Monday, January 20, 2014

Sing to the Lord, for He has Done Marvelous Things!

The year 2013 was certainly a very interesting one for the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church in the Americas and Canada. Certainly it was a very difficult one, but difficulty has always been very much a part of Italo-Greek life. I cannot remember a time in the history of our Church when difficulty has not been a part of our ecclesial life. For sure, difficulty has been a constant companion of the Church and our people from the very beginning. One only has to read the history of our Church to see the many difficulties and sorrows our clergy and people have endured over the centuries. We could lament this, but would that be beneficial or helpful to us and to our spiritual growth both individually and as a community of faith? I don’t think so. We should look at the difficulties and sorrows we have experienced as opportunities for growth, as lessons from which we have been able to learn a great deal about God’s infinite love and mercy toward us.

The past several years, especially the period from 2010 to present, have been filled with many disappointments and sorrows. I can easily say that last year, 2013, was the most difficult for me personally. It began a personal crisis of faith which deeply enhanced a “dark night of the soul” I have been experiencing for quite some time. Periods of immense doubt, despair and loneliness have consumed me. They have virtually impeded my ability to pray and fulfill my priestly and episcopal responsibilities. Yet, in all of this “darkness” my longing for God continues to grow day by day. It is a painful experience yet it is, at the same time, an experience which has opened my eyes to many great new things and visions.

When I say “visions” I do not mean supernatural apparitions but rather new opportunities, of things that can be. For example, I have come to a better understanding of what the role of a priest and bishop is and of what the Church is. The difficulties we have experienced, especially during 2013, have opened my eyes to realities that, while I knew to be true, were nevertheless clouded by earthly or worldly considerations and preoccupations.

When we view things in terms of the world in which we live, we run the risk of leaving God out of the picture and thus leave ourselves open to unnecessary disappointments and troubles. God does not disappoint us, but we disappoint one another. One thing I have learned from the events of 2013 is that in ALL that we do, God’s Will must be considered first and foremost. In other words, we should “never put our trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.” That is not to say we should not trust another human being, but we must realize that things do not always work out the way we hope. Past experiences do not always predict the outcome of future or similar experiences. In the past, I have relied too much on past experiences with people in determining what their future actions will be. I forgot that life constantly changes and nothing remains the same. People’s lives change. Their views and ways of thinking change. Their personal and financial situations change over time. Unexpected and even unwanted events force their way into people’s lives which create chaos and uncertainty.

At age 54, I find that I still have a lot to learn about life and people. 2013 was a great learning experience for me personally.  The Church is run by human beings who are flawed and weak and who are sinners. Among the first in that group of sinners I place myself. All who are members of the Church are sinners; none of us is without sin. But, looking at myself in the mirror every day, I see a great sinner. I see an individual who falls short of what is expected of me not only as a human being, but also as a priest and bishop. Certainly, many of the problems our Church has faced have come about in no small part because of my own personal failings, weaknesses, inadequacies and sinfulness. But God gives us an opportunity with each new day to change our lives, to take a new path, to redeem ourselves, and to make a difference for good.

Temptation is the constant companion of every bishop, priest and deacon. The temptation to seek personal glory and fame, of having position and power, of receiving recognition and accolades, assaults us every day. As human beings we want to be acknowledged, we even crave it or believe we have a right to it. In reality, we are not important. We are here to serve as Christ Himself served. We exist to be servants, slaves of the Lord. We cannot escape the temptations of material and emotional gain and satisfaction, but we can avoid them if we try very hard to stay focused on Christ and remember that we serve Him.

I never thought I was seeking the soul-destroying vices of glory and fame, position and power, recognitions and accolades. In fact, I really thought I was doing my best to avoid them. But I wasn’t doing as good a job as I thought because, as it turned out and 2013 proved, I needed some enlightenment. Talk about learning a lesson! My arrest and the subsequent charges were God’s way of telling me I was not quite where I should be in my understanding of self and my life as a priest and bishop.

While I know in my heart that I am a servant, there must have still been something of the world inside me that tainted or corrupted my priesthood and episcopate; something which needed to be purged away.  What happened to me was a clear message that those of us who are clergy cannot be concerned with worldly praise, accolades or position. Equally important a lesson is the understanding that we cannot always trust our own decisions to be absolutely right or correct.  We must look to others for advice and counsel. While a bishop is the ultimate authority in his diocese or archdiocese, he can, and often does, make administrative mistakes and errors in judgment because of his own flawed humanity. The old saying is true, “pride goes before the fall,” and none of us are exempt from occasional or even frequent attacks of pride. It only takes one instance of giving into a particular temptation to end up in difficulty or trouble.

