We are now living in such a time when it is believed by the vast majority that internal, subjective, individualistic, “free-lance” spirituality has made obsolete the more traditional forms of church community and tradition. In fact, to many in our contemporary world, the word ‘tradition’ invokes a nebulous, irrational fear. In keeping with this fad, incidentally, countless people are falling away from “traditional religion”, calling it a “disease” and a “toxin” inflicted upon mankind by “malevolent” religious dictatorships like that of the Papacy, as if the function of the Pope is to personally make each and every person in the world as miserable and as unhappy as possible. Observing all of this as a religious authority myself, I cannot help but ponder the questions: has traditional religion become ineffectual? Are the Sacramental Graces contained within sacred operations like Baptism and Eucharist no longer applicable? Does this world even deserve them anymore?
The name chosen for this blog [Vestiges of Christianity] was carefully selected and, I believe, appropriately reflects the type of ministries performed at the two churches under my care. It is then ironic to consider that in light of our contemporary spiritual climate, I too may be in the process of becoming another vestige of Christianity. It would be highly deceptive of me not to suggest that the Office of Patriarch carries with it the unusual aura of a museum curator. The primary, fundamental purpose of our ministries is to serve, but how does one serve those who don’t think they need what we possess?
It is unquestionable that 1,700 years of Roman Catholic authoritarian domination of the western world combined with at least 500 years of reactionary theology is to blame for much of what we are seeing today. Crusades and inquisitions have become synonymous with priesthood, sacraments, and honest ministry. Additionally, media-manipulated church-related sexual scandals haven’t helped matters any. I see it every day that I step out into public dressed in ministerial uniform. The white collar is like a neon sign sending a [not-so] subliminal message to great numbers whispering things like, “beware, fear, distrust, avoid, run!” In fact, the uniform has become such a barrier to connecting with people, I now only use it when representing the Church in a public function or when serving a participating member of our small community.
And yes, the numbers of those who still, despite everything else, wish to be served by the Sacramental Graces are existent, but small. The donations are even smaller, particularly in churches the size of ours. People are sometimes willing to give something of their time, but financial support is often “asking too much”. It has reached a point where people expect churches to manufacture their own capital, and much of this is due, I believe, to the depreciating market value of spiritual intercession. Why go to a priest when you can ask God yourself? It’s like asking, why go to a doctor when you can let your immune system handle the infection? Well, sometimes it can’t! However, it is interesting that when someone is physically sick or dying, suddenly the priest is temporarily elevated from village idiot to modestly relevant, although once the services are performed, the prayers are said, and the grief runs its natural course, the priest returns once more to the outer limits of obscurity.
So what is to be done? How do we, as clergy, help people who will not listen to us to come to understand that personal spirituality is no replacement for the Sacramental Graces of the Church?
My answer may surprise my readers.
It is my contention that this fad must run its course before its damage can be reversed. It should be noted that I am hardly arguing against personal spirituality, but rather affirming that personal Christian spirituality without the Sacraments of the Church is horribly incomplete. Regardless, the climate of ministry has changed and we must adapt to those changes by applying strategic solutions. The Holy Nicholean Catholic and the Holy Imperial Russian Orthodox Churches were founded as a countermeasure to many of the problems I have listed in this article. The first strategy we implemented was to establish an infrastructure to preserve the sacred ancient traditions of Christianity. For those of you who are familiar with and appreciate George Lucas’ Star Wars, what we are doing is not unlike Yoda training Luke Skywalker to become a Jedi decades after the Empire’s near-successful attempt at eradicating all Jedi Knights. My apologizes for the pop-culture reference, but in light of these topics, I find it strangely accordant with the current mentality.
Our second strategy has been to consolidate our efforts to work only with select groups in relatively small numbers. While it is the strong desire of some of our ministers to operate large parishes and conduct extensive active ministries, the perpetual lack of financial support our ministries receive prevents us from doing the things we really want to be doing, like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, etc. The sad and unfortunate result is that most of our ministers must work secular jobs and invest their own monies into any and all of the works they perform. This is neither efficient nor constructive, but is rather the reality of ministry today in a small church established in a culture that does not think it needs us.
Finally, our third strategy, yet to be implemented [and hopefully will not be], is to reserve the possibility that if conditions remain as they are, to convert the Churches into an exclusively contemplative monastic community. It is no secret to those who have studied the mysteries of the Church that its sacred rites were once reserved for only the priestly class. Perhaps, then, it is fitting that it is to the priestly class that they shall return? Most requests our churches receive from the public are from individuals seeking ordination. Almost none are from those seeking to become members of its laity. This result alone justifies the need to consider this third strategy.
Salvation and spiritual development is everyone’s problem. In the shadow of inevitable death, something we all must face sooner or later, one would think it would be of primary importance to nearly everybody, yet our life in the modern world has removed the stench of death to such a degree, the majority behave as though they shall live forever. The acquisition of wealth replaces the need for God as often a fat wallet provides far more temporal security. Yet as unwholesome as things currently are, I remain hopeful that this work that we are doing will continue for posterity. I trust in the process and expect that one day in the future, the world will need us again and will find it within their hearts to support the ministerial institution so that the corporal works of mercy may resume and be distributed to the masses. Until then, however, we shall exist not unlike the Jedi Knights, resisting annihilation by defending, protecting, and preserving the traditions the world would rather forget it requires.
Blessings to all in Christ,
Patriarch Nicholas III in mundo +Bryan D. Ouellette, Ph.D.
Holy Nicholean Catholic Church
Holy Imperial Russian Orthodox Church