Archimandrite Benedict (Petrakis) was a famous Greek ascetic of the twentieth century. Fr. Benedict (secular name: Vasilakis Petrakis) was born in a poor village of Epirus [a coastal region in northwestern Greece] in 1905, and was the only son of his poor mother. From his childhood little Vasilakis had a thirst for knowledge and wanted to become a priest. The dream of his pure soul eventually came true, and the Lord vouchsafed him to guide many people in the path of salvation. Fr. Benedict reposed of coronary thromosis at the early age of fifty-six in 1961. In the near future this great pastor may be canonized by the Church…
The first miracle
After Fr. Benedict had been ordained a hierodeacon and assigned to the Church of Panagia Chryssospiliotissa in Aiolou Street, Athens, he enrolled in the Theology Department of National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. However, his low deacon’s salary didn’t cover his costs of living, food, and, most importantly, tuition fees. And on the first day of his second year at university the young hierodeacon wasn’t admitted to the courses because he had not paid for the first year. The yearly tuition cost was 1,500 drachma1. There was nowhere Fr. Benedict could get this money from, so he found himself in a desperate situation. He went out of the university (which then was situated in the city center) with tears in his eyes and walked towards Panepistimiou Street. Passers-by hurried along the street. All of a sudden a woman emerged from the crowd, holding out an envelope:
“Take this, father, and spend this money on your needs.”
Dumbfounded, the hierodeacon opened the envelope and found exactly 1,500 drachma in it! He ran after the woman and then told her about his difficult situation. It turned out that the pious woman, whose name was Melpomeni, was a well-known wealthy benefactress. After learning that Fr. Benedict was in difficult financial straights, Melpomeni promised to cover his education costs annually and became a mother figure for him.
The devil’s attack
When Fr. Benedict was ordained a hieromonk, he was sent to Ioannina—the administrative center of Epirus. There he had an assistant, a preacher who was the future Archimandrite Charalampos (Vasilopoulos). They took up their quarters in the same house but in different rooms. On the first night after their arrival Vasilopoulos heard a powerful explosion in the house. Darting out into the corridor, he saw Fr. Benedict with disheveled hair, holding a broom in his hand. Vasilopoulos attempted to take the broom from Fr. Benedict’s hand, but the latter told him to go back to his room in a severe voice. Disobeying the hieromonk, Vasilopoulos entered his room and saw it in a mess: His things were scattered all over the room and the icons lay on the floor with their glass broken.
“What has happened?”
“Nothing,” Fr. Benedict replied sternly.
“What do you mean?”
“It was the devil… He was tormenting me and said that he would burn me to death. He threw the things on the floor and left through the window.”
That is how the devil challenged Fr. Benedict. On that first night, warfare between satan and Fr. Benedict broke out and it lasted until the ascetic’s death. From that night on, Fr. Benedict kept the icon of St. Benedict, his patron saint, with the glass that had been broken by the enemy, for the rest of his life.
At the front
In 1940, Fr. Benedict was conscripted to the frontlines, where the Greek troops were resisting the Italo-German intervention. Here, in the face of death, he demonstrated his pastoral love and self-sacrifice to the utmost. He would meet soldiers before the battle with the cross and holy water. He would serve the Divine Liturgy three times a week before dawn right in the trenches, while the Italians had no other alternative but to call on the Greeks over loudspeakers to stop the Liturgy and surrender.
One day there was the following (and not the only) incident that bore witness to the true pastor’s courage and love. On that day a place called Giolemi was bombed. Without thinking twice, Fr. Benedict took the Holy Gifts and went to the raid site. There he found six corpses and four wounded people. All the other soldiers had dispersed. Then Fr. Benedict picked up the most severely wounded man and took him to the first-aid station on his shoulders. As soon as he had done this, the hieromonk hurried back and so carried all four casualties to the aid station. Next he returned to the raid site for the fifth time to bury the six fallen soldiers. When he came back to the aid station, he found that there were neither doctors nor medicine there. Then Fr. Benedict tore his shirt into pieces to make bandages, dress the wounds and thus stop the bleeding. After that he confessed the men whose lives he had saved and gave them Communion.
In 1942, Fr. Benedict took up residence in Agrinio [the largest city of the Aetolia-Acarnania region], where he remained for the rest of his life. First and foremost, he deemed it necessary to attract young people to church. Thus he began to travel from village to village, preaching the Gospel with fervor and rekindling the sparks of faith and hope (which seemed to have been extinguished forever) in the hearts of residents. Little by little people began to repent of their sins and attend the Divine Liturgy, which Fr. Benedict would often celebrate in city and village squares. Soon young assistants gathered around him and set about bringing the flame of faith to many settlements of the region. The war had caused widespread devastation, poverty, hunger, and despair in the region. Agrinio, for example, had no public hospital at that time. Fr. Benedict had one of the abandoned storehouses cleared and then he encouraged people to donate beds, mattresses, blankets and other things necessary for patients. Pious women took nutrition costs upon themselves. Soon a small clinic in honor of the Holy Unmercenaries was opened. But Fr. Benedict’s love for people didn’t stop at that; he also opened an orphanage (where a host of future priests and theologians lived), a home for the aged, a charity-run dormitory (hostel) for young men, a maternity home, a sewing club for poor girls, and summer camps for school students in Agrinio. In addition, Fr. Benedict helped dozens of girls who wanted to become nurses to obtain the appropriate education.
