Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Only Christ and the Gospel Matter

Pope Francis, spiritual leader of the more than 1.2 billion member Roman Catholic Church, in meeting with youth during his recent visit to Rio di Janeiro for World Youth Day 2013, told the young people present to “go and make a mess in your dioceses.” In other words, he wanted them to shake things up, stir up the pot as it were, and make some changes in the way faith is lived and practiced in the local Churches. I am sure the Pope’s words made a lot of bishops in the Catholic Church very uneasy.

It is no longer business as usual in the Catholic Church. The “old boy network” is fast being dismantled and Francis is steering the “Ark of Salvation” in a different direction. Many Orthodox Christians would ask the questions, “What does what is happening in the Roman Catholic Church have to do with us? and “Why should we care what the Pope does? Well, my friends, the answer is very simple. It is because the pope, as a bishop, is doing and saying things that most of our bishops do not do and say. True, the Ecumenical Patriarch speaks in defense of the protection of the environment, and that is certainly a worthy cause, especially since it is God’s creation and we must all be good stewards of it. Unfortunately, however, it is not enough. Our bishops do not speak on the other important issues as Pope Francis does.

When you read the numerous, almost daily articles being written about Pope Francis in media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post, you will find a common theme running through all the articles, and that theme is one of “revolution.” In many ways, Pope Francis has started a real revolution in the Catholic Church. He is intent on making the Church relevant in this world by ensuring that it adheres faithfully to its primary function of preaching and living the Gospel. He is slowly stripping the Church of any perception of it being a multinational corporation or business and seeks rather to make it the society of faith, the Kingdom of God on earth, that Christ intended the Church to be.

As I said in an earlier post, I am a true Pope Francis fan. Obviously, I have never met him, but I truly owe him a deep debt of gratitude. For several years now, and especially the past two years, I have questioned my role and effectiveness as a bishop. I have listened to numerous accusations and heard remarks to the effect that I am not a real bishop because I drive around in an old pickup truck; because I cut my hair and don’t have a beard; because I don’t wear a cassock all the time; because I take my mother and godmother to play bingo or to the casino once a week; because I worked as an EMT, etc. “He can’t be a real bishop because OUR bishops don’t do things like that!” The “legitimacy,” “credibility,” and so-called “canonicity” of both myself and the Church I shepherd have always been judged in light of those things that I do or don’t do, especially when it comes to the “externals.”

But Pope Francis has proven that statement to be totally false. Thank you, Pope Francis, for renewing my belief that a bishop is nothing more than a servant and no different than the people he serves and for renewing in my heart the joy of what I do and the life that I live as a servant of the Lord.

It is true, I do drive around in a beat up pickup truck, but that truck has served me and the Church faithfully for many years. It gets me where I have to go and it has helped me deliver thousands of toys to thousands of underprivileged children throughout Oneida, Herkimer and Madison counties for many years; it has provided the means to deliver hundreds of Thanksgiving baskets to needy families in the same geographic areas and for the same number of years; and it has helped deliver furniture from our Cathedral thrift shop to newly arrived immigrant families from Burma, Bosnia and elsewhere. Yes, that little tan pickup truck has served me and the Cathedral parish well. With over 160,000 miles on it, it has been a hard worker for the Church and will be sorely missed when it is gone.

It is true that I cut my hair and do not wear a beard. Simply put, I don’t have a beard because I have a skin condition which does not permit it. And I cut my hair because I prefer short hair. Long hair and a beard are fine if one wants to wear them, but having a beard and long hair does not make one a better priest or bishop. In fact, having a beard and hair that is unwashed, greasy and full of dandruff, like some Orthodox priests have, certainly does nothing to edify or inspire the faithful.

It is true that I don’t wear a cassock all the time, and sometimes I do not wear one when I am at the Cathedral, but that is only because I am working and it is inconvenient to wear it when one is cleaning or doing some kind of physical labor. Sometimes I don’t wear it because I simply want some privacy. A priest is on call 24/7, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We need our own private and personal time too in order to take care of ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally.

It is true that I go to the casino. I take my mother once a week. It is our time together and I make no apologies for it. It is nothing more than entertainment and a day out with my mom or family so nothing more should be made of it than what it is.

It is true that I worked as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). I did so for nine years, and some of that time was even after I was made a bishop. Those were nine very happy and enjoyable years. I saw my work as an EMT as being nothing more than a way to fulfill the Lord’s command to care for the sick. If my health situation permitted it, I would still be doing it as part of my priestly and episcopal ministry.

