctuary and altar table (featuring Christ with His apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane). The chandelier is in the shape of an upside-down Serbian crown. The church's marble came from all over the world, and hand-carved portions of it make up the iconostasis. Perhaps the most prominent mosaic icon rests near the exit of the church -- it features St. George leading Karadorde by the arm to the Theotokos. Karadorde wears his kingly robe, medals and crown, and carries his palace as if to carry his kingdom to heaven.

The royal crypt lies beneath the church, and it is a church in its own rite. St. Peter Crypt holds the body of King Peter II, whose body was only recently returned to Serbia from the U.S. And yes, the crypt is equally as magnificent as the church upstairs. More mosaics adorn it depicting various Biblical scenes, including the upside-down crucifixion of St. Peter the Apostle. The low ceiling is filled with blue tiles and "stars" as if the royal family -- and those visiting it -- are already in heaven. The crypt also functions as a church, where singers and chanters can hear their voices echo for three seconds as they travel seven times around the walls.

After visiting, the 19th and 20th century churches, the pilgrims went to a 21st century church in nearby Arandjelovac. Ss. Peter and Paul Church was built between 2000-4, consecrated in 2005 by His Holiness, Patriarch PAVLE of thrice-blessed memory. Not only did the parish clergy come to greet Sayidna JOSEPH, but so did a local TV news reporter and camerman. They asked His Eminence about his thoughts on Serbia, and he called its people "heroes" for overcoming the various types of oppression, foreign and domestic, over the last 500 years. "The Serbs are strong people," he said. "They can look to their past and know that they and their church are victorious." Sayidna also told them that the pilgrims were proud of their accomplishments in their national and spiritual renewal.

The parish priests then told Sayidna and the pilgrims that their new frescoes are the pride of the city and of its major donor, a mineral water bottling magnate who is buried on the grounds. Of course, the townspeople did the physical work and gave whatever resources they had. "The energy of the people in this area is obvious," Sayidna told the clergy. "Our delegation embraces you as brothers in Christ. Stay strong, and don't let anything break you down."

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Day Eleven: Visits to Lelic and Celije Monasteries; St. Demetrios Church and Memorial in Lazarevac; Last Night in Kragujevac - 10/02/13

St. Bishop Nicholai Velimerovic (1881-1956, canonized in 2003) bears great importance to the Orthodox Church worldwide, especially to the Serbian Church and the Antiochian Church in North America. Several of our clergy and laity have him as their patron saint. He is considered "The New St. John Chrysostom" because of his great sermons and prolific writings. Among the latter is the "Prologue of Ochrid" which is a compilation of saints' lives and sermons for each day of the year. The Diocese of Los Angeles and the West uses the "Prologue" in its Service Texts for the Synaxarion in Orthros.

In the past days, the pilgrims had visited monasteries that had felt his personal impact and where his personal effects remain. Now, they came to Lelic Monastery where his full-body relics lie in state to venerate them. St. Nicholai built the church and monastery starting in 1929. He still wears his red crown and is kept underneath a red sheet in his casket. Lelic will celebrate the tenth anniversary of his canonization on October 19-20 and will revest St. Nicholai's body before then.

The walls of the trapeza (dining hall) depict St. Nicholai's life, ranging from his childhood with an icon of St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia (the family's patron saint) above him, his tonsuring as a monastic, his preaching as a young bishop, his writing at Lake Ochrid, and his imprisonment in Dachau concentration camp where Jesus Christ appears and comforts him. The trapeza doubles as an icon studio, where iconographers worked furiously to restore many of the icons that hang inside the church. They are hoping to finish before the celebration later this month. The icons are mostly gold leaf with Byzantine and Baroque elements, the style when St. Nicholai built the monastery.

The pilgrims' bus would not fit on the tiny, winding single-lane road leading to Celije Monastery, so the monks drove them in smaller vans. They came to a secluded, heavenly valley that monastics have inhabited since the 13th century. Here, St. Nicholai had been baptized and attended elementary school. Even though the Ottoman Turks had attacked and razed it several times over the centuries, the monastery still endures and, like others, is undergoing extensive renewal.

A new church with three altars (dedicated to St. Sava of Serbia, St. Mary of Egypt and St. Justin the Martyr and Philosopher) should be completed next year. A new bell tower of stone and brick consistent with a 14th-century style has already been built. Nearby is the old church where another 20th century saint had lived and served: St. Justin Popovic (1894-1979, canonized in 2010). He was able to escape from the communists and spent his days here preaching, writing and translating; he spoke six languages and read eleven. St. Justin celebrated the Divine Liturgy every day until his death. His body is buried right next to the church where people come seeking his intercessions for healing and childbirth. St. Justin's body is expected to be moved into the new church upon its completion.

The delegation then visited the complex of St. Demetrios Church in Lazarevac. The temple was built starting in 1938 and consecrated in 1964. The iconography includes new Serbian saints of the last few centuries, and even an American one: St. Herman of Alaska.

It is appropriate that the church was dedicated to a patron saint of soldiers, for in the early days of World War I, the Serbs fought the Austro-Hungarians at the nearby Battle of Kolubara (December 3-9, 1914). Serbia won a great victory here and pushed the enemy out of the country. However, 50,000 soldiers died and 212,000 others were wounded. The Church built a memorial and crypt underground to house thousands of pairs of boots of the soldiers who gave their lives here. No one could match the boots to either side, so they are all buried together.

It is also appropriate that the town's name bears the root of "Lazarus," for the church runs a drug treatment facility here. The former addicts have to been raised to life after their addictions nearly killed them. The clients have prayer rules, read from the Scriptures daily, perform chores and projects, and eat what they raise and harvest. Four of them shared their moving stories about life before and after they began treatment. Sayidna JOSEPH thanked them for their courage to speak with the delegation. "There is no difference between you and us," he said. "We are all sinners who must struggle to make the right choices." Sayidna also told them that they deserve good lives with the true meaning of freedom in Jesus Christ.

The delegation returned to the Sumarica diocesan chancery in Kragujevac for a farewell dinner with its most gracious and generous host, His Grace, Bishop JOVAN. It was a tender night and certainly difficult to say goodbye. The pilgrims sat in awe of this holy man and, just at that moment, had realized the immense and rare privilege he had given them by personally showing them the precious sites that shaped his life. Vladyka JOVAN and his entire chancery staff made sure the delegation had everything it needed, from comfort and rest at the end of each long eventful day to the large, sumptuous meals they had served. No one lost a pound of weight on this pilgrimage, and Vladyka saw to it!

Sayidna JOSEPH expressed the delegation's deep gratitude to Vladyka JOVAN and those who assist him. Sayidna was thankful to God that He had renewed their brotherhood during these last few days and urged Vladyka to return to Los Angeles for a visit at his first possible chance. Vladyka then presented Sayidna with a brand new necklace set of silver cross and engolpion. On behalf of the delegation, Sayidna would present a brand new red mantiya (pall or mantle) to Vladyka JOVAN. The two hierarchs then shared one last heartfelt hug, but knew that they would see each other again in the coming days for historic events in Belgrade and Nish.

