Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Time to Get Back to Work

Dear Beloved in Christ,
I am very happy to report that on last Thursday, October 21, 2013, the legal issues regarding myself, Mr. Barker and the Church were resolved. The resolution achieved was mutually agreed upon between myself and the Oneida County District Attorney's Office. I am pleased with the outcome as it is one which is in the best interests of the Church, its members, donors and supporters and Mr. Barker. 
In return for my pleading guilty to a single charge of Grand Larceny in the Third Degree, all other charges against myself were dropped and ALL charges against Mr. Phillip Barker, Chief Operating Officer of the Archdiocese have been dropped. Having all the charges dropped against Mr. Barker was a significant aspect of the disposition of the proceedings. It was something I, personally, truly wanted. I am grateful to Almighty God that we were able to achieve that goal. With the charges being dropped against Phil, two young children will not lose their father and a wife will not lose her husband. Again, I thank God for this blessing.
As the Diocesan Bishop, I made decisions which I believe are in the best interests of the Church; of you, the faithful; and of the Church's donors and supporters. I am very happy with the decision I made to resolve this matter and the manner in which it has been resolved. I want to thank my attorney, Mr. Cory Zenammo, Esq., for his advice, counsel and guidance. I also want to thank the District Attorney's office, particularly Mr. Bernard Hyman, for their compassion and the way he and his office handled this matter. Finally, I want to thank my family, friends and you, the faithful of our holy Archdiocese, for all your prayers, encouragement and support during the past three months. You have made a very difficult time much easier. May God bless you all.
So that you are all fully aware and informed, the details of the resolution of the case are as follows. As part of the agreement, I have plead guilty to one count of 3rd degree Grand Larceny. This is a felony charge. In return, all the other charges against me and all charges against Mr. Barker have been dropped. If the Church is able to pay the full amount of $212,000 before my sentencing date of march 6, 2014, the felony charge will be reduced to a misdemeanor charge. If only $100,000 is paid at the time of sentencing, I will face six months in Oneida County jail and a period of probation. If anything less than $100,000 is paid by the time of sentencing, I will face an incremental range of prison time. This is the entire agreement made between myself and the DA's office on 11/21/13. You have all the information and terms here.
With the case being basically resolved, it's time to get back to work. Our first priority, which has been priority one all along, is to raise the money to pay all the restoration bills. Obviously, we would like to complete this process well before March 6, 2014, so that we can ensure that there will be no further disruptions to the life of the Church. Secondly, we must still raise funds to complete the restoration of the Church and complete all the projects which are part of the Cathedral Project. This includes the construction of the various parks and gardens surrounding the Cathedral, including  the Cathedral Lady Garden and the September 11th Memorial Park and Museum.
In addition to the above, we will be stepping up our community outreach and ministries as of January 1, 2014. We will be "hitting the streets" hard, like we have always done in the past, rolling up our sleeves and bringing the Church to the people, not waiting for them to come to us. It is important for everyone to remember all the good we have done over the years for the people of our city, and we will continue to do what we have done and more for them, because its our duty as disciples of Christ to care for ALL of God's people.
Many have asked what to do about donations. To you, I say give what your heart and personal financial circumstances allow you to give. If you want to give for purpose, do so. Our policy has always been to use designated gifts only for the purposes for which they are given. I want to reiterate that we will never use your gift for any other purpose except that for which it is given. We do need money to pay for the restoration work which has been done thus far so please help us pay off those bills first.  
No further restoration work will be done on the Cathedral until the work which has been done thus far is paid for. Once the outstanding restoration bills have been paid, we will continue to bank money until we have enough to do work. Restoration work will only be done when money is available to do it. If you want to make a donation for some future work or project, you are free to do so but please understand that your gift will remain in a restricted account until such time as all the outstanding restoration bills are paid off. From that point on, the priority in the restoration program will be the replacement of the Cathedral's roof and the installation of a heating system. No other restoration work will be done until the roof and heat situations are addressed and resolved.
Donations for community service projects and ministries as well as other purposes not related to the restoration are always welcome and needed. We will not put our life as Church on hold because of what has happened. We must continue to move forward, grow and remain in service to Christ and the people of God, faithfully proclaiming and living the Gospel with great joy and certitude. Our confidence and hope is in Christ, Who makes all things good.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me or Phil. We are both easily reached by phone and/or email.
With love in Christ, I remain,
Your unworthy servant,
+Archbishop Stephen

Saturday, October 26, 2013

I Say to You, Arise!

Homily of His Eminence, Archbishop Stephen
for Sunday, October 7/20, 2013, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost

There is nothing more sobering than a funeral. A funeral has a tendency to focus all of our attention on the reality and promises of God’s Word. And if there is one reality that stares us squarely in the face when we attend a funeral, it is this: we live in fallen and broken word.
In this morning’s Gospel reading from St. Luke, Jesus encounters death for the first time. As Jesus was entering the gate of the city of Nain, He came upon a funeral procession exiting the city, through the same gate. It was a funeral procession for a widow’s only son.
A widow carries great significance in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. The reason for this is because the widow represents the poorest, the most destitute, the most dependent and vulnerable classes of people in Israel at that time. To be a widow meant to be totally dependent upon the kindness and generosity of others for daily sustenance and survival.
In Israelite society at the time of Jesus, it was through one’s husband that one received the inheritance of the land. It was through one’s husband that one received financial security. It was through one’s husband that one received physical sustenance. Unlike in today’s society, where the modern woman has the freedom and ability to work and care for herself, even without a husband, a woman in Jesus’s time could not provide for herself in such a way. Women were totally dependent upon their men for their physical well-being. As a result, the worst thing that could happen to a woman in ancient Israel was for her to lose her husband. If a woman did lose her husband, life became very difficult for her very quickly, sometimes virtually overnight.
The Old Covenant law protected the widow and made provisions for her. For example, in Deuteronomy 24, there are regulations that prevent a man from harvesting his fields more than once during the harvest season. The reason for this was because anything that was left after the first pass was to be given over to the poor, which included the widow. Since she was without her husband and the regular support and care he provided, she became completely dependent upon the kindness of landowners and their obedience to the law. Can you imagine what kind of existence this must have been for someone who did not intentionally get herself into such a difficult situation? I wonder how she felt to be dependent upon others who do not know you, who have no vested interest in you, other than the provisions made by God’s commands.
The vulnerable and destitute state the widow found herself in can only be attributed to one thing: the reality of death. Death totally changed her life. Death totally changed the way she looked at things, her financial security, even her identity. No longer was she known as Mr. So-and-so, but as one who lost her husband. If anyone could attest to the reality of the fall, it would be the widow. To her grieving and broken heart, to her collecting the remainder of a landowner’s harvest, her life was a living testimony that this world is fallen.
In today’s Gospel reading, the message of the fallenness of this world is compounded and multiplied beyond measure. The widow we come to know in the Gospel not only lost her husband, but she also lost her only son, whom she was now going to bury. Talk about tragedy and heartbreak! Here is a woman who is surrounded by the darkness of death. It is one thing to have to bury your husband; it is quite another thing to have to bury your only child.
The broken-hearted and grieving widow we meet as she goes to bury her son represents for all of us just how fallen and broken this fleeting life truly is. But we don’t have to put ourselves in her sandals to know this. I am sure all of us can readily testify to the fact that we live in a broken and fallen world. Babies are born addicted to drugs. Spouses abuse each other. Helpless and vulnerable children and elders are abused. Natural disasters destroy homes and thousands of lives. Terrorism and war fill the pages of our newspapers every day. Lives are lost to drunk driving and senseless accidents. Couples grieve over miscarriages and infertility. Husbands and wives work more than one job just to make ends meet.
If the widow represents what it is like to live in this fallen world, then Jesus Christ represents the intrusion of the Kingdom of Heaven into this material world. Jesus represents the arrival of a new world order, of a new and more perfect society, of a more perfect kingdom. So dramatic is this event that it can only be described as the clashing of the ages, of this present age and the age to come.
Jesus comes into this world to deliver His people out of this earthly and material world that is fallen and passing away. He came to lead us and guide us into a country whose builder and foundation is God. He joined us in our human existence so that we may have a better life; that we may have a better world; and that we may know hope and peace and happiness once again.
When Jesus encounters the funeral procession leaving the city and when He sees the grieving widow, He has compassion on her, “His heart went out to her.” He understands her pain and suffering. He comprehends her loss. Jesus restores her hope and her joy by raising her son from the dead. No one had asked Jesus to do anything. No one had recognized Him. But the sights and sounds were too much for Him. Moved to compassion, Jesus says to the woman, “Do not cry.” He then touched the coffin, raised the man to life, and “gave him back to his mother.”
By this miracle, Jesus gives evidence to the unfathomable love of God for His people. God does not wish us to suffer. In raising the widow’s son, Jesus shows us that there is hope beyond this fallen and broken world.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is a man of compassion. As He walked through the villages and towns and saw people afflicted with sickness and disease, “He had compassion on them.” When He saw the hungry, “He had compassion on them.” When He was confronted by those who were lame, blind, crippled, or deaf and dumb, “He had compassion on them.” When He encountered the poor or anyone in any kind of need or distress, “He had compassion on them.” When He left Jericho followed by yet another large crowd and two blind beggars yelled out for help, “Jesus had compassion on them” and healed them.
The two most famous parables on the Bible, of the Good Samaritan and of the Prodigal Son, are about compassion. In contrast to the arrogant and indifferent religious professionals we encounter in the story about the Good Samaritan, the outsider Good Samaritan “had compassion” on the man beaten by thugs. And while the prodigal son “was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.”
We must understand that Jesus doesn’t raise the widow’s son just for the sake of showing His divine power. He doesn’t do it simply for winning over the crowd. He does it, rather, for the sake of giving us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God…a kingdom of life, love and joy; a kingdom without suffering, disease, heartache and death. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom where compassion and mercy are to be found in abundance.
Surely, in many ways, we are like the widow in today’s Gospel. We have all lost, in one way or another, the very vital means of life support, which is the Word of God. We have become dependent upon the false security and material things of this world. When they disappear, when they are taken from us, we have nowhere to turn except to become dependent upon others. Rather than depending upon God to provide for us, something He does freely in abundance, we turn instead to those whose help more often than not comes with a price tag or strings attached.
Sadly, much human charity and philanthropy today has behind it a hidden agenda or is given with conditions attached to it. God does not put conditions on the generous giving of His love, compassion and mercy. They are ours for the taking, as much as we want and as often as we want. The compassion which Jesus shows to the widow can never be outdone by any human act or gesture. That kind of compassion can only be given by God Himself.
In our times of despair and brokenness, let us seek out God’s compassion earnestly; for the promise of the joys of the Kingdom are within our reach today in the love and person of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Cross is Our Way of Life

