God’s grace was abundantly showered upon the people of God at an Orthodox Conference held at the Carmelite Retreat Center in Darien, a suburb of Chicago, from May 31 through June 3, 2007.
This Conference was sponsored by the Brotherhood St. Moses the Black, and it was called the Ancient Christianity Conference. The General Convener of the conference was Dr. Carla Thomas, a Harvard Medical School Graduate and a practicing physician. A deeply humble Orthodox Christian with unshaken fidelity to the faith of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, Dr. Thomas was vigilant to keep the entire Conference well-focused and organized until the last day when all participants left for their homes. Dr. Thomas paid attention to the minutest details of this Conference from program planning to menu planning in the refectory. Having observed the diligence and hard work of this lady managing and participating in all the activities of the Conference, this writer can undoubtedly state that she played the roles of Martha and Mary in the New Testament, the true women followers of Jesus, one of whom symbolized the contemplative aspect of Christian faith, and the other the practical dimension of Christianity.
The Conference was attended by a large multitude of Orthodox Christians, of whom about 50 % were new converts to Orthodoxy. All the major Orthodox jurisdictions were represented in this Conference, including the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches of North Africa. Except for this writer, there was no Syrian representation. When all Orthodox Christians representing the various ethnicities of Greece, Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Antioch, Middle East, Native America and Egypt came together to worship the one Lord and God Jesus Christ, and when they all began to speak in their tongues and cultures about the gift they had received in His Church founded on the apostles, the Spirit they all had received at the time of their baptism and chrismation was renewed like in a new Pentecost. All the converts became more effusive about the blessings they received through their conversion to Orthodoxy, about the new light they saw after a long search for historical, apostolic, and ancient Christianity. Those who were born into Orthodoxy renewed their commitment to the sacred covenant they have been holding with God since their childhood, and pledged that their life would be totally dedicated to the construction of Orthodoxy. Yes, it was a pouring out of the blessings of the Holy Spirit like a second Pentecost.
HIGHLIGHTS OF PROGRAM ACTIVITIES
The registration of participants at about 3.00 p.m. on May 31 was followed by a community prayer and special intercessions to St. Mary of Egypt, a sinner who was converted to Christ, in the main hall, led by priests. After dinner and the organizational meeting of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, there were four simultaneous introductory sessions in different halls.
One of them was on Orthodox Music led by Mother Katherine, Dr. Carla Thomas, and Ann McDaniel. It was an unsophisticated introduction to Byzantine church music, basically the chanting version adopted in Greek, Russian and Serbian churches.
The workshop on Introduction to Orthodoxy was led by Father Moses Berry and Father Paisius. Fr. Berry narrated his pilgrimage to Orthodoxy from African Methodist Episcopal Church, where his father and grandfather were ministers, and his family had a strong religious history. After his conversion and priesthood in the Orthodox Church, he opened several mission stations in the State of Missouri and brought several hundreds of Protestants and Roman Catholics into Orthodoxy. When he told his story of conversion, the audience listened to him spellbound. His story moved every listener and made him more and more convinced in the faith he had professed. Fr. Berry electrified the audience when he explained how the Holy Spirit led him to the light of the ancient one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded by Christ. He explained clearly that none of the Protestant churches possesses the means of salvation intended by Christ. The Protestant churches lack the marks of the true Church. The Roman Church lost them by being disconnected from Orthodoxy when it accepted innovative doctrines and practices. Father Paisius led the group with a cogent testimony of his conversion to Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism with a Jewish ancestral background. A married priest with children, Fr. Paisius elicited the spiritual maturity of a monastic not only in his orthodox fervor, but also in his appearance. He elicited a superb style of oratory.
Questions from the audience gave added life to the discussions. One of the participants, an Episcopalian lady asked: “Why should I leave my Episcopal Church? What is it that the Orthodox Church offers me and my Episcopal Church does not offer me”. Chor-Episcopos Kyriakos of the Syrian Church said: “The Orthodox Church offers you 2,000 years of Christianity from Christ and His apostles, whereas the Protestant Episcopal Church offers you 400 years of Christianity starting from King Henry VIII of England, who wanted an annulment of his marriage with the right to remarry. You may judge for yourself, which of these churches possesses the plenitude of Christianity”. In further elaboration, he said that one can appreciate Orthodoxy only when he tastes it and feels its blessings on a regular basis. Orthodoxy is an experience, not a rational activity per se. It is an intuitive experience, supported by all your physical and mental faculties. Orthodox worship is the culmination of this experience.
In this workshop Orthodox converts shared their journey to the Orthodox Church. They were clear about what they were looking for and what they received. In fact, the participants, who were orthodox at birth, confessed that they took their faith less seriously up to that point, and that now they began to realize the meaningfulness of their faith.
