Is WPA on the Chopping Block?
Seeking Answers, Archdiocese Finds Its Future In Question
Even as the dioceses of the Antiochian Archdiocese are threatened with reduction, so too is one of the oldest of the dioceses in the OCA. The Archdiocese of Pittsburgh, created by in 1916, may be in its last days. On March 7th, the Archdiocesan Council sent the following letter to Bishop Tikhon of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania, locum tenens of W.PA, with a copy to Metropolitan Jonah, asking for clarification:
“This correspondence is respectfully being sent you in your capacity as Locum Tenens of the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania collectively by the Archdiocesan Council as per a unanimous vote of that body gathered for a meeting at the Cranberry Township Archdiocesan Center on February 7, 2009.
While a number of items were discussed at this meeting, the topic that engendered by far the most concern was the subject of the vacant Episcopal See of the Archdiocese. As you might imagine, this matter is paramount in the minds of many devoted clergy and laity of the Archdiocese.
There was great excitement and good will evident immediately following the nomination of Archimandrite Melchisedek (Fr. Thomas Pleska) at the November 2008 Extraordinary Archdiocesan Assembly by a two-thirds majority. Having been under the episcopal oversight of locum tenens hierarchs since the falling asleep in the Lord of Archbishop KYRILL in 2007, the clergy and laity were eagerly looking forward to a sense of normalcy returning to the life of the Archdiocese. It is no secret that the failing health of Archbishop KYRILL limited his active episcopal leadership for a considerable period of time before his repose. It is important to note that no ordinations, clergy awards, etc. have been approved under this status, actions necessary for the vitality and progress of this historically significant Archdiocese.
Nearly four months have elapsed since that Extraordinary Archdiocesan Assembly. Much of this excitement and good will is being dissipated by the lack of action on the nomination and other new concerns. It seems there has been very little official communication to offset these concerns that seem to grow exponentially as the weeks go by. You may have already been privy to some of these --- talk that the Archdiocese will be “absorbed” by the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania; that Archimandrite Melchisedek will not be released by the Archbishop of Athens and Greece; that Archimandrite Melchisedek will be consecrated, but only as a vicar bishop, and perhaps not for Western Pennsylvania --- the list goes on and on!
We are keenly aware of the diverse pressures being thrust upon the Holy Synod, His Beatitude, Metropolitan JONAH and yourself at the present time. The spiritual trauma of recent times has been extraordinary, and we can scarcely imagine the burdens of your high office. You are truly in our prayers and thoughts as you “divide the word of (Christ’s) Truth!” However, as elected clergy and lay leaders of this Archdiocese, we humbly ask for timely episcopal clarification concerning this vital subject, on behalf of all the clergy and laity of the Archdiocese who are asking us for information. As we are sure you already realize, we also have been traumatized by these difficult times in the Holy Church - trauma heightened locally by the loss of our chief Shepherd in the midst of all this.
As you are aware, these are critical days for the Archdiocese. With an infusion of vision and the daily care and leadership of a resident hierarch, the people of this Archdiocese are poised to do great things here. We have been energized by the episcopal search process of the last year, and are ready to roll up our sleeves and work with our new Shepherd. We are unwilling to allow our parishes to continue to stagnate and shrink when there is so much that we can all do here to bring the Good News of Christ to the people of Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Southeastern Ohio.
We respectfully look forward to your response at the earliest possible moment. We eagerly seek your episcopal guidance as we jointly work for the building up of Christ’s Body, the Holy Church here in the metropolitan Pittsburgh area.”
Copies of the letter were sent the following week to all priests of the Diocese. in preparation for a meeting of the Archdiocesan Council with both Bishop Tikhon and Metropolitan Jonah, which will be held after a Lenten Mission Vespers on Sunday, March 22nd at St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, in Allison Park.
Nominated But Not Elected
Among the four concerns expressed by the Archdiocese, three center on the delay of the Synod in electing Fr. Melchisedek (Thomas Pleska) as the new Diocesan Bishop. The Archdiocese has reason to be frustrated with the delay; they played by the Statute, and now learn the game may have changed entirely.