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Our present difficulties have been a source of much discussion in our Church and they have brought much pain and sorrow into our faith community as has been evidenced by the many comments I have heard and the numerous conversations I have had with many of you over the past two months. They have also brought to the surface a wide range of emotions many of us, myself included, are struggling to deal with. As we move forward in the process of the court case involving the charges against myself, the Archdiocese's Chief Operating Officer, and the Archdiocese itself, I want to take a few moments to remind everyone that our life as Christians is never without the Cross. This present situation is our Cross to bear at this time in our life as Church. Christianity and the Cross go hand in hand. There can be no Christianity without the Cross and to think of the Cross without pain is unrealistic.
Yes, this is a truly a painful time for us all. There is intense emotional pain and suffering in our midst right now. There is also spiritual pain and suffering; I feel it myself as well. But we cannot despair. We must have hope in Christ's power to deliver us from all tribulation and distress and to comfort us with His immense love, which surpasses all human understanding.
My dear people, we are safe under the shelter of God's wings. God knows what is in our hearts and in this particular instance He knows we have done nothing wrong. We have no right to believe that our good works or even our good intentions will be seen as such by others. We live in a world that is fallen and broken, which no longer understands the things of God and the ways of God.
Our Lord warns us: "Woe to you when all men speak well of you! In the self-same manner their fathers used to treat the prophets.”  Faith, when it is authentic, brings down into opposition with itself many selfish interests so as not to cause scandal.  It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to be a good Christian and not find oneself in conflict with a bourgeois and comfortable atmosphere that is frequently pagan.  We have to ask continually for peace in the Church and for Christians of every country, but we should not be surprised or frightened if there is resistance from our surroundings to the teaching of Christ that we want to spread, to resistance that takes the shape of defamation, calumnies, etc. God will help us to receive abundant results from these situations and will ultimately deliver us from them.
The opposition from the good usually shows itself in antipathy towards some brothers in the Faith, in a more or less masked opposition to their work, and a criticism that is as destructive as it is ill-informed. In any case, the position of the Christian who wants above all else to be faithful to Christ has to be one where he can pardon, make amends and act with rectitude of intention, all the time looking toward Christ. Don’t expect people’s applause for your work. What is more, sometimes you must not even expect other people and institutions, who like you are working for Christ, to understand you.  Seek only the glory of God, and while loving everyone, don’t worry if there are some who do not comprehend what it is you are doing.

When Saint Paul arrived in Rome, the Jews living there said, referring to the infant Church: We know that everywhere it is spoken against.  At the end of twenty centuries we see, both in recent history as well as at the present moment, how in various countries thousands of good Christians, priests and lay persons have suffered martyrdom on account of their faith or have been marginalized or discriminated against for their beliefs or have been kept out of public office or teaching positions on account of their Faith, or encounter difficulties in procuring for their children a Christian education. Alternately, it is the same oppressive atmosphere that looks upon religion as archaic, while modernity and progress are conceived as liberation from ‘restrictive’ religious ideals.
It is difficult to understand calumny or persecution - either open or veiled - in an era in which one hears so much about tolerance, understanding, fellowship and peace. But the attacks are more difficult to understand when they come from good men, when Christian persecutes, no matter how, another Christian, or a brother his brother. Our Lord prepared His own for the inevitable times when those who would defame, calumniate, or undermine their apostolic work would not be pagans or enemies of Christ, but brothers in the Faith who would think that with these actions they would be doing a service to God. This opposition from the good is a trial that God sometimes permits. Nevertheless, it is a bitter pill to swallow. It is particularly painful for the Christian to whom it happens.
Right now, we don't know if our present difficulties are opposition from the good, or the acts of truly evil people. The motives of the calumniators are usually due to human passions that can distort good judgment and complicate the clear intention of men who profess the same faith as those they attack, and who make up the same people of God. There are at times jealousies that supervene and rash allegations that appear to derive from envy that make it possible to consider as evil the good that is being done by others. There can also be a kind of blinkered dogmatism that refuses to recognize for others the right to think in a different way in matters left by God to the free judgment of men.
My dear people, God will reveal in His own good time whether our present sufferings and difficulties are the result of opposition from the good or derive from those who are truly evil and have acted out of hate and vengeance. In both cases, let us pray for those who afflict us and hate us, asking God to send down His Holy Spirit, through Jesus His Son, to soften their hearts and renew His divine love within them. And let us not look to discard the Cross we now bear, but ask God to give us all the courage, strength and grace to carry it with all dignity and love.
Please continue to pray for me, Phil, and our holy Church and know that you are always in my prayers and in my heart.
Your faithful and unworthy servant,
+Archbishop Stephen

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Homily for the Feast of the Dormition