In another session Father Jerome Sanderson and Peter Mihalopoulos led a discussion on Orthodox Iconography. The message behind an icon is not the physical presentation of the person represented on it; it is basically the message of the spirituality and faith life of the person that is conveyed. Veneration of a physical object is forbidden, but veneration of an icon is the veneration of the spiritual essence of Christ and His mother and saints written by inspired iconographers and icons are representations of the spiritual essence of Christ and His saints.
There was also another simultaneous session introducing Orthodox monasteries and seminaries.
The day came to a close with Night Prayers and Intercessory Prayers to African Saints.
On June 1, at 5.30 in the morning, Father Jerome Sanderson, the bell ringer, ran around the dormitory corridors waking up the participants, who chose to stay overnight in the Retreat Center, for Morning Prayers in the main hall. It brought many of us to the memory of our seminary days when we had to wake up early in the morning for prayer and meditation and Holy Liturgy.
After breakfast the first session started at 9.00 a.m. with a homily on repentance based on the return of the prodigal son (Lk 15: 11-24). Father Moses Berry and Father Paisius Altschul were the keynote speakers. Fr. Moses dwelt on the sorrow of the prodigal son and emphasized the importance of repentance in Christian life. Fr. Paisius eloquently spoke about the conversion of Moses the Black and Mary of Egypt from sin. Both presentations were spiritually inspiring and moving. Later, group discussions on repentance followed in different halls moderated by priests and lay leaders.
After noon prayers and canon for repentance and lunch, the second session started at 1.00 p.m. under the leadership of Father Jerome Sanderson and Father Patrick Reardon, both converts to Orthodoxy. The theme was “Repentance as a Gift of God, a Gift from the Prodigal’s Father”. Father Sanderson’s message contained a lot of practical suggestions to the understanding of repentance as a gift from God. Father Reardon, formerly a professor at the Episcopal Nashotah House Seminary, shared a more academic aspect of the gift of repentance.
The group took a tour of the Du Sable African American Cultural Museum in Chicago as a diversion in the late afternoon.
The evening session started with talks presented by Professor Al Raboteau and Fr. Berry on “Repentance as a Fruit of Redemptive Suffering- The Joy of the Prodigal Son”.
The activities of the day concluded with Night Prayers and Canon to St. Anthony the Great at 10.00 p.m.
The next day on June 2 started with Morning Prayers and Canon to St. Katherine of Alexandria at 6.00 a.m. Later the morning session was led by Mother Katherine and other leaders based on “Repentance as a Gate- Will the Prodigal’s Big Brother Enter?”
The Afternoon session was on “Repentance as a Journey from Remorse to Resolve”, and was led by Fr. Sanderson and Claudia Burney.
The subsequent discussion sessions were held at two different monasteries, one at New Gracanica Monastery in Lake Villa, Il., and another at The Most Holy Mother of God Monastery at Grayslake, IL., to where the groups were taken by buses.
The groups returned around 5.00 p.m.
The most important activity of the entire conference culminated with preparation for confessions. One of the most striking functions in this conference was the corporate preparation for the sacrament of reconciliation. The theme of this last session itself was “Repentance as Consummated by Confession”. This writer noticed that every participant of the conference was getting ready and lining up for the sacrament of confession in different halls, where priests waited with their stoles on for penitents. It was indeed a moving scene that all Orthodox Christians participating in the conference finally opened their sinful hearts for absolution. One should realize that the majority of these penitents had been once Protestant Christians who rejected this penitential act as a Christian sacrament and never had an idea of what auricular confession was. One should marvel at the genuine and sincere faith of these newcomers to the bosom of Orthodoxy. This definitely should put the modern advocates of general confession within the Orthodox Church to shame.
As this writer was getting ready to leave for home around 11.00 p.m., the lines for confession were still packed.
CULMINATION OF THE CONFERENCE
Next day (June 3, 2007) early in the morning buses took all the participants to All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church on New Port Street in Chicago. This Church has the distinction that all its parishioners were Evangelical Protestants once, and the entire congregation with its pastor was converted to Orthodoxy after a long period of self study. Its pastor later studied in the Orthodox Seminary and was ordained into the Orthodox priesthood. Its current pastor is Father Patrick Reardon (himself a convert from Anglicanism), one of the leaders of this conference.
The morning prayers started at 8.30 a.m. followed by a concelebrated Holy Divine Liturgy by all priests and corporate communion. It was indeed a heavenly experience for everyone to take part in this Liturgy and embrace Christ our Lord by receiving His Sacred Body and Blood. Around noon the group was taken back to the Carmelite Center for lunch and adjournment.
Thus a great conference concluded, filled with the Holy Spirit, like in a NEW PENTECOST.