In June 2007, after ruling 29 years in Pittsburgh, Archbishop Kyrill (Yonchev) died. The Archdiocese, as the Council so tactfully stated to +Tikhon, was “eagerly looking forward to a sense of normalcy returning”, for “ it is no secret that the failing health of Archbishop KYRILL limited his active episcopal leadership for a considerable period of time before his repose.” Clergy and laity were eager to begin work to work together to revitalize the Archdiocese - and +Kyrill had left a legacy that was going to make that task easier. The late Archbishop left his considerable wealth to the Church: more than $1.25 million to the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh alone. The OCA’s Bulgarian Diocese, which +Kyrill led for more than 40 years, received even more.
The Archdiocesan Council set about to follow the Statute of the OCA in beginning its search for a new hierarch in November 2007. Names were solicited from throughout the OCA, a series of candidates were brought to the diocese for talks and meetings with clergy, laity and the Council. After several months the names of two nominees were agreed upon for presentation to an Extraordinary Archdiocesan Assembly. The name of one of the nominees was Archimandrite Jonah Paffhausen, now Metropolitan Jonah. Once it was learned that the Archdiocese was considering the nomination of Jonah, Archbishop Dmitri of the South suddenly declared that Jonah was his candidate to be his new vicar for the South. The Synod acceded to the elderly Archbishop’s request, and Jonah was quickly named as the Bishop-elect of Fort Worth, despite Pittsburgh’s wish.
Disappointed, but undeterred, the Council returned to its task reviewing names, both inside and outside the OCA. It was at this point that the name of Fr. Melchisedek (Pleska) emerged. A former instructor at St. Tikhon’s, an OCA parish priest for twelve years, Pleska had taken monastic vows and relocated to Greece in 1998. Pleska agreed to return to the US to speak with the Archdiocese. Three additional candidates also emerged in this round, which took place in between May and October of 2008. During this period each of the candidates spoke in the Archdiocese, visited parishes, and answered a series of questions regarding their views on everything from parish renewal to liturgics, on the internet and financial accountability. In all it is estimated that the Archdiocese spent tens of thousands of dollars on this exhaustive, year long process to find the man they felt could best lead them in the 21st century. Finally, on the Saturday following the 15th AAC in Pittsburgh last November, the Diocese met again in Pittsburgh to nominate candidates for presentation to the Synod for canonical election. Surprisingly, with three candidates on the ballot, Pleska was elected by two thirds of the clergy and laity on the first ballot. According to the OCA Statute, his name alone was submitted to the Bishops.
And so with sufficient funds to support a bishop, and a candidate elected by 2/3 of the Archdiocese in a free, open, transparent and accountable process, - the Archdiocese has been forced to sit on its hands for the last four months. Pleska was interviewed by the Synod at the end of December, and underwent the necessary background checks and psychological tests. According to sources in the Greek Church, Pleska’s Bishop in Greece has sent a letter of release to the OCA - but only on the condition that Pleska is elected Bishop as the OCA indicated they desired him to become. If not, his bishop will not grant the release.
So why the continuing delay?
Which brings us to the other concern of the Archdiocesan Council - “talk that the Archdiocese is about to be absorbed into the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania.”
There is no reason for the Synod to canonically elect Pleska, despite the Archdiocese’s efforts and expense, if the Synod’s plan is to abolish the Archdiocese. The idea is not new. During the years that Robert Kondratick claimed the OCA was in perpetual financial crisis (even as the ADM millions disappeared...) he advocated combining the two Pennsylvania dioceses to “save money”. This idea was presented at Church at the Pittsburgh Council in 1999, but the report was not acted upon. Now, ten years years later, the reasons for the Archdiocese’s continued existence are even more compelling than previously: among them, that it is financially stable, has excellent local leaders (many are of national stature - for example, both Fr. John Reeves and Gregg Nescottt are committe chairmen leaders on the Metropolitan Council); its people have been energized by the year-long search for a new bishop; and it is one of only three geographically compact dioceses in the OCA, where every one of its 45 parishes is within 3.5 hours of the others - and a similar distance from approximately 60 other Orthodox churches. For many advocates of Church renewal, having a diocese in which a Bishop could actually visit all the parishes in a reasonable distance and at little cost should be the very goal of restructuring. To combine two of the only three we have to make yet another large diocese is hardly a step forward. True, some parishes in WPA are moribund, as is the region as a whole; but a new Bishop could do much to reinvigorate this Rust Belt area, as the Council’s letter makes clear. But more importantly, why would the Synod want to make such a major decision affecting thousands, before the Strategic Planning process has even begun? It would seem this should be the fruit of such an effort, not the beginning. For the Synod to suggest such a thing arbitrarily calls into question the whole meaning, purpose and integrity of the Strategic Plan - even before it has started.