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Day Ten: Visits to Zhicha, Ljuobostinja and Kalenich Monasteries; His Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH Addresses Students at St. John Chrysostom Seminary - 10/01/13

Seven Serbian kings throughout the second millennium received their coronation at Zhicha Monastery, founded by the Nemanjic Dynasty in 1208. Here, St. Sava the First Archbishop of Serbia instituted his brother Stephen as the First-Crowned King of the country in 1219. The annals reflect the splendor of these days: dignitaries from Serbia and around the world joined in the celebrations, as well as the common people, to reflect that the king serves them all. The kings would receive communion at the holy altar, and then the crown, staff (symbol of power) and scepter (independence of state). And some had expressed that they were overjoyed not because they received this power, but because the church was adorned by the beauty of its people.

The main church is dedicated to the Ascension of Christ and is made up of red brick; the color symbolizes the royalty of the monastery. However, foreign invaders and conquers have not treated it royally. The Turks pounded it during their 500 years of occupation, the Nazis bombed and looted it in World War II, and even NATO bombs that fell nearby in 1999 left significant damage. Miraculously, one-fifth of the frescoes remain, and they are considered among the greatest in all of Serbia.

But as the pilgrims learned, they can measure the state of the Serbian by the endurance of its Church. An icon of that perseverance is the 20th century's St. Bishop Nicholai Velimerovich. He served at the Zhicha and Ljuobostinja monasteries until the Nazis took him and shoved him the Dachau concentration camp, where 700,000 people died. Metropolitan PAUL (Yazigi) of Alepp, Syria visited this monastery two years ago before he disappeared in captivity. The nuns recalled that left the greatest impact of any lecturer. But Sayidna JOSEPH encouraged the pilgrims, the nuns and the clergy who live here not to give up when occupiers invade and devastate, but Christ and His true Church will endure forever.

The pilgrims then followed in the steps of St. Nicholai when they arrived at Ljubostinja. Here, the Nazis picked up for the torture he would endure. Once he got into their car, it wouldn't start, embarrassing his captors. Even though he could have spared his life, St. Nicholai knew that he must endure his cross like his people; he prayed for the car to start, and it did. St. Nicholai later moved to the U.S. and died there in 1956. The 15 sisters at Ljubostinja keep his walking stick, cross, cassock, mantiya (pall) and slippers, which all look brand new. The Abbess Christina, who has lived here since age 13, read a letter from St. Nicholai when he was captured. In it, he told his "little bees" to keep the faith and preserve the cemetery (he had wanted to be buried there, but was not) as a place of repose. He signed the letter as "Grandpa Bishop" which is what the faithful called him.

The monastery opened in 1839, following the Serbian defeat by the Turks at the battle of Kosovo. Nearly 300 Serbian widows, including Princess Milica (wife of Prince Lazar) took up residence here following that tragedy. Milica still ruled the kingdom for 35 years until handing it to her son, Despot Stephen I. In addition to Dormition Church, Ljuobostinja Monastery also has St. George Church which features a wicker iconostasis.

Next came Kalenich Monastery, built in 1420 by General Bogdan who served under Prince Lazar. Serbian Kings, starting with Peter I, retreated her for up to two weeks during Great Lent to repent, pray, commune and briefly escape the burdens of their thrones. Nowadays, it hosts summer camps and symposia. Devoted to the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, the church features a massive icon of the Virgin holding the Christ Child richly adorned with gold, silver and precious metals. It also has a 15th-century fresco of the Wedding in Cana which depicts silverware, reflecting the sophistication of Serbia at that time. The outside of the church has 14 stone rosettes that have been carved with different ornate designs.

That night, the delegation returned to Kragujevac to visit St. John Chrysostom Seminary, where His Grace, Bishop JOVAN had invited His Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH to address the students on their first day of school. The 106 seminarians range from ages 16-25 and are completing various bachelor's and master's degrees. With rich, deep voices, they all sang as Sayidna JOSEPH entered the church to give the invocation, as well as when he entered the lecture hall for his address and question-answer session.

Sayidna began by expressing his gratitude to Vladyka JOVAN for the opportunity to speak and to visit the holiest places in his diocese. He told the students and faculty that this is his second visit to Serbia (the first was in 1979) but, as he told a television reporter on Sunday, this visit has much more flavor. "In the past, the people were not free to express their faith--that has changed now," he said. "When we can do this, we feel closer to God without obstacles, fear or force."

The faculty had asked Sayidna JOSEPH to specifically address two topics, and he obliged. First was the civil war in Syria and the suffering of Christians there, especially the Orthodox who form the largest part. His Eminence said the war had nothing to do with peace and freedom, but other countries' fight over territory, natural gas and oil disguised as a battle between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Other outside fighters have invaded the country, paid to kill as many people as possible. "Damascus is the city of the Apostle Paul after his conversion, the Apostle Ananias and St. John of Damascus," Sayidna said. "Everyone admits that the main mosque in Damascus used to the the Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. But, we believe in the Resurrection and salvation for all suffering nations."

The second topic concerned an overview of the Antiochian Church in North America. Sayidna started with the life of St. Raphael Hawaweeny, first bishop of Brooklyn, who ministered to the "lost sheep of America." Although the Church began as refuges for immigrants seeking a better life in a strange, new world, it became a refuge for former Protestants and Catholics seeking the true faith to know Jesus Christ. He recalled how the first large wave of converts in 1987 had to give up titles (even that of "bishop") and position to embrace Orthodoxy. Now, the Antiochian Archdiocese has a Department of Missions and Evangelism that reaches out to others seeking the true faith and to those already a part of it.

Sayidna concluded with questions from the audience on these two topics, and had one final message to the seminarians: "Be proud of your Orthodoxy and be honest about it, because this is the way for salvation and to the Kingdom." He also told them that they are the apples of Bishop JOVAN's eye, who stopped his lunch earlier in the day to sing their praises.

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Day Nine: Hike to the Cell of St. Sava; Visit to Studenica Monastery, the Spiritual Home to His Grace, Bishop JOVAN - 09/30/13

Heavy rain may have stopped the pilgrims from getting off the bus at Sumarice Park the day before, but Sayidna JOSEPH pledged to Vladyka JOVAN that they would hike to the upper cell of St. Sava high above Studenica Monastery, rain or shine. Well, it poured, creating a muddy trek that required umbrellas and hiking sticks found along the trail. But the journey through the lush green forest was worth it, not only for the scenery but for the destination.

The bus came upon "Johnny's Road" which is named in honor of Vladyka JOVAN (Jovan is Serbian for John). He is intricately tied to this holy place as will be explained later. The trail took the pilgrims 3000 meters upward. They took a small break at the lower cell of St. Sava where a spring offered blessed water for drinking. Then, the steeper part of the hike began. The pilgrims could see "Johnny's Road" and their bus far below the cliff. Just when they thought their hike was rough, they remembered the monastics who climbed here over the centuries, some with dozens of pounds of materials and food on their back to build bridges and refurbish the cell high above.

