To the Ends of the Earth

Orthodox Christian Missions

Archive for October 2010

Trailer: The House of Mercy in Russia

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I wish something like this was possible in North America, but I don’t think adoption laws would allow it. A pity. At least it is allowed elsewhere.

Title: Open the Doors of Mercy To Us

This trailer presents the first 10 minutes of the CRTN – documentary “Open the Doors of Mercy to us.”

Production Date: 2004
Duration: 29′

Copyright: CRTN / Blagovest Media
Language: English
Executive Producer: Mark Riedemann
Director: Nicolas Goriakin

“These are my children. There are 53 of them. We have children of different nationalities in my family: Russians, Ukrainians, German, Bashkyrs, Kazahs, Tatars, Gypsies, and Japanese. … The Lord gave them what they have lost: they regained a family.” [Fr. Nikolay Stremsky]

Fr. Nikolay Stremsky, a married Orthodox priest arrived in Saractash, a Russian village that lies 100 km from steppe Orenburg, only to be confronted with the grim reality of post communist Russian village life. Unemployment and insufficient social services have abandoned many to the streets — particularly children. Little by little he gathered them together under his shelter. Fr. Nikolay recounts the beginning of what has today become a phenomenon in Russia — the House of Mercy.

Hat Tip: Mystagogy


Written by Stephen

October 27, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Posted in Russia, Video

St. Herman of Alaska and the Kyivan Missionary Vision

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Alaska was the final frontier of the vast expanse of the Tsarist Russian Empire. Like Siberia, it was a place to which Kyivan missionaries were sent to introduce Orthodoxy and Christianize the native peoples.

The Ukrainian Choir of Siberian Missionary-Saints was, by the eighteenth century, quite impressive. Among them were: St John Maximovitch, Metropolitan of Siberia, who translated the Divine Liturgy into Chinese; St Paul Koniuskevich, Metropolitan of Tobilsk and a poet and Kyivan academic; St Innocent Kulchitsky, Bishop of Irkutsk; St Sophronius Krystalsky, also of Irkutsk; and St Theophilus Leschynsky, Apostle of Siberia who built more than 2500 Churches there.

Thanks to these, Orthodox Christianity had become sufficiently rooted among the Siberian peoples, so much so that the cult of some Siberian saints started to take hold back home in Ukraine and Russia.

Such was the case with St Basil of Mangazea whose Icon is still in the Kyivan Church of St Volodymyr.

When the monk, Herman, went to Alaska, he was going as a representative of a well-established missionary tradition that preached the Gospel while, at the same time, inculturated the message of Christ within the familiar context of the people being evangelized.

St Herman is said to have been of Ukrainian ancestry because of his Ukrainian “G” when he signed his name. The Ukrainian alphabet had 33 letters, one more than the Russian. While the Russian “G” always had a hard sound, the Ukrainian alphabet had a separate letter for it that looked like an upside down ‘L’ with an upward line on its tip.

This letter was forbidden in the Russian Empire. It was one of those symbols that helped keep Ukrainian identity in tact and separate from that of their Great Russian brothers (they are “brothers” because the Ukrainians could CHOOSE their friends . . .).

St Herman stubbornly kept this tradition and so left us a testimony to his true cultural roots.

However, what is an even greater witness to his belonging to the Kyivan Church is Herman’s missionary methods that he used for spreading the Gospel among the Aleutian and other peoples of Alaska.

When Roman Catholic missionaries move into the field of endeavour, they tend to start a “building campaign.” They build churches, rectories, halls, hospitals and other things that can be and are useful to the people they are preaching to.

Orthodox missionaries, especially those of the Kyivan school, have a different approach, however.

Like the Apostles, they seek out someone who is sympathetic to them in a village or else take up residence somewhere near the people they have been sent to. They begin serving the Divine Liturgy and the Horologion. They thus establish a core nucleus of the Church from which they preach the Word of God. It is thus God and His Presence among the people who ultimately draws them to Himself, from this perspective.

St Herman started out by building a hut for himself that was under ground, to protect him from the cold. He established an outpost of the Thebaid on Kodiak and Spruce Islands. He worked with the people to teach them useful crafts and gardening techniques. He taught them literacy skills. By his example, he proclaimed to them the redeeming message of Jesus Christ. By his Orthodox devotion, he inculcated in them a love for the Church of Christ.

