Thursday, December 04, 2008

Jonah and the Wow: An Orthodox Shocker

The current buzz on the ecumenical front might be dominated by the establishment of a new Anglican province in North America... but worthy of more attention -- especially 'round these parts -- is the "astonishing, spirited" earthquake in Stateside and Canadian Orthodoxy that took place a couple weeks back in Pittsburgh.

Rocked by a financial abuse scandal that's seen several top officials and hierarchs disciplined or even deposed from orders and its leader cleared out after an investigation, the million-member Orthodox Church in America's top council of clergy and laity received a stirring, prophetic call to conversion from its juniormost bishop -- a Texas auxiliary ordained to the episcopacy just eleven days earlier...

...then, hours later, said juniormost prelate -- a 49 year-old monastic who converted from Anglicanism before his 20th birthday -- was elected as the church's new head.

As they say, "No good deed goes unpunished."

Born James Paffhausen in Chicago, the newly-elevated Metropolitan Jonah will be installed as the OCA's primate, archbishop of New York and Washington at a divine liturgy in the capital on 28 December.

When an Orthodox bishop enters a sanctuary, he is traditionally greeted with the following words chanted in Greek: “Eis polla eti, despota.”

In English this means, “Many years to you, master.” Witty bishops in the Orthodox Church in America have started using this sentiment as the punch line in a joke about the impact the episcopate can have on their egos.

“What happens to a guy?” said Bishop Jonah, during the church’s All American Council in Pittsburgh. “You put him on a stand in the middle of the church, you dress him up like the Byzantine emperor and you tell him to live forever. You know?”

The audience of clergy and lay leaders laughed, but it was nervous laughter. The atmosphere at the recent gathering was so tense, Jonah said later, that some of the bishops were afraid that “everything was about to unravel.”

Only 10 days earlier, the 49-year-old monk had been consecrated as assistant bishop of Dallas. Now, he was facing the clergy and lay leaders of a flock that was reeling after years of bitter scandal — including the disappearance of $4 million — that had forced the church’s last two leaders out of office.

The new and, thus, unstained bishop volunteered to face the assembly and answer hard questions about reform. The bottom line, he said, was that investigators found a “fundamentally sick,” corrupt culture inside the national headquarters that was rooted in fear and intimidation.

“Yes, we were betrayed. Yes, we were raped. It’s over. It’s over,” said Jonah. In fact, whenever church members seek healing, “we have to confront the anger and the bitterness and the hurts and the pain and the resentment that we have born within us as reactions against the people who have hurt us.

“By forgiving, we’re not excusing the actions. ... We’re not justifying anything. What we’re saying is, ‘My reaction is destroying me and I need to stop it. If I value Jesus Christ and the Gospel and communion with God, I need to stop it and move on.’”

The audience responded with a standing ovation.

Then, 11 days after he became a bishop, the assembly — in a move that shocked young and old — elected Jonah as the new Metropolitan of All America and Canada....

Becoming a bishop turned his once-secluded life upside down, explained Jonah. Now it’s hard to even discuss his stunning election as primate on Nov. 12.

“They talk about ‘His Beatitude’ and I wonder who that is,” he said.

On his 12th day as a bishop, he found himself delivering an address on his “vision for the church.” The new Metropolitan Jonah stressed college ministry, calling for Orthodox housing facilities and evangelistic ministries near as many campuses as possible, to help students living in “Animal House” conditions rooted in “sex, drugs, alcohol and despair.”...

If nationwide change is going to happen, said Jonah, it will have to grow out of respect and cooperation at all levels of the church.

“Hierarchy is only about responsibility, it’s not all of this imperial nonsense,” he said. “Thank God that we’re Americans and we have cast that off. We don’t need foreign despots. We are the only non-state Orthodox Church. In other words, we are the only Orthodox Church that does not exist under the thumb of a state — either friendly or hostile.

“So the church is our responsibility, personally and collectively, individually and corporately. What are you going to do with it?”
Video of the election and audio of Jonah's speeches and other interventions at the 15th All-American Council are available on-demand... as well as his meditation for Advent.

And, for good measure, a chant to the All-Holy Theotokos....

PHOTOS: Orthodox Church in America