COLUMBIA — The Rev. Emmanuel Hatzidakis was 20 years old when he felt a push toward a career in ministry. More than 20 years later he finally answered that call.
Hatzidakis was raised in the Orthodox Christian Church and was educated in Greece. He joined his brother at a university in Italy to study engineering. “In the middle of the second year I realized that this was not my field, and I switched,” he said. He finished by studying Italian literature and philosophy at the International Institute of St. Paul in Rome.
After graduation, his sister invited him to visit her in Cleveland, Ohio.
The trip helped “to clear my head about what to do in life,” Hatzidakis said. He moved to the Unites States intending to fulfill his pledge to join the ministry and become a monk for the Orthodox Church. “I thought I was coming for a short period of time ... but things happened one after the other,” he said.
Circumstances diverted him from his goal. He met his wife, Barbara, in his second year in the United States, and they were married in 1970.
Hatzidakis joined his wife in the insurance business, where he was an underwriter. His time away from ministry didn’t last long, though. At 45, Hatzidakis decided to change careers and sought a professional role in religious ministry.
“At some point in time this calling came back,” he said, “so I went to school with my wife’s agreement.”
His wife had to give more than just her verbal agreement. “She had to sign a statement that she was in agreement; otherwise I could not go to study,” he said.
“She accepted it because she did not know what she was getting into,” he said, laughing.
In the Orthodox Church, “Once a priest, if you are married, of course you stay married,” he said. “And if you are single, you stay single.”
Hatzidakis attended Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston to get his required master’s degree in theology. He received credit for his studies at other schools, so he completed the program in two years.
He was also required to have a confessor, a spiritual guide who decides if one has hindrances before entering into the ministry. “It’s more that you don’t have impediments rather than you are worthy to become (a priest),” he said. “Nobody is.”
Hatzidakis graduated from Holy Cross in 1988 and was immediately assigned to a church in Huntington, W. Va., for a year and a half. He was then transferred to a church outside of Cleveland, Ohio, for another year and a half. He was later assigned to Sts. Constantine and Helen in Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis, where he stayed for 10 years. He was in Chicago for two and a half years before he retired.
It was while he was in Belleville that Hatzidakis started publishing monthly installments in his church’s newsletter about the Divine Liturgy, the most holy of the weekly services in the Orthodox Church. A member of Orthodox Witness, an organization Hatzidakis founded, suggested he put the material together in a book to spread the knowledge to others outside the church.
A few years into retirement, Hatzidakis was offered a position to be a substitute priest at St. Luke the Evangelist Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia. Then he was offered the position permanently.
“I had to think very hard about it, for maybe three or four months before I gave them my consent,” he said.
With the administration responsibilities of a church back upon him, Hatzidakis was pressed to find time to finish his book. “How do you find time?” he asked. “You find time for things you want to do, every one of us, no matter how busy we are, you find time.”
“Writing the book, obviously, is not part of my duties or responsibilities for any given church, so therefore, that’s where my free time, so called, went,” he said. “And there are, God willing, more (books) to come.”
You said you founded the Orthodox Witness with a friend. What is Orthodox Witness?
Orthodox Witness, of course, is the publisher of this book. ... Orthodox Witness is an outreach organization. Its hope is to spread the truth of the Orthodox faith in the immediate area where we are. So rather than going as missionaries to some far country, we would like to make the Orthodox Church known in our surroundings.
Can you explain, quickly, what the Divine Liturgy is and why it’s important?
The Divine Liturgy is, if you are a Roman Catholic or from one of the high churches, Episcopal, like the Mass. It is a structure, especially prior to Vatican II, is essentially the same. ... So we have many sacraments, some Orthodox count them as seven, as the Roman Catholics do. I do not, with many others; I think everything the church does is sacramental in nature. ... (T)he Holy Eucharist is at the top of them all, and all of them, ultimately, relate to it, because there is nothing highest on earth for us. We cannot enter into a greater union with the divine than by partaking of the Holy Eucharist. ... So the Divine Liturgy stands apart from all the other services, and it is their completion. They all lead to it. Higher than that we cannot go.
So, what is the book about?
The book is an explanation of the Divine Liturgy. There is much that we do not understand, and we never will. The Divine Eucharist is a great mystery of our faith. Just like Jesus Christ is a mystery. ...
We don’t believe in a God who is uninvolved with his creation, but a God who is in control and guides the entire creation to its intended end, to its purpose, because it‘s not accidental. So this is explained. You may say, well, you know, can this be part of an explanation of the Divine Liturgy? Yes, because we have this petition. And also, let’s say we pray for our armed forces, which we do, you know. How is that? What’s the church’s stance vis-à-vis war? So we address that too. So we try to be as thorough, if we had a question in mind, then we needed to find a ... I hope a responsible and a reliable answer.
Where did the title “The Heavenly Banquet” come from?
Well, it’s hard for us to envision the Divine Eucharist as a meal, but that’s what it was. ... When this Divine Liturgy starts, the priest or the celebrant blesses the kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, so we enter God’s kingdom, which is eternal. So we already enter into that eternal day of God, the eternal present, and the Divine Eucharist; it’s called divine because we partake of not only the humanity of Jesus Christ but also his divinity. We eat and drink the lord and thus we unite ourselves with him in this act. ... That’s why we have on the cover the Lord instituting the Last Supper, which is the sacrament, the mystery of Holy Eucharist.
So do you have any plans for books in the future?
Yes, I do. ... There are two books that I have started. One I have about 300 pages already ... it is a historic and a dogmatic walk ... you know, let’s take on different issues, see how they were developed from the beginning, from the Holy Scripture to the very early writings, so the emphasis is to use documents of the first three centuries of the church. And basically it is apologetic in nature, you know, to show that the Orthodox Church is that same church from the beginning that has kept the faith unaltered. So it’s addressed primarily to Protestants. The other book, perhaps will come before this, is more esoteric, perhaps we can call it The Humanity of Christ. It’s very much in my heart because I see that there is a problem in stating clearly who the Lord is and what did he accomplish and how. There is a lot of confusion and one would think that all these issues about who Christ is have been solved in 2000 years of history. ... So we’ll see, you know, how much time and energy God will give us to complete these projects.