This letter was written by a parish priest and was presented at the HOCNA clergy conference in October, 2012.
Dear esteemed Hierarchs, clergy and monastics,
It is with a heavy, heavy heart that I write this. I, who am the least among you, have no right to speak, given my sinfulness and general ignorance of spiritual matters. But my conscience compels me to speak, and I am also driven by a sense of pastoral duty.
The circumstances and the atmosphere around the monastery, and at the seat of our diocese and, more recently, at the parishes, have deteriorated so rapidly in recent days, with a resultant virtual fever pitch of tension, anxiety and strife. I have heard and witnessed things in the past couple of weeks that I never would've imagined I would hear in our once harmonious church brotherhood. In an atmosphere of steadily eroding trust, I have seen personal attacks, refusals to concelebrate amongst clergy that were once tightly bonded in Christ, character assassinations, intrigue, offense and counter-offense, with a resultant, rapid spread of fear and hysteria into the life of parishes, families and households. This is tearing asunder the very fabric of our church community.
There are 2 things that I know for certain. Firstly, no one, no one in the clergy is at peace with this. Everyone is grieving. Everyone is anxious. Everyone is fearful. Secondly, the only one that is genuinely rejoicing is the evil one.
Vladyka Ephraim, I have known you for a number of years and have always respected you, looked up to you, and remembered you in my prayers. I have greatly valued your counsel during times of difficulty and challenge. You have helped me immensely with your guidance, love and prayers, for which I am eternally grateful. I also acknowledge that, in your position of Chief Hierarch, you carry a very big cross and have weighty responsibilities.
When the recent news was shared with me regarding the immoral activities of Fr. Panteleimon, I felt like I was hit with a bolt of lightning. The shock has yet to wear off. I don’t know if it ever will. I’ve known Geronda for 32 years. He has always been kind to me. I’ve joined him for lunch at the skete countless times. He was always so gracious , generous and helpful. It therefore took some serious effort and prayer on my part, along with God’s grace, to break down the thick cement wall of denial. Once down, through God’s mercy, my eyes opened. A veil was lifted. I now understand how difficult it is for many to overcome that denial. Geronda has such an esteemed and holy impression in the hearts of so many. As for that denial, clinical psychologists readily attest that abuse, when mixed with manipulation of sentiments, creates walls of denial for many, oftentimes insurmountable even after the truth is known.
I would like to pose a question. If anyone of us has a family member with “a problem”, (a weakness, a vice), like drinking or temper tantrums, for example, and his actions adversely impact others, and the family works to protect him from consequences, hides his vice from the general public, walls him off from personal accountability, will such protective actions of his family cause him to sink into his vices any less? Or, possibly more? Does not such protection and negligence distance him from necessary rehabilitation? At what point does the family bear some of the responsibility for the damage caused by his vices, due to their negligence and cover-up? The answer is clear.
Then there’s the question of TRUTH. We as ordained clergymen have taken an oath to uphold the laws and canons of the Church, and live a Christ-centered life and minister others to do so. Such a life, which is the life of the cross, espouses and embraces TRUTH, for Christ said, “I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life.” In many Holy Scripture references, TRUTH is equated with Christ, while lies are equated with the evil one, the father of lies. The life of Christ is our template and example. Where do we see in Holy Scripture our Saviour encouraging His disciples to lie? Of course, never, and his admonition to the “hypocrites” is severe and firm.
The Metropolitan encourages all to read the lives of Saints. Where in the lives of Saints do we ever see a lie justified to cover another’s sins? When each of us begins a holy service, we beseech the Holy Spirit “the spirit of TRUTH who fillest all things” to enter into us, guide us and work through us. Does not the holy Church teach that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, is repulsed by untruth? By propagating untruth, are we not, in effect, pushing the Holy Spirit away? Is that not the essential source of all of our current woes? I genuinely believe it is so.
We can argue the points of bad administration, poor management principles, deficient communication, poor skills, as sources of our ills. That would certainly hold true in the corporate world. But we are not speaking about a corporation. We are speaking about the Holy Orthodox Church, the very body of Christ. The holy Church is guided, held together, supported and nourished by the Holy Spirit, who is the effecter of all of her Holy Mysteries. Therefore, without the Holy Spirit’s blessings, the earthy Church, (in this case, HOCNA specifically), would not thrive, would not grow, would not enlighten, would not remain a beacon in the world, would become sick. Does this portrayal not fit our Church currently? And in recent years? Are we not now suffering the effects of alienating the Holy Spirit? Through our falsehood? Our deceit? Our hypocrisy?