August 15/28, 2013

For hundreds of years, Christians throughout the world have observed the feast of the Dormition/Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15th, commemorating her death and celebrating her being taken bodily to Heaven. Truth be known, we have no real knowledge of the day, year, and manner of Our Lady’s death. The dates which have been assigned to her death vary between three to fifteen years after Christ’s Ascension.
Mary’s tomb was presumably found in Jerusalem. Tradition tells us that she dies in the presence of all the Apostles, but that after her burial, her tomb, when opened, was found empty. Therefore, they concluded that her body had been taken up (assumed) into Heaven. This would be a logical conclusion since it would be inconceivable to think that the body of the Mother of God should decay in the grave.
The feast of the Dormition/Assumption of the Mother of God completes God’s work in Mary since it was not fitting that the flesh which had given life to God Himself should ever undergo corruption.
Mary was a model disciple completely open to God’s grace. The feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God celebrates the special place that Mary has in the life of the Church. This place is first of all defined by her being chosen to be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. This fact alone gives her a uniqueness which is shared by no other human being who has ever lived.
By her assumption into heaven after her death, we come to understand that Mary, because of the dignity of her motherhood and her own personal submission to God’s will at every stage of her life, takes precedence over all other human beings in the sharing of God’s glory which is the destiny of all of us who die united with Christ her Son.
Today’s celebration turns our eyes in that direction, where we will hopefully follow, if we have lived a good and righteous life, when our earthly life is over. In order to experience what Mary experienced, we must live as she lived; we must follow her example. In all things, we must submit ourselves completely to the will of God.
Mary chose, with the help of God’s grace, to preserve her God-given purity throughout her life. The bodily corruption of death was not God’s original plan. It came into the world through sin, as St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians: “the sting of death is sin.” So, it is fitting that she who knew no sin should not experience decay and corruption after death or delay in enjoying the first fruits of her Son’s work.
Mary was always at home with God’s word. She lived on God’s word. She was filled with God’s word and divine light. This is why she was so resplendent, so good, and so radiant with love and goodness. Mary was, in every way, what God had intended us to be from the very beginning.
The feast of the Dormition has always been loved dearly by the faithful of the Church. The feast is a sign to us that someday, through God’s grace and our efforts, we too may join the Blessed Mother in giving glory to God.
The feast of the Dormition and Assumption of the Mother of God should be a source of great hope for us, for it points the way for all followers of Christ who imitate Mary’s fidelity and submission to God’s will. Where Mary is now, we are meant eventually to be, and may hope to be through Divine grace.
Let us seek to imitate Mary’s self-sacrificing love, her indestructible faith and her perfect obedience. As with the case of Jesus’ resurrection, we need to look at the meaning of what the feast is about rather than being too literal in our understanding of how it is described. In other words, we do not need to know all the details of what or how it happened but rather that it did happen and what it means for us.
Mary’s greatness does not come solely from being chosen to be the Mother of God but in her total acceptance of that responsibility in faith and trust, accepting blindly all that it might entail. And, indeed, she had no idea the price she would have to pay to be the mother of Jesus. But she had emptied herself in total service to Him and now she is being raised to the highest place among the human race. Through her body, Mary said “Yes!” to God. Through her body, Mary was elevated to a place so high that no creature would ever be able to displace her.
Mary is a model for us all, and her assumption into Heaven is sign of hope for us as well. We now have a Mother who is in heaven; a mother who is the Mother of God, the Mother of the Son of God, who is also our mother. Jesus made her our mother when, while hanging on the Cross, He said to the disciple and to all of us: “Behold, you Mother!” Precisely because she is our mother and is now with God, she is very close to each and every one of us. She always hears us and listens to us and she always intercedes with her Son on our behalf.
On this feast day, let us thank the Lord God for the gift, example and life of the Virgin Mary, and let us pray to her to help us choose and follow the right path every day, to make the right choices, and to give ourselves over totally to God’s will every day. Today, we join Mary in her happiness. May we be found worthy of that same happiness in our own relationship with God.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

You Are My Life

Dear Friends,

During these past two weeks I have been unable to speak about the case in question. But I wish to offer the following so that you may see another side of the story other than what has been in the media. It's only a sampling of 16 years of ministry, love and service but it speaks volumes about what we hold dear and important.

Please do not forget the good that was and is still being done and always remember that you are my life and I live for you.

Please continue to keep me, Phil, and our Church in your prayers.

May God bless you all!

Your unworthy servant,
+Archbishop Stephen


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Into Your Hands, O Lord

To the Faithful of the Church and to our friends and supporters:

The grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all!

I wanted to post this last Tuesday but the events of the past week have been quite emotionally and physically draining and I have just been trying to center myself in those areas and spiritually. First of all, on behalf of myself and Phil, I want to say "thank you" for the outpouring of prayers and words of encouragement we have received. Your kindness and support in this difficult time will never be forgotten. To borrow some words from St. Paul, I thank God always when I remember you in my prayers for I have derived much joy and comfort from your love. Truly, your love and prayers are my strength during this difficult time.

You all know what has been written in the papers and said in the news reports so there is no sense in rehashing it here, nor do I care too. All I will say is that nothing was intentionally done wrong and I hope to fulfill the promises I made. As the Diocesan Bishop I made a decision which my heart told me was right and I still stand by it. Would I do it again? No, I wouldn't. Not because I don't trust any more but because I know now that things can happen that are beyond our control that can change things.

To the faithful of the Church; to my family, friends and supporters; to my co-workers in the vineyard; to my brother bishops and fellow Orthodox Christians, I am deeply sorry for the embarrassment, hurt and pain this has caused you all. The intention was always only to do God's work and glorify His Name. Hopefully, I will be able to resolve this in the way it was initially intended and continue our work with the poor, the sick, the forgotten and the needy as we have done for the past sixteen years.

I ask you to remember that there is more to the story than what was told in the papers. I ask you to remember the nine hundred plus children of Head Start that we have cared for the past eight years and who are so dear to the heart of the Cathedral parish and who are my pride and joy. I ask you to remember the thousands of families we have served every Thanksgiving with baskets of food and on a weekly basis from our food pantry. I ask you to remember the hundreds of senior citizens whom we help by shoveling snow, mowing lawns, running errands, etc. I ask you to remember all the good things we have done for God's people with the only motivation being love and a desire to serve as Christ served.

Not a dime of money given by any individual was ever spent on anything other than what it was ear-marked for. Not a dime of any money that was ever given was used to pay salaries or any administrative costs. Money to pay our regular bills derived from our collections, fried dough sales, Italian ice sales or other fundraisers. Yes, we have and still do struggle to pay our bills but that burden has been lightened by the weekly bingo game we started in October 2012. Though I know it is not an acceptable way to fund the works of the Church, it has nevertheless been a blessing for us, giving us the opportunity to have a regular weekly income we would otherwise not have. Because of the bingo game, we have paid over $30,000 in bills and are able to pay our regular recurrent bills when they come due.

I don't know what the outcome of this will be, but I place it all in God's hands and implore His mercy. During this difficult time, I ask your continued prayers for myself, Phil and the Church. And if you can, please come to visit us at the Cathedral. Call or email before you come to make sure that we are there. But it would be nice to see you.

