Bishop welcomes All-American Council to Canada

Bishop Seraphim : Article
Bishop welcomes All-American Council to Canada
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Summer 2005]

The Fourteenth All-American Council will convene in Toronto, on 17-22 July, 2005. The last time an All-American Council of The Orthodox Church in America convened in Canada, it was 1977. It was in Montréal, and its focus was the election of a new Metropolitan. That choice was His Beatitude, Metropolitan Theodosius (Lazor). It seems providential for Canada that this was so, because it was he that took such trouble to enable the rebuilding of this Archdiocese of Canada in the 1980s. Now, convened by his successor, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman (Swaiko), who also over the years has shown an active interest in this diocese, we meet again in Canada, this time in Toronto.

It is a great joy to be able to welcome our bishops, and our brothers and sisters from the USA and Mexico to Canada, to the largest of Canada's cities. This city, Toronto, is the most multicultural of our cities, although both Montréal and Vancouver would compete well. Toronto is to Canada as New York is to the USA, and many in Canada say that Toronto is a "wanna be" New York. This is a particularly good opportunity for us all, though, including Canadians, that the Council convenes in Toronto this time. It is the easiest city in Canada to fly into, and it is giving more Canadians than ever the opportunity to participate in this Council, either as delegates, or as observers. A large number of young people have early indicated their intention to participate in the Youth Programme of the Council, and that participation will certainly be strengthening for them. There will be a free afternoon and evening on Wednesday for visiting the city, for those not participating in their diocesan assemblies that day.

For the local Orthodox of Toronto, however, the best part seems to be the working together of the clergy and laity in the Local Committee of the Preconciliar Commission. There has been a lot of interest shown, and energy promised for enabling the work of the Council in Toronto. Members of the three dioceses of the OCA present in Toronto — the Archdiocese of Canada, the Bulgarian Episcopate, the Romanian Episcopate — are all working together, and getting to know each other better as they prepare to welcome the continent. The Canadian faithful should do all they can to be present and to participate. It is not every day, or everywhere on the continent, that a person can worship together with about a thousand others.

The Council will be considering the topic “Our Church and the Future” during the course of the week, a topic which we hope will be a catalyst for our being open to the guidance in our life of the Holy Spirit in the next years. We will do some necessary business, but primarily, as we discuss together, we are trying to be sensitive to the Lord's direction of our common Church life and service in North America. The common reflection on this subject will help us all to refine our vision of our mutual call, responsibility and service on the continent, in our various contexts, as faithful bishops, clergy, and lay-persons. It is a most important exercise, in part because the Council to follow this one will consider a revision of the Statute of the OCA, and this revision should reflect the understanding of our Church's state, life, and service as the current Council may guide.

In preparation for this consideration, it is necessary to take a look at our overall context. Even Canadians tend not to know much about, or be conscious of our history. However, a person cannot contemplate possible characteristics of the future without considering the past. The two, with the present, are intimately connected one with another.

Canada’s Orthodox history is much shorter than that of the USA, and has a much different character. This is partly the result of the history of immigration to this country, and partly the formation that the country brings to those who arrive in it. Immigration of Orthodox peoples to Canada did not begin until almost a century later than it did in the USA, and it was this immigration, not a missionary foundation, that introduced the Orthodox Faith to Canada. This is the case, even if one were to accept a theory that the first Orthodox believers could have arrived amongst the Vikings in Newfoundland a thousand years ago. Even at that time, people came to Canada either to find a better economic life, or to escape some painful local situation, such as persecution.

So it was, in the second half of the 19th century, that immigrants from the Middle East, from Syria and the now Lebanon, arrived in Eastern Canada, in the Eastern Townships of Québec, in Prince Edward Island, and in Nova Scotia. As witness to this, there is, at Bishop’s University near Sherbrooke, Québec, a Gospel Book, dated about 1875, given by Tsar Nicholas I to that university, in thanksgiving for their giving the use of the university chapel to the Orthodox believers, who received the services of a priest sent to them from New York by the Russian Mission. By 1890 there began the arrival of the first Slavs from the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, soon to be followed by Romanians, and then others. These came principally from the areas of Ukraine and Romania called Galicia, Bukovina, Kyiv, and Volyn, which includes Pochaev. Their settlement was primarily in the western prairies, although many settled also in Québec and Nova Scotia, and then in Ontario. A wave came later from China’s Shanghai and Manchuria to far western Canada.

The Mission began from 1898 to send priests to western Canada to serve these large numbers of migrants, also later to Eastern Canada. Always there was the struggle to meet the needs of so many immigrants with very few resources. Missionary motives as such were not in the forefront of the minds of many, except a few exceptional lay-persons and priests, who were responsible for the conversion of many to the Orthodox Faith. Foremost for most was simply living their Orthodox Christian lives as they had in their homelands. So much was this a primary concern, that in many cases these pioneer homesteaders lived in sod houses ; and before building a better home for their families, they first banded together to build the parish church. The prairie provinces are dotted with such beautiful Temples to the Lord, built of logs and/or sawn timber, dating to as early as 1894. In a sense, it is this sense of priority and importance of the worship of the Lord that has remained a constant until today. But the seventy years after the communist revolution in Russia wrought havoc in Canada, in our diocese, almost destroying our life in its various effects. As a result, there was all-round neglect, sometimes oppression, both of clergy and parishioners, often because of complete lack of resources, sometimes from falling into temptation. However, the Lord in His mercy kept all alive, enabling a renaissance and blossoming of active Church life, beginning with the last years of the active service of Archbishop Sylvester (Haruns), of blessed memory.

The problems that arise from Canada’s being a different and independent country from the USA, and yet an integral part of The Orthodox Church in America, are much the same as they were a hundred years ago, and even more difficult. A century ago, Archbishop (Saint Patriarch) Tikhon (Belavin) was unable to make a Canadian federal incorporation of the Bishop, because he himself was a foreigner. Ultimately, he was able to manage the incorporation only on a local, western level — and that after considerable difficulty. People rightly constantly marvel at the energy wisdom, insight, and future vision of this godly and God-given man. Today, the Canadian government strictly regulates the activities of, and limits the foreign outflow of monies from registered Crown Charities, as are almost all our parishes, and the Archdiocese of Canada itself. At this moment, only one of our American institutions is registered in such a way so as to be able to receive Canadian contributions and qualify for tax credit.

Many who participate in the 14th Council will notice differences between Canada, Canadians, USA and Americans only in a small way. However, the differences are nevertheless real : a republican country founded in revolution, and a modified monarchy founded in peaceful, gradual, and free independence ; two countries consisting of many different cultures, but also two very different ways of including them ; one country founded only in the English language, the other founded first in French, then adding English, and in time incorporating them both equally ; one highly developed country in many aspects, and the other that is popularly said always to be thirty years behind. In both countries, the Orthodox Church is broken up into nationalistic administrations, and in both countries, the bishops are trying to work together, despite the administrative division.

Regardless of the differences, we are all part of the North American Church, and we have a similar foundation in faith and perspective ; and we are, taking into consideration our differences, moving in the same direction, even though in different contexts, with different resources, and with different mentalities. Even if our cultures are somewhat different, and if our founding and present constituent parts are somewhat different, the Canadian and American parts of The Orthodox Church in America (and this surely applies also to Mexico), both understand themselves to be the local Church in and for North America.

We have a double missionary work to do. On the one hand, we have the responsibility to reach out to, be visible to, and accessible to the people of the culture in which we live — American or Canadian. On the other hand, there are periodically large immigrations of peoples from traditional Orthodox homelands, to whom we must also be accessible. Often, although not always, the education in the Orthodox Faith of the newly-arrived persons begins at a more fundamental level than that of a North American potential convert. And in order for it to be effective, it must be offered first in the native language of the immigrant. If this be the case in the USA, it is much more the case in Canada, since in Canada it is the official policy of the federal government to enable the retention of the ancestral languages and cultures for as long as possible.

It has been the experience of our communities, time and again, that various programmes will be formulated by the faithful, with a view to being more visible, more inviting, more accessible to those in the environment of our communities. All of this is undertaken with a sense of responsibility and seriousness. Sometimes there is a little fruit from these programmes of outreach, and a few people may arrive. However, it is far more often the case that real growth in a community results either from the patient, prayerful, loving, serving, witness of the believing faithful themselves, which produces a positive response in the hearts and lives of those touched personally ; or, it results from the Lord’s having touched the hearts of seekers, who then find the community through their own research, and simply arrives.

When the sheep arrive, from whatever motivation, they need to be fed. The foundation of this food is love, in the context of the love of Christ. In addition, following the example of the Apostle Paul, the food has to be presented in a form that is perceived as consumable by the sheep. Those who are doing the receiving have to be prayerfully sensitive to the needs of these arriving sheep, all with their different needs, and try to feed them accordingly. In Canada in particular, this has already meant the need for a multicultural and multilingual approach. If we were ever to be approachable by the Aboriginals of Canada, it would require our understanding them and their cultures much more than we do, and following the example of Saint Innocent, for instance. However, it is the likes of Saint Innocent, and also of Saint Nicholas of Japan, who serve us best in our desire to be approachable for the sake of Christ.

Regardless of the content of our outreach in whatever direction, it is necessary for us all, in all our countries, to accept the responsibility we have been given by God. This is to live our lives in loving service of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and in imitation of Him and His way of life. Always, it seems to be this personal witness that is most attractive to others, and in the long run produces the most fruit for building up the Church. It is not we who bring or make converts to Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who does this, who moves the hearts of people. Our work is that of being sensitive, ourselves, to the Holy Spirit. Our work is to learn, in the spirit of Saints Innocent, Herman, Nicholas and the others, how to live our lives here and now, remembering how the Orthodox Way has been lived in other cultures elsewhere, and taking this guidance for the development of this Way in the various North American cultures.

The manner in which we live the Way need not imitate exactly any other specific Orthodox culture. By the Grace of the Holy Spirit, it is for us in the same way they developed historically, becoming the Orthodox Church living here in North America, with various flavours, according to the various situations. Our becoming truly The Orthodox Church in North America will be achieved in time when we will know ourselves to be faithful to the Tradition of Christ in the Orthodox Church, living in the context of the various local cultures, and no longer trying simply to transplant and impose a different culture on these ones.

After all, the cultures of traditional Orthodox lands are as they are because of how the Orthodox Faith and Way transformed these cultures under the influence of the Gospel by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. This can, again, only be accomplished in North America by our living our lives faithfully, and in a dialogue with these local cultures. It is the Lord Himself who will accomplish all the rest, according to His will.