Interview with Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and St. Vlasios

to the “Church Intervention” for the coronavirus epidemic (covid-19) (14-3-2020)

1. Question: What is the coronavirus (covid-19)? 

Answer: It is a virus which, like many other viruses, consists of RNA, and uses the structure of cells to function. It is known that the genetic information from the DNA, which is in the nucleus of the cell, is transcribed to the RNA, which is transferred to cytoplasm, and is then translated into proteins. This transcription and translation is the central doctrine of biology. Α virus looks like a hijacker, who does not have his own airplane, he does not know how to pilot and uses the aircraft’s instruments and the pilot, for his own purpose. 

2. Question: Why so much fear of the coronavirus?

Answer: There are many viruses, such as AIDS, hepatitis, influenza, Embola, SARS, etc., for whom science has found ways to confront them. When in the early ‘90s the problem with the AIDS virus erupted, humanity panicked, and especially in Greece the National Commission to deal with AIDS was established, which became the KEEL (Center for Special Infectious Diseases Control). I was the Representative of the Church of Greece in that Commission and I had followed all the ways of dealing with the issues related to infections. I even wrote a book entitled “AIDS, A Way of Life”.  The coronavirus surprised the scientific community, which hopefully will soon cope with it scientifically. Until then we need attention and prayer.

3. Question: How do you justify the coronavirus-induced panic?

Answer: Indeed, apart from the coronavirus, there is also a panic virus that humanities and social sciences and psychology speak about. Panic is explained by what I said earlier, but at the same time it is due to the fear of death. Man loves life, he wants to live as far as possible and is afraid of death. So this is the so-called panic of death. That is not only the case with corona virus now, but it has always been so when death approaches us in a variety of ways.

The fear of death is linked to every illness, which challenges man and leads him to the border of death. Heidegger has emphasized that man operates in two ways, first in the so-called everyday way, linked to power, authority, health, social activity, and secondly, in the so-called existential way, linked to the coming of illnesses and the approach to death.

When someone is admitted to the hospital, because of a disease, existential questions start immediately, such as the question of the meaning of life and the meaning of death. Various thoughts start operating in him and literally torment him, about who is responsible for the situation in which he arrived at and, consequently, he is preoccupied with the so-called “borderline moments of his life”existential philosophy and existential psychology speak about. That is why we must deal with the patient not only physically, but in his fullness.

4. Question: What is death, after all?

Answer: Death is not just what happens at the end of biological life. It is corruptibility and mortality that are inherent in our biological organism from the beginning of our conception.  Molecular biology has shown that within the approximately 25,000 genes in the human cell, from the first moment of fertilization of the ovum, there are also the mechanisms of aging and death, and also the genes of diseases. Therefore, from the very first moment of human conception, before the stem cells differentiate, before the tissues and organs are created, before the embryonic body is formed, the mecahnisms of aging and death and the genes of diseases are already present. This means that death is a biological and psychological “burden” that we carry from the very first moment of our conception and this causesprogressivedeath crises in our lives.

5. Question: How should we deal with the coronavirus problem?

Answer: The answer involves many levels. Science is doing its duty, and I believe that we will have hopeful developments in this area. The State, with its institutions, is trying to restrict the dissemination of the virus, because it cares about man, the citizen, and also because it is interested in how the health system copeswith such a great “war attack”, because this is really an internal war. And citizens must deal with it on a personal level, that is, beyond discipline in the decisions of the responsible bodies, they must behave responsibly in the face of the so-called panic of death. Of course, at this critical time, we must stand with respect and honor to the doctors and nursing staff who work with responsibility, knowledge and bravery.

6. Question: How do we deal with patients and society at large which suffer from existential questions?

Answer: I have already emphasized that the State with its institutions is taking the necessary decisions to safeguard the population. But that is not enough, because man is not a machine, not even a machine with a soul, but he is a beingpreoccupied with the meaning of life and the meaning of existence. Many times he wonders what the purpose ofprotecting himself from a disease is, when lifehas no meaning for him. Such attitude is often expressed by drug addicts when they are advised to take care of themselves and they reply: “I do not want to take care of myself, because for me it does not make sense to live”.

Thus, one cannot deal with such situations only by measures that are directed at the human body, as if man were just a biological machine;instead, both psychological and spiritual support is needed. We already know that while we were going through the economic crisis, many politicians and economists were saying that the economy also needed a proper psychology in order to rebound. And I ask: If the economy wants its psychology, does the disease not need existential psychology to deal with? Victor Frankl has emphasized that human beings are concerned about the “tragic trinity”, that is, pain, guilt and death. Therefore, all forms of science must deal with the problem that has emerged so that that manis not considered only a biological machine.