With love in Christ,
+Archbishop Stephen

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Compassion is the Heart of Christ

We hear the word “compassion” tossed about a lot these days. So much so, that I think we take it for granted. We speak of compassion in terms of the poor and the homeless, the sick and suffering, and all those in a state of need and difficulty. We Christians especially throw the word around in just about every conversation that takes place about Jesus. But do we really know what compassion is? Do we practice it as Christians like we are supposed to? Are we even aware of the fact that if one is not compassionate one is not a Christian? Compassion is the heart of Christ. If we are truly intent on living our lives as Christ did, if we are intent on living in Christ, then compassion must be in our hearts also. If we do not have compassion for others, then we have no right to call ourselves Christians. The same is true if we do not love as Christ taught us to love or forgive as He practiced forgiveness. Compassion, love, and forgiveness are actually intimately intertwined, because you cannot have one without the other, but compassion is what we shall discuss today.
Compassion is a word of action. It is not just a feeling; it is not just sitting in the bleachers watching the game as a spectator. No, compassion is the heart of a person in action. It is our physical response to the needs of others. Compassion is Christ working through us.
Compassion is a characteristic of God. We first learned of God’s compassion in Scared Scripture. The Old and New Testaments are full of examples where God’s compassion is revealed through His acts of kindness, mercy and concern for His suffering children. From the very beginning, when He created Adam and Eve and set them in the Garden of Eden, God showed Himself as a God of love and compassion. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, He nevertheless showed mercy and compassion upon them. We see this, for example, in God’s clothing of Adam and Eve after their fall.
After Adam and Eve lost their state of grace, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. By removing them from Eden, God cut them off from access to eternal life. In spite of the fact that Adam and Eve had sinned, and that all mankind after them suffers the consequences of that sin, God has not withheld His compassion and mercy and love from His creation.
For example, we see in the Old Testament again further evidence of God’s compassion toward His people in the very relationship He has with the people of Israel. God’s steadfast love and mercy toward the people of Israel is manifested by the covenant He establishes with them. This is a covenant of love, a relationship which entails obligations and mutual service. The covenant established between God and Israel is by no means one-sided. On the contrary, the covenant requires action on the part of both parties, wherein each party has responsibilities to the other; responsibilities which have their foundation in love.
Israel was God’s chosen people and because of this, the Israelites strongly believed that because of their covenant relationship with God they could expect His kindness and readiness to help them in times of need. At the same time, God expected Israel to love Him with all their heart. In this covenant relationship between God and Israel, God leads, guides, provides for, and protects His people. All these acts of God toward His people are acts of love. The covenantal love of God is joined together with His compassion. God’s compassion shown to Israel is more of a practical nature than an emotional one. In the covenant relationship between God and His people Israel, God’s loving kindness is manifested by the sympathy He shows for their distress and the desire to alleviate their suffering. “And the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people which are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters.’”(Exodus 3:7)
The compassion shone by God to His people resulted in the understanding that the Israelites were to treat others - family members, friends and even strangers – with the same compassion which God showed to them. We see examples of this in Isaiah 1:17; Proverbs 19:17; and Micah 6:8.
In the Old Testament, compassion is an expected duty among the people of Israel. It is a defining characteristic of Israel as the chosen people of God - a holy nation, a people set apart – and is primarily set in the context of family relationships. But compassion wasn’t something just to be shared among family members; it was a duty of each family member to show mercy and compassion to those outside the family unit as well. Again, we see the practice of compassion on a more practical level rather than on the emotional level. It is a duty, but it is a duty nevertheless motivated by love.
Showing compassion to another is part of the broader duty of keeping God’s commandments. One of the Ten Commandments says that we are to love our neighbor. The compassion that causes an individual to help the poor, the marginalized, the homeless, and the sick; to protect the vulnerable and the weak among us; and to promote justice and maintain peace is not limited in the Old Testament just to the people of Israel. It finds its perfection in the God-man Jesus Christ, Who showed compassion to all people, Jew and Gentile alike. With its perfection in Christ, compassion becomes one of the cardinal virtues expected of the people of God in the New Testament and the New Covenant made between God and His people through and in Jesus Christ.
In Jesus Christ, all the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 1:19). Therefore, Christ demonstrates fully by His life on earth the indescribable and limitless compassion and steadfast love of God. Because compassion is a characteristic of God Himself, we who are His children by baptism and adoption must also have compassion as one of our character traits.
Jesus clearly showed compassion in the way He treated people from every walk of life. It made no difference whether a person was rich or poor; slave or freeman; prostitute or person of virtue; Jew or Gentile; believer or non-believer. Jesus did not deal with God’s chosen people, the Jews, exclusively, but rather He dealt with all people without exception, even to the point of loving one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 10:30-37).
Too often today, when we use the word compassion, we do so in the context of speaking about the poor and the marginalized. But a significant aspect of Christ’s ministry is to those who are suffering. This raises the question, “Who are those who suffer?” Is it just the poor who suffer? Is it just the homeless? Are not those who are unemployed and having trouble paying their bills the suffering as well? Is not a person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol a person who suffers? What about a person who suffers from depression or some other clinical or chronic illness or disease? Are these not the suffering too?
Jesus’ model of ministry focused on God’s concern for the overall physical, social, and spiritual needs of all people, not just a certain group or class of people. God’s love is not exclusive, but inclusive. His compassion is given not just to this or that group of people but to everyone who is in need and chooses to accept what He has to offer. What is truly amazing about Jesus’s earthly ministry is the way He delivered His message so that people of all walks of life could easily understand and receive it. Yet, no matter how He delivered the message, the end result of the message was always the same…that we must be servants to one another.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus called all people to love unconditionally, to be kind and compassionate, to forgive without reservation, to give without measure, and to be servants of one another in joy and charity. The uniqueness of Jesus’s ministry lies not in the actions of a mere human being, but in the actions of God Himself. In the person of Jesus Christ, we see how God truly loves His people and has a genuine concern for them. God considers all people worthy of respect and compassion because of who and what they are – beings created in His image and likeness.
The compassion of Christ carries within it the qualities of tenderness and affection. Compassion flows from the heart of Christ in unimpeded abundance. Compassion is a fundamental and distinctive quality of God. “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful” (Psalm 115:5) and “Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; the Father of all mercies and the God of all consolation…” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
The compassion of Christ knows no limits; it is boundless. Christ cares nothing about a person’s station in life. He doesn’t care where we came from, where we are, or what we do for a living. He cares only about us. He shows us all deep love and profound compassion, despite our weaknesses and utter sinfulness. To those who seek Him with a sincere heart, He opens His arms and welcomes and embraces them with a unfailing love that defies all human description.
In the Gospel of St. Luke we are told the story of an encounter Jesus had with a lawyer. If you remember, a lawyer asks Jesus the question, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” After some back and forth, Jesus finally tells the man, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer, in typical lawyerly fashion, asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus then proceeds to tell the story of the Good Samaritan.
Why did Jesus tell the story of the Good Samaritan? In order to answer this question, we must first look at the society and times in which Jesus lived. During Jesus’ time, there were definite rules regarding how the Jews should treat outsiders, namely Gentiles and Samaritans. There were also set rules about how the priests and elders should relate to others, about how men should treat women, about what a person could do and not do on the Sabbath, etc. Such rules ultimately ended up segregating people into specific groups or classes. It also allowed some of these groups to establish themselves in positions of power and privilege, which resulted in a disconnect with and mistreatment of those groups which were considered inferior or lacking in some way.