Finally, after two hours, the group--led by both hierarchs--reached the heights. St. Sava had lived here, as did Vladyka JOVAN. The upper cell has room for one monk at a time to live, and the pilgrims brought him some coffee. He offered some other refreshments that he had saved for them.

Here, Vladyka JOVAN told Sayidna JOSEPH and the pilgrims about his connection to this holy cell. When he was a young abbot, he had sought refuge here and learned how the devil and his temptations can attack everyone at any time. Vladyka recounted how the communists had killed his father on his patronal feast day ("slava") and even tried to kill him with a car bomb in the 1980s. Later on, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic declared Vladyka "persona non grata" and promised no consequences to anyone who would try to kill him. He had endured so much, and this hike seemed to celebrate his endurance; he had not climbed to the upper cell for 16 years.

Obviously, the hike downhill went much faster, and the delegates boarded the bus for Studenica Monastery. Here, Vladyka JOVAN received all of his monastic tonsures and served as abbot, and received all of his ordinations including his consecration to the episcopacy. He showed even greater enthusiasm when describing his "home church." The marble that makes up the walls comes from the mountain above where the upper and lower cells lie. The bodies of the first royal family of Serbia, the Nemanjics, also rest here: St. Stephen the First-Crowned King (monk Simon); St. Anastasia, the mother of St. Sava, whose body Vladyka JOVAN discovered in 1985; her husband St. Stephen the Crown Prince (monk Simeon the Myrrh-streaming); and Prince Vukan (not canonized but still revered), brother of St. Sava. Had he not died in Belgrade where the Turks burned his relics, St. Sava would have been buried here, too.

Vladyka remarked that these are whole-body relics, with the exception of St. Stephen the First-Crowned King. Someone had stolen the saint's right middle finger to test its holiness. As punishment, his back became hunched over so much that his head was practically upside down. The finger eventually made it St. Stephen Cathedral in Alhambra, Calif. and has since been properly enshrined.

St. Stephen the Crown Prince built Studenica Monastery in the 12th century, but never saw it completed, and he had no desire to live anywhere else once he renounced his throne. Vladyka JOVAN said that those who wish to study architectural mastery need not go any further than here.

St. Sava himself commissioned the iconography and one fresco has always stood out to Vladyka: the Crucifixion on the west exit, which St. Sava used to prepare believers for the attacks they would endure when they reentered the world. Vladyka praised the iconographer for his theological knowledge based on everything he put into the icon. The sun becomes brighter and the dead are rising to portray the salvation of the world; the moon becomes darker and the stars are falling because sin and death have been destroyed. Above the Crucifixion we see an angel pushing a woman away, and another angel pushing a woman to receive the body and blood of Christ; this symbolizes the end of the Old Testament and beginning of the New Testament.

The facial expression of Jesus Christ on the Cross shows suffering, but also peace. Likewise, the Virgin's expression shows sadness for watching her Son endure death, but also peace for knowing that he was going to Hades to destroy it and rescue the captive souls there. Vladyka remarked that an anatomist had studied this icon and described the faces as the best had had ever seen.

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Day Eight: Hierarchical Divine Liturgy in Diocesan Cathedral of the Dormition; Visits to Draca and Dvostin Monasteries, Sumarice Park, "Old Church" of Kragujevac; Tour of Diocesan Headquarters - 09/29/13

All the pilgrims had to do to get to the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning was come down the stairs from their rooms at the Sumadija Diocesan headquarters and walk across the way to Dormition Cathedral. There, His Eminence Archbishop JOSEPH and His Grace, Bishop JOVAN concelebrated the liturgy surrounded by their groups of clergy. The 50 voices of the cathedral clergy carried all of the bishops, priests, deacons and laity into heaven with their gorgeous singing.

Following the Liturgy, Vladkya JOVAN formally welcomed Sayidna JOSEPH and the delegation in front of the local congregation. Vladyka JOVAN expressed his joy that he and his brother hierarch could once again celebrate the Eucharist together after eleven years. Sayidna JOSEPH thanked his "brother" and then spoke directly to the people, encouraging them to continue to rebuild their churches and build their faith. He told them that he knew all too well of their struggles under communism in the twentieth century but that no worldly force would keep them from Jesus Christ.

Following lunch, Vladyka JOVAN began four days of personally escorting the delegation to the holiest sites in his diocese and other parts of the country. The delegates were most grateful for this extremely rare blessing and treat. First came Draca Monastery which was opened in 1389 by a Mount Sinai monk who sought to perfect his monasticism in the area. Churches on the site go back to the 15th century and the frescoes to the 17th century. The monastery now houses a few nuns but, since its opening, at least one person has lived here to keep it active.

Vladyka JOVAN mentioned that the iconographer lacked theological expertise but was able to depict the saints who were most dear to the inhabitants of the time. He also depicted scenes from the life of St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia to whom Draca Monastery is dedicated. Vladyka JOVAN called to attention the icon of the Mystical Supper inside the sanctuary. Although Judas is left out of most of these icons, here he is depicted dropping the portion of the body of Christ which he had received as a winged demon grabs his neck from behind. Also, some of the icons have their eyes gouged out not only because of invaders, but because of the superstition of believers who though that if they would take the eyes, they would be healed.

Next came a stop Dvostin Monastery, which is older and newer than Draca. Older in the sense that it dates to the 11th century, but newer because of the churches that have been renovated and built in the 20th century. Dvostin is dedicated to the Annunication to the Virgin Mary and during the war with Bosnia in the 1990s it housed and educated orphaned girls. Vladyka JOVAN said they were between four and nine years old when they sought refuge here and the diocese covered all of their expenses. Three of the grew up and got married here while the others returned to Bosnia.

Upstairs in the main building that contains the nuns' cells is the "wintertime" chapel of Ss. Constantine and Helen where the nuns can worship when it is too cold. It featured a large icon depicting the Christ's parable of the ten virgins from the Gospel of St. Matthew. The five wise virgins appear on top with Christ the Bridegroom as they enter the wedding feast; they happily hold their candlewicks high, symbolizing their preparedness. The five unwise virgins are at bottom sadly holding their candlewicks down, symbolizing their unpreparedness as they are shut out from the Heavenly Kingdom.

The drive continued to Sumarice Park, but the delegation could not get off the bus because it was raining hard. Still, this park is of great importance to the Serbian people. Here, the Serbs led an uprising against the Nazis, killing four of them and wounding several others. In retaliation on October 21, 1941 the Nazis killed 7000 Serbs, including 800 schoolchildren. One statue shows a mother clutching herself as her child lies dead nearby. Another is a bent "V" to honor the fifth-graders killed and their broken wings. Yet another statue shows the Virgin Mary taking those children into heaven and the Lord Jesus Christ giving them martyrs' wreaths of victory.

The delegation came back into Kragujevac for a visit to the "Old Church" of the Holy Trinity. It was the only church in the area when it opened in 1825 before the "New Church" (Dormition Cathedral) opened years later. King Milosh built it and included several unusual features. First, the throne for the bishop is built slightly lower than the king's throne. The Serbian royal crest prominently rests on the higher throne's back, but it has a tiny turban on the top. That was the king's way of paying "lip service" to the local Turkish overlords. On the iconostasis, the icons of St. John the Baptist and St. Nicholas are switched; the king sat on the right side of the church, and he didn't want the "shabby" Baptist on his side.

