Conversations with Metropolitan Jonah:
Father Eric Tosi: We are back after a bit of a pause to “Conversations with Metropolitan Jonah.” It’s been about eight months since we’ve had our last podcast, and many things have happened in that time. What have been the highlights over these last few months?
His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah: Well, it’s really hard to summarize eight months because there’s so much that goes on. There was a remarkable pilgrimage to Georgia last September which was really an experience of a lifetime and to have the opportunity to get to know and to serve with His Holiness, Patriarch Ilia was a remarkable thing. It really showed me what it is to be the father of a whole nation, and how far we have to grow as our Church. Of course, they’ve been Orthodox for 1700 years, and it wasn’t all a bed of roses either. It was a difficult and brutal time, much of the time, being on the border between empires and continually getting trodden, but I had the chance to see some remarkable holy places, and more than that, meet some remarkable and holy people who really shine with the light of Jesus Christ.
Fr. Eric: What is the state of the Church in Georgia at this time?
Met. Jonah: Georgia has politically going through some difficult times following its conflict with Russia and the large number of refugees that were created by that conflict and also some of its own internal problems. However, the Church has really stepped up to the plate in working with refugees and feeding and clothing and housing them and ministering to them. There are some magnificent, magnificent new cathedrals and churches all over the place. Churches are being rebuilt, people are profoundly pious. It will always stick in my mind how the crowds would press around the Patriarch, and even me who was kind in his trail, just to touch him, just to get his blessing. And what profound love they have for him and certainly well-deserved. One diocese, 80 percent of the population has converted from Islam to Christianity. That is an incredible, remarkable thing, and that’s just in the past 15 years. All over the country, there are works of charity, schools, and hospitals, and hospices, and homes for the elderly, orphanages that had been built by the Church. And these are really showing the people that the Church cares about them, and the people who are being cared for are not necessarily Orthodox. It’s anyone who is in need, and this is something exquisitely beautiful and exquisitely Christian.
Fr. Eric: It’s something we can all learn a bit on ourselves.
Met. Jonah: It’s something we have to learn a lot from. And of course, Georgia looks like southern California, my own homeland, as it were.
Fr. Eric: What other events have happened in the meantime?
Met. Jonah: Well, the only other trip abroad was a very brief to Moscow for the fifteenth anniversary of our St. Catherine’s podvorye over there, and that was a beautiful trip.
Fr. Eric: Why don’t you explain a little bit, Vladika, about what a podvorye is for the purpose of St. Catherine’s in Moscow?
Met. Jonah: St. Catherine’s in Moscow is kind of like an ecclesiastical embassy. On one hand, St. Catherine’s, per se, is a church of the Moscow Patriarchate. It functions like any other Russian Orthodox parish church. It’s an urban parish, right about a mile south of the Kremlin in a very busy area, an area with many other churches, an area with the St. Tikhon Institute where there’s a tremendous kind of movement toward Orthodoxy within the city, but it also functions—and this is the function of our representative over there, Father Zacchaeus—as a means of constant communication with the Russian Orthodox Church. Father Zacchaeus has done a remarkable job in truly getting to know many, many figures within the Russian Orthodox Church.
Fr. Eric: So, if we have a problem or an issue that needs to be brought up immediately to the Moscow Patriarchate, Father Zacchaeus would be presenting that?
Met. Jonah: Absolutely.
Fr. Eric: And likewise, anything that needs to come our way as well.
Met. Jonah: And he’s also become very well acquainted with the diplomatic community. St. Catherine’s, on one hand, is a typical Moscow parish, like many others. On the other hand, Father Zacchaeus has brought certain elements of American parish life translated, as it were, into contemporary Russian context. It has really benefited and set St. Catherine’s apart as a truly unique parish within Moscow. And they also have an occasional English liturgy to serve the American and English-speaking ex-patriot communities, but that’s not really their major function. Their major function as a podvorye of the OCA as an embassy is relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and its agencies, departments.
Fr. Eric: I understand we’ve been having a series of meetings, almost monthly with the Strategic Planning Committee which was a mandate from the last All-American Council, and I would like to get your sense as to how you believe the work is going and the sense of cooperation that you’re seeing coming out of these meetings?