St Herman didn’t believe that the legends of the Alaskan peoples needed to be “thrown out” so that they might become Christians. As St Innocent of Alaska would also write later, those legends, such as the legend of how the Earth came into being, could be left alone, as could all those local traditions that did not contradict the Gospel.

Indeed, there is a fascinating story in the life of St Innocent about an Alaskan, John by name, who said he already knew all about the Holy Trinity and Christ. When asked how he knew, he said that Three Men had been teaching him about these truths.

He was asked to introduce these Three Men to the missionaries, but that meeting, at the last minute, could not take place. It is celebrated in Alaska iconographically with the Three Men portrayed as the Trinity Herself (again, “Trinity” in Slavonic is feminine)!

As a result of this Kyivan approach to missions, the Native Peoples of Alaska quickly adopted Orthodoxy as their “own” faith.

In 1815, when the Spanish took San Francisco from the Russians, a number of Orthodox Aleutians were taken into custody.

They were baptized at the hands of Roman Catholic priests. Among their number was an Orthodox Aleutian named Peter and who had benefited from the missionary outreach begun by St Herman.

Peter refused baptism, saying that he had already been baptized an Orthodox Christian. He showed the Spaniards his Orthodox Cross that hung around his neck.

Told that he was a “schismatic,” Peter was then given over to the civil authorities and was martyred for his faith as the Protomartyr of the Aleutians and the first-fruits of the Alaska mission.

St Juvenal the Hieromartyr was clubbed to death by pagan Aleutians. As they walked away, he got up and ran after them, preaching as he went. They then set upon him again, and clubbed him, they thought, again to death. As they walked way, they heard Juvenal following and preaching loudly again. After a few more incidents like this, they began to realize that there was something going on here . . . A white pillar marked the spot where St Juvenal’s body lay that night and for several nights to come.
St Jacob Netsvetov, son of a Russian civil servant and a Native woman, became the first Native Orthodox Priest in Alaska and the translator of the Scriptures and Service Books into several Native languages.

St Innocent Beniaminov, later Metropolitan of Moscow, took the name of St Innocent Kulchitsky as that of his missionary Patron. He rode over the Alaskan tundra in a sled pulled by Samoyed huskies. (The popular Siberian breed is named for the Siberian tribe “Samoyed” which means “to eat oneself” as they will eat weaker members of their own packs when they are very hungry).

St Innocent, the Enlightener of the Aleuts, drove with a Jewish doctor friend of his. His friend could not believe the sacrifices Innocent was making for his faith. Why did he do it, he asked him? “For rewards in Heaven,” Innocent replied. Soon after, his friend became an Orthodox Christian himself.

The Alaska mission also extended itself to Japan via St Herman and St Innocent. When Nicholas Kassatkin was going to Japan, St Innocent asked him what books he was taking with him. Nicholas showed him his Russian, Slavonic, German and French texts. Innocent took them and threw them out the window, telling him to apply himself only to learning the Japanese language, which would prove difficult enough to him. In fact, it took Nicholas seven years to master Japanese.

Innocent then asked his young friend what he would wear to Japan. When told he would be wearing the cassock he had on him, Innocent frowned and told Nicholas he would not be respected. He then made a silk cassock for him, replete with a beautiful silver Orthodox pectoral Cross. After long years as a missionary, Nicholas Kassatkin was glorified as the Patron Saint of Japan and her Orthodox Church.

St Herman was of the Paisian school of Hesychasm and the Prayer of the Heart. He was an Elder who blessed those that came to see him with his Cross and Scapular, since he wasn’t a Priest. There is the story of the miraculous blessing of the waters on Epiphany by an Angel sent from Heaven, since there was no priest where Herman was.
St Herman’s motto was: From this day, from this moment, let us love God above all else!”

St Herman’s efforts were crowned not only by the establishment of a strong native Orthodox Church in Alaska, but throughout North America where so many people are now becoming Orthodox. Others are investigating Orthodoxy closely as a spiritual alternative to the aridity of cosmopolitan new ageism amid floundering western church attempts to be “relevant” to contemporary men and women.