Orthodox Christians, and I use the word Christian lightly because for many Orthodox it’s more important to be “Orthodox” than it is to be “Christian,” can be a very judgmental people. Don’t get me wrong, I know many Orthodox people who are good Christians, but I also know a great many more who have no idea what Christianity is really about. Because of this, the Orthodox Church has become a closed society. It’s as if there is a sign on the door of some of our churches that says, “Sinners and other Unacceptable People Not Welcome here.” The “Unacceptable People” could easily be defined as those who are not of the same ethnic background or liturgical heritage; or who may be gay, divorced, homeless, of a different skin color, or who don’t think the same way they do.

It saddens me to say this, but I find very little Christianity in Orthodoxy. And Pope Francis is making that even more evident as each day passes. The words and actions of the Pope make abundantly clear that as far as the Church is concerned, only Christ and the Gospel matter. What that means is that we should be focused only on the eternal truths revealed to us in the Gospel and making them present in our world.

Christ has given us the way to salvation and that way is a life in Him, a life which carries within itself the riches of love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness. And we are to share these riches abundantly with others. In our Orthodox Church, I don’t see very much sharing of these riches with fellow believers let alone non-believers.

As Pope Francis continues on with his program of renewing the Catholic Church we will increasingly see that what continues to separate the two Churches will not be so much the theological differences that we have argued about for years but the very fundamental way in which the two Churches each witness to and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pope Francis has certainly made it clear to the world that He wants the Church to be a society to be emulated. Hence, his aggressive program to strip the Church of its worldly trappings and power and replace them with the power of God and the life suggested and encouraged by the Gospel.

Pope Francis is fast becoming a respected moral authority throughout the world and is equally as fast re-establishing the papacy’s prestige and image even among the most ardent secularists. The reason he is successful in this area is not because he speaks with the power and authority of a monarch, but rather with the power and authority of one who knows and understands his position to be one of service. By his example, we come to know that for the Church, only Christ and the Gospel matter and that’s what people really expect and want from the Church.

I made mention in the beginning of this post that Pope Francis is the spiritual leader of more than 1.2 billion faithful throughout the world. The reason I took pains to point that out is because if all of those 1.2 billion people take hold of his message and follow his example, what tremendous changes for the better would occur in the world. Maybe it’s idealistic to believe such a thing could happen but I believe that all things are possible with God. And, let’s be honest, people ARE listening to the Pope in ways and places we would never have before thought possible.

Pope Francis gives confidence and inspires. He has truly inspired me and given me the confidence to know that I am on the right course and that it is ok not to be a part of the status quo. I became so concerned about maintaining the “image” of an Orthodox bishop and trying to gain the acceptance and recognition of my so-called brother bishops and of other Orthodox Christians that I started to lose sight of who and what I really am, especially in light of being a Christian. I think what it boils down to is that we should be Christians first and foremost and that will make us better Orthodox and Catholics. In fact, I am starting to believe that if union between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches is ever to be a possibility, we need to dispense with all the theological dialogues and find out what we share in common first as Christians. In this matter, the Catholic Church is light years ahead of the Orthodox Church because we Orthodox really don’t know how to live and act as Christians. As I said, it is more important for many of us to be Orthodox than it is to be Christian.

In watching Pope Francis, the vision and understanding I once had of the Church at the beginning of my priesthood and especially at the start of my episcopacy is once again coming into full view. I feel re-energized and invigorated once again that the true mission and purpose of the Church is to be at the service of the people of God, to be a society of joyful and joy-filled believers who find their happiness and fulfillment in Christ and the life He offers. It doesn't matter what people think of me; it only matters how I stand in the eyes of Christ, who is my life and reason for being, and my only Judge.

The personal attacks used to bother me, but thanks to Pope Francis they won’t bother me anymore. In fact, to those of you have been my detractors and persecutors, I want to thank you, for you have taught me good lessons in humility, patience and forgiveness. You have also helped my prayer life immensely. Please keep the arrows coming because they keep me on my toes and help me grow in many ways.

And Pope Francis, once again, thank you so much, for you have given me new hope and restored to my heart and my life a sense of joy and peace that has been absent for a long time. I hope to make my priesthood and episcopate one worthy of the blessings of God by your holy example, which I hope will continue to inspire, motivate and keep me grounded for many years to come. There will always be dark days and difficult times in one's life, but Your Holiness has reminded me by your words and life that Christ is the Light that dispels the darkness and leads us all to a calmer, safer, and better and happier place. Many years, Despota!