January 27, 2012

 

The congregation that I was privileged to serve had many families of mixed religious marriages. This is common for most Orthodox Churches in the United States where we are very much a minority religion.  This is also very common among Ukrainians since a large number of Ukrainians, and the majority in America, are Ukrainian Catholics.  Four hundred plus years after the Union of Brest, which split the Church in Ukraine and created the Ukrainian Catholic Church, there are numerous religiously mixed families.

 

According to strict Orthodox interpretation, it is forbidden to publically pray for the health or the repose of non-Orthodox Christians.  But what is a priest supposed to do when given a list of names from a parishioner – ask which deceased members of the family were Orthodox and which were not?  A bishop went even further in the silliness. When asked what I should do when reading a list of names of Orthodox and non-Orthodox to be commemorated at the prothesis (the preparation of the Eucharistic gifts, where the priest places a particle of bread upon the diskos-paten when commemorating living or deceased members of the Church) this Orthodox bishop actually told me that I should stand directly in front of the prothesis (table of oblation) when commemorating Orthodox names and then move a few steps to the left (I suppose with the goats – Matthew 25:33) when reading the names of non-Orthodox Christians.  What a way for the priest to lose weight. I was worried that if I had actually adopted the advice of this bishop, bouncing from left to right – the altar servers might think that I was either having an epileptic seizure or was drunk.

 

Unfortunately, the Orthodox has made other mistakes when deciding to pray for the dead. Recently Kim Jong-il, the notorious dictator of North Korea, died.  He was the man responsible for starving his own people and keeping them in complete isolation while holding the threat of nuclear war over their heads. What was the reaction of the Russian Orthodox Church to the death of this Stalinist despot?  The Church decided to remember the good deeds of the dictator and to pray for his soul in a memorial service.  In an official statement issued by the Synodal Department of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church for External Church Relations, the “Church remembers with gratitude Kim Jong-il’s contribution to developing spiritual links between the Korean and Russian peoples” and recalling that the late leader “respected the Orthodox Church.” What in the world was the Church thinking?  In a word the Church was acting as an agent of the Russian State instead of in the interest of what is right. These words and actions might have been understood during Soviet times, but someone needs to remind the Church that the Soviet Union fell in 1991 and they no longer are obligated to do the bidding of the Russian state.

 

When I read this outrageous statement I wondered if the Russian Orthodox Church prayed for the soul of Matthew Shepard? Matthew was the twenty-two year old University of Wyoming student who was tortured and murdered in 1998. He was mostly likely severely beaten and left to die simply for being gay.  Did any Orthodox priest even think of offering public prayers for the repose of the soul of Matthew?  I know that it did cross my mind, but fear of what my congregation would think kept me from doing so. Therefore the memorial service that I offered had to be private. I regret that decision. Hopefully, I was not the only Orthodox Christian to pray for the repose of Matthew’s soul, asking Christ to give him rest in Abraham’s bosom among the righteous. The official Orthodox Church was completely silent on the heartbreaking episode.

 

Did SCOBA (Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas) request that memorial services be celebrated for Matthew?  Did SCOBA publically condemn the brutal torture and murder of this young man? Did SCOBA denounce the reprehensible actions of those church groups that picketed the funeral with hateful messages? Did SCOBA direct the Orthodox priests in this country to preach against Christians committing violent acts in light of what had happened to Matthew?  No. No. No. 

 

Matthew was not perfect but as a child of God, he deserved our love and is deserving of our prayers. Kim Jong-il warrants public condemnation by the Orthodox Church.  Matthew Shepard merits the compassion of the Church. Memory Eternal Matthew!

 

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