During the time in which Jesus lived, the command to love one’s neighbor was actually a religious obligation (Leviticus 19:18), so the lawyer who posed the question to Jesus did so to find out exactly who he was to consider as his neighbor in order to fulfill his religious duty. But Jesus wasn’t going to be baited. On the contrary, Jesus took the opportunity to make clear that one’s neighbor was every person the lawyer came into contact with, regardless of whether or not that person was of his tribe or class.
Christ’s response to the lawyer’s question made no distinction between persons nor did it consider a person’s ethnic or social background as being a deciding factor as to who is worthy of one’s compassion, mercy and love.  The Lord’s message was indeed very clear – you cannot love God and not love those whom God loves. And we can even stretch that further by saying that you cannot call yourself a Christian if you do not live exactly and fully as Christ lived.
It stands to reason that if we love God, then we must love our neighbor. It is also true that if we love our neighbor, then we love God; for love of our neighbor is borne out of our love for God. There can be no separation or distinction between our relationship with God and our relationship with one another because they are intertwined together in the person of Jesus Christ.
Because the fullness of God is in Jesus, then it stands to reason that Jesus is truly God. And because Jesus lived among us, then we must say with all certainty that we have seen the face of God. Many of our kind knew Him personally, have walked with Him, have eaten with Him, and have touched Him. Their personal experiences of God on earth have been handed down to us through the ages, even to this day. Jesus Christ is not some mere historical personage. No, He is more than that. He is God Himself, the compassionate and all-merciful One.
While He was among us on earth, we saw Jesus do many wonderful things. We watched as He ministered to those in need: comforting the bereaved, healing the sick, caring for the oppressed and down-trodden. Whatever their problem was, Jesus cared for them unconditionally. But these were not the doings of just a human being, but they were also the doings of God Himself.
In Jesus Christ, we are able to experience the love and compassion of God in real and tangible ways.  And that life which He lived on earth is still with us today, continued in the Church which He established by His Blood. It is the Church’s responsibility to minister to all people without exception or partiality. Our mandate is not only to care for and comfort the poor and the marginalized, but those who are suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment, and depression; or who are divorced, forgotten or abandoned. In short, the Church is to care for all those who suffer or are in need in any way.
Sadly, however, we can look at the Church and see that there is a general lack of compassion and mercy in the body of believers, a society which is called to be a “holy nation, a people set apart.” This lack of compassion does not come from Christ, Who is the Head of the Church but rather from the fact that many within this holy nation we call the Church do not even know Christ other than by name and a few historical facts. Most believers do not intimately know Him or the more detailed elements of His life, which are easily learned by reading Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels, and the writings of the holy Fathers.
Rather than fully embracing Christ and making His life ours many of us have embraced indifference and a self-serving life. We are more concerned with looking out for ourselves than for others. And, if we do give attention to others in need, it is only to the extent we are comfortable and not inconvenienced. Many of us will never step outside our comfort zone. For example, many people will involve themselves in some kind of charitable work during the holiday season or during a crisis or disaster, but in the life of Christ this is not enough.
Living a truly Christ-like life means that compassion must be in our hearts each and every day. Compassion is the heart of Christ and therefore it must be our heart also. We must live compassion and mercy every day of our lives. Christ’s compassion knows no limits or boundaries. As Christians, our compassion must know no limits or boundaries as well.
We are called to live a life of mercy and compassion because of the mercy and compassion God extends to us every day through Jesus Christ. God expects us to be like Him in every way. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, we hear Jesus say to us, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). What this means is that we are to be like God in every way. In fact, our primary purpose in this world is to be a reflection of the character of God.
It is interesting to note that the word “perfect” also means “complete” and “mature.” In the context in which Jesus used it when He said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, the word perfect can be taken to mean complete. Therefore, we can say that Christ expects that our compassion and mercy will be complete and full just as God’s mercy and compassion toward us is complete and full.
The Lord expects us to walk in compassion, mercy and love every day of our lives. Yet, many of us pick and choose who we want to love and how we love them; who we want to show compassion toward and be merciful to, and when. In this regard, I am as guilty as anyone else. But we can all overcome this by making sure we stay grounded in Christ.
Living in Christ is a continual spiritual journey. It is a journey during which a little of our old self dies more and more each day and Christ becomes more alive in us. As sin dies within us, the Light of Christ burns brighter in us and we become more God-like. As Christ becomes more alive in us compassion and mercy become more and more our character traits.
Jesus tells us in the Gospel of St. Luke: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  Do not judge others, and you will not be judged; do not condemn others, and you will not be condemned; forgive others, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Your gift will return to you in good measure – pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. For the measure you give, will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 636-38). Jesus is not speaking here of money, but of compassion and mercy. These are more important to God than money. God has no concern or interest for money except as a way to provide and sustain His children in this world, where money is needed for the basic necessities of life as we know it.
As Christians, we are called to a better way of living. As Christians, we have been established as a holy nation, a people set apart. As Christians, we are called to be leaders and examples of moral excellence to our fellow men. Our mandate is clear: don’t be selfish; don’t be arrogant; and don’t try to impress others. Be humble, seeing others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others too. (Philippians 2:3-4).
You must have a heart of compassion like Christ. Compassion is the heart of Christ. It is a characteristic of God. Showing compassion and love for those who are suffering or hurting in any way accompanied by a sincere desire to help alleviate their suffering and pain is what it means to have the heart of Christ within us.
As much as compassion, mercy and love must be fully within each of us, these same characteristics must reside in the heart of the Church. If any one or all of these virtues is absent from the Church, the Church ceases to be the mystical body of Christ and becomes nothing more than another human institution. The Church can only be the body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, if it possesses within itself, all that Christ is.
The Church will not make a difference in this world, will not change lives for the better, and will not positively influence the people of God, believers and non-believers alike, if it does not have the heart of Christ. The Church must always be of the mind and heart of Christ.
As individual Christians too, we cannot be mediocre in our compassion, mercy and love. For if we are lukewarm in the practice of these then Jesus will vomit us out of His mouth. Nothing less than living a full life in Christ will save us from being rejected by Him on the awesome Day of Judgment.
Compassion is the heart of Christ. It requires humility and unselfish giving. One cannot be selfish and compassionate at the same time.  When God showed us His compassion and mercy, we were saved. He washed away our sins and gave us new birth and life through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Since we are created in the image and likeness of God, we must, therefore, clothe ourselves with the same tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility and patience that He possesses.  We must make allowances for one another’s faults and shortcomings. We must forgive everyone who offends us and wounds us without exception, no matter how much we have been hurt. This may be hard to do, but it can be done if we look to Christ and draw our strength from Him.
We must be able to set aside our own personal pride and feelings in order to truly be compassionate. This requires humility on our part. It’s very easy to hold a grudge and be unforgiving. It’s a lot harder to let go of the anger, resentment and hurt that we feel and forgive those who have wronged us. God knows this, but He makes available to us the grace that we need to do what is right. So, whatever you say or whatever you do, always remember that you will be judged according to the same standards by which you judge others. There will be no mercy for those who do not show mercy to others, but if you have been merciful in your dealings with others, especially when it comes to their sins and transgressions against you, God will be merciful when He judges you.
In all things, we must be of Christ. If we act contrary to what we profess, then what we profess is a lie. In other words, we cannot say that we are Christians if we do not live the life of Christ and bear faithful witness to that life in real and tangible ways. Our hearts must be the heart of God. When our heart is God’s heart, compassion and love will flow abundantly from us; and we shall find life at its best and build a legacy which is worth leaving to those who come after us.



Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Donors and Donations

As many of you know, we have been trying for quite some time to raise money to restore our Cathedral in Utica. In the process of going about raising funds, however, several issues, concerns and questions, all of which are related to basically a single topic, have come to light and which I feel must now be addressed, especially given the Church’s current difficulties. The two topics which seem to be of major concern to many of you looking to give financially to the Church relate primarily to the question of donor privacy and anonymity, and the obligation of having to give.
Let me begin by saying that the Italo-Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of the Americas and Canada is deeply committed to its donors, patrons, benefactors and supporters and remains dedicated to treating them with the highest level of care and respect.  It is been our long-standing policy to ensure that our relationship with those who provide financial and material support to the Church is governed at all times by Scriptural precepts and mandates.
Raising money is never easy. The past several years have seen our economy take a downward turn and this has resulted in a tightening of the fiscal belt on the part of many. There is less money to go around, especially when it comes to charitable donations, and giving priorities have changed. The unique challenges our Church has faced over the past several years has not made the fundraising effort any easier. Several of our funding sources have taken a “wait and see” attitude regarding our future or have withdrawn completely. The financial situation of others has changed to the degree that they have had to cancel or withdraw their pledges or giving activity indefinitely.  I want those of you who have stopped your giving, withdrawn or suspended your pledges; or paused your giving, for whatever the reason or reasons, to know that we are still very grateful for what you have done for us. We hope and pray that we may be able to regain or resume those relationships in the near future.
To those of you who are considering or desirous of giving a financial or other gift to the Church, I want to make clear the following point: No one who desires to give a financial or other gift to the Church is "obligated" to do so. Giving is an act of love, freedom and generosity, not an act of obligation, duty, or social expectation. Even for those of us who are members of the Church, our “obligation” to support the works of the Church should be motivated by love, and nothing else.
When or if you give to the Church, you give only what your individual financial or economic circumstances will allow. If those circumstances do not allow you to give financially, that’s ok. Don’t worry about it. There are other ways to support your Church. You can give of your time and talent. If your present life circumstances do not permit you to give of your time and talent, then give of your prayers, for they are just as precious, necessary and important to the life and work of the Church.
If you have made a pledge to the Church for a specific financial amount and find that your financial circumstances have changed and you are unable to fulfill that pledge, again, don’t worry about it. We understand. We understand that the economy is not good and that people are having a hard time making ends meet. You should never  feel guilty or embarrassed because you cannot fulfill your pledge. God understands and we do too!  And if you have taken pause in your discernment or decision to give to the Church because of our present situation, please do not, and I repeat DO NOT, feel pressured to move on your decision because of our difficulties. Nobody can force you to part with your hard-earned money and you have no obligation whatsoever to donate to the Church or make a gift to it of any amount. No one in the Archdiocese will ever make you feel guilty or ashamed if you cannot follow through on a promised financial gift. And, no one outside the Archdiocese has any right whatsoever to make any demands of you to donate to the Church.
Many of you are well aware of our financial needs. Currently, the Archdiocese has total outstanding debt of $633,584, of which $383,000 is for the restoration work done thus far on the Cathedral. The outstanding restoration bills of the Cathedral are an “urgent need,” which we need to pay as quickly as possible. The payment of the restoration bills is our priority but that does not mean that if you have given or want to give money for another purpose, we will use what you give us to pay off the restoration bills, any other bills, or for another purpose. We will use your money ONLY for the purpose and intent for which it was given.

