Thursday, July 21, 2022

A Few Words About My Time With My Former Patristics Professor, Dr. George Bebis

I was sad to hear of the passing a few days ago of Dr. George Bebis, Professor Emeritus of Patristics at Holy Cross School of Theology.

For many years I had seen Dr. Bebis around campus when I was a student there, beginning in 1994 when I arrived, but I never actually got to have conversations with him until 2004, during my last year for the Masters of Theological Studies program. It was then that I was in need of credits to finish the program, but since I had taken every class offered at Holy Cross, and I maxed all the courses I could take in other theological institutions in the Boston area, I was required to approach the various professors on campus and ask them if they would allow me to take a special course with one of them not offered in the program. Since I was most interested in patristics and never had the opportunity to take a course with Dr. Bebis, who was mostly retired at the time and because Fr. George Dragas was the formal Patristics professor, I approached him and asked him if he would allow me to take a course with him that he had written a syllabus for but had yet to really teach, which was basically an advanced patristics course that was to cover all the Greek Fathers of the Church from after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the present. The reason he never really got to teach it was because his requirement was that the entire course had to be in Greek, and most students at Holy Cross didn't know enough Greek to take this course except the students who had actually come from Greece. For me, this was a welcome change and I actually preferred a course all in Greek, even though it is my second language. Having thus agreed, he told me to come to his office once a week at which time over the course of three hours the both of us would discuss the various Greek Fathers from 1453 to the present.

And so I met him every week for three hours during the first semester of my last year and we discussed the various modern Greek Fathers, but the actual teaching of the course would usually only last about 60 minutes or so; the rest of the time would be me and him just chatting about other issues, usually ecclesiastical in nature, and this would go for about another 60 minutes or so, then he would get tired and let me go early. We also talked a lot about his own life story, how as a young theologian in his 20's he came from Greece to Boston and was given the professorship in patristics at Holy Cross at such a young age in 1964. Having studied at the University of Athens, while in Boston he studied under Fr. George Florovsky at Harvard University, and when Fr. Florovsky left Holy Cross it was Dr. Bebis who took over the chair in patristics. This was also the time Fr. John Romanides was the Professor of Dogmatics at Holy Cross, and he became very good friends with Dr. Bebis, a friendship that lasted till his repose in 2001. During our time together he shared with me a number of personal stories with Frs. Florovsky and Romanides, who lived in the same house together in Cambridge on separate floors with their wives, which I thought were especially interesting. For example, I once asked him who he thought our greatest modern Orthodox theologian was, and without hesitation he told me it was Fr. Romanides. At the same time, he would share with me stories how Fr. Romanides loved to fly airplanes, and because he was married to a wife that came from a wealthy shipping family in Greece, he would charter a plane that he himself would fly and this is how he would go to various ecumenical conferences around the country. He would invite Dr. Bebis to fly with him, but because they were small planes he was too scared, though eventually Fr. Romanides persuaded him to fly with him to an ecumenical conference from Boston to Michigan, I believe. He said that you could tell flying was something Fr. Romanides really loved to do. But he also told me the sad stories you don't often hear, like when Fr. Romanides' wife divorced him and left him for another man, who was himself also a wealthy Greek ship owner, and this left Fr. Romanides very sad for a number of years, and there was some sort of division in his family over it because one of his two daughters favored her mother while the other favored her father. Dr. Bebis, who would talk with Fr. Romanides a lot on the phone during this time, because Fr. Romanides was teaching in Greece, told me that he had written a letter to Fr. George Metallinos in order for him to at least mention some of these facts in future publications of his book of letters of Fr. Romanides to his wife and other friends in Greece, but they were never included.

We talked about so much, it is difficult to recall everything. One characteristic of Dr. Bebis that I found interesting was the great amount of pride he had in his life accomplishments. For example, when I asked him who he believed our greatest modern Orthodox theologians were, he named himself as the third greatest. Some people may misinterpret this as arrogance, but I personally thought it was very humble of him to see himself as third and not first. At the same time, he never really talked about why he considered himself so accomplished. He would more focus on stories of people he admired than stories about himself. It wasn't until a few years later, when I was with Fr. George Dragas in his home, that I found out a little more why. During this time, Fr. Dragas took it upon himself to compile the complete works of Dr. George Bebis and publish them. When I heard this, I thought it would be a one volume work, as I wasn't too familiar with his written works, except for maybe five or so articles I had read of his, all of which I enjoyed very much. Then I was shown what Fr. George had compiled, and I was blown away just how prolific Dr. Bebis was. There were literally dozens of articles he had written that were never published, covering a wide range of patristic issues, and if put together they would make up many large volumes. This was many years ago, and unfortunately nothing has been published yet that I know of, but this is something people should be aware of and wait for with anticipation.

Lastly, I didn't only know Dr. Bebis as an academic professor and eventually a friend, but I also saw him as an inspiration for lay theologians who would attend from beginning to end the various worship services at the Holy Cross Chapel for many years. I can still picture the reverence he had standing in the corner participating in the services and when making the sign of the cross. To me, his humility and kindness shined. Never once, in all our conversations, did he criticize someone, or spoke negatively in any way, as most theologians tend to do, especially when discussing ecclesiastical issues. His was a positive message that avoided disputes, while trying to elevate and keep focus on what Christianity, Christ and the Church were really about, which is a message of love that reflects the love of God. Taking that course with Dr. Bebis would go down as one of my favorite academic experiences at Holy Cross that I will always remember. May his memory be eternal.