The pilgrims returned "home" to Vladyka JOVAN's headquarters, where His Grace gave them an insiders tour of his chapel and library. In St. George Chapel, one icon depicts the Serbian martyrs of 1941 trembling before their deaths. The icon tucked away above it shows their faces contained in the hand of God. The library overlooks the chapel and contains 19,854 volumes with room to spare. Professionals came from Belgrade to digitally catalogue the books and manuscripts. Vladyka JOVAN's leather-topped desk is 380 years old and is in pristine condition. He also boasts a copy of a 12th-century gospel book made of leather pages from 16 oxen. Vladyka JOVAN also has a copy of the first typikon (liturgical rule book) of St. Archbishop Saba of Serbia which the saint derived from the ancient typikon of St. Sava the Sanctified of Jerusalem.

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Day Seven: Arrival in Serbia; Audience with His Holiness, Patriarch IRINEJ; Welcome by our Host, His Grace, Bishop JOVAN - 09/28/13

The wakeup call came at 3:30 a.m. Bleary-eyed and with little sleep, His Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH and the delegation boarded a bus, rushed to Thessaloniki's Makedonia Airport, and boarded a 6:40 a.m. flight that took them to Belgrade, Serbia. The trip lasted an hour and the pilgrims gained an hour as they switched time zones, but that did nothing for their exhaustion.

However, their sleepiness vanished upon their first stop on Saturday at 9:00 a.m. in Belgrade: a special and inspirational audience with the leader of Serbia's Orthodox Christians--His Holiness, Patriarch IRINEJ. He had just completed a visit to some of his churches in North America, and so the delegation caught up with him at the patriarchate. His Holiness, Patriarch IRINEJ told Sayidna JOSEPH and the pilgrims that he was "overjoyed" to receive them, saying, "We are brothers and sisters and, most importantly, we are one in spirit together. Please be at home in our country."

Immediately, Serbian hospitality kicked in. In the inner cabinet and official receiving room of His Holiness Patriarch IRINEJ, we were served coffee and plum brandy, beverages that the pilgrims would receive at every visit in this warm and blessed country. From the first stop, the delegation, made up of Orthodox Christians  of the Church of Antioch, learned from His Holiness Patriarch IRINEJ just how similar his church's history is to theirs.

The audience covered a wide range of subjects and His Holiness graciously answered all of the questions from the delegation. The first topic was the civil war in Syria, about which Patriarch IRINEJ addressed the group with great lament. Throughout Serbia's history, the Church has been persecuted by outsiders who wanted to kill their faith. Now, Syria is enduring such a struggle. But, as His Holiness and His Eminence agreed, Christianity was never promised that it would live in peace. After all, the Lord said: "If they have persecuted Me, they will persecute you also" (John 15:20b). The two hierarchs agreed that they will continue to pray for all of the innocents suffering in both of these countries.

Another topic addressed His Holiness' thoughts on Orthodox Christians living in the United States and about how they are building the Church there. Patriarch IRINEJ stressed that it cannot be founded on culture or patriotism alone, but rather on Jesus Christ Himself. Although the U.S. does not have a "national Orthodox Church," he said it may someday. In the meantime, His Holiness said although he feels sadness that Serbians have left Serbia, at the same time, he is joyous that they have found consolation in the Orthodox communities there.

His Holiness had recently addressed the United Nations during his time in the U.S. He felt warmly received when he discussed the building of peace around the world ( but he had later wished he had more time to discuss his Church's fragile situation. Patriarch IRINEJ hopes to make another official visit to the U.S. next year. Perhaps one stop will include Los Angeles, after Sayidna JOSEPH immediately extended an invitation welcoming His Holiness.

One of the delegates asked His Holiness Patriarch IRINEJ about being a witness to peace in a world that constantly rejects it. "The Gospel is the inspiration and message for all of us," His Holiness said. "The Lord told us all we need to know in the words of the Gospel which we must follow.   We understand the words of the Gospel, but often times we don't live by them." And on the subject of loving the enemies of peace: "All people are created according to the image of God, so we must embrace them even more. This way, they can begin to understand who we are and the depth of our faith.  In turn, we become the evangelists we are supposed to be."

Sayidna JOSEPH then thanked His Holiness Patriarch IRINEJ for the "premium" time he spent with the delegation which was truly a blessing. After pictures, His Holiness departed to receive other guests and left our delegation in the good care of his clergy. They led us on a tour of the important parts of the patriarchate including the inner church which sits directly across from the room where the Holy Assembly of Bishops meets every year in May.  Here, crucial decisions made by the patriarch and bishops are prayed upon and then decided on during the 15-day Holy Assembly of Bishops which meets every May and at times for an additional session in the fall.  During the entire time of the work of these assemblies, the doors of both the assembly room and of the chapel remain open and basically become one large room.

Sadly, the Serbian people are no strangers to occupation, whether by the Ottoman Turks, the Nazis or their own people under communism. One large painting hangs in the synodal chamber reminding the synod and visitors of this: "Migration of the Serbs" by Paja Yovanovich. It depicts the Turks leading the Serbs out of their country in the 19th century and includes bishops carrying sacred relics to save them from destruction. The Church kept this painting underneath the floor of the chapel during World War II because the Nazis would never think to look there. However, they converted the chapel into a mess hall and wrote the day's menu in chalk on the icons of the saints.

The delegation then reboarded the bus and drove two hours to Serbia's second city, Kragujevic. It sits in the Diocese of Sumadija, the home of our most gracious host, His Grace, Bishop JOVAN, and the pilgrims' home for the next several days. The delegation had no idea the hospitality and spiritual knowledge it would receive from him, as Vladyka JOVAN would personally escort the pilgrims throughout his diocese. He came down the stairs of his chancery and greeted Sayidna JOSEPH with a big embrace. This heartfelt reunion was the first time they had seen each other in eleven years, when Vladyka JOVAN was called to leave the Western American Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles and take up residence in Kraguevic. These two hierarchs don't speak the same languages, but they spoke through love and prayer.

Following the Vigil Service in Dormition Cathedral, Vladkya JOVAN gathered with Sayidna JOSEPH and the pilgrims in the salon for the first interaction. Both hierarchs agreed: they were true brothers from the very first moment they met and they were the closest among bishops on the West Coast. Vladkya JOVAN expressed his great joy that Sayidna came to see his home, and Sayidna JOSEPH was so thankful to fulfill his promise to visit him in Serbia.

Both hierarchs discussed the joys and struggles of their dioceses. Even though the effects of communism are still felt in Serbia, Sumadija has consecrated 52 new churches and 11 new monasteries in 11 years. It has 208 parishes with 270 clergy and 24 monasteries with 90 monastics. People were afraid to attend church during the last century, but not anymore. Vladyka JOVAN says the younger generations are teaching their parents and grandparents how to make the sign of the Cross and how to receive Holy Communion.

