As I mentioned previously, yesterday I attended the Orientale Lumen Conference here in DC. The highlight of the day was the primatial liturgy held in the St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral and celebrated by Metropolitan Jonah, the Primate of the Orthodox Church in America. Last night I also attended a lecture by Metropolitan Jonah on monastic spirituality as part of the conference.
Metropolitan Jonah is an amazing story. Less than a year ago, he was not even a bishop. Today he is the head of the entire Orthodox Church in America. For those not aware of the story, the OCA was rocked with financial scandals within their hierarchy, and last year the reigning Primate, Metropolitan Herman, resigned. During this time, Jonah had been appointed auxiliary bishop of the OCA diocese of the South. Eleven days before the heads of the OCA Church met to pick a successor to Herman, Jonah was consecrated a bishop. His fellow bishops then selected him as their head. His election as Primate came as a great surprise to most Church-watchers, and seemed to indicate that the Church was serious about cleaning up its mess. (For more details, see here and here).
All this background is important to know, because when you hear Jonah speak, it is clear that he has not yet learned the art of “ecclesial-eze”: the ability that most bishops (of any Church) have mastered of speaking much and saying little. Jonah, on the other hand, speaks little but says a lot. He is completely undiplomatic and is completely non-defensive. He has no problem criticizing his own communion, but it is clear he does so out of love. Nor does he have any problem with praising members of other Churches, such as the Catholic Church, if he believes they are following Christ in an exemplary fashion.
His talk last night was quite impressive, as he was able to speak about a difficult subject – monastic spirituality – without being obscure or too scholarly. Here are a few examples of his comments:
The root of spirituality is common sense.
When the Holy Spirit comes, stop saying “Come Holy Spirit.”
Spiritual life boils down to “sit down and shut up.”
One cannot live a Christian spirituality without frequent confession.
Without asceticism there is no Christianity.
But it was my personal conversation with him afterward which was most enlightening. Earlier in the day, he asked us all to “picture what a united Catholic-Orthodox Church would look like in America. For it won’t happen until we picture it.” I approached him, told him I was a Roman Catholic, and then asked him to tell me how he pictured a united Church in America. He told me that he thought it was almost unimaginable, but that it would involve a united synod of bishops, which would most likely be predominantly Western since we are a Western country. Both sides, he stated, would need to change to make it happen. But then he said that it is clear from the problems currently in Orthodoxy that “we need a pope.” He was very quick to follow that with statement emphasizing that he doesn’t mean a pope as defined by Vatican I, but that nonetheless, the Church needs a single head.
I thought this was a startling statement by the Metropolitan. Not that I believe he is a crypto-Catholic, since many Orthodox will agree that the papacy, as they perceive it was practiced in the 1st millennium, is a valid part of Christian ecclesiology. But Jonah says it in a more blunt, less defensive fashion. He comes across as a lover of Orthodoxy who is not afraid to say things that traditionally have not been said for fear of being seen as traitorous to Orthodoxy. I think it is a good thing for both Orthodox and Catholics that he has been picked as the Primate, and I pray that his ministry will bring us closer to unity.