The Apostle to Zaire (Congo), Africa - Father Cosmas of Grigoriou - 1942-1989

The fastest growing Orthodox Churches are to be found today on the continent of Africa.  Despite the extreme poverty of the people, the faith is alive and is zealously embraced by the people of Uganda, Ghana, Kenya and other nations of Africa.   The Church has an extensive network of parish churches which often sponsor primary and secondary schools and medical clinics. Seminaries to train native Africans to become tomorrow’s priest and bishops exist in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Madagascar.   

The Orthodox Churches of Africa spring from several roots:  native Africans who discovered Orthodoxy on their own by reading the history of the early Church and secondly from the efforts of Orthodox missionaries primarily from Greece.  The Orthodox Church was initially attractive to the native people of Africa because it was not associated with the colonial powers. This set it apart from the Catholic Church, which was associated with French and Portuguese rule, and the various Protestant Churches, which were associated with the British Empire.  The Greek missionaries who labored for the Lord in Africa witnessed to the faith not only by their words and teachings but by the example of their lives.  Here is the story of one of these original missionaries:  a bright light of Orthodoxy in Africa.

Father Cosmas, the Apostle to Zaire was born in 1942 with the name:  John Aslanidis, to a pious Orthodox family in Greece, his maternal grandfather was a priest.  From his teenage years John felt a call to devote his life to serve the Lord and his Church but never felt attracted to a predictable life as a parish priest or monk in a monastery.  After completing his compulsory military service in the Greek navy, John trained as an electrician in a technical school and received training in nursing with the Red Cross both of which would serve him well in his later life as a missionary.  Under the influence of Metropolitan Augustine of Florina, John joined a group of young men who formed a lay brotherhood “Brotherhood of the Holy Cross” who devoted themselves to assisting the Church of Greece most especially by the building and renovation of churches.  During this time he also attended lectures on Orthodox missions by the famed Orthodox missionary Bishop Anastasios Yannoulatos (now the Archbishop of Albania).  In 1974 he was accepted for the study of theology at the Rizarios Ecclesiastical Academy and after one year of study left for Zaire, Africa (now known as the Republic of the Congo) for his first missionary experience.  Here as a lay missionary, he oversaw the building of ten churches in fourteen months, despite that he did not yet know the Swahili language.

To Mount Athos

Returning to the Rizarios Seminary he graduated in 1976 and left for the monasteries of Mount Athos to seek guidance from the holy elders living there.  There John met the famed elder Father Paisios (since canonized as St. Paisios) who encouraged him to enter the Gregoriou Monastery to become a monk, be ordained as a priest, and then return to the mission field of Africa.  Obeying the Saint, John entered the Gregoriou Monastery and after a year of testing was tonsured a monk with the name “Cosmas” after the famed Greek missionary St. Cosmas of Aetolia and ordained a priest in 1978.  Then with the blessing of the elders of Gregoriou Monastery Father Cosmas returned to Africa to continue the missionary work he had begun in 1975. 

To Africa

Father Cosmas set up a Mission Center in the town of Kolwezi, Zaire from where he would travel from village to village.  He would gather the people together and teach them the Gospel of Christ according to the Orthodox Faith.  He would perform baptisms at the nearest river and the Divine Liturgy in either a tent which he carried with him or in one of the village huts constructed of grass and mud.  It is estimated that from 1978 until his untimely death in 1989 he baptized over 15,000 Africans into the Orthodox Faith.  From each village, he would take one or two particularly pious men and keep them at his Mission Centre for intensive training for two or three months and then send them back to their native villages to continue the missionary work.  One of the problems he faced in bringing the Gospel to the African villages was the prevalence of polygamy among the men.  Before he would allow anyone to be baptized, the candidate would have to choose one woman as his sole wife and provide for the care and well-being of the others. 

On Pentecost Sunday, 1985 he described a typical missionary experience:

...On this day, from daybreak until midnight we preformed the baptisms of one hundred catechumens and the weddings of ten Christian couples...In the evening, the women kept “vigil” in order to prepare tomorrow’s table with food and a pig that we brought them. There in the courtyard of the

church six Christians from the village of Bade also spent the night. These are

the first leaven of Christians from their village...  The first spots in Likasi’s Church of the Three Hierarchs were filled from beforehand by the newly wedded and further back the newly baptized.   They followed the Divine Service with great devotion and partook of the Body and Blood of our Lord for the first time. The “brightness in their faces” at such moments is beyond description, but is a reality which we live and from which we receive strength in order to surmount the array of daily difficulties.  At midday old and new Christians ate together sitting on the ground. They ate with their hands, without settings, but with simplicity of heart, much joy and the Grace of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecost in the Upper Room of the Disciples of our Lord, for the one hundred newly illumined and for us who took part in this celebration, continues today just as it did then.

Concerned not only for the souls of the Africans but for their physical needs, Father Comas would distribute food, clothing and medicines as he taught the people.  In order to provide income for the Church and food for the clergy, the poor and needy, he bought a 60-acre farm and began breeding cattle along with sheep, goats, and pigs. 