That is the heritage of Kyivan Christianity and her misionary vision whose principles St Herman applied in his work throughout his life.St Herman and All Saints of Alaska, pray unto God for us and for Orthodoxy in North America!


Written by Stephen

October 21, 2010 at 11:22 am

Posted in Alaska, Missionaries

40th Anniversary of Autonomy for Orthodox Church of Japan

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There are five relevant press releases from the Russian Orthodox Church’s DECR website, of which I will post two, with links to the others. There are also a lot more pictures if you click the links.

40th anniversary of autonomous status of the Orthodox Church of Japan is celebrated in Osaka

On 10 October 2010, the 40th anniversary of canonization of St. Nicholas of Japan, Equal-to-the-Apostles, and the granting of the autonomous status to the Orthodox Church of Japan by the Russian Orthodox Church were celebrated at the Church of the Intercession in Osaka, Japan.

His Eminence Daniel, Archbishop of Tokyo and Metropolitan of All Japan, officiated at the celebration. Taking part bin the celebration, with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, was a delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church led by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations (DECR). The delegation consisted of Archbishop Feognost of Sergiev Posad, abbot of the Laura of the Holy Trinity and St. Sergius; the DECR deputy chairman archpriest Nikolai Balashov; DECR staff members hierodeacon Ioann (Kopeikin), L. Sevastianov and S. Petrovsky; and clerics and laymen of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Metropolitan Daniel of Tokyo, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Archbishop Feognost of Sergiev Posad, Bishop Seraphim of Sendai, and many clergymen celebrated the Divine Liturgy, after which Metropolitan Daniel warmly greeted Metropolitan Hilarion and his suite. Metropolitan Hilarion read out the message of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the canonization of St. Nicholas of Japan and the autonomous status of the Orthodox Church of Japan and presented an icon of the Mother of God to the Church of the Intercession, and a panagia to the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Japan. A festive reception followed.

That same day Metropolitan Daniel gave dinner in honour of the DECR chairman and members of the Russian Orthodox Church delegation.

Thanksgiving to St Nicholas of Japan celebrated in Kyoto to mark 40th anniversary of his canonization

On October 11, 2010, a solemn thanksgiving to St Nicholas of Japan, Equal-to-the-Apostles, was held at the Church of the Annunciation in Kyoto, Japan. It was led by Metropolitan Daniel of All Japan.

Among the worshippers was an official delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church, who came to Japan with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia for the celebrations devoted to the 40th anniversary of St Nicholas’s canonization and the 40th of the autonomy of the Japanese Orthodox Church. The delegation is led by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s department for external church relations. It includes Archbishop Feognost of Sergiev Posav, Archpriest Nikolay Balashov, DECR vice-chairman, and others. Taking part in the common prayer were also Bishop Seraphim of Sendai and Archpriest Ioann Nagaya of the Russian Orthodox Church Representation in Tokyo.

The Cathedral of the Annunciation was built during St Nicholas’s lifetime. It is the only church in Japan to preserve an altar consecrated by the saint himself. To this day, there is the Holy Gospel lying on the altar, which was given to the parish by St John of Kronstadt and inscribed by St. Nicholas.

After the service, the Primate of the Japanese Orthodox Church greeted the high delegation. He reminded the congregation that 11 years ago, the late Patriarch Alexy II, during his visit to Japan, visited Kyoto and celebrated a thanksgiving at the Church of the Annunciation, which has been the center of the Western Diocese of the Japanese Orthodox Church for many years.

Metropolitan Hilarion, in his response, stressed that Orthodox faith was not a product of some foreign influence. On the contrary, this faith became the flesh and blood of today’s Orthodox Japanese. ‘You have adopted the Orthodox faith from your ancestors, who received witness to the Christian truth from St. Nicholas, have preserved it and handed over to you’, he said.

‘The Orthodox liturgy is celebrated throughout Japan today in the mother tongue of the faithful, and thousands of people come to salvation thanks to the Orthodox faith’, he added. His Eminence also called the congregation to continue preserving and multiplying the fruits of the gospel’s preaching of St Nicholas Equal-to-the-Apostles, saying, ‘Preserve the Orthodox faith, hand it over to your children and grandchildren because it is the faith which opens to people the true meaning of life’.

