By Mary Sinanidis
The atmosphere at Panagia Kamariani at Red Hill during Sunday’s mass, presided over by Archbishop Makarios, was vibrant.
Inside the church, Renee Zafiropoulos, the young photographer of GO Youth Melbourne’s Philotimo Festival, snapped away, immortalising the Archbishop from every angle.
Sisters Antigone and Christina Gougoussis ensured the service ran according to plan; while outside, young people methodically helped organise stalls, made frappe, and worked in unison, harmoniously pulling off a great community event.
If the event is any indication, Archbishop Makarios is making good on a promise delivered upon his arrival to Australia in 2019 to draw youth to the church.
Antigone, part of the original committee, said GO Youth Melbourne is providing a safe space for 18- to 29-year- olds to interact with others who are like-minded.
“It’s a welcoming space for both those who grew up in the church and those who didn’t,” she tells the Greek Herald, adding that she and her sister were raised in the church but “even so, there were moments when I lost interest”.
“I always came back because the church is grounded in its roots and gives you a sense of stability, and that is why young people are returning.”
Antigone and Christina say they have built friendships through the Christian fellowship while exploring their faith by attending talks, social events, and charity work with Five Loaves, the Archdiocese’s initiative to provide food for the needy and homeless.
Through the youth group, strong connections have been forged, and even romance ignited with an engagement over Christmas – the first for GO Youth Melbourne.
Everyone is excited for John and Alexandra, who cast lingering glances over church pews rather than swiping through Tinder.
Stavroula Marinelli, a young woman from Clayton parish, says there’s nothing wrong with that.
“These days people are even embarrassed to admit they believe in Jesus Christ or that they are Orthodox, but there is nothing to be ashamed of when we believe in one true God,” she says.
The 80 people who stayed for the glamping experience of the three-day festival had deep talks, danced, and got to build meaningful relationships.
It may not have been Coachella, but just because it was wholesome doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun.
The last day of the festival, an intergenerational family day, conjured images of family picnics of bygone days with the youth doing a lovely job with face-painting, children’s activities, coffee making, and a Sunday school parade for the little ones to get gifts and meet face-to-face with Australia’s church leader, Archbishop Makarios.
Maria Vamvakinou MP attended with her sister Helen visiting from Greece.
“Faith and identity are closely linked,” she says, pointing to the Greek Orthodox Church as fundamental to early migrants as a source of settlement and comfort. “I think we live in a world where things are harder for young people, there are more challenges, and therefore a values-based education and thinking will hold them in great stead.”
With mixed marriages, Vamvakinou says there is “an added responsibility to gift, but not to impose Greek culture.”
There’s a fine line between “gifting” and “imposing”, however. Inside the church, children fidget, yawn, and whine as Archbishop gives the sermon focused on the Gospel of St Luke. It’s dubious whether the story of Zacchaeus, the sinner who was touched by Jesus’ compassion, has truly inspired the little ones.
The mood changes once they go outside, eager to play.
Marianthi Galanis has laid out a picnic rug to share with her relations from the Clayton parish. “It’s lovely to be here as a family,” she says. I ask her how she managed to get her youngsters to sit still in church for so long, and she tells me it’s a matter of practice. “We try and go as often as possible when I’m not working, and it’s a pleasant experience because our parish also has a kids’ room with toys so that they can keep occupied while I listen to the service. And they also go to Sunday school where the teacher is very engaging.”
Thanassis Gardiakos has come with a group of empty nesters, drawn by the beauty of Panagia Kamariani and its history. “I first came here when I was a youth,” he says. “There were no olive trees and nothing like what you see now. And every year it would get more beautiful. And there are so many memories.”
He remembers the feasts and Father Lefteris watching them turn 10 lambs on a spit as part of a feast held by his community group of Andriani from Messinia.
“Today we came to support young people,” he says. “We need them to take over.”
GO Youth Melbourne is eager to take over and rearing to go, and they are doing it in their way with glamping and Philotimo.
Stavroula explains, “We wanted to give our three-day festival a name with meaning, so we agreed on philotimo – to give without expecting anything in return.”
Her friend Nicky from Bentleigh, adds, “Philotimo is a Greek term that has no direct translation in English but encompasses a complex set of values engrained in Greek culture. We wanted a word which showcased our culture and found this to be fitting.”
Philotimo is deeply rooted in ancient Greek history and philosophy, shaping the way individuals interact with each other and perceive their roles within their families, communities, and society at large.
It’s a word that dates back thousands of years to ancient times and is now being applied by young people in a Christian setting.