The Eulogy for Father Alexander Veronis

A Eulogy for Father Alexander Veronis
by his son Father Luke A Veronis

(you can watch and listen to the eulogy at the 3 hour 43 minute mark of the Annunciation Lancaster YouTube - )

The final three days of my father’s life was an appropriate tribute to his almost 91 years of life. Death was near and yet everything was so peaceful, beautiful, sacred. He was surrounded by divine love and faith –love from his dear wife, soulmate, partner and co-minister for 64 years, love from his five children and spouses and from his grandchildren who have been nurtured, guided, and inspired by their father and grandfather for all these decades, and most of all from the love of Almighty God, the Lord and Master he served all his life, that Divine Love that filled his heart.

My father’s final three days were a time when his body was shutting down and death was approaching, yet his soul was radiant and soaring with eternal life in sight!

The center of Fr. Alexander’s life is Jesus Christ and his utter love and commitment to faith in our Triune God. He lived and exemplified the words of the great Apostle Paul, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

For the three days before my father’s passing, death was very present and yet had no power over the love, peace and joy we experienced. Throughout those days we continuously offered up prayers to God full of faith and love. We united with Jesus Christ through the Divine Eucharist by partaking of His Body and Blood. The grandkids sang every song they remembered from my father’s children’s sermons growing up in this church and from their Camp Nazareth days, songs full of childlike joy and wonder. At times, one of the grandchildren read Bible passages to my dad as his eyes were closed and his soul began to waver between this life and the next.

Between these moments of lucidity and his entrance into the Divine Transcendence, my father offered his final words of wisdom, together with an abundance of blessings to all the children and grandchildren. His love reflected the Divine Love that filled his heart and soul.

All who were present during these final three days experienced how beautiful death can be, when it’s faced with faith in the Eternal One and no fear of death itself. St Paul proclaimed, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory. O death, where is your sting?” The Psalmist rightly noted, “How precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his holy ones.”

Death is not some tragic end for the saints; it’s but a doorway into an eternal life with our Creator. At every Divine Liturgy, we pray “for a Christian end to our lives, peaceful, without shame and suffering,” and that’s exactly what my father tasted and what all his children and grandchildren experienced.

A true Christian end to his life. Of course, what a fitting conclusion to such a good and faithful servant of our Lord.

How can I summarize my father’s life? Was he a “legend” in our Greek Orthodox Church in America, as Fr Hector aptly describes the priest under whom he grew up as a child and the priest with whom he gently and lovingly served as my father grew older and older. “We don’t have too many priests of his generation left,” fr Hector said to me, “priests who were pillars in the establishment of the Orthodox Church in America.”

My father was a pioneer in our Archdiocese in so many ways. On the parish level he helped form, build up and pastor a model parish of 500+ families with a vision inspired by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Every year he, and after 25 years of ministry with the help of an assistant priest, would visit and bless the homes of each of those families and journey with them through their joys and sorrows and whatever life would bring.

And yet his concern and care was never limited to his parishioners alone but he viewed his family as the world all around him. As St John Chrysostom once asked, “Is my parish my universe? Or is the universe my parish?” My father surely understood how the universe was his parish! For me, this was exemplified last night from the outpouring of love expressed by so many different people. I was most touched, though, by the numerous Ethiopian and Eritrean brothers and sisters who kept saying to me amidst their tears, “He was our father. He was our beloved father!”

He was a pioneer as one of the first priests in the Archdiocese back in the 1960s to develop Bible Studies and small group studies that helped people discover the priceless treasure found in Holy Scripture and the Holy Traditions of our ancient Church. This is a ministry my mother still continues even into her 88th year of life! They both understood that “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” and he wanted everyone to discover the divine light that Holy Scripture offers.

He introduced stewardship and the blessing of acting as faithful co-ministers with Jesus Christ by generously giving and sharing whatever blessing we received from God with the world around, especially with the needy. One of my favorite life lessons from my dad are his words – “If you err, err on the side of generosity. The rich man is not the one who has much, but the one who lives simply and gives much.”

My father was deeply involved in ecumenism throughout his life, but ecumenism in the best sense of the word. “Ecumenical” means “worldwide or something encompassing the entire universe,” as well as describing Christian unity. He surely applied his ecumenical spirit with fellow Christians of all traditions, loving to work together for causes of social justice and the betterment of society, both locally and globally. His passion to alleviate world hunger could be seen in his 50-year work with the CROP hunger walk.

Yet his ecumenical spirit transcended Christian fellowship and social justice to world mission – striving to do all one can to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the ends of the world. “Go and make disciples of all nations…Proclaim the Good News to all creation. How blessed are the feet that carry the Good News.”

One of the people deeply touched by my father is Dr. Timothy Patitsas, the Dean of Hellenic College. He shared with me an interested connection my father had with missions and St Nektarios of Aegina. St. Nektarios had a spiritual son, St Amphilochios Makris, who passed on his great zeal for mission to his spiritual son, Fr Athenagoras Kokkinakis, who would serve as the Dean of Holy Cross School of Theology. This was the dean my father asked to get his blessing to start the first mission committee at the seminary. That mission committee was the start of a missionary movement in America that would eventually become the Orthodox Christian Missions Center. From St. Nektarios through my father to the OCMC! This is his ancestry!

Just a funny sidenote related to the OCMC and my father, which reflects one of his many gifts. John Colis, a former OCMC Board President who is here today, shared how my father was a man you just couldn’t say no to. At one particular Board meeting, my dad put his arm around John’s shoulder and asked if he could speak to him in private.  Once alone, he asked John if he would serve as vice president for the next three years and then as president for the following six years at the OCMC. A nine-year commitment! And my dad was asking this from an extremely busy CEO of a major insurance company. John quickly began formulating every excuse why this time commitment was just not possible but as he looked at my father, who was gently smiling and insisting, he realized it’s simply impossible to say no to this man. How many of you have had that same experience with my dad?

