Before And After Conversion
Source: Journey to Orthodoxy
Here is another article by Fr Gregory Cognetti on his path of conversion from Roman Catholicism to Orthodox Christianity.
Father Gregory Cognetti fell asleep in the Lord on Holy Tuesday, April 14, 1998. He established an Orthodox parish in Palermo, Italy, under the jurisdiction of Russian Orthodox Church, and led the parish in times of great difficulty for the faithful.
The text that follows is a testimony of his integrity and commitment of faith in the revival of Orthodoxy in Italy.
I am a professor of biology, and faculty member at the University of Palermo (Italy), but above all I am an Orthodox priest.
I was born and raised in a Roman Catholic family, devout and traditional. In the past, many members of my family were priests, nuns, and even bishops. My godfather was a cardinal! I was educated in a school held by the Jesuits. Among other things, I studied Latin (8 years), Greek (5 years) and philosophy (3 years), and the age of 17 I had a good knowledge of Roman dogma, and especially Thomas Aquinas. However, in college I majored in chemistry, and upon receiving my degree I became an atheist because I could not reconcile my scientific knowledge with what I had been taught about God.
After graduation I began working as a researcher in various centers in the US and Italy. During this period I met my wife and we married in 1972. At the same time I became an assistant professor at the University of Palermo. In Palermo there was Uniate Italo-Albanian Church (Italo-Albanian Greek Catholic Church), and purely by chance I went there to attend the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, celebrated in Greek. I was immediately fascinated and vaguely perceived that behind this liturgical form was something immense, which I was not aware of in my years of attending Catholic church. I must confess, however, that my initial interest was purely cultural.
Probably because of my scientific training, I found a new exciting field for discovery. I had already examined the non-Christian religions, and I was convinced that I know practically all of Christianity. My interest in the ancient Greek world was awakened, and I felt challenged to learn more. I turned to a priest, requested information, and shortly after I was reading books by various Orthodox contemporary authors, such as Paul Evdokimov, Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorff, Anthony Bloom, and Kallistos Ware. I was deeply impressed by the theology of St Gregory Palamas.
With amazement I began to realize that criticism of the Christian faith that had brought me to atheism was directed only at scholasticism, not the Christian faith itself! So I retrieved my fragile faith: no longer a Roman faith, because I had lost it forever, but the Orthodox faith. Even my wife, who already knew some works of Evdokimov was with me. Soon we became full members of the Italo-Albanian Church.
In 1975 we lived in Houston, Texas, while I was doing research at the MD Anderson Tumor Center. Even though if we were communicants at the local Ukrainian church, the rector of the Greek Orthodox church was kind enough to allow me to visit the library of his church. I read as many works as possible. The history of the Church and the Orthodox mystical theology were the topics that most interested me. I paid particular attention to the seven Ecumenical Councils and pseudo-councils of Lyons and Florence. My wife was always by my side, and constantly discussing and evaluating new knowledge we were acquiring.
Gradually we became aware that the Orthodox Church is the true Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Another important event in that period was meeting Father George Sondergaard. From him I received the idea of Orthodox mission, and he planted the seeds of our future conversion. Back in Italy, I worked with zeal and energy with Italo-Albanian Church, still believing (or rather, wanting to believe) that it was possible to be Roman Catholic and Orthodox at the same time.
At that time we began to read the writings of the Holy Fathers because while in the US we bought the entire collection of “Ante-Nicene Fathers” and “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers” published by Eerdmans.
We read everything we could find on Orthodoxy, in Italian, English and French.
In 1979 we were back in the US. I worked at the department of chemistry at Duke University, Durham, NC. Our spiritual growth finally came to fruition. Realizing that it is impossible to have Orthodox faith and remain in communion with Roman Church, we were received (confirmed) as members of Greek Church in Raleigh, NC, on Saturday on the eve of Pentecost in 1979. I took the name Gregory of St Gregory Palamas in honor and gratitude to this great saint, whose writing helped me to recovered the Christian faith and return to the true Church.
After confirmation, the desire to actively engage in the life of the church grew steadily in us. We realized the enormous blessings that the Lord gave us, and that these gifts and knowledge that He had provided, should be put to good use.
On the Sunday of the Holy Cross in 1982, I was tonsured reader in the Greek Church in Greensboro, NC. The Gospel reading of the day could not have been more appropriate: we were taking our cross to follow the Lord.
I am indebted to Father Dimitri Cozby, who at the time was rector of a mission close to us. He introduced us to the Orthodox Church of America, as this was very important for our spiritual formation. On his advice, we traveled to several other parishes of the Orthodox Church of America, particularly in Atlanta and the monastery in Resaca, GA, where we learned more about the missionary spirit of Orthodoxy. We were deeply impressed by Bishop Dimitri (of OCA) and his missionary mind. His example was perhaps the most influential in our future life.
In 1983 we were back in Palermo. I was an associate professor, leading a group of brilliant researchers, living comfortably, and having a lot of professional satisfaction, but from the spiritual point of view our situation was critical. There was no Orthodox church in the town, the closest one was in Rome, Naples and Brindisi (600 to 800 km away, with the sea to cross). We traveled to one of these churches once a month for two reasons: to receive the Holy Mysteries, and to ensure that our son would not grow up without the experience of a church life.
Misinformation on Orthodoxy was (and indeed still is) enormous. The vast majority believed (and still believe) that Orthodox Christians were a kind of Protestants prior to the reform, who refuse to obey the pope. The Roman Catholics leave people to think that Orthodoxy is nothing more than something exotic (“beards, incense, etc.”).