Sayidna JOSEPH talked about his more than 60 parishes and 150 clergy and all of their successes, but also remarked that he personally spends much of his time in airports. "Even though the hotels are tiring, I am always rejuvenated," Saydina JOSEPH said. "Thank you, Vladyka, for having us in your home, which will hasten the healing from staying in hotels!"

Vladyka JOVAN then hosted the first of several sumptuous dinners fit for royalty. His only complaint throughout the pilgrims' stay was that they did not eat enough. After that, it was bedtime in order to prepare for the spiritual journey that lay ahead in Serbia.

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Day Six: Vlatodon Monastery, Acropolis of Thessaloniki - 09/27/13

It no longer houses monastics, but the Vlatodon Monastery of northeastern Thessaloniki still bears tremendous importance today as a center for research and cataloguing of manuscripts. Brothers Dorotheus and Markus Vlatadon, students of St. Gregory Palamas, founded the monastery in the second half of the 14th century in honor of the victory of hesychasm. It reputedly sits where St. Paul made one of his stops on his second missionary journey in 51 A.D.

The main church is named for the Transfiguration of Christ, which, unfortunately, has come into disrepair. The pilgrims saw the "picking" done to all of the icons done for at least two reasons: the Ottoman Turks could have cut into the frescoes to hang wood or slabs of rocks over them; or there could have been failed attempts at restoration in the past that would include hanging new icons. Fortunately, seasoned iconographers and experts are using new tactics to restore the church to its former splendor. They have even cleaned off some of the old grime from the wooden iconostasis to reveal the white-colored paint underneath.

The monastery has a peacock farm behind the church. In the Orthodox Church, the multi-colored feathers symbolize the eternality of the Resurrection of Christ because they never rot. They were also symbols of royalty in ancient times; Vlatadon was considered a "royal" monastery of the Byzantine Empire.

The delegation then took a tour of the Patriarchal Institute of Patristic Studies across the way from the monastery. Over 9500 manuscripts are kept in the archives from several monasteries, including those of Mount Athos. Researchers have gone to the Holy Mountain and elsewhere to photograph rare books and documents, page by page, and put them onto microfilm. Now, the researchers are trying to digitize what has been captured so far, as well as add to their collection for the benefit of scholars throughout the world.

The trip to the acropolis of Thessaloniki finished with a quick climb of the nearby fortress of Heptaprygion. Its name means "seven towers" but it actually has ten. Historians say Cassander founded it in 316 B.C., and it morphed from a Byzantine citadel to an Ottoman Turk fort to a prison to an historic site. The delegates got one last panoramic view of Thessaloniki from atop one of the towers. This day ended early, as the pilgrims prepared for an early-morning flight on Saturday to begin the second half of their journey in Serbia.

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Day Five: Souroti Monastery, Resting Place of Elder Paisios; Ss. Cyril and Methodius Church - 09/26/13

Souroti Monastery is dedicated to St. John the Theologian and Evangelist, and the pilgrims visited on his feast day. At 2:30 a.m., the 61 sisters had finished the all-night vigil service (Vespers, Orthros and Liturgy combined) that took 6.5 hours. After a brief amount of rest, they greeted the pilgrims energetically at the front gate.

The monastery boasts newness not just in the buildings or the iconography, but in the newer saint whose relics are kept there, as well as a famed monastic who may join the ranks of Orthodox Christian saints. The nuns built the second church on the grounds in honor of St. Arsenios the Cappadocian (1840-1924) who was canonized for sainthood by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1986 (feast day November 10). The pilgrims venerated his skull which gave off the scent of myrrh.

Right outside St. Arsenios Church is buried the venerable Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (1924-74), the spiritual son of St. Arsenios who has a special tie to Souroti. While receiving medical treatment in the area in 1966, the first nuns approached him for help in establishing the monastery. He told them not to worry and that they would have it in one year. It opened on October 26, 1967 for the first services with Elder Paisios serving. He would visit Souroti twice a year to check up on the sisters and encourage them to continue their growth.

The pilgrims then visited the main Church of St. John, which also is filling with newly-written icons. Sayidna JOSEPH recalled that, when he lived in Thessaloniki in the 1970s, the monastery had nothing but this church. Now, it has two churches, olive orchards, gardens and a wealth of spiritual depth that would come from centuries of experience, not just 46 years.

Deputy Abbess Anna greeted us in behalf of Abbess Philothei, who expressed her regret that she could not meet with the delegation. The conversation focused mainly on the teachings of Elder Paisios and his six-volume work of "Spiritual Counsels." One pilgrim asked if it was better to run from from temptation or confront it. Mother Anna referred to the Elder and answered that the latter option is better. "We gain great personal life experiences this way," she said. "We learn how to struggle and learn that God will always win. We call upon Him at that moment so that we do not run and show weakness in that temptation." Mother Anna added that, when correctly overcome, temptation is always for our growth, development and humility, and these virtues lead to true joy.

Some of the nuns in Souroti come from Cairo, Egypt and it also embraced sisters from Lebanon during that country's civil war. They went on to establish their own monastery in Lattakia, Syria which, so far, has been untouched by that country's civil war. Sayidna asked the nuns to pray for everyone in that country and that the bloodshed come to a quick end.

The delegation returned to Thessaloniki for a quick visit to Ss. Cyril and Methodius Church. Like all of the other churches, this holy site offered tremendous beauty and mosaic icons of the patron saints. Sayidna JOSEPH had spent some of his ministry here, too. But what made this visit special was that it foreshadowed the pilgrims' journey into the Slavic country of Serbia. Ss. Cyril and Methodius crafted the first Slavic alphabet to preach the gospel in these lands. Thessaloniki had also declared 2013 as "The Year of Ss. Cyril and Methodius" in honor of the 1150th anniversary of their missionary journey.

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Day Four: St. Stephen the First-Martyr and Barlaam Monasteries at Meteora - 09/25/13

For centuries, the monasteries at Meteora ("middle of the sky") have been a sanctuary for countless monks, nuns and pilgrims who flee the world and its cares. They provide safety although they sit atop dangerous cliffs and mountains. Hundreds of monastics used to live in the 24 monasteries there, and now fewer than 60 monastics in six monasteries dwell there today. However, as Sayidna JOSEPH told his pilgrims, that fact doesn't make the mountains any less holy or the presence of God any less felt. A few hours spent there proved his point.

The visit began with a trip through the museum of the St. Stephen the First-Martyr Monastery. It features a priceless collection of Orthodox Christian antiquities from the 14th through the 19th centuries: gospel book covers gilded in gold, silver and mother-of-pearl; priests' vestments like phelonia (capes), stoles, cuffs and shields all made of metallic brocades; censers, chalices and hand crosses made of precious metals; bibles, manuscripts and chant books; and, of course, various icons.

Speaking of icons, those inside of St. Charalambos Church were a mixture of new and old. The old ones go back centuries and reside mostly in front of the church on the iconostasis. But the new ones are fresh, as the iconographer-in-residence, Blasis Tsostionis, continues to cover the church and outer narthex with even new "windows to heaven" of Christ and scenes from His life and ministry. Mr. Tsostionis also wrote all of the icons for St. Mary Basilica in Livonia, Michigan.

