Education and Academia

2023 St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival: First-Place Speeches

Published on: November 10, 2023
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Image: First-place finalists Nicole Petrutiu (left) and Sophia Nichols (right).

We are honored to present the first-place junior and senior division speeches from the 2023 St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival held at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Clifton, NJ. The oratorical festival is an annual nationwide youth ministry of the Department of Religious Education of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America that gives students the opportunity to explore and deepen their faith while practicing their writing and speaking skills. Information about the 2024 festival is available on the GOARCH website.

Senior Division: Nicole Petrutiu, Metropolis of Detroit (Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Westland, Michigan)

Your Eminence, Reverend Fathers, Honorable Judges, Fellow speakers, ladies and gentlemen, Christos Anesti! (Christ is Risen!)

Last year, in my city of Northville, Michigan, a couple drove together out of their suburb, and for some reason their car flipped, hit a tree, and they were both killed. Four children became orphans in a split second. Why?

Just a couple of months ago, a man walks to the campus at the Michigan State University and starts shooting. Three students are killed. Why?

That’s the question. The big why? The problem of pain. “If God is so good, why does he allow it? If God is so powerful, why doesn’t he stop it?”

In the Gospel of John chapter 9, we have the healing of the man born blind…What’s interesting about this passage is the disciples bring in front of Jesus the big “why.” This man was born blind. What do they ask? Basically, they ask Jesus: “Why is this man suffering? Why?”

Most of the time, when people try to find reasons for the existence of pain and suffering, they give the wrong answer. The disciples did too: “Rabbi, was it this man who sinned, or was it his parents who sinned that he was born blind?”

The first wrong answer is anger. “If I’m hurting, if I’m suffering, somebody out there is to blame. I must find a scapegoat. I must find somebody to be angry at.

“Why is this man the mess he is? Was it his parents’ sin?” asked Jesus’ disciples.

It is fashionable these days to say: “Sure. That’s it. I’ll blame my parents for my problem.”

Another variation of the anger way is to blame God. “God, why is my life this way? I see a lot of other people out there far less deserving than me, and yet things are going better for them than for me.”

The other wrong answer is guilt.

The guilt way says, “I’m suffering. It must be my fault. I must be a bad person. I must be an awful person; otherwise, my life would be going better.”

But Jesus Christ gives us the right answer. Jesus reacts to both the guilt way and anger way by saying, “Neither!”

Why then?” Why do bad things happen? Jesus’ answer is: “… so that the work of God may be displayed in his life.”

The answer is in those two little words: Bad things happen…so that…

We go through suffering, we go through trouble, trusting him and obedient to him, so that we will find ourselves really being changed, so that we will become far more compassionate people.

So that…we’ll notice other people who are hurting. So that…when we talk to them, they will be amazed because we will just love them.

When disaster strikes and terrible events happen, it’s hard to see anything good come out of them. It is true, sometimes people get bitter and hard, and they turn away from God, but in many cases, some good things can happen!

In the midst of pain, and despite the pain, we can experience God’s presence. No matter the situation we face, God is with us!

Another good thing that can happen is we might have our true characters revealed. We will find out how much faith and trust we truly have in God when we endure suffering and pain.  

Also, in most cases, it will make us more compassionate, more sensitive, and more understanding to others’ pain.

When I go through a hard situation, instead of looking at how difficult it is, I try to look at the positive side. I remember that God is with me. I ask God: What do you want me to do in this time? How can I grow from this?

I believe the best example of God doing something good through suffering is Jesus himself. Jesus was liked by many people, but he was also hated by many. He did the work of God, and yet he was questioned. He was God in the flesh, and yet there was so much hostility against him.

And as he hung on the cross, with his body broken and his blood shedding, he handled his suffering by saying, “… not my will but Thy will be done!” and it turned it into a triumph. If we handle our suffering in this way, suffering will hurt, but the challenge can be changed into triumph.

We shouldn’t let the hard things that have happened in our lives weigh us down. We must keep our eyes on Jesus and as we move forward with the Lord, he will do great things for us.

Junior Division:  Sophia Nichols, Metropolis of Boston (Church of the Annunciation in Cranston, Rhode Island)

Άσπιλε, αμόλυντε, άφθορε, άχραντε… This is the beginning of a beautiful prayer in the Lenten Salutations service. The translation is “O spotless, undefiled, unstained, chaste, and pure Virgin-Bride of God, who by your wondrous Conception united God the Logos with humankind, and joined our fallen nature with the Heavens”… I, like many others, learned to recite this prayer in Greek. But I was so distracted in pronouncing the Greek correctly, to tell you the truth, I didn’t really pay attention to the translation. And until recently, I didn’t really pray to Panagia personally. So why do we say such lofty things about her? And why do we pray to her, and not just to God?

We say such lofty things about her because of her crucial role in our salvation. Her role was not only to bring Christ into the world, but also to bring us to Heaven. In other words, she brought Christ to us, and now she is bringing us to Him. In the Salutations service, we hail her as “The Womb of Divine Incarnation,” “Heavenly Ladder by which God descended,” and “Bridge conveying those from earth to Heaven.” Olivier Clement also sums up the point of this mystical symbolism: “Union with God may…be expressed in terms of inward birth. The soul corresponds to the blessed Virgin. It recalls the mystery of the incarnation. And the incarnation is spiritually extended to holy souls who are thereby preparing for Christ’s return. 1

Now, why do we pray to her and not just to God? Because, as she was with Christ on earth, so she is our protector. There are many examples of her love and protection, including one which we celebrate on October 1st, the Protection of the Mother of God. In Constantinople, people were praying in Hagia Sophia for protection against the Slavs, and they saw her praying for them .

But she didn’t just protect us then. Fr. Sergius Bulgakov says it wonderfully:

“The Mother of God prays and weeps not just a thousand years ago, but here and now, at every time and in every place until the end of time. Her veil protects not only those who were present then, but every human generation, the whole world, all of us sinners… And at her son’s awesome tribunal she intercedes on our behalf with the Righteous Judge to ask forgiveness…..”2

What does this all mean for our ordinary lives? If we didn’t have Panagia and the saints, it would be harder to know how to live a good and Christian life. Just as with parents, if they are not Christian, then it is harder for a child to be a Christian. As she accepted the role of Theotokos at the Annunciation, Mary is also the role model of how we should say “yes” to God. When she said yes, she had no idea what God had in store for her. And it wasn’t easy. At that time if people had learned that she was with child without a husband, they would have stoned her .If Herod had found Christ, he would have killed Him and probably her. And worst of all, she had to witness her innocent son dying on the cross. But her perseverance, her steadfastness, and her trust in God brought her through to the other side so that she might cheer us on and protect us.

She is also humble. In the Magnificat she says “Henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” She didn’t say “great” or “mighty,” but “blessed.” And in every icon we see, she points to her Son. We also see Christ looking to her in adoration, so following His example is perhaps our greatest reason for adoring her. Thus, she is a bridge between heaven and earth, our motherly protector, and our role model. Let’s always strive to say “yes” to God, and to be humble, like our Most Holy Theotokos. Thank you.

1 Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 1993), 251.

2 Alexander Schmemann, The Virgin Mary: Celebration of Faith, Volume 3 (Crestwood, New York, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 37.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University