7. Question: How do you view the Church’s response to the problem that has arisen?

Answer: I think the Church has reacted and reacts with great temper and this is related to the fact that it has a very long two thousand years’ experience, while the [Greek] State has only a two-hundred years’ experience. Thus, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Church of Greece, the Church of Crete, as well as other Churches, reacted with responsibility and seriousness, because they view man as being in the image and likeness of God, who definitely has biological needs, but above all, has psychological and spiritual needs and all issues are addressed through these needs.

8. Question: What is the Church’s centuries-long experience of which you speak?

Answer: As you know over the centuries many illnesses have appeared, while science was not as developed as it is today. So, the Church has always taken the necessary measures to deal with physical ailments, but also to satisfy the spiritual and eternal needs of each human being. Take, for example, leprosy. It was a terrible illness, which was incurable and contagious for centuries and they removed the sick from society and put them in “social quarantine”. The Fathers of the Church showed particular care not only for the treatment of the disease, but also for the treatment of the patientssuffering from it and showed special love to them. Let me remind you of St. Basil the Great, who in the “Basileias”had a place for the lepers, when leprosy was considered contagious, and heused to embrace the lepers himself, to show them his love.  I believe that beyond the coronavirus and any virus there is ahuman being with his existential and spiritual problems and his eternal searches, and this is why I am troubled by the virus of social racism and the virus of panic. Carl Jaspers has emphasized that generally people, and especially the sick ones, need “existential communication”.

9. Question: Lately there has been a lot of discussion about restricting church services, and especially about restricting the partaking of the Holy Communion. What is your opinion?

Answer: First of all, I would like to say that the Church functioned and functions in a coordinated way. We have an ‘Ecclesiastical Leadership’ which is the Permanent Holy Synod, chaired by His Beatitude Hieronymus, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, which I think deals with the issue with responsibility and soberness. We, especially Bishops and Clergy, should above all listen to it, and not run ahead or differentiate ourselves from it, because the Church is not an uncoordinated body, it has its organs which decide on the issues that emerge. I said earlier that the Church has a long experience of two thousand years in dealing with such issues. Thus, it recommended that we listen to the specialists and the official bodies of the State dealing with this matter, it decided to suspend its pastoral activity, it advised the confinement of the elderly and those with frail health to their homes, but leaves open in various ways the window of communication of human beings with God.

Just as we need to ventilate our home, that is, to open the windows to refresh the air and to bring the sun in, similarly the Church is a window into our lives, which refreshes polluted air, allows us to see farther away and to bringanother sun in our lives, which will kill the spiritual germs and the spiritual viruses. Regarding the Holy Communion, again the Church has a long experience. In scientific issues the great value of the bibliography for dealing with them is emphasized, similarly the Church has its own “bibliography”, which says that with the Holy Communion Christ is offeredWho is the eternal life and cures people’s spiritual illnessesand sometimes physical ailments as well. No one can force the church to deny its identity.

10. Question: How do yousee some views arguing that the Church should recommend to people not to come to the Holy Communion for fear of transmitting the coronavirus?

Answer: The church always recommends that those who want to receive Holy Communionshould do so under the conditions included in the exhortation: “With the fear of God, faith, and love, draw near.” Nothing is done in the Church without some preconditions. Personally, I have seen that in recent years many people have been receiving communion without keeping the proper conditions, which are repentance, confession, fasting, and this has saddened me. I therefore urge Christians not to receive communion without the necessary ecclesiastical conditions. Nevertheless, as I said earlier, Priests give the Holy Communionto the people, the sick without thinking that they are transmitting diseases to thosereceiving communion, or that they themselves will receive some diseases from the Body of Christ. Examples are the churches in Hospitals, in which healthy and sick people all receive the same Body and Blood of Christ, in spite of the various viruses and microbes around. We observe the same, and this is something everyone used to praise so far, that the Priests have been working pastorally and giving communion in the sanatoriums and hospitals of infectious diseases and other places, such as in Spinalonga. I do not understand what has changed since then.

11. Question: There are some who argue that the fearregardingthe holy Communion has nothing to do with the faith or lack of faith of Christians. What do you say about that?

Answer: All issues of our lives and the way we deal with them are related to faith, and they all show how much one really believes in God. Love is inextricably linked to faith, that is, there exists no love without faith and no faith without love. But the Church tackles all issues in a pastoral manner, it employs either “accuracy” or “economy” and, certainly, repentance is an element of Orthodox ethic.

12. Question: What is your final view on the subject that has arisen?

Answer: I think we need calmness, sobriety and seriousness, and everything will find their way. The virus of panic and the so-called “paranoivirus” are worse than the coronavirus. The Holy Synod will take the proper decisions depending on the evolution of the issue, but beyond the necessary precautions, we need faith in God’s Providence.