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A Response to Fr. Oliver Herbel

by George C. Michalopulos

Fr Oliver,

Christ is Risen!

I pray that the Paschal season finds you well and that you have recuperated from the most intense liturgical period in our Church’s calendar.

I very much enjoyed your recent letter posted on Ocanews.org. It was informative and game me new insights into our jurisdictional problems. However, I feel that I must disagree with you on several points and perhaps the thrust of your thesis. Please forgive me for any statements that follow that may be considered importunate or disrespectful, I mean no such impertinence.

I will address your assertions seriatim.

To my knowledge, no one has ever said that there was a golden age of unity in North America under the Russian-established archdiocese. It seems to me that in order to make this argument, that you proffer many assertions that are beside the point. For example, you state that the “vision” of persons such as St Innocent and the “circumstances” as found in the actual missionary diocese were different. Yes, so what? I’m sure that there are many bishops in America today who have visions that differ from the circumstances of their diocese. Some want Orthodox hospitals. At present there are none. Just because a visionary ideal has not been met doesn’t make the dioceses any less real.

You then make several points which are contradictory. You state that Archbishop Tikhon Bellavin (r. 1898-1925) “was fully aware that there was not jurisdictional unity and yet he did not treat [Orthodox people who were not under his omorphor] as uncanonical. He wished them the best.” Yes he did, which is why he set up an Arab vicariate and had plans to do so for the Serbs and the Greeks. Why? You yourself answer that question two sentences later: “…in order to bring order to the chaos he saw around him.” Does this not prove the point? That is to say that St Tikhon was the canonical hierarch in North America?

Since when does chaos equal canonicity? Never! This makes a mockery of the words of St Paul who begged for “order” in the Church. Paul realized that anarchy was not reflective of sobriety, discernment, wisdom, charity, and other positive virtues that we associate with Christian order. What sort of Christian witness does jurisdictional anarchy promote? The answer was just as obvious to St Tikhon as it is to us.

You then mischaracterize the mission of Bishop Raphael Hawaweeny as one of “relative independence.” St Raphael was no freebooter who wandered the length and breadth of North America because he had nothing better to do or because he had his own resources. First of all, he was consecrated as bishop in North America by the Russian hierarchs of the native archdiocese. Second, this was done for the express purpose of evangelizing the Syro-Lebanese people wherever he found them. Third, are you aware that because of his fluency in Russian and Greek, he ministered to these immigrants as well? And all at the behest of the Russian archbishop located in New York City.

As for St Tikhon’s awareness that “the Greeks were asking for a bishop from Athens,” this raises several pertinent points. The most obvious one being that there was no Greek bishop in America prior to this time. This leads to several uncomfortable points as well. which bishop blessed the founding of the several Greek parishes already established in the U.S. before this time? If not the Russian bishops, then who? If not blessed, who consecrated them? If not consecrated, then how are their mysteries valid? From where did they get their priests? Which theological schools did they attend? Were these priests canonically ordained? From where did they receive their antimins? You write that Fr Sebastian Dabovich complained to St Tikhon that the Greeks in San Francisco had a “priest and antimins from Greece.” I’m sure that Dabovich was correct about the priest, but did he actually see the antimins himself? Was the bishop who gave this antimins in canonical order? Is the antimins still in existence so we can verify for ourselves its validity?

This is not a trivial matter. Recently, in researching the establishment of parishes in the United States and Canada, a friend contacted Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in New Orleans. As you may know, this was the first Greek parish established in North America. It was founded in 1864, when Louisiana was still officially part of the Confederacy (but was militarily occupied by the Federal forces and thus under martial law). A kindly lady who worked at the church answered as best she could his questions but was unable to tell him anything about its incorporation. When asked if the bishop who blessed its foundation was Greek, she replied that that was not possible as there were no Greek bishops in North America at this time. This was the only thing she could say with certainty. The records of the Metropolia on the other hand, are meticulous in comparison.