Metropolitan Hilarion begins his visit to Japan
Metropolitan Hilarion officiates at Divine Liturgy celebrated at Metochion of the Russian Orthodox Church in Tokyo
Festive reception in honour of the Russian Orthodox Church delegation is held at the Russian Federation Embassy in Tokyo

Written by Stephen

October 15, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Posted in Asia, Japan

Interview: Schema-Hegumen Nektariy, abbot of Holy Trinity Skete in Mexico City

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“I will protect my parishioners no matter what…”

Interview with Schema-Hegumen Nektariy, abbot of Holy Trinity Skete in Mexico City
October 5, 2010

Abbot Nektariy Haji-Petropoulos is an historic figure in the modern Russian Orthodox Church, say the parishioners of Holy Trinity Skete in Mexico City. In a short period of time, Fr. Nektariy and two other monks, in whose veins flows not one drop of Russian blood, have opened a Russian monastery in the heart of the Mexican capital, around which has formed a sizable Russian community.

Abbot Nektariy is well-known not only within the Russian community, but throughout Mexico. As a renowned academic, he often makes appearances on radio and television, and teaches courses in a local university. In Church circles, meanwhile, he has earned love by his meek attitude toward his parishioners, about whom he cares zealously. The abbot has cared for many people in moments of crisis, be is spiritually, financially, or legally. Dozens of women are indebted to him for saving them from domestic violence. Despite his ill health (Fr. Nektariy suffers from diverticulitis, kidney stones, and other ailments), he labors ceaselessly for the good of the monastery and the community, considering his care for them to be his sacred duty.

In the three years since the monastery’s founding, the community with Fr. Nektariy at its head has experienced many difficulties: persistent financial troubles, swine flu in Mexico, and the ill health of the abbot himself.

In the interview below, Fr. Nektary discusses how he, a Greek, became a Russian “batushka”, what it is like to be an Orthodox monk in one of the largest cities in the world, and what his parishioners mean to him.

Did you always want to be a monk?

I always knew. It wasn’t a sudden decision. I wanted to live in a monastery, to be in church. But I was an only child, so my mother said: “You cannot be a monk, I want you to have many children.” My whole family told me that I could be a married priest, but I didn’t want that. If I was to be in the Church, I would have to dedicate my whole life to the Lord.

Was your family very religious?

My parents were not very religious. I lived in Istanbul as a child, and we used to visit Greece three
times a year. We saw a lot of monasteries, and I always enjoyed their communal life: working, praying, eating together. I wanted to have that in my future.

How did you become a monk?

My spiritual father, Bishop Paul of Nazianzus, was the Greek Bishop of Mexico. He knew my father before I was born. My mother died of leukemia when I was 14. She asked Bishop Paul to take care of me, my father agreed, and I moved to Mexico and lived with him.

Bishop Paul was a well-known academic in Mexico. We had a balanced academic and religious life. He convinced me to keep studying. I wanted to go the Greek Holy Cross Seminary in Boston, but he told me to go to college first. [He said], “I don’t want you to be a simple priest; I want you to get a Doctorate in Theology.”

When he asked me if I wanted to be a monk, I said yes. I was tonsured in Mexico at 18.

My spiritual father was murdered when coming out of Church in 1984. A fanatical Catholic who hated the Orthodox Church – shot and killed him. He was arrested and later committed suicide.

You were only 19 at the time of Bishop Paul’s death. What did you do when your guardian died?

I lived in Japan with my grandmother, and went to university where I studied Archeology. Trying to follow the will of my spiritual father, I continued to study. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Archeology, a Master’s Degree in Humanities, and a Doctorate in Theology and History. [After graduating with a B.A.,] I went back to Mexico. I felt that I needed to continue the work of my spiritual father in the Greek Church.

How did you become Abbot of Holy Trinity Skete?

It was not my choice (chuckles). In 2004, Archbishop Kyrill [of San Francisco] accepted me into the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. I was trained in a Russian monastery in Jordanville. I am a Russian priest, ordained a deacon and a priest in a Russian monastery.

