State of the Diocese (2019)
Dearest Beloved Fathers, Brethren and Sisters in the Lord,
Christ is in our midst!
I glorify and thank our Holy God Who has blessed us to have such exemplary clergy and faithful in this magnificent Diocese, who have a capacity to work hard for His glory and to yield much spiritual fruit as a result.
I am also very grateful to you for your truly arduous priestly and lay ministry in making our 44th Annual Diocesan Convention memorable and blessed.
However, during these three days here we will come to understand that we can all improve ourselves; we can all become more pleasing to God; we can all be more supportive of our fellow humanity.
The main mission of our clergy and faithful parishioners is to minister to the people of God in our holy Diocese, the souls that He has entrusted to us and for which we will have to give an account before Him. Driven by fatherly love, I knock once again at the door of your priestly and lay consciences, and ask that you open them to me and hear my words.
Salvation cannot be explained in legalistic terms of acquittal and justification, for salvation is much more than simply being forgiven and getting into heaven. The close tie between faith and works, in the Orthodox view of salvation, is not about being "saved" by our works, for this is impossible. Works do not save us, but when placed in the context of a relationship with God, works do indeed have an eternal component.
Our "works" do not supplant the place of grace and faith with God, but are part of the whole experience in our relationship with Him. Saint John Chrysostom (349-407), one of the greatest of the Church Fathers, and perhaps the greatest preacher in the history of the Church, wrote:
"For Scripture says that faith has saved us. Put better: Since God willed it, faith has saved us. Now in what case, tell me, does faith save without itself doing anything at all? Faith's workings themselves are a gift of God, lest anyone should boast. What then is St. Apostle Paul saying? Not that God has forbidden works but that he has forbidden us to be justified by works. No one, St. Paul says, is justified by works, precisely in order that the grace and benevolence of God may become apparent." (Homily on Ephesians 4.2)
The purging fire of God's presence is only a warmth for the one already purified with the good works done in this life. Yet the one who wastes this life, and does nothing to enhance his relationship with others through his good works, will have sacrificed a loving relationship with the God Who has called us into communion with Himself. This person will experience the fire on judgment day as painful, for he who has not done good works in this life, will have done nothing to promote a sound relationship with the God Who has called us into a life of transformation. It is God's intent that this life bring us into holiness, preparing us for eternity in the presence of His holiness. If we have not been made holy, eternity in the presence of God will be as a burning fire.
Our works do not earn us salvation, but neither are works unimportant. According to the Holy Fathers, works make our communion with God fuller and more complete. Our good works help us gain God's "likeness" in this life, and bring us into a joyful communion with Christ in the life to come. The more we become like Christ, the more joy we will experience. In contrast, eternal pain and suffering are the end result of our sinfully becoming less of God's likeness.
My concern for the present and future of our Diocesan communities is the chief aspect of my hierarchical ministry. It is my hope that we bestow on the next generation, church communities which are more full of Christ’s life than before, in order to lead the greatest number of people to the Kingdom of God. I call upon all of you to cooperate with me in this common struggle for salvation, both the salvation of the Orthodox Christian faithful and our own personal salvation. Let us create communities that are more truly alive, more truly spiritual beehives bursting with life in Christ.
I know, as priests, you always serve as an example to the faithful. The priest's life is like the lamp lit and placed on the lamp stand to give light to the surroundings. His life should be illumined, transparent, exemplary, and spiritual. His attitude should always be positive, not negative. Our Diocesan faithful should see the priest in every facet of his personal, family and public life, and exclaim, "Glory to God that you are still good and kind priests in our Diocese!" The parishioner should feel at ease with the priest. The priest should continue to radiate holiness and inspire those around him with his mature behavior and his dynamic presence. He should gladly rush to serve those who call him, wherever he is needed (in homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes, in associations, etc.). If our people do not feel that the priest is wholly subsumed in liturgical life, they will themselves remain far removed from the liturgical life of the Church. If they do not feel the affectionate care and unwavering zeal of the priest, their spiritual life will frost over. If they do not see that the priest puts into practice that which is preached from the pulpit, they will become ethically sluggish and may even lose their faith in God entirely.