There is a reason why the Church, in its wisdom, has appointed through Canon Law, councils and counsellors to the bishop to assist him in the administration and governance of his diocese. It is to ensure that a bishop makes the best possible decisions as often as possible to ensure the spiritual and physical well-being of the People of God entrusted to his care.

Bishops and priests have grave responsibilities before God, more than any other person in the world. Much authority is given to a bishop and priest. Because of this, so much more is expected of them by God. An irresponsible exercise of that authority and power carries with it grave consequences not only for the bishop and priest, but also for the souls entrusted to his care. The degree of severity of responsibility is even greater for a bishop, because he possesses the fullness of the priesthood. Therefore, a bishop has responsibility for all the priests who serve under him, since they function with his blessing and under his authority.

Like any other human organization, the Church is subject to corruption, greed, vanity and a host of other human failings that enter it through the fallen humanity of its human ministers and members.  But the Church is much more than a mere human institution or organization. It exists in this world but it is not only of this world. It is other-worldly in ways not always understood to the simple and limited human mind. A bishop, priest or deacon who concerns himself with the pursuits and things of the world actually corrupts the divine gift which God bestowed upon him through sacred ordination. It is for this reason that the life of every bishop and priest must be firmly rooted in prayer, abstinence and sacrifice, and in the constant pursuit of God.

No bishop can run  his diocese alone. This is especially true given the unique situation we face in the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church. Ours is a very special missionary and evangelical journey. Prior to my election and enthronement as ruling bishop in 2004, our Church had been without episcopal oversight and leadership and clergy since 1982. The years between 1982 and 2004 saw our Church steadily decline and wither away. In many ways, it was a repeat of what happened in the middle ages when latinization virtually wiped out the Byzantine rite and the Greek Church in Sicily.

Since the establishment of our first community in Philadelphia in 1902, our entire existence in this country has been filled with hardship and difficulties. Many of our elders know only too well how difficult it was just to be a person of Sicilian or Italian decent in a country which initially looked upon them as undesirables and second-class citizens. Religiously, it was even more difficult, as our customs and traditions were unfamiliar and strange to the Catholic communities of the cities in which the Italo-Greeks established themselves. Nevertheless, we persevered and were there for each other. It was our Italo-Greek identity that kept us together and allowed our Church to continue. It was the sense of community, of conciliarity, that has kept alive what people like Bishop Ambrogio and Archbishop Gennadios worked so hard for. It was the intimate relationship between bishop and people that kept the Italo-Greek Church alive all these years.

In our own particular situation, I have emphasized time and time again the necessity of you being involved in the life of the Church at the diocesan level. Every parish, mission and fellowship should share and have a voice in the administration of the Archdiocese through the Metropolitan Council. The refusal or indifference on the part of many of you to be actively involved in the life of the Archdiocese is really inexcusable and really perplexing to me. It is true that where the bishop is, there is the Church, but there can be no Church if there are no people. Who is the bishop to shepherd and govern if the people who make up the Church do not actively participate in its life?

Synodality and conciliarity are two very necessary characteristics of the Church. When one or both of these elements are absent or not fully in place, the Church suffers. History has given us plenty of examples of the bad things that can happen in the Church when absolute authority goes unchecked. Throughout our entire existence, concilarity has been present, but the Church has been without the blessing of synodality for many, many years. This is a sad situation, one which I have worked tirelessly, but unsuccessfully, tried to correct since my becoming bishop in 2004.

In our efforts to rebuild the Italo-Greek Church, we have placed great importance on the necessity and role of such entities as the Metropolitan Council, the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, the Archdiocesan Finance Council, the Presbyteral Council, the College of Consultors, etc. These councils are not merely advisory bodies to the bishop. They are charged by the bishop to actively carry out specific responsibilities entrusted to them by the bishop and in his name. They assist and support the bishop in the governance of his diocese. While we have not been in a position to completely form and put into place all the canonically required entities, I have been fortunate to have at my disposal the wise and good counsel of several knowledgeable individuals. That being said, we are still very deficient in having the necessary entities required by Canon Law to assist me in what I want to be a superior and recognizable standard of excellence in the governance and administration of the Archdiocese.