You have the right to restrict your donation for a specific use and if there is any doubt in your mind that your money will not be used for the purpose for which it is given, then by all means withdraw or cancel your donation. In addition, if you have already given money and feel your donation will not be used as desired, then you have the right to ask for your donation back. We will only use gifts earmarked as “Undesignated” for general purposes and in no case, unless we have the express written permission of the donor, will such funds be used for salaries or other administrative expenses. These costs will always be covered by other sources or through our Annual Metropolitan’s Appeal. Undesignated or general donations will only be used for the ministries, programs and services of the Archdiocese or any of its parishes, missions or fellowships. Again, not one dollar of your donated money will used for administrative or salary expenses without your permission.
At the heart of the Archdiocese lies a faithful and uncompromising commitment to the teachings of Christ and His Gospel of life as well as to religious freedom, whereby we are able to fully live and practice our faith without any restriction, hindrance or interference. The Archdiocese values and safeguards its autonomy and religious freedom and does not accept gifts when a condition of such acceptance would compromise these fundamental principles. Additionally, neither the Archdiocese nor any person in a position of authority in the Church, will be forced, coerced or intimidated by any person, entity or government agency to do anything which goes against or compromises the faith we are sworn to uphold and defend.
So that there is a clear understanding of what our position is regarding donations and our relationships with donors, past, present or future, I restate here our Donor Bill of Rights and other Archdiocesan policies regarding the Church’s relationships with its donors and benefactors.
Our donors have the following rights:

  1. To be informed of the Church’s mission; of the way we intend to use donated resources, and of our commitment to use donations effectively for their intended purposes.
  2. To be kept informed of the impact of their philanthropy and the Archdiocese’s evolving needs and priorities.
  3. To be informed of the identity of those serving on the Church’s governing boards and to expect those boards to exercise prudent judgment in their stewardship responsibilities.
  4. To have access to the Archdiocese’s most recent financial statements.
  5. To be assured that their gifts will be used for the purposes for which they were given.
  6. To be informed whether those seeking donations are volunteers or employees of the Archdiocese or hired solicitors.
  7. To be assured that a donor’s right to privacy will be respected at all times.
  8. To receive appropriate acknowledgment, recognition, and publicity for their donation in consultation with the donor.
  9. To be assured that all information about their donation and identity is handled with respect and with confidentiality, and to respect and ensure anonymity, if requested.
  10. To receive progress reports on supported activity.
  11. To have the opportunity for their names to be deleted from any and all mailings lists of the Archdiocese or its affiliates.
  12. To feel free to ask questions when making a donation and to receive prompt, truthful and forthright answers.
In addition to the above, the Archdiocese has the following policies in place regarding donors and gifts to the Church:

  1. Financial and other gifts will only be used for the purposes for which they are given.
  2. The Archdiocese will not place any donor’s name on any mailing list of the Archdiocese or any of its affiliates without the express written consent of the donor.
  3. The Archdiocese will maintain the confidentiality of all donor information and records. The Diocesan Bishop shall be particularly responsible for ensuring the confidentiality of all donor information.
  4. The Archdiocese will not accept any donation which, in the opinion of the Church, is contrary to the Church’s mission or which may, if accepted, compromise the Church’s integrity or image.
  5. Unless specifically given “In Memory Of” or “In Honor Of”, the Church shall not accept any gift from any individual, corporation, business or other entity in which there is an expectation of something to be given in return.
  6. “Restricted Gifts” are only to be used for the purpose or purposes for which they are given. If such purpose no longer exists, gifts are to be returned to the respective donors.
The Italo-Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of the Americas and Canada is grateful for the support it has received from its donors, benefactors, friends and supporters over the years. We would like that support to continue and hope that others will come forward to help us in our mission and vision.

To those of you who have or had concerns regarding the issues discussed in this letter, I want to say to you all that you have my solemn promise and personal assurance and guarantee (backed up by my resignation, if necessary) that we will always treat your financial and material gifts to the Church with the utmost respect; that we will never use your designated donation for any other purpose for which it was given; and that we will never betray your trust or privacy, nor your desire or need for confidentiality or anonymity.
I hope this public statement alleviates the concerns and questions raised by some of you - past, present and potential donors – and that we may continue together in our work of rebuilding the Italo-Greek Church. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me at any time.


Your unworthy servant in Christ,

+Archbishop Stephen