Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Deacons Challenge

     A few weeks ago I had the chance to gather with my fellow Eastern Catholics for our Eastern Encounter. I found all the speakers at the event inspiring but there is one that I still can’t get out of my mind (Fr. Dn.Sabatino Carnazzo) .He basically asked why would God want to send people to our Eastern Churches and then demonstrated in many ways that our churches have become clubs instead of places of discipleship. At the time of his talk I was reminded of the words of a Byzantine priest who said that after many years of ministry in his parish he feels like he is preaching to the living dead. There is no doubt a problem of discipleship in many of our Eastern churches and without discipleship a church dies a slow death. After sharing all the bad news on this issue the deacon offered a remedy. He said, “If you want to see your church on fire than you need to set yourself on fire”.  These words I still can’t get out of my head and I know if I am going to be any help to my church than I need to change.
     In St. Gregory of Nyssa’s great catechetical oration, when speaking about baptism, he made some powerful claims. Basically, he says that baptism does virtually nothing to our human nature unless we are striving to know God. He boldly makes a claim that the mystery becomes just water if our lives are not being personally transformed through repentance. I can’t help to think in a similar when remembering how the deacon described our Eastern Churches. Instead of our churches being places where people become divinized, in some cases, they could be considered just places with a divinized theme. A church is the center for divinizing the world but if the people are not continuing to divinize themselves, through discipleship, the effectiveness of the church is disrupted. Just like St. Gregory’s analysis of the waters of baptism unless the people of our churches strive to be disciples of Jesus Christ the churches become just buildings where we hang out every Sunday.
     According to Elder Sophrony, "Christianity in its true dimensions has never yet been properly grasped by the great mass of people”. Thinking about what the deacon said about our churches lacking disciples puts the Elders words in context. Some of us might even be surprised that there are people in our churches that don’t even know what discipleship means. Thankfully, to the problems being discussed here there is some good news, which is that we don’t have to go far to convert people, Traditionally evangelization would take us outside of the church but there are a great deal of people in our own churches who don’t know Jesus Christ. They might have heard about him their whole lives but they have not been properly introduced to Him through Christian discipleship.
     Obviously, when it comes to discipleship this is something that does not come natural to us. It is much easier to never miss a Sunday Liturgy than to engage in ongoing discipleship. Even the Apostles who were taught directly by the Master found themselves falling short in discipleship when the Lord was crucified. In fact, many of them could not recognize the Lord after the resurrection. Something  had to happen to them in order for them to engage in a discipleship that ended for many of them in death, which was the coming of the Holy Spirit. Many of us have been initiated into the mysteries that grant us the Holy Spirit but for some reason the power remains dormant. As St Gregory of Nyssa would emphasize the Spirit remains dormant until through synergy or by our own effort we approach God. The good thing is that God is not holding anything back, since through the Church He has given everything that He is. It is more or less on our part why we are lacking the power to be true disciples. 
     Even St. Symeon the  New Theologian recognized that there are some of us who have yet to experience the power given by the Holy Spirit. For instance, he invited his own monks, people who were no doubt involved in the Church for sometime, to, "come, bow and fall down together with me and do not rise until you have received the gift of God, as I, who am unworthy, have received this gift of grace".Like St. Symeon the New Theologian I sometimes find myself, as I did after hearing the deacons challenge, asking God to fill my heart with His power to change. I love my church but if I am not changing through ongoing discipleship how can I expect them to be disciples. I thank God that He doesn’t stop giving and I know that if I keep seeking Him there will be an endless supply of His grace. Maybe you are reading this and for the first time you see something in your relationship with Christ lacking. If there is something lacking I encourage you to start asking God for help and I guarantee you that your life will never be the same. If it were not for the grace of God none of us could be disciples but at the same time we are only disciples if we embrace the grace that God provides.



  1. thanks for this- it is sad- but still inspiring

  2. I used to be Roman Catholic but changed to an Eastern Catholic Church because I love the Orthodox tradition, theology and spirituality. This was after many, many years of considering the possibility of converting to the Orthodox Church. Well, what a disappointment. I have joined an ethnic maintenance club, and the priest you mentioned above was correct: it is the church of the living dead. A church of unbending nationalists who know little about their faith and are even less interested in welcoming others (not of their particular ethnic background) to their community. The parishes are full of grey heads and each week a funeral is announced from the pulpit. The young (those under 50!) have deserted the church. I give this church another 10 years before it shuts its doors - it's not dying a slow death but a quick one. And most members don't seem to notice or care about it.

  3. There are many more problems in the Roman Catholic Church though.

    The quesiton is what can we "rite-changers" do about this problem? I am experiencing the same thing in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, only we are receiving a lot of new immigrants from Ukraine so the "clock has been reset" so to speak. But the third and fourth generation Ukrainians (who no longer speak Ukrainian) that I know are now going to no church at all or going Roman Catholic. They definitely don't identify as Greek Catholic anymore. Very sad situation. Our priests also don't preach about heaven, hell, sin, repentance, etc. I've met people in my church who have NEVER heard of the Jesus Prayer. I met another woman in her 30's who doesn't know who Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk is.

    1. I think the "rite-changers" should stop trying to mold our churches in their image. Sorry to hear about those things in your church but I think you are generalizing about priests. The answer here is not to complain and as I shared in the post the answer is personal repentance. Its easy to point fingers when we are not fasting and embracing our tradition the way would should. We feel kind of spiritual when we have all answers and everyone else is wrong but the reality is that there is no substance to our experience of God.

  4. I don't think your answer adequately responds to the 'rite-changer' above. What he/she is speaking about is the reality for many Eastern Catholic Churches in the diaspora. Perhaps the problem is not that we are not embracing the tradition or fasting as we should, but that we ARE doing these things and are being ridiculed for it. I belong to an Eastern Catholic Church where even the BISHOP refuses to fast from meat during Lent, and he pillories those who wish to embrace the tradition. I can empathise with the anonymous person above. Of course, we all need to repent personally, but as Christianity is a communal religion it is not just about 'me and Jesus.' Sometimes a critical eye needs to be cast across our parishes to ask what can be done better or differently. While we worry about our own salvation, thousands of young people fall away from the Church every year because the older members refuse to have services in the vernacular. What are we doing about mission and evangelisation? Patriarch Sviatoslav is expecting the Ukrainian Catholic Church to take mission seriously. This has to be group effort, not an individual one, and sometimes 'business as usual' needs to be thrown out as the operating principle.