Another deficiency we have, and one which is very critical, is the lack of clergy for service to the Church. As you know, I have been reluctant to ordain men to the diaconate and priesthood without them first having any proper spiritual formation. This does not mean just academic education but thorough spiritual formation. I don’t want priests in the Archdiocese who are academics or merely book smart. I want true pastors who have a heart for Christ and who understand what it means to be a servant.

His Holiness, Pope Francis recently stated that when men are not properly formed in the seminary, they end up being “little monsters.” Men not properly formed for and in the priesthood cannot be expected in turn to properly form the faithful in their own faith. What ends up happening then is that we have a dysfunctional Church that does not understand its role and purpose in society and in the world.

We have no interest in having ‘little monsters” in the Italo-Greek Church. We want only pastors, servants, and sound spiritual fathers who are exemplary models of holiness and integrity. Sound preparation and maturity are critical to the selection, calling and ordination of men as priests and deacons of the Archdiocese.

The most important element of a seminarian’s formation is his spiritual formation. Great emphasis must be placed on the spiritual formation of the seminarian and the on-going spiritual formation of every priest.  One of the goals we will seek to accomplish over the next year is the creation and establishment of a seminary, a house of formation, where men interested in the diaconate and priesthood can come and live together in community and be properly formed for a life of service to the Church.

Having well-trained and properly formed clergy to serve God’s people is critical to successfully carrying out the Church’s ministry in the world. A priest must be a person of faith. He must not only know his faith, but he must be able to live it to the fullest. A priest who is not formed in the faith or whose faith is lukewarm will not be able to properly and effectively minister to or serve the people entrusted to his care, nor will he be able to help them grow and mature in their faith.

Many of our people acknowledge their faith, call themselves Orthodox Christians, but, for whatever reason, do not actively live the faith. They may have stopped attending divine services or maybe they do not participate in the life of the Church at all. The reasons for this are many. It could be they feel the Church is out of touch with the times because it does not share their views on such issues as birth control, abortion, contraception, pre-marital sex, and homosexuality. It could be because of the Orthodox Church’s focus on anything but the Gospel and it's hypocrisy of walking the talk. We have all experienced the judgmental, unchristian, and arrogant behavior that seems to permeate and find a welcome home among many of the Orthodox in this country. Power, authority and position seem to be the primary concerns of many in the nine Orthodox jurisdictions in America. While the various Churches do an exemplary job of preaching the Gospel, they do an awful job living it. The packaging is very pretty and nice, but that’s about it.

The power and authority of every bishop, whether he bears the title of pope, patriarch archbishop or metropolitan, derives solely from Christ. When one keeps that in mind, his behavior and actions will be much different. If we acknowledge that our power and authority comes from Christ, is given to us by Him through the Holy Spirit for service to His Church, then we will have a better understanding of our role in the Church and our relationship to God’s people.

Bishops and priests must always reflect the values and needs of the Church in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Over time, the effect of this will result in the blossoming of a Church which is truly the Body of Christ, a Church abundantly blessed by God; a Church not seen as an “institution” but rather as a living and vibrant community of faith sustained and made holy by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Rather than being obsessed with itself, it will seek to dedicate itself to dispensing the love, compassion and mercy of God in every moment of its existence.

One of the things I have come to learn is that many people perceive the Church to be an “institution of negatives.” In many ways they are right. Negativity permeates in the Church. Many bishops and priests often look sour and very rarely smile. Following all the prescribed rules and regulations to the letter is expected. There is no room for joy and celebration except for those occasions and times approved by the Church. In their Church, we must always wear ashes and sackcloth and keep our eyes lowered in repentance and shame because of our utter sinfulness before God. This is not what the Church is all about.  The Church is about life and joy.   Certainly, we should be mindful of our sinfulness and work every day to eliminate sin from our lives, but the Church should be a community of joy; a warm, inviting and inclusive home where everyone is welcome and where all people can come to connect or re-connect with God and experience the love and peace which only He can give.

The Church should be a refuge and well-spring of hope, a place where people can come and be told that despite all the things that are wrong with this world and the obstacles we face as flawed human beings, redemption, salvation and happiness are still within our reach. The Church should empower people in goodness and holiness. It must lead by love. It must listen attentively and with patience to the opinions, concerns and fears of its members. Yet, at the same time, like a loving mother, it must be firm but kind and gentle in guiding and correcting us when it appears we are drifting off the path of righteousness.

The Church should be a community obsessed with God’s love, mercy and compassion and not obsessed with dogmas, irrational authority, and sex. Bishops, priests and deacons should be leaders in making God’s love, mercy and compassion known to, and felt by, all God's people. Herein lies the true meaning of apostolic, evangelical and priestly ministry.

Only God is the perfect lover and the clergy must strive to show the faithful of the Church, and even those outside the Church, the many ways in which God’s love is made real and knowable for humankind. The Church is the vessel by which God’s love is poured out upon mankind. Bishops and priests must be lovers of mankind, emulating Christ, Who is the perfect lover of mankind. We must take love seriously. Loving and serving God’s people must be the priority of every bishop, priest and deacon in the Church.

In looking at the relationship between the Church and secular society, we must also consider our present understanding of the Church. We need to stop looking at the Church as some form of business, non-governmental, or non-profit charitable organization. Corporations and businesses are creations of the state. They are given “life”; they come into being and existence by fiat of the state or federal government. The Church, on the other hand, was established by Christ. It is a living organism which draws its life from Christ, Who is its Founder and Head. Without Christ, the Church does not exist. It is difficult to describe fully in human terms what the Church really is. The reason for this is because, at its very essence, the Church is a mystery. While visible to human eyes, the Church is nevertheless clouded in divine mystery, a mystery which can only be understood by those who are truly one with Christ.

We must place more emphasis on the Church as a community of faith, a religious society, the mystical Body of Christ, the Kingdom of God on earth. Our tendency has been to see the Church more in earthly terms to the exclusion of its divine origins and essence. We must speak more of Christ and the Church’s relationship to Him as opposed to the Church being a worldly institution or “corporation.”

As we move forward into 2014 and continue our efforts to rebuild the Italo-Greek Church, we will talk more in terms of ministries and apostolic service. I would like to see us move away from terminology and definitions that give the false impression of the Church as being some kind of quasi-business. In those instances where we have taken to ourselves certain functions of administration that have a secular orientation and which are not traditionally part of the Church’s governing model (i.e., chief operating officer, general counsel, etc.), we will explore their usefulness and necessity in furtherance of the Church’s mission and, where necessary, will either modify or eliminate them. In those instances where we retain such positions, we will ensure that they function entirely in support of the Church’s mission and apostolic work.

We will also explore the various ways in which the Church exists in civil society and under civil law and make the changes necessary to ensure that it is seen only as the Body of Christ and not, in any way, as a “business.” Civil or religious corporations will be reviewed to ensure that they do not, in any way, create the impression that the Church is merely a business or some kind of not-for-profit organization.

In evaluating our present situation and our goals for the future, special care will be taken to ensure that the Church has every possible tool at its disposal to carry out its mission successfully in secular society while maintaining and enhancing its holiness, integrity and efficiency in serving God’s people. While we may adopt certain business practices of secular non-profit organizations, it will be with the understanding that these are employed only to help the Church further its divine mission on earth. Our “business model” will be exclusively the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the most perfect rule by which we should live and conduct our daily affairs. When it comes to the matter of accountability, we must always remember that we are accountable first to Christ God as the Head of the Church and secondly to one another as members of the Body of Christ.

In all things good and noble, the Church must be the leader and prime example. The events of the past couple of years, especially the August 2013 arrests of both myself and Mr. Barker regarding the outstanding bills owed for the restoration of the Archdiocesan Cathedral, have been great learning experiences. Through them, God has done great and marvelous things for us personally and for the Church.

Such experiences humble us, they purge us of our pride and ego, and they help us to understand our humanity more. As difficult as the experience was and still is for me, I have learned so much and for those lessons I am very grateful. I gained a personal understanding of what people go through when they are arrested and find themselves in the criminal justice system. I understand the feelings of fear, abandonment, loneliness, shame, etc. and I thank God for the experience because it will help me be a better priest, bishop and pastor.

Another very important lesson I learned is that there is no “prestige” in being a priest and bishop. In other words, if worldly honors and position are what one seeks from the priesthood or episcopate, then one should not be a priest or bishop. If there is any “prestige” at all in being a priest or bishop, it comes from being a true and faithful servant of the Lord. Only by being a real and true servant will a priest and bishop have real power, authority, and position. With those gifts, however, come great responsibility and obligation.

All of us in the Church should have the virtues of genuine humility, simplicity and modesty. These virtues give a quality of authenticity and kindness to our relationships with one another and to those whom we meet in secular society. They also bring with them a great feeling of joy and exuberance. They energize and excite us and put things into a different perspective, one that is often lost on those who do not believe or who have a lukewarm faith.