One answer may be money. Western Pennsylvania has it, the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania, now in crisis, does not. As has been revealed during the past three months, the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania does not even own the land on which its newly reclaimed Diocesan Center, sits. St. Tikhon’s, both Monastery and Seminary, are in financial crisis. On the other hand, Eastern Pennsylvania has a Bishop; ergo Pittsburgh, it appears, may not get one. A unilateral decision to abolish W. PA would be not so much papal in nature, as paypal, it seems. Ironically,+Kyrill’s legacy may not lead to the Archdiocese’s re-invigoration but to its untimely demise.
On the other hand, it has been suggested that the Synod may not abolish Western PA, but abolish the Eastern PA diocese, and transfer +Tikhon from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The effect is the same, however, whether one is abolished, or the other, or the two just “merged”. One larger, less connected, newer entity, of whatever name, will take the place of two smaller, compact dioceses with histories; a nominated candidate will be left dangling; and the Strategic Planning process is mooted.
Following the meeting on Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Synod is expected to make a decision on the Archdiocese’s future- or lack of same - at its next meeting March 31- April 2nd in Syosset.
Vicarage, Not Nomination
If Pleska’s nomination is on hold, others are not. It appears that one of the arguments against Western Pennsylvania’s continued existence is the worrisome precedent set by the Archdiocese in actually nominating its own candidate. Although the process is clearly laid out in the Statute, it has not really been followed in the OCA for decades. Rather, the more common practice in the OCA is for a diocesan Bishop to nominate a vicar Bishop, who is then elected by the Synod, who then is dutifully and overwhelmingly elected by the Diocese as the new ruling hierarch once the former retires/dies/moves on. This has been the case in Eastern PA (where Bishop Tikhon was made Bishop of South Canaan before becoming the Diocesan); in the West (where Bishop Benjamin became Bishop of Berkeley before becoming the Diocesan) in the Romanian Archdiocese (where Archbishop Nathaniel became Bishop of Dearborn Heights before becoming the Diocesan), etc, etc, etc. This was to be the plan most recently for Metropolitan Jonah in the South as well, before his elevation to the Primacy. In the one instance where a Diocese recently attempted to nominate its own Vicar - in Canada - the vicar’s nomination was also denied by the Synod.
As the above indicates, the Synod does not favor nominations from the dioceses, preferring to nominate and elect its own self-selected candidates. Apparently, this is about to happen again. It has been rumoured that if the two Pennsylvanias are merged, a vicar bishop for +Tikhon may be created at South Canaan. (So much for the argument about saving money...) But more concretely, at the recent Synodal retreat in Colorado, Archbishop Dmitri introduced a candidate to be his new vicar: Fr. David Brum.
Fr. Brum is a parish priest currently assigned to Phoenix AZ. Fr. Brum was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1981, received his doctorate from Catholic University in 1995 and was vested as an Orthodox priest in the Spring of 1997. In August 1997 he was appointed as the second priest at St. Paul Church in Las Vegas, Nevada under then Fr. Nicholas Soraich, later became Bishop Nikolai of Alaska. In early 1999 Brum became an Archpriest and the Secretary to Metropolitan Theodosius (1999-2004); and then Secretary to Metropolitan Herman from 2004 until he offered his resignation to the Metropolitan in March 2006, together with Fr. Joseph Fester, Secretary to the Chancellor, in protest for the termination of Robert Kondratick as Chancellor. The Metropolitan refused both resignations, and Fr. Brum continued to serve until appointed to his present position in July, 2006. (Coincidentally, Fr. Fester was appointed to Archbishop Dmitri’s Cathedral in Dallas, where he now serves as the Archbishop’s right-hand man.) Fr. Brum is the author of “The Primate of the Orthodox Church in America and Those Who Assist Him in Church Administration: A Canonical Perspective.” (You can read that document here.) According to sources close to the Synod, the Synod may be willing to overlook its own resolution from the 1970’s that all episcopal candidates be members of the Church for at least 15 years, and the more recent one that they be graduates of an Orthodox Theological School, and accept Fr. Brum’s nomination if, as the Statute requires, the Diocesan Council of the South agrees as well.
- Mark Stokoe