Met. Jonah: Well, one of the things that I’m really excited about that has happened over the last eight or 10 months is to see the Strategic Planning Committee, to see these other committees really coming alive, to see the real intensity of devotion of so many members of the Church to its life, to developing its future, to overseeing its integrity, which has a great spirit of joy, a spirit of cooperation, and really operates in view of tremendous hope for the future. To me, that says that we have largely been able to put behind us the troubles of the past several years, as they would say in the south, “the recent unpleasantness”, and our moving on. And this is something absolutely critical for our Church: to keep our eyes on the future and not be bogged down by the resentments and the difficulties of the past. Strategic planning, in particular, has been something of great value. The committee has met monthly, if not, all could make it because it literally is from across the entire continent. They would be attached telephonically.
Fr. Eric: And as I understand, there has been a series of documents that they’ve been working on and that this summer, those documents will be presented to diocesan assemblies and to parishes.
Met. Jonah: Yeah, the documents that are coming out of the Strategic Planning Committee really have been a tremendous group effort. They started with some documents that I and the Holy Synod offered and have then gone on to develop some of their own points and taken and developed these into a very comprehensive vision of what the Church is. Now, there’s a very important aspect of this which is developing a common understanding of basic Orthodox ecclesiology. How do we understand the Church and the structure of the Church and the relationship between the various structures within the Church? It became very clear to me early on that even the members of the Strategic Planning Committee, even those who had been to seminary, were not necessarily very clear on all of this. The work of Father Robert Arida has been magnificent in pulling that together and building this common vision which authentically reflects not only the broad tradition of the Orthodox Church, but the specific tradition of the Orthodox Church in America because we have our own unique history, we have our own unique life, and that’s something that truly God has given us by the Holy Spirit and is not to be discounted.
Fr. Eric: One of the things that keeps coming up in the Strategic Planning meeting is this concept of conciliarity and how it’s uniquely incarnated in the Orthodox Church in America. And I know that as this goes out to the dioceses and to parishes, we hope and pray that this will manifest itself in a strong way.
Met. Jonah: Yes, conciliarity is an absolutely key issue. Unfortunately, conciliarity has sometimes been confused with either congregationalism or trustee-ism, both of these arising out of the history of the early part of the 20th century when the Orthodox Church was just beginning to establish its legal foundations. Its statutes and all of this stuff was written by contemporary American corporate lawyers who understood churches in a very particular way. And then, there was the whole fiasco with the Living Church in the ‘20s so that there was a huge disarray in certain parts of the life of the Church in America, and not just in the OCA, but broadly across the face of Orthodox America that has to be overcome. On the other hand, to penetrate into the real meaning of conciliarity ultimately brings us not simply to a sense that our theology has to be developed in councils, and it has to be developed with the consensus of the whole Church, but it takes us into the very life of God within the Church and of that communion that exists between the members of the Church so that we can enter into a living spirit of the unanimity.
Fr. Eric: Leading a little bit onto that, I understand that the next All-American Council is going to be in Seattle and that the highlight of that All-American Council will be the strategic plan and kind of looking forward for the Church for the next generation.
Met. Jonah: Indeed. One of the most important things about this strategic plan is that we hope to be able to take it to the entire Church before the All-American Council to get input and to really make it something that the entire Church can give its “amen” to. But the All-American Council will be the context for that amen, and hopefully it will be a rousing amen and a rousing event. It’s very exciting to the people in the West and especially to the diocese of Alaska because this will be the first time in the history of the Orthodox Church in America in over 200 years that they will have the ability to fully participate in an event like this. From my understanding, there should be an almost 100 percent participation by the priests of the diocese of Alaska. The various native peoples there will be sending dance troupes, they will be sending exhibitions of their art. People will be escorted with song and dance from the airplane all the way into the meeting hall.
Fr. Eric: And then likewise at the end of the council, we’re looking into the possibility of returning the favor, and people who are at the council will be able to go up to Sitka to venerate the wonder-working icon in Sitka.