We must willingly and cheerfully put our lives, our talents and our treasures at the service of the Church and through it, to those of God’s people in our communities who are in need and want. As has always been our practice, we will do good quietly, in ways which are known only to God and those we serve. Human praise and adulation are not what we seek as Orthodox Christians. We seek rather to serve the Lord and give glory to God by serving others in the name of Christ. We are aware of our limitations and the temptations we face in this life, yet, trusting in God and in the most holy Theotokos, we can face and overcome every temptation which has as its goal our utter ruination. Looking to Christ and His most blessed Mother and asking their help and protection, we can undertake difficult tasks and carry them through to a successful completion to the greater glory of God.

The Italo-Greek Church has always been known for its deep spirituality. We must work hard to reclaim this beautiful legacy bequeathed to us by our forefathers and mothers. Holy people such as St. Neilos of Rossano, St. Elias of Syracuse, St. Catherine of Catania, Bishop Ambrogio and Archbishop Gennadios have given us perfect examples of what it means to be in deep communion with God. These were deeply spiritual people whose lives were centered in prayer and the pursuit of creating vibrant and holy communities of believers. The spirituality we have received from these holy men and women flows from God’s love for us. It gains strength as we give ourselves to others in Christ, through whom we are led to the Father. In this way, our apostolic life, our life of prayer, and our community life are blended together, the result of which is a wonderful and beautiful harmony.

As we journey together and work side-by-side to rebuild our beloved Church, we must draw our spiritual and physical strength from the mysteries of the Crib, the Cross, the Tomb, and the Altar. We must be content to leave the results of our work and our efforts entirely in God’s hands, convinced that “if the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor.” We must listen carefully to the gentle whisperings of the Holy Spirit, by whom we are given the grace to be faithful disciples of Christ. We must not close our hearts, minds and eyes to new opportunities or ways of doing things.

The Church is not a museum. It is a vibrant living organism. The Church is not about physical plants and structures; it is not about bank accounts and best practices. The Church is about faith, hope and love; about relationships and service; about devotion and faithfulness; and about mercy, forgiveness and compassion.  We must sweep away not only the cobwebs in the Church, but also the guardians of those cobwebs. We must open all the windows and air out the mustiness. It is time to turn the Church upside down and shake from it all the dust and mold that has choked it for so long. We must rub away the rust and tarnish and polish it so that its beauty is once again revealed and is no longer hidden.

The home at Nazareth should be the model for our parishes and missions. They should be places filled with love and forgiveness, support and help, forgetfulness of self, openness to others, compassion and joy. Our communities must be rooted in and draw their strength and warmth from the love of Christ, Who has given Himself to us. This understanding of Church must pervade our attitudes and behavior to such an extent that it makes itself felt wherever we are and its embrace is not only inescapable but desired and welcomed.

There is no room in the Church for sour-pusses or negativity; for clergy or laity who are always negative, chastising or judgmental. The Church’s messages are ones of life, joy and hope. The Church does not need people who are prophets or messengers of doom and gloom. No, the Church needs people in its body who are proclaimers of the Good News and messengers of the hope, redemption and salvation found in Jesus Christ.

The Church is a community of celebration and thanksgiving made up of believers freely and openly acknowledging their sinfulness, weaknesses, shortcomings, and limitations but who rejoice, at the same time, in the promises of Christ and the hope that God loves and forgives.

The Church should be the living experience of love, of mercy and of compassion. It should be a treasure chest of all that is good and worth wanting. People everywhere and from all walks of life, people of faith or of no faith, should be able to seek it out as a model by which to live and achieve true peace, justice and happiness.

We have much to be thankful to God for in the Italo-Greek Church. Let us shake off the robe of despair and doubt, of fear and uncertainty, and place our future and all our hope in the hands of God. God has not failed us or abandoned us. Even in these recent times of extreme difficulty, hardship and persecution, God has revealed Himself to us in many wonderful and amazing ways.

My prayer and hope for you all and for our Church in this new year is that God will continue to do wondrous things for us, even if it means we must accept and endure even greater hardship and difficulties. We can survive and grow, blossom and flourish, but only if we keep our eyes fixed on God, our lives united to Christ, and our hearts and minds open to the inspiration and guidance of Holy Spirit.

Let us not despair or be sad but let us sing to the Lord, for He has done marvelous things for us!

God bless you all!

In His service,
+Archbishop Stephen