STATE OF THE PARISH REPORT
From the Parish Meeting, January 28th, 2018 - Archpriest Geoffrey Korz, Rector
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Beloved Brothers & Sisters in Christ: Christ is among us!
EDUCATION through WATCHFULNESS OVER THE HEART
People have often asked me, Father, where did you learn how to be a priest? The question has many sides to it: pastoral, liturgical, spiritual, administrative. One area in which I can say my years as a highschool teacher has helped me a great deal is the area of spiritual education - but not in the way one might think. Each year at parent-teacher interviews, I'd be visited by many sincere and interested parents. A few of their kids were struggling in my class; the vast majority of those whose parents attended were the keenest, hardest working, A-level students. The fact is, these parents did not need to be there, but they wanted to be there, to do absolutely everything they could to help the student in their family improve their results. I enjoyed these interviews, much in the same way I very much enjoy our Orthodox Coffee Talks and Question Hours, not to mention the Institute on the Family (where I usually get to listen, rather than speak!).
But much like parent-teacher interviews, the folks who say they need them the most, who have the most questions, who admit to not understanding their faith - these are the folks who are most often absent. So, if I had one wish, I would say that it would be to see these people make the time to come out to talks and lectures - all of them - and learn the steps to strengthening themselves for the Christian life.
If and when this happens, what we consistently see is a deepening of prayer life, more frequent and more thorough Confession, and a much greater capacity to pass along the Orthodox Faith to children, grandchildren, godchildren, and friends. I think this is a wish we all would like to see come true (to borrow a line from Cinderella!), and the Lord wants to see it, too - the only missing piece is the will of those who need to come, cooperating with God in the process. Then we will see the miracles happen!
PRAYER for INNER STILLNESS
When strangers ask me to describe our parish, I often find myself using words like "anomaly" - in a good way! Most Orthodox parishes bring together people of a shared culture or language: as such, parish members usually run the spectrum from saints, through pious people, through strugglers, through occasional Christians, to inactive affiliates, right through to atheists (some of whom even sit on parish councils, I am sorry to say). Our parish is very blessed to have as the binding thread holding our community together a sincere to try to live out life and serve Christ as true Orthodox Christians. As a result, about 80% of the most serious problems which plague other Orthodox communities year after year, are blessedly never even seen in our church. We enjoy an uncommon unanimity of spirit, which we must work daily - through spiritual effort, repentance, and small but consistent acts of love toward each other and strangers - to ensure we preserve this treasure. I have over the years encouraged catechumens to visit one or two other Orthodox parishes to get a feel for the wider Church into which they are being baptized: this may be good advice for all of us, too - to pick a day, and go and take a good, thorough look at the liturgical and social circumstances of other Orthodox parishes, not to offer criticism, but to see the realities out there, and to renew our thankful hearts for the blessings we enjoy as a matter of course in this parish, thank God!
While giving thanks to God for the blessings we continue to receive, we can and should also look at matters which need to be addressed in our parish. For example, there exists a growing commonality (not a majority, by any means) of people stating that they do not do any regular, daily prayers at all, or that their so-called "prayer rule" is just 2-3 minutes long. The Lord tells us that, without Me you can do nothing (John 15) - do we believe Him? Interestingly, this is one of the Gospel readings associated with the Sunday of Orthodoxy, at the beginning of Lent, which exhorts us to strengthen our connection with the Church - to "remain in the vine", like healthy branches and fruit, so we can remain alive, and strong. In some cases, it seems like we do not believe what Christi is saying about this, since we attempt to live a Christian life - supposedly distinct from world - but to do it on our own strength, and using our own judgement.