Met. Jonah: Which is a wonderful pilgrimage because the Church and the Bishop’s home there were designed and built by St. Innocent himself. So it’s not just a little bit of a trip up the coast, but it’s a truly a pilgrimage.
Fr. Eric: I understand also that recently you were able to sit in on a meeting for the first time with all your department heads and maybe you’d like to comment upon their work?
Met. Jonah: The departments of the Orthodox Church in America have done incredible amounts of work, almost invisibly. Not that their work is invisible, their work is things that people use every day. I’m not sure if everybody knows that there’s a weekly bulletin insert that is available from the Christian Educational website. There is the liturgical texts and music that are provided for every weekend, and they’re working to expand that. They’ve literally translated and set tens of thousands of texts to be used throughout the Church. The work of Evangelization and the work of Pastoral Life, and the work of the Department of Church Service and Humanitarian Aid each puts forth the research handbook. They’ve done outstanding work.
Fr. Eric: Tens of thousands of pages of material that people can use.
Met. Jonah: And most of it available online. And also, there are some very exciting things that have happened regarding the Church planning grants to see how the missions that have been supported through Church planning grants have grown and thrived.
Fr. Eric: As a matter of fact, we’re going to be having an appeal for the missions coming up fairly shortly within a month to help really keep that program alive which has done such good work.
Met. Jonah: And that’s something critically important for people to support. There are so many places in this country where the fields are ripe for the harvest. There are many small missions that have been planted that are coming to a point of maturity where they need the kind of support that a planning grant can give.
Fr. Eric: That push over the edge. That last push to get to what they need.
Met. Jonah: Right. It’s a push from a mission having a part-time priest to a full-time priest. Usually as a result of that, the attendance explodes, the mission goes on to various solid financial ground, the community consolidates, and over the course of a three-year grant, the community moves from a mission station to a parish. This is one of the most important ministries the Orthodox Church has, along with parish internships. It’s very much my hope that people will support. To send our new seminarians out to a parish where they’ve never had any substantial exposure to the realities of pastoral life. The seminaries do not teach people to be pastors. The seminaries give them all the necessary information that they will need, and the formation—intellectual formation that they will need in their pastoral life: to teach, to preach, to celebrate the sacraments. But the practical application of that in pastoral work can only be taught one way and that’s by discipleship to a more senior priest. The more that we can support our young priests going into parishes to spend at least a summer, if not a year, as interns where they can be taken by the hand through all the various activities of the priesthood, the better they will be served and the better our Church will be served by them.
Fr. Eric: One area that we did not mention, but it actually ties in, is Father Steven Voytovich who was one of the people who helped put together that internship program, and of course, his Department of Institutional Chaplains is doing quiet but remarkable work as well.
Met. Jonah: We have several levels, in fact, of Institutional Chaplaincies and they’re the hospital chaplains, there are OCF chaplains, and there are VA chaplains which operate in a variety of different contexts as well as military chaplains. We need people for all of these ministries.
Fr. Eric: Clergy and laity.
Met. Jonah: Clergy and laity, and one of the things that was just approved was a commissioning service for the lay institutional chaplains, particularly hospitals or hospice or other kinds of institutions or OCF chaplains. And this kind of a ministry is equally open to men and women and provides a tremendous opportunity for women to serve the Church in a very visible way by providing a kind of pastoral love and concern that is so necessary in hospitals and hospices, in leading youth groups, in leading various other kinds of ministries within the Church. This is a tremendous development within our Church, and I am profoundly grateful to God that we have such a talented and dedicated leader for this particular ministry in Father Steven.
Fr. Eric: Just to shift gears a little bit. The Synod just completed a retreat in Colorado Springs. This is the second time since you’ve become Metropolitan that this Synod was able to go on retreat. Is there anything you can share with us about what happened on that retreat?
Met. Jonah: Well, unfortunately, it was a little bit less of a retreat than we all would’ve liked because we filled the times that were not being occupied with the subject of the retreat with business.
Fr. Eric: Business always seems to infect what we need to do.