One day Fr. Benedict recognized in one of the patients the government official who had once arrested him and kept him in a cowshed together with cattle. He was undergoing treatment at the clinic he (Fr. Benedict) had founded. The pastor saw to it that the official was treated with special care. Touched to his heart, the former persecutor said to him:
“Father, how I used to treat you, and how you are treating me now!”
Fr. Benedict answered him with a smile:
“My child! I am not doing anything beyond what Christ taught me to do: Love your enemies (Mt. 5:44).”
Blankets and even a church carpet
Fr. Benedict’s generosity and love for the needy were boundless. He would even give away the most valuable things, often to his zealous assistants’ indignation. One day seven new, good blankets, which were intended for Fr. Benedict’s guests, were placed at his disposal. Two days later Fr. Benedict asked his assistant to find new blankets.
“But I recently brought you new blankets!” the assistant replied, surprised by his request.
“Yes, you did. But a man who had just been released from prison was here. I gave him the blankets so that he could sell them and buy some food for his family.”
Another time Fr. Benedict told his assistant to roll up a church carpet and give it to one poor woman.
“But father, we have just bought this carpet and haven’t even had time to enjoy it yet! Besides, it is cold now and you may catch cold in the altar.”
But Fr. Benedict remained resolute:
“My child, take this carpet! Sell it and pay off the debts of your daughter,” he said to the poor woman, whose daughter was a student.
A new cross in place of an old one
Among those under Fr. Benedict’s care were eight students whose tuition fees he covered. He would receive this money from benefactors, but at some point he began to feel awkward about causing inconvenience to them. He needed to find 12,000 drachma. In the end he managed to collect almost the whole amount, though he was short of 1,500 drachma for one of the students. Thinking of no other way to get the missing sum, Fr. Benedict resolved to sell his only pectoral cross! His assistant protested:
“If you sell your cross, I will leave you! It won’t be a tragedy if some remain without an education. After all, we aren’t responsible for the education of all the children in the world!”
But Fr. Benedict sold the cross secretly. And the assistant noticed the disappearance of the cross after Fr. Benedict had preached sermons without it for two weeks in succession.
“Father, where is the cross?” the assistant wondered.
“It has found its place, my child. Don’t worry! I can preach the Word of God without a cross.”
Several days later Fr. Benedict came down with flu. When his assistant came to see him, Fr. Benedict gave him a parcel notification. The assistant went to the post office and returned with a small box. When they opened it, they found a case with an absolutely new archpriest’s pectoral cross in it. It turned out that the cross had been sent by Metropolitan Dorotheos of Trikki and Stagoi. The metropolitan had earlier met with a road accident, and the only priest who sent him a wire to ask about his condition was Fr. Benedict! Others didn’t write a word to inquire after the metropolitan who had narrowly escaped death! So it was as a token of his gratitude to the loving pastor Fr. Benedict that Metropolitan Dorotheos sent him this pectoral cross.
“O ye of little faith! You see, I donated my old cross, and Christ has sent me a new one.”
A witch’s repentance
witch lived. Standing in the precincts of the village church, the pastor preached a sermon about magic and sorcery through a loudspeaker, denouncing very sternly that witch and all who resort to witchcraft. He stressed that it is impossibly for such people to receive eternal salvation. The whole village heard the pastor’s words, including the witch.
After the sermon Fr. Benedict was to call on one of the village churchwardens, but the path to his house ran past the witch’s house. At some point Fr. Benedict turned off the straight track and walked up.
“Father, this path is very inconvenient!” the companions warned Fr. Benedict.
However, Fr. Benedict carried on, having chosen this way. At last they reached their destination.
Soon the following news reached the churchwarden:
“Father, this evening God has saved us from imminent death! As it turned out, the witch was waiting for us with two hand grenades! If you had been walking past her house, she would have surely thrown them at you!”
“Glory be to God Who has saved us! Yes, I did feel that something was wrong there,” Fr. Benedict answered humbly.
But that was not the end of the story. The next day Fr. Benedict called the witch to repentance through the loudspeakers. His words and prayers bore fruit as the witch together with her son showed up at the church! Fr. Benedict received her with love, and the woman repented of all sins she had committed over her life. It was a real victory of Christ over satan.
After confession the former witch admitted:
“Father, fortunately you made a turn on that day! Otherwise I would have committed that crime too and lost salvation forever!”
“God loves you; and He has saved my life as well,” Fr. Benedict replied.
Fr. Benedict’s struggle for the salvation of human souls aroused the fierce opposition of the enemy of mankind, who would often attack the good pastor. Once the lady of the house where Fr. Benedict had to stay overnight asked him:
“Father, it looks as if this night was not a peaceful one. You weren’t able to fall asleep, were you?”