I submit that much of our current ills are direct symptoms and manifestation of a cancerous lie that has infected our Church, seething and smoldering for years, which we’ve covered up, justified, and helped to propagate by avoiding the only certain remedy… uncompromising TRUTH and repentance.
It is believed that a quiet, compassionate sequestration of Fr. Panteleimon, essentially sending him into exile, would be a sufficient remedy, through containment. I say not. It is analogous to placing a band-aid on a gushing arterial hemorrhage, or spreading cancer. The metastasis, which is the dangerous spread of the cancer, has been directly facilitated by the dishonest cover-up, which has been propagated openly, publicly and with a bare-head.
We must take heed of our Saviour’s corrective and healing action towards the thrice-declared sin of the St. Peter’s denial of Christ. Our Saviour guided him to a proper repentance, with a thrice offered confession that offset, essentially canceling out, the thrice-declared denial. What is important here is that the repentance needs to match the sin, (is that not the basis of an epitemia?), and, that our Saviour guides the faithful to a proper repentance. I believe that we, as a body, need to sink into earnest and unqualified repentance, and accept, that through recent circumstances, our Saviour is guiding us to that proper repentance. Without an open, public and bare-headed repentance, I fear that our ills will remain, as we continue to distance the Holy Spirit.
On a more practical note, we have all seen a rapidly escalating trend of anxious inquiry, presumption, and fired-up passions coming from the laity in recent days. Woe to those who manipulate the sentiments of the masses, as they would be following the example of the Scribes and Pharisee who urged the crowds to clamor on behalf of Barabas, and cry out “crucify him” relating to our Saviour. Some of these poor people were the ones who cried our “Hosanna in the highest” only a short time before, but were later swayed by the unscrupulous Pharisees.
It is not only likely, but, in my judgement, a given inevitability in the prevailing atmosphere, that people will ask about the issue of Fr, Panteleimon’s moral status, as there have already been rumblings. The internet and Facebook is now replete with chatter about conspiracy theories, powerplays and inuendos. I would like to ask a pointed question to our Metropolitan Ephraim. If a parishioner approaches a pastor seated here, and asks pointblank, “Is the question of the Elder’s innocence now being revisited?”, what do you, as our Archpastor and teacher, instruct us to reply? I truly believe that, given the current climate, such tough questions are on the horizon, if not imminent. We have basically two choices. Do we continue “the lie” and maintain the status quo of deceit? Or do we “let the TRUTH set us free” and finally, finally open the door to healing and repentance of our community?
One of the fathers used an interesting phrase last week, namely, that there is an impression, a fear, that Your Eminence’s “moral authority” has been compromised. Frankly, I wasn’t quite sure what that meant and how it applied. I now believe, that if Your Eminence advises us to lie, and continue the deceit, that such an assertion is tragically and painfully true, that your “moral authority” has indeed been compromised and you have effectively lost the confidence of most of the clergy you lead. But if Your Eminence, blesses the humble and painful sharing of TRUTH in an honest, non-judgment and contrite manner, not only will it usher in the healing of our Church, but also the healing of souls.
I have heard about great trepidation regarding the potential fallout and damage to souls of such a forthright disclosure. Despite the initial pain and anguish, which will be immense, in my heart, I know that all will be better in time, because we have invited back the Holy Spirit into our Church, and He, in His infinite love, will make all well for the salvation of our souls. Is this not a true test of our faith?
Finally, in a recent conversation with brother clergy, I was quite taken back when I heard a clergyman expressing anxiety about “having to lie to my wife”, in order to maintain the status quo. Behold what this has come to… Clergy having to lie to their wives is such a hideous manifestation of this dreadful disease of unrepentant deceit. Without proper repentance of our Church, this is a sad foreshadowing of the direction we’re heading, isolating ourselves from the Holy Spirit. For a community, such an environment becomes the devil’s playground, where he heartily rejoices. God preserve us from such a fate!
Lord have mercy!
Fr. X….., sinful priest