In terms of the missionary work of the Church, this means just what the Lord tells us: without prayer, nothing will be accomplished. The parish will not meet its financial needs. Our priest will not be able to tackle the tasks set before him. And - what is more - missionary work will be a long, slow process. We should not look for fruit where there is no fertilizer, and Christians, that fertilizer is prayer. There are scores of resources online, and in our parish bookstore. Ways to pray are often mentioned in sermons. We have the resources: if they are not being used, or if they are being used in merely a token way, this is a question of a lack of will. I do not have to go after anyone about this: the results will be evident in each individual's life, as well as in our common life in the parish.
Let me be clear: we are a parish that is geographically divided. Unlike the early Church, we cannot assemble to pray together in this temple or at our Brantford temple every day. What we can and must do, however, is to strengthen our prayers at home every day. The ways of doing this are numerous: morning prayers and evening prayers, prayers before and after meals, the use of the Jesus Prayer (formally, while driving or riding the bus, sitting at a meeting or while in class, or to repeatedly pray that the Lord will have mercy on a particular individual we know is in need. Each time we do this, we are joining one another in prayer - perhaps even praying for another at a time of crisis, when they cannot pray. We are manifesting the Church through the use of the Name of Jesus Christ, as the late Father George Calciu famously said. We should do this all the time, since when we do, we stand shoulder to shoulder with each other, and - more than that - with the saints and martyrs who are praying before God. When you are facing a problem at school, at work, or at home, what more powerful solution could you ask for than that?
HOLY MYSTERIES for TRANSFORMATION
Over the last year, our capacity to offer the Holy Mysteries and other holy services needed to grow - and it has grown, thank God! Part of this growth (which now includes two parish locations, one in Hamilton and one in Brantford) has been the result of our faithful taking on new roles. Most recently, our warden and reader was ordained to the diaconate, after a long period of preparation, training, and study. Father Deacon Sean is one tangible success story of the seed sown in this vineyard, which has grown up and produced fruit. Yet it is not simply our new deacon who is evidence of this: two faithful men - Reader John Jobe and Reader Nicholas Filipovic - were recommended by me to be tonsured as readers, knowing that there would be a need for more help in this regard. They did not ask to be tonsured - they were asked (or more accurately, "volun-told" with an option for veto!). It is not insignificant that our beloved brother, Deacon Alexander Karejew found his way to ordination to the diaconate in this very same way: there was a need years ago, he was a worthy candidate, and he was ordained. Little did his bishop know at the time what a contribution he would make today, in a different parish and jurisdiction, to the service of the Holy Liturgy, to the training of our deacon, acolytes, and readers, and to the spiritual help, support, and encouragement of the faithful of this parish - and especially to me.
My only regret is, we will have to cut his three-figure salary in the 2018 budget, although I know he will accept this with his usual grace and gentlemanly humility!
Yet there are still areas where - if we want to see real missionary work increase - more help is needed, right now:
• Just as our brother Michael Duboy has taken on caretaking, and assisting with regular reading at St. George's, we need other faithful to regularly attend services, and to offer themselves to fulfil various needs at the parish (and to be trained accordingly);
• Here in Hamilton, weekday feast day Vespers and Liturgies do not take place so we can fill up the calendar: they occur for the faithful to pray and commune, and by extension, to attend, to assist, to read, and to sing if they can.
• The same is true for our Wednesday and Friday evening Akathists. These are offered for a variety of purposes (e.g. searching for a job, seeking a spouse, praying for help in marriages or families, seeking God's healing for an illness, or asking God's blessing on the mission work of our parishes, etc.). So too must the faithful - not simply the clergy and the "committed" people - attend, help, read, and sing.
• For Sunday feast days, we also need people who can prepare the kolivo (the boiled wheat) to commemorate the departed at Vespers on the eve of every feast, as well as to bring flowers to prepare the floral icon frame prior to the Vespers service.
Some Orthodox visitors are surprised our parish "still does these things"; in reality, some of these practices have fallen out of use in certain places because the faithful have stepped back from their church community, and have become "spectator Christians" - i.e. essentially non-Christians, who just watch from the bleachers, and might comment on what is going on.