Father Cosmas described his mission work in a letter to a friend dated June 27, 1983:

...You tell me that you are drowning in your work, but come here and

you’ll see what it means to work.  Of course, the results of our work here will be evident only after quite a few years. For the time being, we can only expend and offer our strength as a sacrifice at the altar of the Mission. In order for a church to be secure it requires  many sacrifices from saints, who, with their lives, examples, and even martyric blood, will establish the Church of God in this place, which is now literally ruled by the devil. Until the Lord of the Vineyard sends His worthy laborers, we will stir His forbearance and labor with our weak abilities and passions. Pray only that we not scandalize. We have no talents to offer. The only positive thing is that whatever we do have we give out of love for Christ without holding back anything. Father Paisios tells me: “Continue on, however, the struggle will be a long one, for the people there will be slow in coming to accept Christianity, etc.” And his judgements, without him having lived them, I see now, and they are true.  Our efforts are blessed.  Catechizing continues in all our parishes. Young native Africans are approaching the Church, but we are a little reserved as to baptizing them. We want them first to be tested well, and this is because we are devoid of staff and good coworkers so as to establish them as baptized Christians in their parishes.  With the help of God, in the years to come we hope to be able to take coworkers from among the sixty or so young people we now have in the mission house.

Father Cosmas’ methods as a missionary were not that typically used by Western missionaries:  slick programs, professional videos, glossy publications but his method was simply the way of life he learned from the holy elders on Mount Athos.  Father Cosmas was a monastic and an ascetic before he was a missionary, and he practiced spiritual warfare, fasting, vigil and prayer. He was a monk in the age-old tradition of Mount Athos.   His ministry was, first of all, not what he did, but what he was and how he lived.  This was the basis of his ministry and this is what he shared with the Africans. 

Visitors marveled at the faith of these new converts.  One person noted “How is it that the Africans, being only recently baptized, can maintain such an intensity and exactness in their Orthodoxy, while many of us in parishes in Greece, America and elsewhere are much more lax?  Father Meletios, Father Cosmas’ successor in the mission field noted:

Father Cosmas’ work in Africa is quite extensive.  I found the whole Athonite typicon (order of services) in place in Zaire.  The Christians with prayer ropes in their hands.  In church they chant all together led by a choir of boys.  No one receives Communion without first having confessed.  They keep strictly the fasts of Wednesday and Friday. They celebrate daily the Divine Services of Matins, Vespers, and Small Compline.  And on Sundays the congregation exceeds four hundred.

Father Cosmas reflected on the people of Africa:

"They are people with a sensitivity and awareness of the inner world. Europeans usually underestimate them, but they are very mistaken. The soul of the African inclines toward mysticism and for this reason Orthodoxy has something to say to them and something to offer, but only authentic Orthodoxy— monastic  Orthodoxy. For among the brethren of Africa, witchcraft and magic holds great sway, a real demonocracy. In Africa, I saw how true the Gospel of Christ is! Everything that He said about the possession of men by the demons, I saw first hand.  However, the Living and True God is more powerful than Satan and all his servants. Let it be understood, however, that true missionary-apostolic work cannot be carried out in Africa if one does not decide to leave his bones there."

Entering the Kingdom

On January 27, 1989 Father Cosmas was traveling with two companions on mission work listening to hymns in honor of St. Cosmas Aitolos on a cassette tape.  As Father Cosmas sang along to the hymns the Land Rover which he was driving crashed into an oncoming truck killing him instantly but leaving his companions only slightly injured.  After a funeral in the Kolwezi mission church of St. George attended by over 2,000 African Orthodox, Father Cosmas was laid to rest behind the church.  While he has not yet been canonized as a saint, his grave has become a place of pilgrimage.  “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things.  Enter into the joy of your Lord.”  (Matthew 25:23)   In death, he fulfilled his own words:  “Let it be understood, however, that true missionary-apostolic work cannot be carried out in Africa if one does not decide to leave his bones there.” 

Formation of Priests

Among the many lessons to be learned from this great missionary are his methods in training native Africans to become future priests and leaders of the young African Church.  He wrote:

It is almost assured that the young native is destroyed when sent to study in Europe, returning as a theologian only in terms of his diploma, not his heart….In Kolewezi, we send the pious young man to the monastery of our repentance  (Gregoriou on Mt. Athos) where he learns theological matters, dogmatics, ethics, worship, the typicon, iconography and Byzantine chant both in practice and theory.  He studies Orthodoxy in the “university of the desert”, keeping company with sanctified elders and spiritually-gifted fathers and learning from them…Purified and forming Christ within him, the young candidate becomes a good co-worker and our ideal successor.

 In the training and forming of priests in America today, the temptation exists:  all that is necessary is a college degree followed by a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) from an Orthodox seminary.  In some instances, seminary is even replaced by “correspondence courses” or “weekend courses”.   Priestly training is reduced to a set of facts to be learned, information to be acquired rather than a lifestyle in which to be formed.  Father Cosmas took men from each village to live with him at his mission center to be immersed in prayer and the daily liturgical services.  Seminary training has the same function for our future priests:  to live together in common, to study and to be immersed in an Orthodox lifestyle of daily prayer through a full cycle of daily liturgical worship.  Can our future priests and bishops forgo traditional seminary training?  Perhaps yes, but only if they first spend several years in a good, solid Orthodox monastery being marinated in the way of prayer, fasting and spiritual warfare:  the “university of the desert”. 

Father Edward Pehanich