At all levels of information (newspapers, magazines, TV, etc.), the feeling was as if the Orthodox would soon return to the fold of the pope. Now, however, after nothing happened, the tendency is to blame the Orthodox as unrepentant rebels. There was a great missionary work to be done, since many were very dissatisfied with their Roman Church. The proliferation of sects, inside and outside of Roman Catholicism, had started in Italy at the time as well.
We began introducing Orthodoxy to those around us, with mixed results: some were very interested; while others, especially in our family, took a firm attitude of contempt and condemnation against us. Two of our cousins have refused to see us from that time onwards.
As a reader in the Patriarchate of Constantinople, under the jurisdiction of the local bishop, Gennadios in Naples. My first impulse was to visit the bishop and tell him that I wanted to help organize Orthodox community in Palermo, where a priest could do regular visits. At that time there were two thousand Greek students at the University of Palermo and about fifty mixed families. My enthusiasm, however, got a cold shower.
“We do not proselytize,” the bishop said, at the beginning of our talk. He added that it was necessary to avoid any chance of upsetting the Roman Church, since it could damage the good relations between Rome and Constantinople. We could not organize a community in Palermo, because the Uniates would not welcome us. I asked permission, as a reader, to celebrate certain reader's services in my house, for which the permission was granted, provided we kept it completely private.
I tried hard to follow the Church calendar every day with my family (my wife, my three year old son and my wife’s sister, who had also become Orthodox in America). I sang the Hours and Compline, Vespers on Saturdays, and Typika on Sunday mornings. I must confess to not being totally obedient to the Bishop Gennadios, as we allowed a small group of close friends to join us.
We were not a church, we were not a community, we were nothing. But we dedicated our gatherings to St Mark of Ephesus. We thought he would be the most appropriate patron, for he knew very well the feeling of being alone in Italy fighting for the Orthodox faith, with the opposition of both Roman Catholics and Orthodox who wanted union! Once a month we went to an Orthodox church on the continent.
The memory of the missionary work of the Orthodox Church of America burned within us. Our situation seemed to have reached an impasse. Easter approached and we wanted to experience the fullness of the Holy Week. We planned to go to Rome, but since we forgot to book in advance, the hotels near the church were all booked. So at the last moment we changed our mind and decided to go to Brindisi. There they met an Italian Orthodox priest, Father Antonio Lotti, of the Russian Orthodox Church, who served in the Greek church.
We had not asked the jurisdiction of Moscow to help us with our community because at that time there were two Orthodox priests in Italy with bad reputation, and both of them were from Russian Orthodox Church. Father Antonio explained that these two priests were recently suspended, and that the Bishop Seraphim of Zurich, responsible for Italy, replaced them with young Italians with a good education, a job and a family, in order to restore vitality to Orthodoxy in Italy. He also offered to write to Bishop Serafim about the situation in Palermo. After receiving permission, Father Antonio came to Palermo and celebrated Divine Liturgy on a Sunday in our living room, in the presence of a small number of people, and promised to return regularly. It was a great day for us!
But again, the Lord decided otherwise: I received the offer to work at the University of Zurich for six months! We left for Zurich on June 10, 1984. I had a letter with me signed by a few members of our community, asking Bishop Seraphim to open an Orthodox mission in Palermo.
The meeting with Bishop Seraphim was dramatically different from that with Bishop Gennadios. I told the whole story, gave him the letter, and assured him that if he sent a priest to Palermo, we accommodate him as best as possible. He listened very carefully, showed solidarity, but for a moment gave no answer. Instead, he invited me to serve as a reader in his church, advising me to learn Church-Slavonic.
I felt in him a warmth and kindness that made a great impression on me. So, after many years of learning Greek, I began exploring Slavic language and customs. I served regularly as a reader, and one day Bishop Seraphim told me he wanted to speak with me in private. When we were alone, he told me that he had decided to open a community in Palermo, but there was no candidate to send there as a priest.
He smiled and added: “Unless you would want to be that priest...”
As I said before, after confirmation I wanted to be more involved in the church, but frankly, I did not see priesthood as a short-term goal. I was thinking rather of diaconate, and, perhaps, priesthood later in life. Bishop Seraphim did not want an immediate answer, so I remember spending a lot of time discussing it with my wife. We came to the conclusion that if we really wanted a church in Palermo, we had to accept, because it would be very difficult for us to get a second chance. So I accepted Bishop Seraphim's proposal, and was soon ordained subdeacon and deacon, and a bit later, a priest.
I would like to recall an important episode. The day before departure from Palermo to Zurich, I called Hieromonk Michael at the monastery in Resaca, GA. I told him about the recent developments in our situation, and asked his prayers. I recall him saying: “I will pray that you return as a priest.” I was shocked by this unexpected reply. The day before my ordination to the priesthood I called him, but was told that Father Michael had been admitted to hospital after a severe heart attack. He died on the day of my ordination, September 2, 1984. My first service as a priest was Panikhida for him, and I continue remembering him every Liturgy ever since.
At the end of my stay in Zurich I returned to Palermo, where he became professor. But now I was also Orthodox priest. My wife worked with the faithful, my sister-in-law was a choir director, and they both played a huge role in building our community.
The Orthodox Parish of St Mark of Ephesus became a reality!
See also: Can one be Roman Catholic and Orthodox?
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