Specifically, I exhort you to take the following actions:
- Divine services—Worship. I urge you to have an extensive program of divine services. To prepare and distribute on time your program of divine services and events. Your services should be a true mystagogy, peaceful and full of devout solemnity. They should be of a reasonable duration for our parishioners; in both languages, if they want; and carefully prepared in advance by the priest and his helpers. The services of vespers, matins, and supplication (paraklesis) are mandatory. On a monthly basis, the services of Blessing of the Waters, Holy Unction or some other service could be held. During the Divine Liturgy, the approved service book should be used exclusively. The same book should be available in the pews for all the faithful to follow along. Uniformity should exist in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy throughout the Diocese. The sermons should be living, bilingual (when necessary) and concise. The church should be neat and clean. The Holy Altar should be proper and unassuming. The Holy Altar Table should be devoid of unnecessary embellishments. The faithful should be encouraged to come to confession regularly and to frequently partake of Holy Communion. I further ask you to take care of the following items.
- Choir. A choir is necessary. It gives the opportunity for more people to attend the divine services and to actively participate in worship. It is a fact that parishioners chant along more often when there is a choir chanting during the service. The priest should work together with the choir directors and meet with the choir members on a regular basis. He should let them know they are significant members of the church family and valuable ministry partners.
- Chanters. It would be ideal for all our churches to have Byzantine choirs and chanters that are well-skilled in Byzantine music. The priest should ensure that young, talented people approach the chanter's stand and are taught Byzantine Music.
- Sextons, Parish Council Members, Secretaries, Co-workers. They should all be polite, ready to help, and pleasant. They should all be appropriately dressed, punctual, diligent, calm, and pious. They should not forget that they are there to serve the people of God. For his part, the priest should be caring towards them and have patience with all. He should work well with everyone.
- Holy Sacraments. It is truly a blessing when our young people get married, baptize their children, and bury their beloved family members in the Church. Every sacrament is a unique chance that our people have to discover a positive feature of the Church, to get to know their priest, to better appreciate their Community. For these reasons, we must prepare for all sacraments appropriately and in a comprehensive manner, together with all parties involved. Sacraments and services should be celebrated perfectly and with solemnity. While, for example, it could be the third baptism for the priest that day, it is the one and unique baptism of their child for the parents and their guests. Every sacrament celebrated is a lesson in how we can better approach our faith. After the sacrament, the people should be so delighted that they will want to come again to church and to better know the priest who has performed such a wonderful service.
With this opportunity, I would like to remind you that the priest is the spiritual father of the ecclesiastical community. He is the father to all. Therefore, it is his duty to take care of the faithful of every age. He should not only care for the liturgical aspect of his community, but also the pastoral side, the social aspect, and all building/infrastructure issues. If the priest is not the one taking a leading role in all these areas, then who will do it?
Let me remind you analytically of some facets of the priestly ministry:
- Catechism of adults. Catechism is a primary responsibility of the priests; it is not merely limited to children and youth, or to just the Sunday sermon. Periodically, catechetical sessions with the priest should be open to all ages (possibly in conjunction with an evening service). These sessions should be carefully prepared for, theologically correct, while being presented in a simple and practical way for the intended audience. A dialogue should take place in a relaxing, family atmosphere. These gatherings will connect more people with the Church. Such meetings could also be tied to excursions, pilgrimages, men's and women’s retreats or recreational trips.
- Youth. We are often asked why churches today are losing their young people. Typical answers to this question range from things like the temptations of this world or the irrelevance of the church in modern life. Mr. Carl Trueman, Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, makes a keen and convicting connection between our parenting and apostasy:
"The church is losing its young people," he said, "because the parents never taught their children that it was important. I think that applies across the board. It applies to family worship, and it also applies to whether you are in church every Sunday and what priority you demonstrate to your children [that] church has on Sunday. If the sun shines out and their friends are going to the beach, do you decide to skip church and go to the beach? In which case, you send signals to your children that it is not important."
- What role should parents play to keep kids from skipping church? Now we know that artificially taking your kids to church neither bestows salvation nor guarantees it. God is obviously not honored by external religious acts without heart-felt worship. This type of legalism is not the subject of this discussion. This is about parenting and the weight of the responsibility behind how parents prioritize their time and make lifestyle choices for their families.
