PUTTING YOUR LIFE ON THE LINE
by Fr. Stephen Mack, Auburn, NY
The Orthodox Church, on joyous occasions such as the Sacrament of Ordination and the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, sings a particular hymn which I’ve always loved: “O Holy Martyrs, who fought the GOOD FIGHT and have received your crowns, entreat ye the Lord to have mercy on our souls”. My most joyous memories of being a student at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in the early 70's were my time spent serving as a Sub-Deacon at several dozen ordinations, often of friends and fellow students. For many of the ordinations I served as what some would consider a lowly bookholder. Yet, this “lowly” position placed me in what I considered a “highly” honored spot - standing over the individual being ordained while Archbishop Kiprian read the prayers of ordination. There was never a doubt in my mind that the Holy Spirit was truly present on those occasions.
My days as a Sub-Deacon ended some months after my graduation when I was suspended from entering the Altar at the Monastery church by Bishop Herman. I was supposed to serve at a best friend’s ordination, but wasn’t allowed to. My crime: I said something “bad” about the Seminary to someone. I didn’t lie, I didn’t embellish, but I was informed that I had made the Seminary “look bad”, so I was no longer welcome in the Altar and should consider myself suspended from there until further notice (I wonder if my suspension is still valid? - Its been 30 years!).
Anyone who knows me also knows I tend to be outspoken. I don’t keep my feelings to myself (I was grounded numerous times at St. Tikhon’s; often, I’ll admit for valid reasons; once for writing an anti-abortion letter to a local newspaper - as a student I didn’t ask Bishop Herman’s permission to write.) I’ve been a priest in Auburn for 24 years and actually went through a period of death threats years ago when I vocally disagreed with our local School Board. (Some people take things too seriously!)
I read Fr. John Shimchick’s words to a recent Town hall Meeting. Fr. John spoke of the joy and optimism felt at an All American Council, joy which turned into sadness months and years later when none of the wonderful plans for the OCA’s future ever took affect. As a priest I suffered with my parish family through the latter years of Archbishop Peter’s reign in New York and New Jersey, events Fr. John also mentioned. All of us who served in NY/NJ knew speaking out in those days meant consequences -and I think many of us would argue that nothing’s changed in that regard in our new Diocese of Washington & New York.
As to the title of this article: I’ve had one occasion in my 24 years of priesthood where I felt I was truly putting (while not my physical life), my pastoral life on the line. At the AAC in St Louis years ago I spoke against a fellow priest (someone I respected) who had wronged two of his parishioners (they were excommunicated because of a monetary dispute with the priest). I spoke at a time decided upon by Fr. Hopko (Clergy Chair at St. Louis) and Archbishop Gregory. I’m sorry to admit I couldn’t speak to my own bishop about the matter because he had already sided with the other priest - I knew Archbishop Gregory from a summer in Alaska and greatly respected his judgment.
It was not an easy choice to decide to speak on the matter in front of the entire Council. As a then young priest with two small children, I truly expected my priesthood to be ending at that point, knowing the consequences of speaking out. But, there are times when, regardless of personal affect, the Truth must will out. I spoke. I was shouted down from the podium by Archbishop Herman - he was Bishop of Eastern PA at the time - what concern was it of his? It was actually somewhat amusing; I was the Head Teller (vote counter) at that AAC; I was called out of the tabulating room to speak, then went right back to counting votes, so I missed the entire aftermath. I was applauded for my words. But after the session ended minutes later, Archbishop Peter grabbed my delegate (our Church president), and shook her and scolded her for my actions! He also went around to several Diocesan priests and scolded them for applauding me.
The outcome: As soon as I was done with the vote counting I went to my room and found a note: Go to Archbishop Peter’s room ASAP. I went to see the Archbishop - we talked, he chastized me, asked me not to speak about the matter again, and let me go. My penalty was having an all-expenses paid 16 day trip to the Holy Land taken away from me. To this day I consider that a very small price to pay for what my words led to.
What did my words lead to? I will always be eternally grateful to the then Father Bob Kondratick. After Fr. Bob learned what had been done to the parishioners, he basically forced Archbishop Peter to reinstate them. It was only through Fr. Bob that the people were allowed to receive communion after being excommunicated for ten years.
As I write this I sit here at my desk, in my nice office, in my nice rectory, in my wonderful parish in Auburn. But I’m troubled more and more by what I read, heartfelt and sad words from so many like Fr. John Shimchick, Matushka Mariam Vernak, Matushka Stroyen’s words in the latest issue of the Orthodox Herald, the recent comments of Archbishop Job. As I read their words (and the words of so many others), what comes into my mind is the hymn, “O Holy Martyrs”. We have so many good people who are suffering spiritually because of our current situation.
So, what do I do? What should I do? I admit to being someone who thought this whole scandal would blow over and be forgotten about after a while. The problem is, the more information we receive, the more documents are revealed, we all realize the scandal goes well beyond the scope of where most of us thought it could possibly lead.
I have a parish with many senior citizens. Many of them are not in the “computer age” (I thank God for that!). Of my younger families we have several individuals who have stopped donating towards assessments because of the scandal. I almost lost a potential convert (someone coming to us from the Roman Catholics because of their child abuse scandal) when he saw how we were handling the Alaskan situation with Bishop Nikolai. My potential convert has come back. but, after working with him to become Orthodox for two years, I’ve told him I can’t in good conscience convert him until we see where this whole current mess is leading.
Regardless of where this whole mess leads us a Church, I still have my obligations to my Faith and my parish family. I might perform some of my duties with a heavy heart, but as a priest I still must carry on the work of Christ. “O Holy Martyrs”. Many members of the clergy and laity have requested Metropolitan Herman’s resignation. Many have gone beyond that, asking all of our hierarchs to resign. Where do I stand personally on these requests? I wonder in my own mind: do I join them or, if not, do I neglect to join them only out of apathy, or out of my inability to profess my Faith and convictions like the Holy Martyrs?
Metropolitan Herman and I have butted heads for 35 years. I have always respected him for his stand against abortion. I have been an obedient priest in his Diocese, even though I’ve told him to his face I never wanted to serve in a diocese of his - I was already here when he came. I do hope and pray that His Beatitude can at least be more honest and open with us. I do not, at this time, join in the many calls for his resignation, although I don’t see how he can survive (without destroying the OCA) unless he does a 180 from his current position.
And, to be honest, even if he does change his stance, I’m not sure it is best for him to remain as Metropolitan.
I truly fear for the future of our Church (not Orthodoxy. of course, but the OCA). I see the dreams of people like Fr. Schmemann and so many others dying. I applaud and pray for those speaking out and putting their careers on the line. I pray that our Metropolitan can see the need to change his current stance. I pray above all for the strength to follow the right path, a path that God will find worthy of us, a path that may lead to suffering and loss of status, but a path that allows us to be God’s Holy Orthodox Church. O HOLY MARTYRS, ENTREAT YE THE LORD TO HAVE MERCY ON US!