Sunday, August 10, 2014

Blessed Father Herman of Alaska: the Significance of the Saint

          In 1970, when our church first received its autocephaly from the Russian Church, it immediately did two things.  First, it changed its name from the somewhat unwieldy “the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America” to the snappier and now more accurate “the Orthodox Church in America”.  Secondly, it canonized Herman of Alaska.  This latter task was then ours to do:  the rule says that whichever church possesses the relics of a saint is the church charged with the task and privilege of canonization.  Thus, for example, although St. Tikhon was the ruling bishop of the American diocese, he died on Russian soil and therefore the Russian church which retains his relics was the church which got to canonize him, regardless of any connection St. Tikhon might have had with the American church.  Bishop Tikhon may have had a special love for his American children and left his heart in San Francisco, but he left his relics in Moscow, and whoever retains the relics, retains the joyful task of canonization.  Thus in like manner, after 1970 the Blessed Father Herman of Alaska was ours to canonize.
            It is significant that the first saint of North America was a simple missionary, one who continued to embrace humility all the days of his life, even to the point of shunning ordination.  He lived and died as a simple missionary to this land, and it is as a missionary that he points the way forward for us today.  For we Orthodox in North America are very different than our Orthodox older brothers in other lands.
            Take Russia, for example.  Orthodoxy was planted there before Russia was Russia, and before the words “Russia” or “Ukraine” had any national meaning.  In 988, it was simply the land of the Rus, and the land’s nationhood post-dated the planting of the Orthodox church there.  Orthodoxy thus grew up with the nation, and became part of the country’s DNA.  The Orthodox Church is thus now firmly ensconced in Russia, to the point where it is hard to imagine that country without also seeing it standing under the three-barred cross of Orthodoxy.
            Or take Greece, for another example.  The Gospel was planted in Hellenistic soil long before those living on the soil became the nation of Greece.  When Paul brought the Church there, he found Macedonia in the north and Achaia in the south; the unified country of Greece came much much later.  Even in Byzantine times the term “Greek” did not mean “inhabitants of the former Macedonia and Achaia” but rather “pagan”.  Once again we see the Church predating the nation so that the nation evolves and grows up with ecclesiastical blood flowing through its veins.  The Church is thus ensconced in Greece as it is in Russia, and it is not surprising if its bishops swagger just a bit.  After all this time, they are somewhat entitled.
            It is otherwise here in North America.  Here the nations of America and Canada have existed before Herman and the other missionaries ever arrived.  And, praise-worthy evangelistic enthusiasm notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that Orthodoxy will ever convert North America in the way that it once converted  those in the land of the Rus or those in Macedonia and Achaia.  Orthodoxy became ensconced there; it will not become similarly ensconced here, so that our bishops should not plan on swaggering culturally here anytime soon.  We will never be the ones in charge, as we are in Russia and Greece.  We will remain missionaries.
            The example of St. Herman of Alaska reveals that this is perfectly fine.  Becoming ensconced or culturally dominant is not our goal; faithful proclamation of the Gospel is.  Obviously we have to aim at converting absolutely everyone, since God loves absolutely everyone.  But our evangelistic zeal should not blind us to the real situation.  The reality is that the cultural tide is now flowing against us, and in a few generations America will not be a Christian country in any sense that St. Herman (or St. Paul) would recognize.  Indeed, in Canada this has already happened.  Radical secularization continues apace throughout the continent, and the Land of the Free seems determined to become the Land of the Secular.  And in this land, missionaries will be needed.  Perhaps it is providential therefore that the first saint of the land was just such a missionary.  We need the example of the simple missionary Herman of Alaska now more than ever.

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