IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST!
I still cannot say for sure why I believed that it was so important for me to attend the 15th All American Council just completed in Pittsburgh. I knew our Church was in trouble and that we needed to come together as Orthodox people to help her. But I’m not so vain as to think that there was much I could do personally.
I hadn’t attended an All American Council since 1992, in Miami, and the most memorable things I came away with are that you can get the best fruit salad in the world in Miami, that the ocean really is bathwater warm there in July and that even if the temperature is not much hotter than a hot day at home there is a quantitative difference in the way the sun bears down on you. It literally bores right into you. And the humidity…we simply don’t know what humidity is up here…unless you’ve had the misfortune to work in a laundry on the hottest most humid day of the year you simply can’t imagine what constitutes a mid- summer ‘sea breeze’ in South Florida. Oh, yes, there were church services, too, and I got a great T shirt that said “Russia” on it in Russian.
In other words, I came away from that 11th All American Council without any real experience of the Church. When the next few Councils rolled around I couldn’t justify the cost of attending both in money and time. But this year it was different; I knew the heavy burden of hurt and anger our church was carrying as a result of the misappropriation of millions of dollars by some of our former leaders and because of rumors (and perhaps more than rumors) about profoundly immoral behaviors, along with a persistent culture of lies and deceit at church headquarters. I just knew I had to go even though the thought of long, angry meetings made me sick with anxiety.
When I arrived on Monday and rode in from the airport with a van full of people on their way to the Council the mood was tense and sorrowful. This only got stronger at registration and during Vespers and the period of reflection and discussion that followed. There were demands for the bishops to do more than say they were sorry for what had happened. There were demands that they resign. There was question after question about their integrity and the future of the Church. It seemed as if I might be witnessing the final collapse of the OCA. I could only think about the people I knew—Orthodox people—who would delight to see that happen.
Things weren’t much better on Tuesday morning. The Special Investigative Commission’s Report was reviewed and provoked even more anger. I couldn’t stay through the first session and didn’t even bother to attend the next. That evening I went to a session devoted to what ought to be the next step. The various administrative personnel introduced themselves and gave long, tedious, and not very interesting reports. I could tell they were exhausted, nervous, and afraid. More wrangling and arguing, and very little progress. I left after a vote about parliamentary procedure that would have been comical if it weren’t so sad. Many others did, too. We missed the first address of the man who would become our Metropolitan. But that was OK. I would get to hear him the next morning at the Divine Liturgy.
I attended the Liturgy—and somehow it seemed as if the air was a little less heavy and dark. I thought, of course, that it was because we were at the Liturgy and fully expected the sad weight to return afterwards. Then I heard the sermon. I didn’t know who the Bishop who gave it was, other than that he was young and I thought he was the newest one— consecrated only a couple of weeks ago. I had met him in the hall with Archbishop Seraphim and hadn’t noticed his “Panagia”—the icon of the Virgin Mary that bishops wear. Seeing that he was dressed as a monk, I asked where his monastery was and he told me that he was our church’s ‘youngest’ bishop (in age and in rank). It was a bit embarrassing. But now, at the Liturgy, as he spoke I recognized that he was no ordinary bishop. His sermon wasn’t in any way stunning for its style or delivery. It was very simple, even a little halting, but the message was absolutely crystal clear. He said that Orthodoxy is not about anything other than Jesus Christ and His Kingdom and about the Church’s wide open arms to all who seek healing and forgiveness in a sinful and broken world. He spoke about Orthodoxy’s special place on the North American continent to preach the gospel of love, forgiveness, and healing to the desperate and hopeless—many of whom have felt rejected by God and unworthy of forgiveness. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a sentimental person and that tears do not come easily to me…but I felt my eyes welling up. And all I could think was, “This is the man”.
I wasn’t alone. I could see people leaning forward, nodding, hanging on every word. And the most wonderful thing was that the words weren’t new. We all knew the message already. It was simply the gospel. But we could feel that this man really believed the words he was saying—he believed with all his heart and he was convincing us that we also believed. Again, it wasn’t his style or delivery; it was his faith that shone through.
The session after the Liturgy on Wednesday morning was to be devoted to the election of the Metropolitan. I had fully expected to write in the name of His Eminence, Archbishop JOB of the Midwest. He was the man who ordained me and I knew him to be a man of rectitude and strong belief. He had been one of the bishops who had started the process of cleaning up the Church. I even thought of writing in our own bishop, NIKON, but I’m too selfish to want to lose him!
As the canons for electing a Metropolitan were read I read Psalms 22 and 69—the psalms of Holy Friday—and from the Prophet Isaiah who warned of the fate of false leaders and unfaithful people. The air was electric. When the ballot came we were instructed to make the sign of the cross and write in one name. I wrote, “Bishop JONAH of Fort Worth”, that newest and youngest bishop I had met in the hall and failed to recognize as a bishop. While the ballots were collected and tallied we sang the hymns of Pentecost and the Troparia and Kontakia of the saints of North America. We sang them through perhaps a half dozen times before the tally counters returned. There was no two thirds majority. A number of names had been submitted, but only two—Archbishop JOB and Bishop JONAH had a large number. They were very close (in the middle 300’s), though Bishop JONAH led slightly.
In the next ballot we were instructed to write two names. I wrote Bishop JONAH and Archbishop JOB—as it seemed clear that these two men were the ones we were called to focus on. Again we sang and sang while the tally counters did their work. When they returned the count was still divided mostly between JOB and JONAH—though again, JONAH led by a little. It was now up to the Holy Synod to decide. They withdrew behind the curtains of the Holy Altar and we continued to sing. It was almost 3 o’clock and we had been at this for nearly four hours. We sang the Akathist to the Saints of North America. Many of us just prayed.
And then the Altar curtains opened and we sang “Ton Dhespotin”—the proclamation hymn for the new Metropolitan. We started before we saw him and then everyone began to nod and smile. It was JONAH! People started to cry. The air was light with joy and when we were called to proclaim, “Axios!” (“He is worthy!”), the walls shook. I’ve never heard anything like it. We continued with the Thanksgiving Service for the new Metropolitan and then came forward to receive his blessing. Again, it was unlike anything I had ever before experienced. The crowd of priests going to greet the new head of our American Church was so tight that I couldn’t even move my arms; I held them up against my chest as if I were going to Holy Communion. Normally, I’d be terrified to be stuck in a crowd like that—but this time it was sheer joy and I wouldn’t have broken free of it for anything on earth.
In those hours on Wednesday our Orthodox Church in America was changed. We had literally gone from the heartbreak and despair that the Lord’s disciples felt on the day of His crucifixion to the joy of Pascha. In three days we went from death to life. Our Church had been resurrected. I had been there to witness a miracle. After this, I will never feel quite the same way when I proclaim, “Christ is in our midst”—because without the slightest doubt of exaggeration or hyperbole I know with all my heart and soul that:
HE IS AND EVER SHALL BE!