LESSON FOR THE ORTHODOX SYRIANS OF MALANKARA- INDIA
The Orthodox Syrian Church of Malankara- India seems to be the most infected by the ecumenical virus in the recent history of any Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Churches cooperated with ecumenism when they got involved with the World Council of Churches. Even after their association with the ecumenical movement these Churches still maintained that Orthodoxy was the true heir to apostolic Christianity and the true depository of the Christian faith and morals. Orthodoxy definitely taught, while being fraternal to Ecumenism, that “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus” (Outside the Church there is no Salvation), a doctrine advocated by all Orthodox fathers and theologians; that Church being the Orthodox Church. If one visits Byzantine Churches, he can see slogans sounding the same message being posted on the walls of their Sunday School and fellowship halls.
It is because this doctrine, the Orthodox Church has been an evangelizing Church. Russia and other Slavic countries became Orthodox due to her missionary activities. In recent times, Russia sent its missionaries to evangelize the Alaskans. It was the same Russian Church that started evangelizing activities in America, and won many former Roman Catholics and Protestants to Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy always was an evangelical Church. At present many of the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America were converts to Orthodoxy.
The Orthodox Syrian Church of Malankara has been an evangelizing church at least from the time of St. Gregorios of Parumala. It was during his time, Rene Villatte was received into the Church and consecrated a bishop for expanding the Syrian Church in the New World, although this man deceived the Syrian Church by returning to Roman Catholicism. St. Gregorios started evangelical work among the low caste members of the society and brought many souls to Orthodoxy and established churches and chapels for them. Metropolitan Eusthathios Petros of Malabar, an unusually zealous missionary and holy person, established the Society of the Holy Cross for the purpose of evangelization of India. Simultaneously, there were many activities initiated by individual prelates of the Church that helped many Roman Catholics and Protestants to reunite with the Orthodox Church.
When the missionaries of the Protestant churches, which were part of the World Council of Churches, began to encroach the territories of the Orthodox Church and began to proselytize its members, the Orthodox Churches in Russia and other western countries started to rethink about their participation in ecumenical activities. They are now more and more cautious about being involved with those activities. Some churches even withdrew active participation from the World Council of Churches. Within the framework of an ecumenical theology, Orthodoxy began to lose its relevance.
This is exactly what is happening in the Church of Malankara; the leaders of the Church are entertaining this liberal theology of ecumenism, wherein they lose the uniqueness and relevance of Orthodox faith. The result is a frozen mind towards evangelism in the Church. They are not interested in bringing the Protestants and Roman Catholics into the Church, and not even non-Christians into the Church. What a tragedy! The Church lost its mission. The sad situation is that when a Roman Catholic or Protestant decides to embrace the Orthodox Church based on his search for truth, he is not appreciated or rewarded; he is often put down as coming from another Church or as a reject from another Church, and is frowned upon if he advances in the hierarchy or in any other position. Sad? Isn’t it? Yes, that is what is happening in the Church of Malankara now. Well, this is not how you reward conversion in the Church. Look at the Orthodox Church in America. A good number of her prelates are former converts. Yes, the Church of Malankara has two bishops who were converts. But how many new converts are being received into the Church recently? Practically none. The Church has already lost its fervor for evangelization.
The Church of Malankara definitely has a lesson to learn from this Orthodox Conference that particularly emphasized the singularly sanctifying character of Orthodoxy, and stressed the significance of evangelizing efforts among the heterodox Christians, such as Roman Catholics and Protestants. The Orthodox Church of Malankara should never rest until all the other Christians, who were separated from her due to western colonial influences, are reunited with the Mother Orthodox Church of Malankara, which historically retains the continuity of the Church established by St. Thomas, the apostle.
O Church of Malankara, look at the Orthodox Conference at Darien, Illinois. It was a celebration of converts into Orthodoxy! It was a grand celebration of glory and victory of Holy Orthodoxy in general!! We look forward to such a celebration hosted for your children, who are born into your bosom or brought into your bosom, O Church of Malankara. Would it ever happen?
This Conference highlighted the importance and uniqueness of Orthodox faith. Do the leaders of the Church of Malankara care about the uniqueness of the Orthodox faith? The recent trend does not give an encouraging sign. There are many of us who are concerned about this situation. We hope God will send prelates and priests who really understand genuine Orthodoxy and true faith and morals. WE believe that the Church of Malankara is really going through a crisis of faith and morality; in other words, her current leadership is shortsighted about her faith and traditional code of morality. The Church of Malankara is stuck at this juncture. This writer believes that her major crisis is at this point, not at the Antiochian attempts of domination. The growth of the Church is arrested by this crisis; whereas the Antiochian side of the Orthodox Church grows steadily and faster because, it seems, their structure of faith is much stronger.
We believe this editorial will open the eyes of many in the Church in Malankara and other parts of the world and help them examine their own faith and strengthen their commitment to genuine Orthodoxy.