Congratulations to the representatives from the Metropolis of San Francisco who recently participated in the 38th Annual National Saint John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival hosted by Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas, Texas.

The senior division winner for the Archdiocese is Evan Anagnostopoulos, a 17-year old incoming senior at Arrowhead Christian Academy High School in Redlands, CA. Evan and his family are active stewards at Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church in San Bernardino, CA, where Evan is involved in GOYA, Altar Boys and Sunday School. This is his fourth year participating in the Oratorical Festival and he has previously advanced to nationals, placing third in the Junior Division in 2018. Evan plays Boys Varsity Soccer and has participated in Mock Trial. The topic for Evan’s speech is, “Discuss the significance of Orthodox iconography (historically, symbolically and/or artistically) and how icons enhance our worship.

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National Oratorical Festival winner Evan Anagnostopoulos (center) with his mother Angela, and his brother George.

Placing third in the Junior Division is Minas Sharp from the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Scottsdale, AZ. He is 13-years old and an incoming freshman at Desert Mountain High School. At his parish, Minas is active in the Sunday School and serves in the Altar. His extracurricular activities include playing the marching and jazz bands in school, competing on the rugby team for the Scottsdale Wolves Youth Club, and is an active member of Boy Scout Troop 252. The topic for Minas’ speech is, “Choose a saint whose life has been important to you or your family. Discuss what you find most inspiring about this saint and what others can learn from how they lived their life.

“I am immensely proud of Evan and Minas on their accomplishments and being recognized at the national Saint John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival for their eloquent presentations and thoughtful research into their topics,” remarked His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco. “With Evan’s first place honor in the Senior Division, and Minas placing third in the Junior Division, this is a beautiful demonstration of the potential of the ministry of the Oratorical Festival and I hope that others will be inspired to participate in the future.”

Congratulations Evan and Minas!

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Oratorical Festival Speech By Evan Anagnostopoulos

First Place National Winner – Senior Division

“Discuss the significance of Orthodox iconography (historically, symbolically and/or artistically) and how icons enhance our worship.”

“Rejoice Oh Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee, blessed are you among women.” It is these words that were taught to me at a young age by my mother, as a reminder of the divine message found in Luke 1, from the Archangel Gabriel to the Most Holy Theotokos on my feast day of the Evangelismou. We would recite them together in my daily prayers. As a child, I didn’t really understand the magnitude of this phrase, but the icon had a special place in my room, and as I grew, I came to realize it was more than just a picture. So what is so significant about our icons, and how can we use them to enhance our worship, and ultimately, direct our lives?

In the icon of the Annunciation, we see the Archangel Gabriel approach a young Mary with the most joyous news that she is going to bear a son. Mary initially is apprehensive as she knows she lacks a husband, but very quickly, she resolves herself to follow the will of God. Ultimately, it is her wholehearted obedience that makes this scene so powerful, because it reveals how I must freely accept and trust God’s providence in my own life, since it is He who will fashion me into who I am meant to be.

Since the time of the Apostles, icons have been an integral part of worship and the mystical life of Christians. The first iconographer was Saint Luke the Evangelist, who painted a holy image of the Virgin Mary, a face he himself had seen. These images went on to depict Christ, the Saints and various sacred events of the Orthodox Church. Twice in history, icons have come under attack in periods known as Iconoclasts. The first was in the year 730 and the second in the year 813 were both Emperors called their veneration “idolatry” and commanded them to be destroyed. Finally, it was Saint Theodora who prevailed by permanently reinstating the icons in 843. We commemorate this on the first Sunday of Great and Holy Lent, with a procession of icons around our churches.

Now, I have to confess that I have walked by an icon and not always seen its true value, but the period of pandemic lockdowns was a time when quite frankly, I could not ignore it. Being isolated in my home, away from the world I once knew, was a hard pill to swallow. Yet, it was my icons that were pivotal in helping me gain a perspective that God had not left me. I vividly remember my parish priest reminding us on the livestream “Do not be mistaken that you are not at church. You are at church, your little church at home, surrounded by your icons and the glory of God.” It was then I realized that icons were not just merely paint and wood, but powerful symbols of our faith, that had the ability to offer me a comforting embrace if I just stopped, looked and fell on my knees. St. Basil the Great writes “with a soundless voice, the icons teach those who behold them.”