All of the pilgrims got to venerate the head of St. Charalambos, a third century bishop of Magnesia who was martyred at the age of 103. Afterward, Sayidna JOSEPH and his clergy were then welcomed by abbess of St. Stephen Monastery, Prodromie Christonymphie. Of the six inhabited monasteries, hers is the most populous with 30 nuns. (Others have as few as three.) She explained that St. Stephen Church dates to the 13th century and St. Charalambos Church opened in 1798. However, both are in constant states of renewal. Sayidna thanked her and the sisters for their patient hospitality, even with the thousands of other tourists who pour into Meteora each year.

Next, the pilgrims visited the 15th century Monastery of All Saints, founded by St. Barlaam. Soon thereafter, the Ottoman Turks raided it. They allowed the monastery to survive, but denied it of any privileges. Generous benefactors kept it alive throughout the centuries of occupation, including the Serbian Tzar Stephen Dusan and his royal family.

To the untrained eye, all of the frescoes would seem morbid and even disturbing because they focus on death. They graphically depict the persecutions that the saints endured. The icon of St. Sisoes the Great shows him sitting over the coffin of a skeleton with the inscription: "O great king, you conquered the whole world, but what is left for you?" Even the icon of the apocalypse of "The Last Judgment" shows a monster swallowing up people. But to the trained eye, these icons show people that they must endure suffering for Christ's sake and for their own salvation. These icons taught believers new and old what to expect in this world for the sake of the next. The large "Last Judgment" icon does show the Theotokos and all of Christ's saints (even the good thief on the cross) dwelling in paradise with him. As Sayidna himself said, these icons don't exist to scare us or threaten us with punishment, although we cannot minimize our preparation for death. Rather, the icons reveal that these holy ones exist to inspire and help us for the joy that should be ours.

Sayidna and the clergy were then invited by the abbot to tour the private grounds of All Saints Monastery, where the seven brothers have some peace and quiet from all of the tourists. Like at all monasteries, His Eminence gave the monks a list of the loved ones of the pilgrims so that they may always include them in their prayers. Then he gave them a brief history of the Antiochian Archdiocese in America and the struggles and challenges the early clergy and laity faced in building it. He also described the inter-Orthodox clergy and laity gatherings offered by the canonical Orthodox Christian bishops of the West Coast.

The monks then led Sayidna and the clergy into their Chapel of the Three Hierarchs, which contains those saints' relics and about a dozen others. The brothers keep the skull of St. Nicholas the New-Martyr of Meteora who had been killed by the Turks. All of the relics were offered for veneration. Then, Fr. Christopher Salamy chanted the apolytikion hymn of the Three Hierarchs and one of the monks remarked it was refreshing to hear him chant in English. The tour concluded with the beautiful dining hall of the monks, which features brand new iconography from top to bottom. Words cannot do it justice, so the photographs will.

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Day Three: Visits to St. Demetrios Church, Panagia Chalkeon Church, St. Gregory Palamas Cathedral, Relics and Metropolis, and with His Eminence, Metropolitan ANTHIMOS of Thessaloniki - 09/24/13

"Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth." Revelations 2:10

These words are inscribed on the tomb of His Eminence, Metropolitan PANTELEIMON II of Thessaloniki of thrice-blessed memory. The pilgrims prayed over his grave right outside St. Demetrios Church before entering it. His Eminence had been present at the ordination of Sayidna JOSEPH to the holy diaconate. Sayidna recalled him to be a holy man who wisely governed the Orthodox Church in this city.

If icons are considered windows to heaven, then the delegation felt like it had walked into heaven when stepping into three of the most famous churches in Thessaloniki. The first is named in honor of the city's patron saint, the Great-Martyr Demetrios the Myrrh-Streaming. This church has endured plundering, wars, occupations and disasters and come away shining more brilliantly than when it was built. Golden mosaic tiles surround the Theotokos in the apse, as is the prevailing style for city churches. She is surrounded by the Archangels, Old Testament prophets and saints from the first centuries of Christianity. The pictures will show the equal exquisiteness of the dome. Beautiful frescoes that once adorned all of the walls are reemerging from the plaster affixed by the ancient Ottoman occupiers that once covered them. Major reconstruction took place after earthquakes in 1917 and 1979, and St. Demetrios Church was reconsecrated once the Ottomans were driven from the city right before the collapse of their empire in 1923.

Not only is St. Demetrios highly venerated in the tall, spacious church that bears his name, but so are St. Nestor and St. Anysia. In the fourth century, Nestor was forced to fight the gladiator Lyaeus in the Hippodrome, a battle that pitted David against Goliath. Nestor first visited Demetrios for encouragement and prayer, and then was able to defeat Lyaeus. When the pagan authorities learned how the underdog won, they captured both Nestor and Demetrios, who had been a great commander, and martyred them. Myrrh streamed from the body of Demetrios, so the church used to serve holy water mixed with myrrh in his honor. The main icon of St. Nestor stands next to St. John the Baptist on the iconostasis because both men were beheaded.

St. Anysia is a native of Thessaloniki. She suffered martyrdom in 304 when she refused to worship Roman sun god with a soldier. Anysia spat in his face and killed her. Her relics lie in a silver sarcophagus in the northeast part of the church.

Of course, the relics of St. Demetrios dwell in his namesake church, but only since 1979. Centuries before, Crusaders stole his relics from the city and stored them in San Lorenzo di Cantio Church in Italy. Sayidna JOSEPH had been living and serving in Thessaloniki at the time of their return here. He described the return of the relics like receiving a president, king or head of state. The entire city came out and festively processed with the relics to the church. Armed soldiers and guards had to contain the overwhelming pandemonium. Sayidna considered this proof that Christian history is not something trapped in the past, but alive and thriving. The pilgrims venerated those relics as well as those of St. Anisia.

A great blessing can come from the destruction and rebuilding of churches: the discovery of ancient churches beneath them. Archaeologists have determined that the site which they are excavating dates back to the fifth century. Pieces of stone icons have been discovered and reassembled, as well as the ambon, bowls and coins. Underneath the sanctuary in particular is the fountain that used to pour the myrrh-water into a pool for collection and drinking, which had been stopped when the Ottomans came to occupy the city in 1430.

Next, the delegation visited the small Church of "Panagia Chalkeon" -- "[the Protection] of the Virgin of the Copper Workers." It opened in 1028 and rests in the old copper-working district. It is also known as the "red church" because of its heavy use of red brick. The Dean of St. Nicholas Cathedral in Los Angeles, Fr. Michel Najim, served here when he was a doctoral student at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. Old frescoes are faintly visible throughout the church, including the famous one of the Dormition of the Theotokos over the western exit of the church, as well as that of the Ascension of Christ inside the dome. The benefactor of the church lies in state along the north wall.

