Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Over the last several weeks I have had conversations with a number of people--clergy and laity--about recent converts to the Orthodox Church. One theme that has shown forth is the number of converts who later go on to serve as clergy. For many of us who are converts and clergy we are able to serve effectively precisely because of our formation in our tradition of origin.

For example, in my own case I have been blessed by the time and effort put into my spiritual and intellectual formation by a rather substantial number of Roman Catholic scholars--clergy, religious and lay. These men and women not only taught me the basics of the Christian life, they also fostered in me the habits of intellectual inquiry that eventually lead me to join the Orthodox Church.

Now as a priest for the past 10 years, and as a deacon for 4 years before that, I realize just how valuable my formation by Roman Catholics really is. I have had the opportunity to start three parishes in the Pacific Northwest (an area of the country where 75% of the population has no religious affiliation at all) and a successful college campus ministry program here in Pittsburgh. While all of this was done within the context of the Orthodox Church, this work was possible in large part from what I learned first as an undergraduate and then graduate student at the University of Dallas and later had the opportunity to refine thanks to doctoral students at Duquesne University and my parish and youth work in both Roman and Byzantine Catholic parishes.

The conclusion I draw from my experiences is this: The Orthodox Church, especially here in the US, owes a great deal of our success to the work of Catholic and Protestant seminaries and formation teams. Sadly, this debt not only goes unpaid, it often goes largely unexpressed. In fact, many Orthodox Christians (including converts) seem not only unaware, but even hostile, to the reality that our current success is built on the foundations laid for us in another Christian tradition.

I have to wonder what would the Orthodox Church here in America look like not only without coverts--clergy and laity--but if we excluded those men and women who come to us with our theological and spiritual formation already largely completed for us when we join the Orthodox Church? I am not suggesting that this formation is sufficient, indeed it is not.

But it is also the case that converts often come to Orthodox extremely well prepared. Typically we have a relatively rich spiritual life, a good basic education in the Gospel (and often graduate degrees in theology or divinity), many years of pastoral and/or professional experience
that is applicable to the life of the Church, and a willingness, even a eager joy, to serve. And all of this reflects the work done with us when we were Roman Catholic or Protestant.

How then should the Church respond to this? Frankly, I'm not sure.

As a start though I think we would do well by acknowledging that when we lapse into triumphalism or polemics or when we proselytize among our Western Christian brothers and sisters, we are sinning against justice. The success of the Orthodox Church here in the US, at least in part, reflects the success and hard work of many Western Christian clergy, lay leaders, scholars and seminaries and we much--again in just--acknowledge this. Bottom line, we Orthodox are as strong as we are because we have profited by the good work done by Roman Catholics, Evangelical Christians and Mainline Protestants. It is time to acknowledge this and (at least) say thank you.

So, thank you,
to the Holy Cross Brothers at Notre Dame Prep School in West Haven, CT;
to the faculty at the University of Dallas, Irving, TX;
to the Cistercian Fathers of Our Lady of Dallas Abbey, Irving, TX;
to the the Dominican Fathers of St Albert the Great Prior, Irving, TX;
to the faculty of the Institute of Formative Spirituality, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh PA;
to the Roman Catholic parish of St Edward, Blawnox, PA;
to the Byzantine Catholic Archdiocese of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA.

To this, and to all who cared for me and my salvation and growth in Christ, thank you not only for what you have done for me, but what you have made it possible for me to do as a lay person, deacon and now priest in the Orthodox Church. I quite literally owe you my life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory