When I was a child, my four-foot-five Greek grandmother would drag us all to church every Sunday. Each time, we went through the same routine: the priest stood at the altar, and we filed into lines on either side of him to await communion. A drop of wine was then delivered—on the same icky spoon—to every single person in the church. I would use my father as my germ-shield, positioning myself just behind him in the line so he'd have to sacrifice himself and go first. But sometimes the priest switched up the rotation and picked some old mucous-coughing woman from the other line. My stomach would turn as I stepped forward in turn to lick the germs of a complete stranger. Eventually, I stopped going to church altogether.
Over the last few months, a highly contagious, flu-like virus has been working its way through public institutions, leaving people dehydrated, and better acquainted with their toilets. In an attempt to eliminate the spread of germs, the administration of a predominantly Greek nursing home, Mount-Royal’s Vigi Sante, asked the Greek priest to change the way he delivered the weekly communion. Catherine Borge, head nurse of infections, asked if he could use individual, plastic spoons. “We spend so much time and effort trying to control infections,” says Borge. “It would only make sense.” But the priest refused flat out, and was unceremoniously replaced by a Russian Orthodox.
On hearing about this, I wondered why the Greek Church couldn’t adapt its rules to accommodate a more modern reality. So I returned to a place I hadn’t set foot in years to find the answer.
Saint-Constantine and Helen Church in Dollard-des-Ormeaux stands out among the townhouses and strip malls that surround it. Smack in the middle of suburbia, this majestic-looking building doesn’t really fit in. There, I meet Lambros Kamperidis, head priest of the church, who defends the communion spoon with a passion.
“We cannot change the way we deliver communion, because then we’ll be changing our entire faith. When you walk into a Greek church, you have to kiss the icons at the door. Everybody kisses those icons. When you see me, you’re supposed to kiss my hand. Everybody kisses my hand. When you believe that communion is the body of Christ, you don’t think about germs.”
In twenty years of priesthood, Kamperidis boasts, he has never caught so much as a cold from communion. “I even have to drink whatever remains in the chalice—I drink it all,” he says.
At one point in time, however, believers used to drink from the same cup. In the eleventh century, the Church introduced the spoon as a more practical alternative. If change was possible back then, I wonder why they don’t just eliminate the wine altogether. Why not replace it with an individual portion of something, say a Catholic-style wafer?
Kamperidis flinches at this question; a cynical smile slowly creeps up from underneath his wiry, grey beard. “You’re completely out of context,” he says. “We have to use real bread and real wine. We cannot use a wafer and grape juice.” Greek Orthodoxy, he explains, is based on growth and nature. “We choose bread and wine because they have undergone the process of transformation,” he says. “They’ve been transformed through the method of fermentation and they have undergone two processes, one of change and one of growth.” So why can’t the church change and grow if it’s based on those two concepts, I wonder, but I find myself afraid to put my question to this formidable figure.
A group of older women, draped in black scarves, walk over to our table. They politely kiss Kamperidis’ hand and thank him for today’s sermon. They seem mesmerized by this burly man dressed in black. A part of me wishes that I too had this connection.
I sit back and look around the church basement. People of all ages are gathered there—sipping on Greek coffee and eating tiropitakia, a cheese-filled pastry. Everybody seems to know each other; everybody is part of this community and going to church is a big part of their weekly schedule. Ironically, I stopped going to church because of communion, but according to Kamperidis communion is what brings this community together.
I walk over to the side counter and order a Greek coffee and I suddenly miss my grandfather. He used to make the best Greek coffee – it was the only time my grandmother would let him in the kitchen. “No more Greek coffee,” says the woman. “Only American.” She pours me a cup of lukewarm Roaster’s coffee and sends me on my way. The bitter taste of old coffee burns my stomach. I take one sip and set it aside.
Sitting alone and observing the bustle around me, it dawns on me that I was never really part of this community. I never felt welcomed at church. Born and raised in Montreal, I couldn’t understand the priest because he spoke in ancient Greek; I never knew when to stand or sit or speak. I’m half Greek, half Italian, and for most of the churchgoers in the community, that didn't seem to be good enough. I always felt that people were staring at me and giggling at my broken Greek. My relationship to this community was stronger when both my grandparents were around, but that is no longer the case. Maybe my rebellion against communion was just an easy way out.
I finish my cup of coffee and wait for the priest to finish circulating. He eventually sits back down and takes a bite of his cold tiropitakia. We sit in silence for a while. I finger the gold cross around my neck. Kamperidis finishes his last Kalamata olive and wipes his grey beard. “Do you have any more questions?” he asks. I shake my head. “Good, because Sunday sermons are tiring,” he says. “It’s like running a marathon.”
I stop at the entrance on my way out. The smells of incense and burning wax fill the air. The walls are painted in blue and gold with hundreds of Saints staring down from them. I wonder what they think of me. The church is eerily silent. Before leaving, I light a candle for my grandfather.