EVANGELISM TO KNOW THE CHURCH
The past year has shown in various ways that the Church must consider its evangelism in new ways. I am referring to two specific things:
Firstly, we are encountering more and more in Canada an elite culture which is openly hostile to religion in general, and to Christian in particular. Sadly, we have no better example of this than our Christ-mocking Prime Minister, for whom we pray at every Liturgy and Vespers service. Some public officials are still well-disposed to us; some at least have good will; while others - a loud minority - actively work against those who love Christ and desire to speak the truth of the Gospel. This situation will require two things of us.
We must learn the words and actions to make faith (our Orthodox Faith in particular) a normal part of the discussion at work, among friends, and at school. This does not usually require debates, but it does require us to expect other Canadians to accommodate our fasting, understand when we ask for a day off (with or without pay!) to observe a church feast day, assert ourselves in certain instances by asking people if they are attacking our faith (any good Canadian will say, of course not! - and then back off), accommodate our religious book and paper icons at the office or in our locker, and respect written requests to accommodate our faith at our child's school. As our friend Father Daniel from Indonesia used to say, you can be sure the other religions will be doing this - are you?!
We must also consider which battles are not worth our energies at all, and decide how we will strengthen ourselves and our children for the long-haul, recognizing certain pressures on Christians may well get worse, and may last a long time. It is a waste of time to complain about "those people" who ruined our "good Christian country": most older Orthodox people will tell you it was never perfect, but that at least in the past, most people shared the same Christian values (which is not the case today). Complaining harms our soul: we must rather ask what "I" as an individual am going to do, either through civic activity, or by strengthening myself, my children, and the faithful in my parish.
This leads me to the second (and final) way we must consider Orthodox evangelism, and that is internal evangelism. Not a week goes by when I do not get the question, Father, why are so many young people leaving the Church? I often reply, well, that's easy: we don't read the Bible at home, we save Church services for weekends (because work and school are "important"), we schedule more time at clubs and lessons than we do in prayer and in services, we do not learn the Faith well enough to apply it to our everyday family problems (including marriage), and we do not go deeply enough into the Faith, prayer, and the saints to allow the beauty and glory of God to shine forth from us at all times in all places. Simply put: why would young people (or anyone) stay in such a church? There are many possibilities:
• We need to newly recruit one or two people to facilitate putting talks and sermons on YouTube. Most people do not read: they watch YouTube. Anyone in the English-speaking world can benefit from this. It's easy, cheap, and effective, but it requires a committed couple of faithful willing to do this every week for at least a year.
• We need some mature faithful people to work together with young, unmarried Orthodox adults inside and outside the parish to create monthly social events for Orthodox people to meet each other, make friends, and - especially - find someone to marry. We have many supportive, non-Orthodox spouses who are part of this parish, however, they can only be married to one person at a time! In the mean time, our young people need to meet a wide variety of 19 to 30-year olds to forge bonds for the future. Perhaps you could step up and help them start this: if so, let me know.
• We also need priests and deacons. This usually starts with forming a faithful man through prayer, liturgy, and lifestyle, however, it also often depends on the success of the previous item - i.e. most single young men are not eager to discuss these things until they have found their wife. Whatever the case, we should keep our eyes open, and especially encourage young men with a second, secular vocation to prepare for the diaconate - either at seminary or (more commonly) through parish training and study) since there is a great need here, and only through this path will we find our future priests.
In conclusion: the purpose of a State of the Parish Report is to offer highlights of the strengths and the needs of a church. It continues to be my personal joy to serve our parishes, and to work together with all of you. Our parish is the smallest Orthodox church in Hamilton, but I would venture that it touches the lives of a much wider circle of people - Orthodox, non-Orthodox, and non-Christian, too - than the church itself holds. God does this through human beings - the faithful of the Church - and I am grateful to be able to witness and experience this warmth, faith, and merciful Christian love every time I deal with our beloved community.