After that, the pilgrims ventured to St. Gregory Palamas Cathedral, the home parish of His Eminence, Metropolitan ANTHIMOS. This parish is dear to Sayidna JOSEPH's heart, for it was here on December 4, 1976 he was ordained to the holy diaconate. He marveled at all of the new iconography and renovations to the cathedral since the 1979 earthquake practically destroyed it. The apse, in essence, has three sections: one of saints, the next of the Ascension and of Pentecost, finally leading to the Theotokos bearing the Christ child. The church walls, from ceiling to floor, are covered in fresh icons, among them: St. Archbishop Joseph, St. Christopher and St. Patriarch Niphon (bearing the names of our own Archbishop, Fr. Christopher Salamy and Dn. Niphon Sweis in this delegation) and St. Simeon of Thessaloniki (Sayidna's favorite saint), who are all local saints. Another icon reflected the Edict of Milan in 313, for which an immense celebration will take place on October 6 in Serbia, and in which the pilgrims will take part.

Like the relics of St. Basil the Confessor and St. Demetrios, those of St. Gregory lie in state in a silver sarcophagus inside a small chapel within the cathedral. After venerating St. Gregory's relics (which offered a sweet scent of myrrh), Sayidna JOSEPH and Fr. George Ajalat taught the pilgrims about his life. St. Gregory was called out of his monastery in the 14th century and urged to become Archbishop of Thessaloniki, which he accepted out of obedience to the Church. He vigorously defended Orthodoxy against all other theological heresies which were supposed to have been settled ages before, yet crept into the Church. His chiefest enemy was Barlaam in the West, who argued that humans can see the power of God because His energies are created. Gregory corrected him: God's energies are uncreated because God is uncreated, and to argue differently are reducing and objectifying God.

St. Gregory was a leader of hesychasm, that style of prayer that requires stillness and silence to encounter God. Barlaam demeaned hesychasts as "belly button worshippers." But St. Gregory responded that hesychasm invites the presence of God through the grace that He shares with us and, in turn, we can be fully present and functioning with Him. It's more than just mindless meditation; it's a contemplation on God.

Sayidna JOSEPH and his clergy then accepted the invitation of Dhespota ANTHIMOS to visit him at his metropolis offices next door to the cathedral. His chancellor and protosyngellos, Fr. Stephanos, greeted Sayidna and the clergy and presented with New Testament Bibles in koine Greek (spoken at the time of Christ) and modern Greek.

Next, Dhespota ANTHIMOS welcomed the clergy in his office. The Metropolitan was joyous, gracious and humble. He shared with Sayidna his plans to welcome His All-Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW next month, for his first visit on the occurrence of the city's celebration of St. Demetrios' feast day on October 26. Dhespota ANTHIMOS then expressed his concern and sorrow for the 2.5-year-old civil war in Syria, which has killed tens of thousands of innocents, especially Christians. Sayidna thanked him for his continued prayers in hopes that this bloody and political war comes to a quick end.

The two hierarchs exchanged small gifts, and Dhespota ANTHIMOS then presented Sayidna JOSEPH with fragrant, holy myrrh from the shrine of St. Demetrios. The two hierarchs went downstairs with the clergy into the metropolis museum, which houses priceless and beautiful liturgical artifacts and icons, including one of St. Thomas the Apostle that dates to the 14th century. The pictures tell their stories.

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Day Two: Cruise Around the Mount Athos Peninsula, Surprise Visit of Holy Relics, St. Stephen the First-Martyr Cathedral in Arnaia - 09/23/13

The delegation drove 2.5 hours through dozens of villages in the countryside along the Cassandra, Sifna and Athos peninsulas to get to the cruise that would show us ten of the twenty monasteries of Mount Athos. Pagans occupied the land and shaped the history of this area long before the center of worldwide Christian monasticism took its place possibly as early as the third century.

Some of the monasteries can be accessed (difficultly) by walking between them, but others require boats, and they nearly all require hiking to reach. As many as 2300 monks live on the "Holy Mountain" giving hospitality and spiritual counsel to thousands of visitors each year who wish to give up the world, if only for a short time. "Hesychasm" thrives here: a solitary, deeply-meditative prayer (usually the "Jesus Prayer"--"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner") that concentrates on "stillness" and voluntary deprivation from the world. It has been traced to the words of our Savior Himself: "Go into your closet, and when you shut your door, pray" (Matt. 6:6).

The group sailed along the western shore of the Athos Peninsula because the eastern waters are too rough. Even famous generals and admirals throughout the ages have refused to attack from the east for fear of almost certain death. The monasteries' locations high above the waters have kept the monks mostly free of harm throughout the ages.

None of the pilgrims could visit any of these historic, holy monasteries: they prohibit women and, even if the men secured a visa to enter, they would not have any quality time to spend there because the pilgrimage is packed with visits each day. So, even though the pilgrims could not go to Athos, Athos came to them. The Priest-monk Daniel from Xenophon Monastery (founded in 998 A.D.) came with his crew on a speedboat and met the bigger boat. When he boarded, he unveiled the following relics:

--St. Marina the Great-Martyr (her forearm)
--St. Stephen the First-Martyr (his skull)
--St. George the Great-Martyr (pieces of his right forearm and middle finger)
--St. John the Baptist (drops of his blood that fell into the earth)
--A piece of the true Cross of Christ
--Tiny relics of the Apostles Philip, Barnabas and Andrew the First-Called, as well as St. Basil the Great and St. Anna the Mother of the Virgin Mary

The pilgrims were overjoyed with this surprise of the assembly of legendary saints. Everyone on the boat rushed and crushed to venerate them and have icons, crosses and prayer ropes blessed upon them. They later learned that a monk comes from Xenophon once a day when the monastery learns that pilgrims will be on the cruise. No one will soon forget the excitement of that hour.

The delegation made two stops on the way back into Thessaloniki. The first was not on the schedule, but certainly worth the visit: St. Stephen the First-Martyr Cathedral in Arnaia near Chalkidiki. Sayidna JOSEPH remarked at the simple piety and hospitality of the clergy who greeted us, and fondly recalled their teacher: the late Metropolitan NIKODEMOS of thrice-blessed memory of the Metropolis of Ierissos, Agion Oron and Ardamerion.

In 2005, a devastating fire destroyed practically the entire old church building. The exact cause is unknown, but the clergy suspect an electrical short. However, other churches and monasteries in nearby areas came to the aid of St. Stephen Cathedral and raised all of the necessary money to rebuild within one year. Brand new icons, woodwork and flooring adorn the new building, but standing at the entrance is an old icon written in honor of the "Theotokos of the Myrtle Tree." For more information, click here:

The fire gave the parish the chance to excavate underneath the old church. Archaeologists found the remains of a fifth century basilica, giving proof that an Orthodox Christian community has existed on this very spot for nearly 16 centuries. They unearthed frescoes, icons and even coins from that time. The new church has a glass-bottom floor so that everyone can see the old basilica underneath.

Sayidna JOSEPH led the delegation in the singing of hymns to St. Stephen, the Theotokos and St. Thekla on the eve of her feast-day. St. Thekla bears a special place in the pilgrims' hearts because, on their last trip together, they visited the ancient monastery bearing her name in Maaloula, Syria which has now been severely damaged by terrorists fighting in the civil war there. They prayed for her to intercede to save her ancient city and the nuns and orphan girls who call St. Thekla's first-century home their home.