Even though my father grew up in an immigrant Greek Orthodox home, raised in the Church, it wasn’t until his college years that he had a life-changing conversion experience. It was then that he discovered the “pearl of great price” which set him on fire to share the life-giving treasure of faith in Jesus Christ to all people. His New Testament professor at Lafayette College opened up his heart to the priceless value of Holy Scripture and his MK (Missionary Kid) roommate, Bill Rambo, opened up his vision to the world. His faith was set ablaze!

My father discovered how a “new life in Christ” changed one’s life in a beautiful way and he believed every person could experience such transformation! This is why he was always optimistic about everyone he met. He saw God’s image and likeness in them and would help them discover their divine potential. Again he helped people actualize the words of St Paul, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

My dad wanted everyone to discover this new life in Christ especially from the youngest ages. That’s why a central part of his ministry was making the faith real for children and youth. How many of us remember his children’s sermons, teaching us songs we still recall decades later – Why worry when you can pray… God’s beautiful world… Jesus loves the little children…

He played a fundamental role in the establishment of Camp Nazareth, one of the premier youth camps, which set a model for all other camps in our Archdiocese. Fr. Nick Halkias highlighted all my father did for the youth ministry of the Pittsburgh Diocese, saying Fr. Veronis made history. It was the big three – Bishop Maximos, Fr. Veronis, and Daman Halkias!

Whenever I reflect back on my own childhood days, I always thank God for the foundational influence Camp Nazareth played in my own spiritual formation as a child, as it has done for countless other youth over the past 40 years!

My mother always prayed for her three sons to become priests, and I thank God that I heard his call to follow this sacred path. I never felt pressured, however, to become a priest. Instead, I simply observed throughout my life the sincerity and passion that my father displayed in his own journey of faith and service. What my father preached in church, I saw him live out at home. His extreme joy in what he did, his excitement to help others discover a living relationship with Christ, his sacrificial and generous spirit of giving, his ability to see goodness in everyone, his desire to always help the least privileged, and his love for God and his fellow man all inspired me!

Some PKs (priest kids) turn away from faith because of the hypocrisy they see in their father, or from the dysfunctional relationship their father and his parish have with one another. I saw none of that. I always saw a sincere man seeking to humbly follow and love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength and to love his neighbor as himself. What I witnessed in my father inspired and blessed me! And that foundation, together with my own conversion experience, led me to the priesthood.

So, when my father backed my decision to go live in Kenya for a year as a 22 year old, or to follow Archbishop Anastasios to post-communist Albania, the poorest country in the world in the early 1990s, I realized my father and my mother would always be my greatest supporters to do anything, no matter how radical or dangerous it may have seemed, because I was living out things they dreamed of doing by sharing the light of Jesus Christ with the world around us!

I have to admit, though, there is one negative part of my father’s legacy – and that is he set the bar too high for me to follow. And what makes it even more difficult is that I look so much like him. Every other person last night kept telling me, “Wow. When I walked in the church I thought I saw Fr. Veronis standing up there.” Now, I do take it as a compliment that I look like him, but don’t forget I am 30 years younger than him!” Well, I can only hope to ever achieve a portion of all that my father did in his life! He se the bar so high and he is the model for me to strive for!

Let me conclude with one final aspect of my father’s life that was extremely important - his way of encouraging all people to use their gifts for the glory of God. He especially did this by lifting up women and giving them a special place to serve in the Church. He was among the first priests in the Archdiocese to raise up a female Parish Council president in Helen Nicozisis, and she would go on to play a major role in the OCMC and the missionary movement. He deeply valued his dear co-workers Venice Kitsis and Victoria Manolakis, his faithful administrator Barbara Drybred, and so many other women. I’ll dare to say that he played a significant role in the life of my own wife Faith, who as a teen and young adult served in different leadership roles before she became a missionary and my presbytera. Faith often teases me that my father loved her long before I ever loved her!

Of course, the first woman in his life, his greatest co-minister, his love and his angel was my dear mother, Presbytera Panayiota Pearl. They shared and flourished through 64 years of the most beautiful, Christ-centered love-story of marriage and ministry. I remember when my dad was 80 years old and he told me “These are the happiest days of my life.” After such a fulfilling life, I would challenge him, “Come on dad. Really? How can these be the happiest days of your life after the full, exciting, blessed life you’ve had.” To which he would respond, “I wake up every day and I’m with your mother. And we can do whatever we want together. As long as I’m with her, how can these not be the happiest days of my life!”

Ten years later, when my dad turned 90, I would frequently call up my parents and always ask my dad, “How are you doing?” To which he would inevitably respond, “As long as I’m with you angel mother I’m doing great.”

Several weeks before his passing away, my niece Sophia videoed him and once again he was gushing about his precious love, Pearl. But then at the end of all his praise, he added “But here’s the kicker. It keeps getting better every day!”

And finally, two days before he died, when he was going in and out between life and the next life, he had a few lucid moments. During one of his final moments when he could barely talk, he gave each of us his final words and blessing, yet in between each blessing, he would pucker up his lips and wait for his precious wife to kiss him.

He and my mother had a love affair that most of us can only dream of! And together they served the Lord as a magnificent team!

The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

In a tribute to fulfilling my father’s final wish, I want to call up all his children and grandchildren to come up around his body and to sing the one song that he wanted at his funeral, a song that reflects the Amazing Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the new life that he discovered and then proclaimed throughout his life and ministry. And I invite everyone to find a song sheet in the pew and sing along!

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