Similar to the carefree picture you paint of St Raphael’s supposed indifference to the Russian hierarchy, you state that the “different autocephalous Churches simultaneously viewed their immigrant flocks as missionary outposts in a new land.” This is incorrect on several fronts:

The overwhelming majority of Orthodox immigrants had no intention in staying in America. Over one-third actually did return to their natal places.

The Old World churches had little to no actual interest in evangelism as they had no resources for undertaking missionary programs in North America. (You admit the same later on when you mention the refusal of the Serbian Orthodox Church to send priests to serve their immigrants here when specifically asked to do so by the Russian hierarchy.)

“Missionary outposts” presupposes evangelistic fervor. I think we both can agree that these Old World churches were anything but hotbeds of evangelistic enthusiasm.

Next, you dismiss the revolutionary aspect of Isabel Hapgood’s translation of the Slavonic liturgical texts into English, stating that English was “not the dominant liturgical language.” Nobody every said it was. (It still isn’t in many ethnic jurisdictions here in North America.) Hapgood’s work was revolutionary because Orthodoxy has traditionally been viewed as a hidebound religion, resistant to innovation. Please note that it was only in the Russian Orthodox Church that active translations of liturgies were ongoing for decades prior to Hapgood’s outstanding efforts. St Innocent for example preached and celebrated the services in many Siberian languages as well as in the Alaskan ones. To my knowledge, nowhere else was such an evangelistic endeavor being propagated in Orthodoxy.

In addition, I fear that you create a straw man and an unfortunate rivalry between Ss Tikhon and Raphael. For what purpose I do not know. Certainly no one in the OCA views these two towering figures of evangelism as antagonists. As for the other great English-language enthusiasts –Nicholas Bjerring and Fr Nathaniel Irvine—I can again find no evidence of hostility by the Metropolia then, or the OCA now, towards them and their work. St Alexish Toth likewise did admirable work with the Eastern Catholics by bringing them en masse into the Faith. What is your point? That the OCA has placed St Tikhon alone on a pedestal and that only his accomplishments are noted? Please be aware that both Hawaweeny and Toth have been glorified as saints by the Orthodox Church in America. As for the ideas of Fr Benedict Turkevich, who wanted to resettle these Eastern Catholics in Siberia, I cannot comment.

As for changing the name of the Russian archdiocese and the expansion of the American nation to include California and then later Alaska, this is historical but beside the point. You state that St Tikhon, who was by then Metropolitan of Moscow did “envision…an opportunity to spread Orthodoxy throughout the rest of America…” Is that not a good thing, regardless of whether it was happening or not? It seems to me that you minimize Tikhon’s vision by stating that if it were not for Fr Toth and Mr John Mlinar, who made the overtures to the Russian bishops Vladimir and Nestor to bring in the Eastern Catholics, then Tikhon’s vision would have remained that and nothing more. Perhaps. Both Toth and Mlinar are to be acclaimed for their heroic efforts. This is also a type of evangelism, one that would not have happened if Tikhon had not had the “vision” to “spread Orthodoxy through the rest of America.”

The efforts of Toth and Mlinar perhaps raise the most important question of all: Why did these two men go to Bishops Vladimir and Nestor in the first place? Why did they not go to Istanbul, or Belgrade, or Moscow for that matter? Why did they seek out these local bishops to bless their undertaking? To ask the question is to answer it: it was because even these two Eastern Catholics recognized the permanency and jurisdiction of the Russian mission, no matter how insignificant it was outside of the confines of Alaska and that it was the only canonical Orthodox jurisdiction in North America.

As to the presence of Greek parishes in New York state, my critique remains unanswered. Like the church in New Orleans, I ask again: who blessed their founding? Who consecrated them? From which theological school did they receive their priests? Are the cornerstones observable? Did their priests have antimins? Are they available for examination? Lest anybody think that I have a particular beef against the Greek jurisdiction, I can ask these questions of all other non-Metropolia churches, whether they be Albanian, Bulgarian, Montenegrin, and so on.

