Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Ethnicity and Evangelism

While I appreciate why one would say that Orthodox parishes are too bound up with ethnicity, I do not think ethnicity as such is really the problem in most of our parishes. Here in Pittsburgh we have over 100 Orthodox parishes. Almost all of these communities were built by ethnic Greeks, Russians, Serbians, Ukrainians, and Carpatho-Russian who went out an worked hard to involve people in the Church. That they focused on members of their own ethnicity is not necessarily good or bad--it is simply a fact. I'm more comfortable and effective with the unchurched so that's where I put my energy--that's the group God has called me to care for.

Likewise, Greeks (to take one example) cared for other Greeks and, in so doing, fulfilled the commandments of Christ.

Where we have gone wrong is not so much that we are Greek (or Russian, or Serbian, or Ukrainian, or Carpatho-Russian) as we use being Greek (or Russian, or Serbian, or Ukrainian, or Carpatho-Russian) as an excuse to not continue the very work our ancestors in the faith excelled at. Sadly, we'd rather work at being Greek (or Russian, or Serbian, or Ukrainian, or Carpatho-Russian or being American) then being Christian. In a word, we have gotten comfortable with who we are and lost that fire to build new parishes and reconcile people to Christ and His Church.

We have become so concerned with being comfortable (which is really the problem not whether we are Greek or Russian, or Serbian, or Ukrainian, or Carpatho-Russian or American) that have forgotten that we are a Pilgrim People who have in this world no lasting home. Historically, today's ethnic parishes were yesterday's evangelical powerhouses who used what they had to advance the Gospel. Our problem is not that we are Greek (or, well, you get the idea), but that we are cheap. We have lost the sacrificial spirit and commitment to hard work that the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires.

And this is not a problem of ethnicity, but of a poverty of catechesis and spiritual formation (especially of the laity). If today the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of American committed herself to reconcile even a percentage of those who have drifted away from the Church, we could build 2 or 3 parishes for every one we have know. But for this to happen the laity must know Christ and His Gospel--and this is a question of proper catechesis and intentional spiritual formation for the laity.

God has poured out on all of us great gifts and abilities. What is lacking is not divine grace, but human freedom. People must be taught use their gifts--intellectual, social, cultural and spiritual--for the sake of Christ and His Church.

Again, the problem is not ethnicity as such. Rather is our inability, and sometimes our unwillingness, to put all the gifts we have at the service of the Gospel. From my Greek (and Russian, andSerbian, and Ukrainian, and Carpatho-Russian) friends, I have learned a great deal about how to embody the Gospel in the context of my everyday life: icon corners and fasting, feast day customs and funeral meals, and above all in joy. Are my ethnic Orthodox Christian friends perfect? No far from it in fact--but the same can be said of me.

So what can we do?

"Let us love one another" and the many gifts Christ has given each of us. Then, let us support and encourage one another to use the gifts we've been given generously at the service of the Gospel. When I've seen this done in parish, the community grows. Where this is not done, the community dies, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, but die it does.

So, let us live by blessing God for the gifts He has given each of us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

A Catholic/Orthodox Dialog on Formation?

I received the following comment on an earlier post ("The Parish: Mission or Maintenance?"). The author is Sherry W. a contributor to Intentional Disciples and co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute. I have include Sherry's comment in italics and my response below in normal type.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sherry W has left a new comment on your post "The Parish: Mission or Maintenance?":

Hi Fr. Gregory:
This is Sherry Weddell from the Catherine of Siena Institute. We're delighted that you are raising some of our favorite questions. It would be illuminating to be part of a discussion of our primary mission with an Orthodox group. I'll try to check in to see if anyone has comments or questions that I might respond to.

And my response:

Hi Sherry!

Thanks for your comment and invitation to a conversation. Yes indeed, I think that a Catholic/Orthodox dialog on issue of lay formation would be extremely valuable. Let me start the conversation by articulating four reasons and potential benefits of such a dialog.

First, I think both Churches would profit from seeing the richness of each other's traditions. Not only would this be profit in a positive manner, but I also think that through our shared exposure to the pastoral and formation concerns of each other's tradition we might come to see our own Church's pastoral problems as less overwhelming. Especially important here would be our ability to use the other's tradition as a "control." What I mean by that is when we see the same problems in another tradition we might be able to rule out some factors and have some insights as to possible new solutions.

Second, one phrase used to describe the ministry of Pope John Paul II was/is "friendship ecumenism." I think a conversation about issues of formation and lay ministries would help members of both Churches come to know, love and appreciate each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. A my wife is fond of pointing out, for the first time in over 1,000 years (especially in America) Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics share not only the same language, but culture, food, political system and often home and hearth. This is an extraordinary blessing and opportunity that cannot be wasted and your offer of a conversation fits quite well with what God has offered our two Sister Churches.

Third, over the years I have noticed that the Orthodox approach to the Gospel is often very helpful for Roman Catholics. When I lived in California, for example, Catholics would often ask me questions about the sacraments (especially Holy Confession) or the Virgin Mary or the Scriptures. Happily, and without fail, all of the Catholics I spoke with walked away much more committed to their Catholic identity. I think the Eastern way of speaking about the Gospel can help Roman Catholics see themselves and their tradition with new and more appreciative eyes--that's been my goal in these conversations anyway.

Fourth and finally, least you think I think we do everything well, let me assure you that one of the things that we Orthodox lack is any systematic approach to the catechetical and spiritual formation of the laity. While this is harmful in all areas of the Church's life, it is especially detrimental to our seminary programs. We simply cannot depend on candidates for holy orders having the same, or really any, catechetical or spiritual formation. So your offer could potentially be of great value to us. It is simply inappropriate for men who don't have a sense of their ministry as laity to be attending seminary. And it is even more inappropriate that they be ordained. We need to teach people how to fulfill their lay vocation and, only then when they have demonstrated that they know what it means to be baptized, should they be allowed to attend seminary. Seminary, for us, is being used to do the catechetical and spiritual formation work that is simply not being done in the parish.

And so now dear readers, what do you think?