Maybe the reason our children have no love for Christ is that we as parents do not show proper love or devotion for Christ, as evidenced by how we prioritize our time both on Sundays and during the week. When TV, sports, school, hobbies, even family itself are elevated to a place of idolatry and replace the vital Orthodox Christian responsibilities, then we tell our children that Christ is secondary to all these things. We tell our children that it is not necessary to take up your cross and die to yourself daily in order to follow Christ. We tell them that you only have to live for Christ when it's convenient for you. We tell them it is okay to sacrifice spending time with your all-satisfying Savior if something "more fun" or "more important" comes along (sarcasm indicated by quotation marks if you didn't catch that). And this sounds like a clear path to apostasy, if you ask me.
- Parents are in charge. Parents make choices all the time for their families. As they decide on what takes priority in family, every choice is carefully observed and taken into the heart of their children. Yes, they are watching you and they are learning from you.
- Let's evaluate where our hearts are by observing our choices. Do you give high priority to the local church? Do you give priority to the worship of Christ in your home and on Sundays? Do you prioritize serving Him and worshiping Him in the contexts of school and work? This doesn't mean that you can't ever miss a Sunday service, or that you can't have any extracurricular activities. Instead, it is a sobering reminder that we shouldn't put the things of God at the bottom of our priority list, because it tells our children that Christ is at the bottom of our priorities. And the God of this universe does not belong there. My prayer is that we would all improve in this area. But beware, maybe we don't see this clearly, because Christ isn't a priority in our lives. And if He isn't a priority in our lives, then our children will know and follow suit.
- Every parish church is required to have an organized and active Orthodox Youth Group that is under the spiritual and active guidance of the parish priest, in conjunction and with the help of the Youth Director of our Diocese, the Very Rev. Fr. Philip Tolbert.
For his part, the parish priest must provide spiritual remedies for the following: As many of you know, the loss of our Orthodox Christian youth is a staggering problem today in our communities. Statistics show us that more than 60% of our young people are graduating high school, going to college, and never returning to their faith group. I do not only mean not returning to their parish communities, but not returning to their faith. In other words, more than 6 out of 10 Orthodox young adults will abandon Orthodoxy. This is a huge challenge for all of us.
As the official campus ministry of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the USA, Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) works on behalf of all Orthodox churches in the USA and Canada to connect students to Christ and His Church during college. Through its campus-based chapters, regional events and programs such as College Conference and Real Break, OCF engages Orthodox college students in fellowship, education, worship, and services.
To fulfill this mission and seeking to reverse the trend of loss of faith so prevalent among our young people, OCF has just launched its eighth year of the First Forty Days Initiative – a program designed to help our parish high school graduates seamlessly join the OCF network by integrating them into the life of an OCF local chapter during the first forty days of their college experience. It is critical to personally contact every first-year Orthodox college student so that they know that an Orthodox family awaits them on campus. Research has shown that most college students build the habits and peer groups they will maintain for their entire college career in the first six weeks during this critical time.
Please, submit your parish's high school student's information – specifically the names of the students who will be starting college or university this fall and the school each will be attending – as soon as possible to the Very Rev. Fr. Philip Tolbert so that he can provide this to the appropriate people at the Orthodox Christian Fellowship.
- Sunday Schools. They should operate year round without ceasing, and parents should be encouraged to send their children to Sunday School. The teachers and their assistants should be chosen according to spiritual criteria (they should be going to confession, receiving Holy Communion and living a Christian life). The priest should energetically work with them and oversee the entire catechetical year.
- Altar Boys. Every church should have at least two altar boys over 7 years of age. They should be separated into three categories: taper-bearers, readers, and sub-deacons. The priest should guide, teach, and prepare studiously the Altar Boys for the Divine Liturgy and the Divine Services, along with teaching the appropriate dress code and behavior. Today's Altar Boys could possibly be tomorrow's priests. It is therefore our great responsibility to guide them appropriately on this path. If we labor with love and missionary zeal, we can work miracles. Otherwise, we have no excuse.
My beloved fathers, brothers and sisters in Christ, I call upon all of you to renew your commitment to God and His faithful people this year, indeed this very day, and to strengthen your daily ministry. Especially now, with the beginning of the new July-to-July Diocesan Convention Year, you should strive to implement the above mentioned programs. As He did for the Holy Apostle Paul, may the Lord give us strength and wisdom and help us all to achieve great things for His name’s sake!
Thank you all for your attention and love!
+ Metropolitan Joseph
July 20, 2019
St. Dimitar's Bulgarian Orthodox Church
Brampton, Ontario, Canada