In fact, we cannot underestimate what a humble prayer before an icon can do in our lives…. There once were 2 young boys in Greece who together with their parents would venerate an icon of the Theotokos each day when leaving and returning home. One morning, the boys were walking to school after a very hard rain, and as they crossed a bridge, it collapsed into a flood of waters flowing upstream. Miraculously, they were able to cling to a tree branch and remain unharmed. Later, when the villagers asked how they were able to save themselves from drowning, the boys answered “it was the beautiful lady whose icon we venerate each day. She walked on the water, pulled us out, and told us to hold on tight until help came. Here we see how in the time of need, the Panagia did not forget their daily reverence to Her icon. This story made me reflect on my own veneration of icons, and that like the boys, I too can receive a holy protection that is undeniable.

As I’ve matured in my faith, I’ve come to realize that icons, like all beautiful things, reveal God to us. Rather than the art we are used to that screams, “Look at me”, icons whisper “Look at God”. A holy elder once told me, “The only things you need in your home are a bed, a kitchen and your icons.” This minimalist idea was very hard for me to understand, but after I really thought about it, it became clear. It is the bed that will provide me rest, the kitchen that will nourish my body and the icons that will anchor me and help me lead a life that is truly pleasing to God. My brothers and sisters, what more do we need? My feast day icon is symbolic of a message that would ultimately change all of creation. So, when you’re in church, or in your prayer corner at home, remember that each icon has something to tell you! I encourage you all, embrace the icons! Grab on to these “life preservers” God has given us because when you do, you will not only be living your faith, but you will be given a history, a meaning and the ability to cross the bridge between you, and Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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Oratorical Festival Speech By Minas Sharp

Third Place National Finalist – Junior Division

“Choose a saint whose life has been important to you or your family. Discuss what you find most inspiring about this saint and what others can learn from how they lived their life.”

“You cannot pray at home, like you can at church, where there is a great multitude; where exclamations are cried out to God as from one great heart, and where there is something more: the unions of minds, the accord of souls, the bond of charity, the prayers of priests.”

This quote personally grabbed me, as the most powerful and poetic of all of the quotes I’ve found from this saint. At this point, it’s no wonder that he has become the patron saint of orators and speakers. This is personally what I find most inspiring and relatable to this saint, his ability to move people with his words, many of which are still famously known within the church.

I am of course referring to St. John Χρυσόστομος. He was the archbishop and subsequently patriarch of Constantinople, where he broke a long-standing tradition within the city. As opposed to the large, lavish parties and similar living that previous patriarchs had since the inception of the city, St. John Χρυσόστομος gave much of what he had to the poor of Constantinople and urged his brethren to do the same. He spoke very openly about his beliefs in this matter, saying “Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.” For the time, this line of thinking was very profound and unusual, as a majority of the wealthy hoarded their coin and let the poor starve.

Of course, this is, while inspiring, not even the most important of all things that he is known for, as you know. St. John Χρυσόστομος was a legendary speaker, giving oration mainly on almsgiving, and the abuse of personal wealth. His mythic liturgies had amassed him followers long before his ascension to bishop hood, and his interpretation of the Scriptures made many more people easily able to understand his speeches, since the themes tended more towards social issues and beliefs, like the Christian Conduct of Life.

St. John Χρυσόστομος’ ability to use his voice to make change and become a leader is what has resonated with me the most, ever since I learned about him. Last year, when I was preparing for the festival, I had reached a bit of a roadblock within my speech, and I decided to go back to the beginning, all the way back to the origin of the festival, and I began researching the patron saint of orators and speakers. There are quite a few quotes of his that speak to me down to my core, however these three are the ones that I believe are the best.

The First- “Let us always guard our tongue; not that it should always be silent, but that it should speak at the proper time.”

To be completely honest, this is one of the biggest problems within my house, snarky comments, and feet in mouths.

The second- “When you are weary of praying, and do not receive, consider how often you have heard a poor man calling, and have not listened to him.”

Many times, I’ve seen a beggar on a sidewalk or street corner, and most people get as far away from them as possible. My parents and I do our best and go out of our way to give what we can, even if it’s something small.

Finally- “Happiness can only be achieved by looking inward & learning to enjoy whatever life has and this requires transforming greed into gratitude.”

My father is the living embodiment of this quote. He works as a handyman and leads a very simple life, and he has learned to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Everyone in our family was put through the wringer, and it has taught all of us to be content where others seek more.

I would love to say that people can learn to stand up against those who misuse their power, and act only out of greed, but that isn’t really feasible. What I believe most people will be able to learn from the life of St. John Χρυσόστομος is that no matter who you are, your voice can make a difference. The voice is the most powerful tool that we humans have at our disposal, so we should use it.