When I was a teenager, I thought it was really beautiful to wait on the Lord at Liturgy, but with time I understood that being a priest is very serious, and I was not worthy of it. I knew that if it happened, it would not be my will, but the will of God. I had always hoped to be a simple monk, but God had a different plan for me: I wanted to move to the Greek monastery in Arizona, but I went back to Mexico. It was not my original plan. But since I knew the situation in Mexico, it was easier for me [rather than for an outsider] to open a monastery here.

How does it feel for you as a non-Russian to be in a tight-knit Russian community?

My family is not from Greece though, but from the Black Sea – from Sukhumi, in Abkhazia. I feel very close to Russians and they accept me very well. Their traditions are not different from those of my family. I don’t speak Russian, but I understand some of it. I am learning and the fathers are learning it, too.

What is it like to be an Orthodox monk in Mexico City?

We attract attention everywhere, because we wear our cassocks, and we have long hair and beards. We wear our cassocks daily. It shows that our way of life is different, even though we are not isolated like Jordanville, where you don’t have to go out of the monastery to work, which is a blessing. For me, being a monk means keeping my mind in heaven, even though I am on earth.

How do people in the streets treat you?

Some are aggressive because we wear a cross: they relate us to the Catholic Church and the pedophilia scandals. But most of the neighborhood knows that we are Russian Orthodox and are respectful. They know that we always wear our cassocks, so there’s no way for us to have a secret life or to do improper things while wearing civilian clothes.

[The two brethren and I] have to make a living working outside the monastery. I teach, and the fathers work at a bakery. One of them also teaches photography at a university.

You give your whole salary to the monastery?

Of course. I don’t complain about that. My main task in life is to serve the Lord. So whatever we make is for the sake of the Lord. Our parishioners are hard workers, but they have financial problems. I don’t push anyone to help the monastery; I just tell them what our needs are and they respond. If they have money they will put it into the church collection box. They are not used to going to church and contributing. Many of our parishioners never went to church in Russia, but now they come every Sunday.

Why do you think they start going to church in Mexico?

When you live in a foreign country, and you have to speak a different language, you need to look for your own roots, for your own culture, for your own people, and preserve it to know that you belong to something. Ninety eight percent of our parishioners are Russian women – newcomers from Russia. Most are married to Mexicans, and have children who are either not baptized, or baptized Catholic. It is a difficult process to help the families become Orthodox. Usually, instead of just taking care of the Orthodox person, I take care of their spouse, too. This way I will keep the whole family, and the children will be raised in the Orthodox Church. I know that if we don’t accept converts, we will lose the whole family.

How responsive are the Mexican spouses when you try to integrate them into the community? Is it difficult?

It is very difficult in the beginning. Usually the Mexican husbands are not believers. From the beginning, I try to show them that I am not going to convert them. When they feel that I am not a threat, they bring the family and become my friends. Usually these are cultured professional people, and because I’m an academic, it’s easy for me to talk about art, history, science, etc. Everyone else speaks Russian, they talk to me in Spanish, and I don’t mention the Church to them. Six to eight months later, they ask: “Father, is it possible for me to become Orthodox? I want to be a part of this community.” It is very exciting because they are becoming one big family.

Not all Russian-Mexican families have happy endings. A lot of them meet on the internet and end up having a miserable life. Some of the women are beaten by their husbands. They come to me not knowing what to do. The way the husbands control them is they keep their passports. We have some attorneys, also parishioners, who are willing to support our people. Sometimes we pay attorney’s fees, because they have no money.

Have you had any problems with the husbands whose wives you have helped?

I have been threatened many times. This happens everywhere. I know of other priests who have been threatened because they were protecting abused women. I am not afraid. I know that somebody has to defend them; to give them faith. They had no one here in Mexico. They were orphans – but not anymore. They have the Church, and we will protect them as much as we can. I will protect my parishioners no matter what.

What gives you courage?

My faith in God. It is [all] a big miracle for me… Sometimes I have been so ill that I thought I couldn’t celebrate the Liturgy, but then I put my trust in the hands of God and I told Him: “I have no physical strength, I don’t think I’ll be able to make it, please grab and hold me, so I can finish Liturgy.” Usually, by the time I finish service, I’ve forgotten about my pain and suffering. I’m sure that if I take care of my community, God will take care of me. I can see it every day. We are doing the right thing.

You are not worried about the skete’s financial situation?

