When an Orthodox bishop enters a sanctuary, he is traditionally greeted with the following words chanted in Greek — “eis polla eti, despota.”In English this means, “Many years to you, Master.” Witty bishops in the Orthodox Church in America have started using this sentiment as the punch line in a joke about the impact the episcopate can have on their egos.
“What happens to a guy?”, said Bishop Jonah, during the church’s All American Council in Pittsburgh. “You put him on a stand in the middle of the church, you dress him up like the Byzantine emperor and you tell him to live forever. You know?”
The audience of clergy and lay leaders laughed, but it was nervous laughter. The atmosphere in the recent gathering was so tense, Bishop Jonah said later, that some of the bishops were afraid that “everything was about to unravel.”
Only 10 days earlier, the 49-year-old monk had been consecrated as assistant bishop of Dallas. Now, he was facing the clergy and lay leaders of a flock that was reeling after years of bitter scandal — including the disappearance of $4 million — that had forced the church’s last two leaders out of office.
The new and, thus, unstained bishop volunteered to face the assembly and answer hard questions about reform. The bottom line, he said, was that investigators found a “fundamentally sick,” corrupt culture inside the national headquarters that was rooted in fear and intimidation.
“Yes, we were betrayed. Yes, we were raped. It’s over. It’s over,” said Bishop Jonah. In fact, whenever church members seek healing, “we have to confront the anger and the bitterness and the hurts and the pain and the resentment that we have born within us as reactions against the people who have hurt us.
“By forgiving, we’re not excusing the actions. We’re not justifying anything. What we’re saying is, ‘My reaction is destroying me and I need to stop it. If I value Jesus Christ and the Gospel and communion with God, I need to stop it and move on.’ ”
The audience responded with a standing ovation.
Then, 11 days after he became a bishop, the assembly — in a move that shocked young and old — elected Jonah as the new Metropolitan of All America and Canada. Current plans call for his enthronement at on Dec. 28th at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
The new leader of the Orthodox Church in America, which has its roots in Russia, was born James Paffhausen in Chicago and raised as an Episcopalian. He converted to Orthodoxy during his college years in California, went to seminary and, while studying in Russia in 1993, became a novice at the famous Valaam Monastery. After returning to America, he was ordained and spent 12 years building several missions and the Monastery of St. John of San Francisco in northern California.
Becoming a bishop turned his once secluded life upside down, explained Jonah. Now it’s hard to even discuss his stunning election as primate on Nov. 12.
“They talk about ‘his beatitude’ and I wonder who that is,” he said. “Your beatitude? Who? Where?”
On his 12th day as a bishop, he found himself delivering an address on his “vision for the church.” The new Metropolitan Jonah stressed college ministry, calling for Orthodox housing facilities and evangelistic ministries near as many campuses as possible, to help students living in “Animal House” conditions rooted in “sex, drugs, alcohol and despair.”
It’s also time for leaders in the church’s many ethnic U.S. jurisdictions to work together on charitable projects whenever and wherever they can, grassroots projects that he said will eventually produce Orthodox unity at the national, hierarchical level. Where are the Orthodox hospitals, schools and nursing homes?
If nationwide change is going to happen, said Jonah, it will have to grow out of respect and cooperation at all levels of the church.
“Hierarchy is only about responsibility, it’s not all of this imperial nonsense,” he said. “Thank God that we’re Americans and we have cast that off. We don’t need foreign despots. We are the only non-state Orthodox church. In other words, we are the only Orthodox church that does not exist under the thumb of a state — either friendly or hostile.
“So the church is our responsibility, personally and collectively, individually and corporately. What are you going to do with it?”