Over the more than 31 years that the Rev. George L. Livanos has served as pastor at All Saints Greek Orthodox Church in Canonsburg, he has comforted hundreds of people as they faced death, and provided solace for their families.
Now, Livanos finds himself confronting his own mortality.
On May 21, 2020, Livanos, 58, was diagnosed with mesothelioma and told that he had less than a year to live.
Yet, Livanos has outlasted his doctors’ prognosis, and though he stepped down from his post in December, he is using the time that remains to preach to his congregation through a series of video messages entitled, “Soul Food for Life.”
In the two- to three-minute mini-sermons, Livanos, sporting his familiar thick, neatly trimmed beard and irrepressible sense of humor, dispenses what he calls actionable “soul food bytes.”
Through the videos, peppered with personal observations and life lessons, Livanos – who has called his illness a “blessing” – aims to provide guidance and inspiration, and help church members face the uncomfortable reality of the end of life.
He also continues to share messages with parishioners through email and social media, including a Facebook page updated almost daily with spiritual snippets, Greek recipes, family photos and updates on his beloved Philadelphia 76ers’ playoff run.
“We can’t be afraid of death,” Livanos said. “My goal in sharing all of this is that you may understand and appreciate the authentic value of life from the perspective of death ... death is not the end, but a door toward eternal life.”
For church members, whose lives have intertwined with Livanos’ for more than three decades, his diagnosis has been devastating.
Livanos has married couples, baptized their children, and shared in their happiness and sorrows.
And parishioners have watched Livanos and his wife of 36 years, Dianthe, raise their seven children and delight in their nine grandchildren.
Livanos – who loved professional wrestling and other sports growing up and had plans to be a sports broadcaster – felt moved to become a priest when he was 16.
It was at Hellenic College, where he prepared for the priesthood, that he met his wife.
He served at churches in Maryville, Ind., and Wheeling, W.Va., before he arrived at All Saints.
“What a giant. He is larger than life, and we have been blessed with such a good man,” said church member Becky Loutsion, noting Livanos was with her at her grandmother’s bedside when her grandmother passed away. “He has been an inspiration in our community for almost 32 years, and he’s impacted the lives of so many people. He’s become much more than a priest. He has been there for our ups and downs, and all of the things that have happened in our lives. Now, we are trying to do for him what he’s done for us for so many years – to help him and his family through this. He’s just phenomenal, and he’s ministering to the end.”
In April, an estimated 500 people attended a Holy Unction service, offered for the healing of the soul and body and the forgiveness of sins.
During the service, Livanos reflected on his childhood – an only child, his parents ran a landmark Philadelphia restaurant, La Mode, until his father died when Livanos was 12 – and his assignment to the church in Canonsburg.
“Forever and a day, I will be thankful to God that he has placed me in Canonsburg, the center of the universe!” Livanos wrote in an online interview. “The best place to live with the best people who are unselfish and tremendously generous.”
At the end of the service, Livanos remained for three hours as he greeted each person, asked for their forgiveness, and exchanged farewells.
“He’s been like a brother to me. He has been there for the whole community,” said parishioner Jim Gregorakis. “He’s a confidante, father, confessor, and a member of the family. He’s one of my best friends.”
Other church members spoke of Livanos’ joyfulness, sense of humor, patience, respect for everyone he meets, love for his family, and his ability to offer words of encouragement and empathy. For them, Livanos embodies all of the best qualities of a priest and a man.
“This wasn’t a job for him, it was a calling,” said Loutsion.
Livanos is grateful for each day he has had since his prognosis. And he is grateful for the support of his congregation.
“They have treated us with the most unselfish, caring, Christ-like love that I could ever imagine,” said Livanos, noting church members and friends have cooked meals, taken care of financial needs, visited, and sent hundreds of cards. “I believe my illness has allowed them to become even more intimate with the Lord and more prayerful, and that brings me tremendous joy.”
While every day and every breath bring struggles, Livanos will continue to reach out to his congregation as long as he can.
In a Facebook post on the anniversary of his cancer diagnosis, Livanos said, “I took it upon myself, I hope not selfishly, to share my journey, and I want you to be a part of it. It’s meant to be a teaching moment, like a Bible study. I want you to know you’re loved, you’re appreciated.”
He thanked his congregation for helping to make his life purposeful.
And he has made peace with death.
“We weren’t born to live upon this earth for long. It could be 80 years, it could be 100 years, but that’s nothing compared to eternity,” said Livanos. “When we live a Christ-centered life, it’s never about our timing and our plans, but his will and desire for our salvation. Even now, being confined at home with hospice, I find myself still ministering via text, email, phone and even video. While I don’t have the physical strength and stamina to lead our worship service, God has still seen fit that I would love and reach out in his name. So, if I am called to do his will, I pray that I have fulfilled it and I am still fulfilling it.”
Livanos’ messages can be found at soulfoodforlife.com.