Met. Jonah: It’s never ending, and we never have enough time. I thank God that the Holy Synod has come together as a very strong community of men who really rejoice together in their mutual responsibility and care for the Church and support one another, and enjoy being together. That’s something very, very critically important for the lives of the Church. During this retreat, we had as our retreat director, Father Meletios Webber from the Monastery of St. John in Manton, CA. We had three primary issues which are basically reflecting on the pastoral application of these—pastoral applications for this conference. One was addictions within the life of the Church. The second one was basically entitled “Towards a theology of sexuality” in which many of the areas that come up in confession and pastoral guidance were discussed regarding sexuality, and this is something that very often is not discussed. The third area was, I think, probably one of my favorite topics and that was the prayer of silence. Then there was a fourth session as well in which was kind of a general overview and open discussion, in which we basically talked about the importance of monastic spirituality. On the other hand, the business sessions were also very valuable, and we probably spent a good 10 hours, unfortunately, in business.
Fr. Eric: One of the things I’m sure you’ve talked about was the many events that will be coming up this summer. Are there any particular items that you’d like to call the Church’s attention to as the summer proceeds?
Met. Jonah: Well, undoubtedly the most important thing is the Episcopal Assembly. It’s a meeting of all the Orthodox Bishops in America of which our bishops will be full participants, and we will be beginning the process to discern together how to create a united Orthodox Church in North America consisting of all of the Orthodox communities. This is something of extreme importance.
Fr. Eric: This will be at the end of May in New York.
Met. Jonah: Yes, May 25th through 28th, and I entreat your prayers for that.
Fr. Eric: Yes, as a matter of fact, there were prayers posted on the website that you’ve asked all the parishes to use leading up to this event.
Met. Jonah: And many parishes that I’ve been in do use them. Of course maybe that’s because the Metropolitan is there. [laughter]
Fr. Eric: What other events do we have coming through this summer? I think we have the pilgrimage to—the annual pilgrimage to Spruce Island?
Met. Jonah: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the canonization of St. Herman of Alaska. Last year, I had the blessing to participate in that and found it an absolutely life-changing event to be able to pray before the relics of St. Herman, to serve in the chapel over his grave, and to be in this place of Spruce Island which is utterly and completely permeated by his prayers and by his sanctity. It lifts one completely out of one’s self to be present solely to God, and St. Herman surely is our tour guide on that entire pilgrimage. Last year, it was a remarkable thing that when we left Kodiak Island, the sea was like glass. Now, this is the North Pacific. Not exactly what one normally thinks of having a smooth sea like in the middle of a bay, but it was so calm, and it was so beautiful.
Fr. Eric: It certainly seems a place that every Orthodox in America should visit because it is our home. It’s where we sprung out of. So, certainly we have that.
Met. Jonah: We’re also hoping that there will be some special guests there. We’re still trying to make the final arrangements for that.
Fr. Eric: The announcements will be forthcoming.
Met. Jonah: The announcements will be forthcoming.
Fr. Eric: Finally, as we appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule, a little bit of pastoral advice from our arch-pastor. Summer always seems to be a time when parish life seems to slow down, even in the midst of major feast days. What advice do you have for parishes and parishioners during these months, and what can they do to really keep the Church alive in a time when everything else seems to be shutting down?
Met. Jonah: Well, I think the most important thing is that our spiritual life is our whole life and just because it’s summertime doesn’t mean it’s time for a vacation from Church. In fact, it means that you have a little more time to spend on your spiritual life. Read the lives of the saints during the summer break, read a spiritual book, read something that is going to challenge you spiritually so that you can grow. Make sure you go to church. If you go on vacation, use it as an opportunity to visit other churches. Get a letter from your priest saying that you’re a communicant in good standing with your parish and take that with you, and you’ll be joyfully received at any parish in the country. This is an opportunity to really see the diversity of our Church and to really appreciate how many different forms Orthodoxy takes in America, and that’s something to give thanks to God for. So, vacation from work, vacation from school does not mean vacation from spiritual life, but rather it’s an opportunity, and one must certainly seize the day as to really make this opportunity a reality by which you can grow tremendously.
Fr. Eric: Vladika, we appreciate your time and we ask for your blessings and your prayers as we continue to move forward with our Holy Church in America. Your blessings.
Met. Jonah: Thank you. May the Lord bless you abundantly.