His Eminence then took the pilgrims to the gravesite of Metropolitan NIKODEMOS right behind the cathedral. He died just over a year ago after leading his metropolis for 31 years. Sayidna led in the singing of "Memory Eternal" and read aloud the words on his tombstone: "I look for the resurrection of the dead" taken from the Creed.

The second stop on the trip back celebrated the birthday of our pilgrimage's organizer, Jasminka Gabrie. She had spotted a Greek dessert shop earlier in the day and, although the delegates wanted to treat her to pastries and gelato in honor of her special day and the countless hours she spent coordinating a memorable pilgrimage, she insisted on treating them! They were most grateful for all that she does and for her love and friendship. May God grant her many years!

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Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia Cathedral, the Catacombs of St. John the Baptist, Monastery of the Dormition at Panorama - 09/22/13

The pilgrims had a few short hours of sleep in their hotel rooms before rising early for the Sunday morning Divine Liturgy. His Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH celebrated at a beautiful Cathedral that is rich in history and holds a special place in his heart: Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in the heart of Thessaloniki. Having been built in the eighth century following the cross-shaped model of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul), it is one of the oldest and active Orthodox churches in the world. It has endured the attacks of the Fourth Crusade in 1205 and the sack of the city by the Ottoman Turks in 1430, when it was converted into a mosque. But unlike its namesake, this Hagia Sophia became an active, worshipping church again in 1912, when Thessaloniki was liberated during the First Balkan War.

Naturally, Hagia Sophia is adorned with gorgeous iconography from throughout the ages, including the famous apse behind the sanctuary that bears the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, whose likenesses are surrounded in gold mosaic. This was built in the 12th century, but the equally-famous dome was built in the ninth century. During the iconoclastic period before the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 842, it only featured a cross because images of Christ, His Mother and all of His saints were wrongly destroyed. Now features the Ascension of the Savior, the Theotokos and the Twelve Apostles. Thousands of multi-colored tiles make up this masterpiece.

In a silver sarcophagus in a small room in the back of the church lies the whole body of St. Basil the Confessor, Archbishop of Thessaloniki. This holy man guided his church in the ninth and tenth centuries and his relics were only discovered in 1981. They had lain inconspicuously on the cathedral grounds in spite of all of the attacks there. St. Basil’s memory is celebrated on February 1.

On behalf of the current Metropolitan of Thessaloniki—His Eminence, ANTHIMOS (Roussos)—Fathers Stephanos, Lazarus and Nicholas welcomed Sayidna JOSEPH and the entire delegation. Hagia Sophia had been Sayidna’s “home parish” for five years, when he was ordained a deacon and served the community in the 1970s. He vividly remembers the outstanding voice of his Byzantine music teacher, the Great Protopsaltis (First-Chanter), Mr. Harílaos Taliadoros. He is now 88 years old yet his voice is as pristine as ever. Sayidna and Mr. Taliadoros had a joyful reunion following the Liturgy, and his choirs immediately presented Sayidna with a freshly recorded five-CD set of the Liturgy.

Following Liturgy, the delegation walked down the street to the Church of the Catacombs of St. John the Baptist, which was once believed to house the relics of St. Demetrios, a "Knight of the Church.” The Catacombs run underground and adjacent to Hagia Sophia. Dozens of Christians had been buried there over the ages, and even baptized there—the bottom of the stone octagonal font remains. It features positions where multiple priests could stand above the catechumens and guide them down into the water. The Catacombs Church goes deep into the ground, and the ceilings become increasingly lower. Now, the relics of St. Demetrios are contained at another church in the city that bears his name. The Great-Martyr is the patron saint and protector of Thessaloniki.

After lunch, the group traveled to Panorama and visited the nuns of Dormition Monastery. The immaculate, green grounds give visitors a breath-taking view of the Aegean Sea. The sisters here have a connection to the United States: they wrote all of the icons at St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Christian Monastery in Safford, Arizona. As the photographs will show, these nuns have a God-given talent and devote countless hours to it from their studio.

The Abbess Melanie and Sister Macrina warmly welcomed Sayidna and the delegation, saying that they were blessed with our presence, although the pilgrims would say it was the other way around. The nuns gave them the history of their relatively new monastery. After decades of struggle and conflicting thoughts on what to do with the land, it opened to house a few sisters in 1957, and Sayidna remembered that a small contingent occupied this oasis when he visited two decades later. Now, 60 sisters call Dormition Monastery their home, which they almost lost to a forest fire in 1997. They were forced to flee the flames, but the famous icon of the Theotokos here called “The Deliverer from Pain and Sorrow” protected all of the buildings. The fire raced right up to the trees that surround them, and it touched none of them.

As mentioned earlier, the sisters are skilled iconographers, and one of the walls featured tracings for the layout of a future iconostasis. The delegation saw dozens of icons in all sizes and stages of progress and realized the months of work that lead to completion. The nuns even have a small model of a dome that could sit on any number of churches, bearing Jesus Christ sitting upon the cherubim, surrounded by scenes from His life, the Old Testament prophets and New Testament saints. The sisters also specialize in candle making, embroidery, bookbinding and manuscript restoration. They told the delegation that prayer and work are central to monastic life, taking their minds off the world while begging God to save its people. The older sisters teach the new, continuing and cultivating their God-given talents.

The delegation finished the day with Vespers, in which we began the celebration of the Conception of John the Baptist. The nuns chanted beautifully and prayerfully, uplifting the spirits of all the worshippers in the church. They presented the clergy with CDs in which they sing the Service of Paraklesis to the Theotokos.

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Thessaloniki at Last! - 09/21/13

The voyage was a long 13 hours in the air, traversing 10 time zones, but the delegation has safely arrived in Thessaloniki full of energy and ready to experience all that the city has to offer. We will begin our week with the Divine Liturgy at Agia Sophia Church to give thanks to God for bringing us safely around the world. Other plans include lunch in the city of Panorama and then a trip to Monastery Kimiseos. The sisters at this monastery wrote the icons for St. Paisius Monastery in Safford, Arizona.

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Delegation Makes Quick Respite in Munich, Germany - 09/21/13

By the grace of God, the diocesan delegation has completed most of its journey to Thessaloniki, arriving safely in Munich, Germany. The first leg took ten and a half hours and the delegates now have a quick opportunity to stretch their legs. The excitement continues to build as the pilgrims know they are just a few hours away from arriving at one of the holiest cities in the world to begin their historic tour.

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The Journey Begins for the Diocesan Delegation - 09/20/13

His Eminence, Archbishop Joseph led the delegation in prayer before it embarked on a journey of more than 8,000 miles to Thessaloniki, Greece. Fifteen of the delegates were present at Los Angeles International Airport as the other three delegates will travel from other parts of the world to join us at our destination. Sayidna invoked the intercessions of St. Nicholas, the patron and protector of his Holy Cathedral, as well as the protector of travelers. He also called upon the intercessions of our Savior’s most holy mother, the Theotokos, to protect us on our trip. The delegates are preparing themselves and energizing for what promises to be a spiritually uplifting two weeks visiting some of the holiest churches and monasteries in the Orthodox Christian world.

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