A word must be said at this point about the establishment of the non-Russian mission jurisdictions. All of them were created by the Old World patriarchates only after the fall of the Russian Empire and the end of financial support from Moscow. This is uncontroversial but it is indicative of two things: (1) that they did not seek to establish jurisdictions in North America as long as the Russian mission was active and (2) this same Russian mission was supported by resources from Russia. That being said, the establishment of the Greek jurisdiction bears special scrutiny. As is well-known, the notorious Meletius Metaxakis organized it single-handedly without recourse to normal canonical procedures. For one thing, he was expelled from the archiepiscopal throne of Athens (which he had earlier usurped); second he was a Freemason; third, there was no canonical act or order which established this jurisdiction, either in Greece or in America. (In other words, there was no council of at least three bishops which alone could create a new diocese.)

I applaud your other points, especially about the fact that other jurisdictions were open as well to evangelism. But let us be honest, one or two examples of non-Orthodox or even non-whites being brought into the Faith does not indicate evangelistic fervor. To suggest as much would only invite howls of laughter from other Christian denominations who are known for their missionary work.

As to the supposed lack of continuity between the Metropolia and the Russian mission, you insinuate that perhaps it had been broken by the fact that Moscow temporarily suspended communion with it in 1924. You fail to mention that this was the time of the Soviet persecution and that the patriarch of Russia (St Tikhon, the former hierarch of the Russian mission) was imprisoned by the Soviets at this time and died one year later under mysterious circumstances. The reestablishment of the Russian mission in the Aleutians in 1933 was likewise done at the behest of the godless Soviet regime and only for the express purpose of delegitimizing the Metropolia. Why? Because the Metropolia was resolutely anti-Soviet. Also it would be easier for the Soviet regime to seize the properties of the Metropolia if they could get the downtrodden Moscow patriarchate to break off communion with the Metropolia.

In conclusion, I would state that to make the case that the Russian mission was not the only canonical presence in North America to be misleading at best.

Let us recap:

There were no non-Russian bishops in North America prior to 1922 nor were there any non-Russian exarchates, dioceses, eparchies, or jurisdictions on this continent before this time. This bears repeating: all ethnic jurisdictions were created after the Bolshevik revolution.

The only non-Russian bishop before this time was consecrated by the Russian hierarchy in New York.
All non-Russian mission churches established outside of the Russian mission before this time therefore are under a canonical cloud. The present trustees of these parishes cannot (or will not) produce their letters of incorporation, dates of consecration, identify the relics (if any) they possess, etc.

The creation of the ethnic jurisdictions appears to have been ad hoc. Which council of at least three bishops established them? The creation of the Greek archdiocese by the exiled Archbishop of Athens appears to have been the single-handed creation of one man who himself was under a canonical and ethnical cloud.

It is only by tortuous reasoning that the case can be made that the Metropolia was created de novo in 1924 and that it was not continuous with the original Russian mission. To believe so, one would have to accept the Soviet view of history and give assent to the machinations of this godless regime.

In conclusion, I believe that in order to justify the position of those who are uncomfortable with the OCA’s primacy, you employ several curious arguments that are either non-germane, inaccurate, or propagandistic. Most troubling of all, you try to belittle the Russian mission’s efforts at evangelism by justifying the chaotic nature of nineteenth century American Orthodoxy. I realize you probably do so in a spirit of charity in that you don’t want to delegitimize all other evangelistic efforts and thereby cast aspersions on the canonicity, orders, and mysteries that were part of the non-Russian mission experience.

Unfortunately, in doing so, you justify the present anarchy. Quite simply, if the anarchy of the past is ecclesiastically meritorious, then there is absolutely no need at all to rectify the present chaos. In short, we can happily go along our merry way establishing competing missions, “poaching” each others’ flocks, jurisdiction-jumping to find the “right” bishop which will sanctify our sinful proclivities, and continue to present a morally and theologically ambiguous face to those who are seriously considering joining the Ark of Salvation. Rather than an ark however, we would be presenting various lifeboats, some more resolute than others and leave it up to sinful people in needs of God’s mercy to decide for themselves which is the “authentic” lifeboat.

In Christ,

George C. Michalopulos


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