“You are right, my child. The evil one would pull my blanket and sheet off without leaving me alone for a single minute. It was not until early in the morning that he left me alone because of prayer and I slept a bit.”
Another time Fr. Benedict was going to church to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. On the level road the devil caught him up and knocked him down. Fr. Benedict rose with great difficulty and said loudly:
“Go away satan! I will celebrate the Liturgy! Blast you!”
Fr. Benedict served that Liturgy with tears in his eyes. And after the end of the service he said:
“Brothers, we desperately need Gospel workers! As long as I am alive, help me as much as possible so that we could train good priests, good workers. A good priest (married or celibate), my brothers, has a great mission. For a good pastor does harm to the devil!”
In the world ye shall have tribulation (Jn. 16:33)
Fr. Benedict’s wide range of spiritual and educational activities naturally sparked opposition from the enemies of the Church. Among the reasons for the persecutions were the pastor’s denunciative speeches. Thus, in the post-war era Fr. Benedict would fearlessly and publicly denounce some rich people who were obsessed with accumulating money and stocked up on food in their cellars, while many of their fellow citizens were starving in the streets. Greek Communists particularly disliked the fearless pastor. They tried to demonize Fr. Benedict by fair means or foul, including slander. They accused him of embezzlement and anti-Communist propaganda, put him on trial, and sent him to prison. Of course, they couldn’t do without accusations of a moral nature: Some of the ardent preacher’s enemies, among whom were sad excuses for priests, hired one infamous widow so that she could slander him. The miserable woman came to Fr. Benedict allegedly to confess her sins, but as soon as she had entered the confessional she began to tremble.
“My child, what is worrying you?”
Astonished by the priest’s pure gaze, she entreated him:
“Father, pray that I may not die! Once I saw you, my heart began to rejoice. I came to you with a bad purpose: I was sent here to defame you. Now I implore you to forgive me!”
At that time Fr. Benedict faced the threat of reprisal every day, so his assistants and spiritual children would accompany him everywhere. Late one evening, as Fr. Benedict and two of his assistants were walking home, they approached a bridge. Fr. Benedict stopped at the crossing:
“Wait a little, friends!”
Fr. Benedict turned off to a road that went round the bridge.
“Father, it is so far from our home! We are so tired and can’t wait to have a rest at last.”
“Tomorrow you will understand why we have taken this road.”
The next day a woman with whom Fr. Benedict hadn’t been acquainted came to him and told him the following story. Her brother, a Communist, had taken a knife and a pistol and hid under the bridge, intending to kill Fr. Benedict. But since he didn’t see his would-be victim cross it, her brother went home. After dining with his sister, the wicked man resolved to attack Fr. Benedict at four o’clock, when he would be going to church. But in the evening the would-be murderer was seized with some strange pain in his leg, which had become unbearable by four o’clock; and by noon the miserable man died. While in his death throes, he told his sister (who was a Communist like him) about his diabolical scheme. Shocked, she rushed to Fr. Benedict to tell him about this miracle.
A miraculous resurrection
One day Fr. Benedict said to his assistant:
“Soon either you or I will receive a telegram. Melpomeni, my benefactress from Patras, is sick. She wants me to come to her and give her last Communion. Get ready to go to Patras as soon as it arrives.”
Indeed the wire arrived, and Fr. Benedict flew to Patras alone as his assistant procrastinated. On entering the house of Melpomeni, he bumped into a hierodeacon, who was walking down the stairs with a chalice in his hands—he had come to give Communion to the eldress.
“Have you given her Communion?” Fr. Benedict asked.
“It was too late, father. She is dead.”
“Go with me,” Fr. Benedict said.
The house was filled with pious Christians. Fr. Benedict commanded everybody to kneel down and read a prayer. He knelt down himself, prayed for some time, then laid his hand on the deceased’s forehead and said loudly:
“Melpomeni, Melpomeni!!! I, Benedict, have come to give you Communion!!!”
And the woman’s soul returned to her body! She opened her mouth slightly and consumed the Holy Gifts. Then Fr. Benedict gave her a little wine and water to swallow down. Melpomeni swallowed this.
“And now fall asleep and wait for the general resurrection in peace in the Kingdom of Heaven,” Fr. Benedict said.
Though the pastor attempted to conceal the miracle of resurrection by claiming that Melpomeni was still alive, the miracle was so evident that the archimandrite told all those present to keep it secret until after his death.
How Fr. Benedict performed the sacrament of Confession
While on the ambo Fr. Benedict was a strict preacher and denouncer of evil, he was very gentle during confession. For him the human soul was of the greatest value. He welcomed every human soul with abundant love, extended courtesy to all, and was lenient towards human weaknesses. Fr. Benedict would first hear the confessions of young people, then invite men, and women would come last. Confessions would often last till midnight. Before giving somebody advice to do anything he would always think a lot, and every piece of advice was very individual. God’s blessings accompanied him, so his labors yielded fruit in every spiritual sphere...
Fr. Benedict used to repeat: “Whatever we do, let us do it as if it will be our last work.”