If I were really worried, it wouldn’t help anyway (chuckles). If I worry about it, it means I have little faith. We had big problems in the past. People couldn’t believe that a non-Russian could open a Russian monastery. They didn’t trust us. But we were able to survive, to open a chapel. It is very beautiful now. So to worry about finances would be not to trust in God. I trust in Him, I trust that He will provide. We even reach out to other cities in Mexico.

What are your greatest needs?

We have a Jeep we use for the work in the factory – the fathers take it in the morning. I go to the college by taxi, but it’s quite far and expensive. Going across the city takes about three hours with traffic, and it is dangerous for me to climb up the bus or to take the subway, because I have a problem with my knees.

We definitely need a second car, but it costs about $5,000. Monastery rent is around $2,000. We need to put in another toilet – we have only one now and it’s not enough for the number of pilgrims we receive.

One thing that has been making things more difficult is my health. Treatments, tests, and visits to the hospital cost us a lot of money – about $700 a month. I’ve had no income for two months because I haven’t been teaching and I still had to go to the doctor, because I’ve been having problems with kidney stones. I’m not doing very well these days.

But God has been very, very merciful to me, [even though] I haven’t been able to do as much as I should. Our daily struggle is nothing in comparison with the joy of being a priest in the family, of being able to open our monastery to those who have been orphans for so many years.

Father, you mentioned that you haven’t done everything you should. What exactly did you mean?

At times I was so tired of the pain, of struggling with the finances. I spent a lot of time just struggling instead of working and pushing myself to do more for the families. I just couldn’t do it. I regret it, because I know that every person who comes to church has a need and that I should forget about my own struggles and sufferings. This is my duty.

Don’t think that we are suffering every day. On the contrary, [it is a joy] to see our children, who are growing up with an irreligious Mexican father, [being] integrated into the community. They speak Russian, they are Orthodox. Our Russian women have the consolation of coming to Church and being part of a community. These are real blessings.

The interview was conducted by Alena Plavsic

Source: Fund for Assistance (ROCOR)
Hat Tip: Byzantine, Texas

Written by Stephen

October 6, 2010 at 10:34 am

Martyred Priest Daniel Sysoev & American Orthodox Missionary Work

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From Fr. Gregory Jensen, here.

For ORTHODOXY AND THE WORLD (, I was asked to write a reflection on the life, ministry and recent death of Fr Daniel Sysoev of Moscow. Specifically I was asked to respond to how “Fr. Daniel’s ideas would be useful and which may not be so effective in a typical North American or European parish, where people do not share the culture of Orthodox Christian nations, and are probably already Christian as opposed to Russia, where a missionary parish isn’t competing so much with other religious groups?” My response is below and will hopefully appear on ORTHODOXY AND THE WORLD soon.

In Christ,


Missionary work by contemporary American Orthodox Christians is similar in many ways to that undertaken in Russia by the recently martyred Fr. Daniel Sysoev. Some of Fr Daniel’s practices–for example people gathering after Divine Liturgy to “drink tea or coffee together”–are the norm in American Orthodox parishes. Other things, like the daily recitation of the Psalms and the regular reading of Holy Scripture during the priest’s communion at Liturgy, are practices worth introducing here in America.
On the other hand Fr Daniel’s strong emphasis on religious education, especially catechesis and Bible study are rather unevenly practiced in America. Some of our parish have well developed religious education programs for children and adults, while other do nothing at all. The majority of our parish however limit religious education to catechetical classes for children. Unfortunately even these are often only poorly attended.

This is not to say that he situation in the States is bleak, it isn’t. But as Archpriest Andrew Phillips mentioned in his own essay (On Orthodox Pastoral Work in the Western World and its Differences with Contemporary Russia), the Church in America is small and poor. This is especially the case when we compare ourselves to the Roman Catholic Church or the various Protestant denominations. Many of our priests need secular employment to feed their families and so the life of the parish is largely limited to Saturday and Sunday (and sometimes only Sunday). Unfortunately because of this not only the pastoral life but also the missionary work of the Church suffers.

