Voice for Orthodox unity -- from Brooklyn

The rites were quiet, yet elaborate, and drew small clusters of dedicated worshippers out of their homes on a Saturday morning and into Byzantine sanctuaries across the nation.

Somewhere in each church stood an icon of a dignified Arab wearing the rich liturgical vestments of an Eastern Orthodox bishop. The worshippers took turns kissing the icon and chanters gave thanks to God for the work of the new saint whose name still causes smiles -- St. Raphael of Brooklyn.

"It isn't every day that you hear the word 'Brooklyn' used in a Divine Liturgy," said Father Gregory Mathewes-Green, the priest in my own parish near Baltimore. "St. Raphael is important not only because he lived a remarkable life, but because of where he came from and who he was. He is a wonderful symbol for Orthodox unity in America. ...

"Our church was unified in his day and we pray it can be unified again."

Father Raphael Hawaweeny came to the United States in 1895 and became the first Eastern Orthodox bishop consecrated in this land. He was known as the "Good Shepherd of the Lost Sheep in America."

St. Raphael was canonized in 2000 by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which has Russian roots, in cooperation with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, with its ancient ties to the Middle East. The OCA celebrates St. Raphael's feast day on Feb. 27, the date of his death.

This monk, priest, diplomat, scholar, missionary and bishop traveled a risky and complicated road on the way to Brooklyn, a fact noted by chanters during the rites last weekend. One of the prayers said: "Arab by birth, Greek by education, American by residence, Russian at heart and Slav in soul, thou didst minister to all, teaching the Orthodox in the New World to proclaim with one voice: Alleluia."

In other words, each Orthodox flock can lay some claim to this particular saint. There are about 5 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in the United States and 250 million worldwide. While the church has grown in America, primarily through converts from evangelical and mainline Protestant pews, the Orthodox map here remains a crazy quilt of overlapping ethnic jurisdictions.

But there are signs of unity in combined programs for foreign missions, relief efforts and education. And last month, Father Thomas Hopko, one of America's most respected Orthodox scholars, dared to produce a rough-draft of a plan for unity. While Hopko is an OCA priest, his essay was published by the Antiochian archdiocese.

Both of these churches now worship in English and include large numbers of converts at their altars and in their sanctuaries. Their most vital parishes are becoming more and more alike, he noted.

"The seven Antiochian bishops include three born in America, one of whom is a convert to Orthodoxy," wrote Hopko, dean emeritus of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y. The OCA offers "nine bishops born in the USA, one born in Canada, one in Mexico, one in Bulgaria and one in Romania. Eight of the 13 OCA bishops are converts to Orthodoxy. ...

"What an impressive synod these bishops could form to govern a unified Orthodox Church in North America!"

Any attempt to accomplish this would lead to an outbreak of Byzantine politics, especially in Greece, Turkey and Syria. Hopko admitted that it would take years to handle issues of assets, property, diocesan borders and lines of authority.

What would the Greeks do? Who would make the first move? How would a united synod select a patriarch? On this question, Hopko suggested that each church select one candidate and the primate would be "chosen by lot," with a senior priest picking "his name from a chalice after an All-night Vigil, Divine Liturgy and Service of Prayer."

The key is to regain the vision briefly seen in the work of the first Orthodox missionaries to North America -- like St. Raphael.

"All Orthodox churches in the United States, Canada and Mexico would be invited to join in the common work of the new church," wrote Hopko. "No Orthodox would be excluded. All Orthodox would be welcome.

This could take place by 2008, according to Hopko.

It would take sacrifice and cooperation and a shepherd who can command the trust of the Arabs, Greeks, Russians, Slavs and the Americans.