A New Triumph of Orthodoxy?
Now Cain talked with Abel his brother and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8-9)
Religious history is filled with violence, and the history that Orthodox Christians have been party to is no exception. Much of that violence is fueled by a sense of being deeply wronged on both sides, nurtured over generations and passed on from parents to children. The resentments are especially bitter when family members take sides and are torn apart. Orthodox relations with Eastern Catholics (“Uniates”) are a case in point.
Last Sunday I was invited to the pan-Orthodox celebration at Holy Ghost Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut—15 clergy and their parishioners from many jurisdictions were there—and this seemed the perfect occasion to reflect on the emergence of a new kind of triumph of Orthodoxy, in which we Orthodox draw a line under the past and become a force for reconciliation.
Holy Ghost Church (Father Steven Belonick is the pastor) is the oldest Orthodox parish in New England. It was founded in 1894 as part of the movement led by Saint Alexis Toth to bring Eastern Catholics back to their historic roots in the Orthodox Church. But what we celebrate as a victory is seen by Eastern Catholics as a bitter episode of strife that broke families and communities and took decades to repair. Fifty years later, in Ukraine, religious violence was again visited upon Eastern Catholics when in 1946 on the orders of Stalin their churches were summarily taken over by the Orthodox. And not without the willing collaboration of many Orthodox. But religious strife works both ways, so in 1990 with the breakup of the Soviet Union Ukrainian Catholics grabbed back their properties and kicked out the Orthodox. The outrages were so bad that Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow wrote to all the heads of the Orthodox Churches around the world pleading for their help.
It is with pain and sorrow that I inform you about recent tragic events in Ukraine. On August 12 the Ukrainian Uniates forcibly seized the St George Cathedral in Lvov having broken in the Church. They continue to hold it by force and deny Ukrainian Orthodox believers access to the Church…Thus the spiritual and administrative activities of the Lvov Diocese are completely blockaded.
Mass seizures of the Churches, violence, blackmail and threats to the Orthodox believers occur in other regions of Ukraine as well.
Twenty-three years later, what a contrast this is to the atmosphere of brotherhood that prevailed at the inauguration of Pope Francis. Almost every Orthodox Church—both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox— was represented in Rome. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople was given a prominent role in the papal audience with ecumenical and religious leaders. I wonder what St Alexis would make of it.
This gives me hope that times are changing and the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” might take a new direction. And here, the Orthodox in North America could play an important role (though it is important to note that the only Americans among the big crowd of Orthodox official representatives in Rome were Metropolitan Tikhon and Father Eric Tosi.)
As early as the 1960’s Nicholas Zernov (the first Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Christianity at Oxford University), remarked on the unique characteristics of American life that might have a positive impact on world Orthodoxy.
The American idea of democracy uniting all races, traditions and creeds in a complex yet harmonious whole has an affinity with the vision of a reintegrated Church. The spontaneity and variety of expression, which is such a cherished feature of their way of life, already foreshadows that unity in freedom which is the very basis of the true ecumenicity of the Church. (Orthodox Encounter: The Christian East and the Ecumenical Movement, London: James Clarke, 1961, 168.)
The idea that North America may be a unique laboratory for the working out of Christianity’s future also finds echoes today. In 2010 Metropolitan Phillip (Saliba) of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America expressed a similar confidence when he spoke to the North American Assembly of Orthodox Bishops:
The Mother Churches must realize that Orthodoxy in America is the best gift to the world. And instead of being crushed by the burdens of the past, let us formulate a clear vision for the future. Thomas Jefferson, one of the fathers of our American revolution, once said: “I love the visions of the future rather than the dreams of the past.” (Metropolitan Phillip, May 26, 2010)
We Orthodox have a lot of history and plenty of old burdens. But I hope that one of the “visions of the future” might include an Orthodox Church that in every parish and diocese and country, plays a vigorous role not only in preserving and witnessing the saving Tradition of the Church, but is also a force for mutual understanding and reconciliation with our Christian brothers and sisters. That would be a triumph to celebrate.