According to a recent survey, only about one third (34%) of Orthodox Christians in America attend church at least weekly. Sadly this is less than the national average of all religions (39%) and dramatically less than for Evangelical Christians (58%), members of historic black churches (59%), Catholics (42%), Jehovah Witnesses (82%) and Mormons (75%). At least in terms of weekly church attendance Orthodox Christians look more like mainline Protestants (also 34%). The only people less active on a weekly basis in their religious tradition are Jews (16%), Buddhist (17%), Hindus (24%), and the religious unaffiliated (5%).

Compare this to the fact that, according to the same survey that vast majority of Orthodox Christians say that religion (and here I am assuming this means the Orthodox faith) is very important (56%) or somewhat important (31%) in their lives. There first thing that should be apparent is the huge gap between the percentage of Orthodox Christians who say that their faith is important to them (87%) and the number of Orthodox Christians who attend Liturgy on at least a weekly basis (34%). Whatever else their faith might mean to them, it does not necessarily mean the regular participation in the liturgical life of the Church.

“Well what about converts?” you might ask, “Certainly, their dedicated, right?” Well, not really, or at least not as much as we might imagine.
For example, a slight majority of those who join the Orthodox Church as adults will leave. Calling these men and women “converts” seems to me to be a bit of a misnomer since those who join as adults are almost twice as likely to leave the Church as those baptized as infants- 54% of all adult “converts” members vs. 35% of all adult “cradle” members. For every 10 converts who leave, 6 cradle adults also leave, or if you prefer, for every one Greek or Russian Orthodox baptized as an infant who will leave the Church, 1.6 adult converts will also leave. Converts leave at a 60% greater number than cradle Orthodox adults.

Fr Daniel’s ministry offers us in American a solution. What is needed is clear, solid catechesis and effective spiritual formation for all, laity and clergy alike are essential. Catechesis, in sermons and religious education classes for children and adults, tells uswhat we believe. Spiritual formation tells us, or better yet, helps us, answer personally questions such as “Who am I in Christ?” and “What is Christ asking of me?” Spiritual formation is concerned with answer questions of personal identity and vocation. In other words, formation is about discipleship, about a personal, life-long commitment to Christ. While the tradition of the Orthodox Church is almost unbelievably rich, it seems to me that we seriously neglect the formation of our laity (and as a result, our clergy).

“But, Father,” you might ask, does this evangelism doesn’t matter? Shouldn’t we simply work to fill the Church with new, committed, Orthodox Christians?”

Given the ease with which Americans change religious affiliations making new members is not a challenge. The real challenge is retention; of actually keeping the members that we have by helping them become disciples of Christ. To borrow from St Ignatius of Antioch, it is not enough to be called a Christian, one must actually be a Christian. When many Orthodox Christians are Christian in name only, the Church’s witness to the Gospel is undermined. Whether we are looking at the experience of “cradle” or “convert,” this commitment is absent for many American Orthodox Christians. A credible witness is possible; we have the promise of Christ of this. But it requires from all of us a personal commitment to Christ. Again as Fr Daniel demonstrates, this means regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church (especially Holy Communion and Confession) and a willing eagerness of each of us to conform the whole of our life to Christ and the Gospel.

At a missions and evangelism conference in 2009, the primate of the Orthodox Church in America, His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah said that “becoming Orthodox is not something that you can do just after 6 months of catechesis and a little bit of chrism on your forehead. It’s a life-long process, because it’s being transformed into Christ.” He continued by reminding his listeners that “coming into the Orthodox Church is not about joining a new organization; it’s not joining ‘the right church’; it’s not ‘joining the historical church or the apostolic church’; or it’s not ‘joining the right church instead the wrong church that I was in.’” Rather, and I think Fr Daniel would agree with this, becoming Orthodox is about entering ever “deeper into the mystery of Christ.” If we are not interested in becoming more like Christ we simply remain trapped “in our passions” and so “we might as well have not converted anyway, because we still haven’t left the world behind.”

Looking back at what I’ve written, I realize that much of it seems negative. My intent was not to criticize the Church in America but to reflect soberly on the challenges that we face and even the areas in which we have failed. Thinking about the life and death of Priest Daniel Sysoev this seems to me to be appropriate. The lesson I draw from Fr Daniel is that while the challenges are many, God’s grace abounds and it is only necessary for us, for me, to respond obediently to His will.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory Jensen

Written by Stephen

October 5, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Posted in Articles, North America