Saturday, December 8, 2012

Met. Saba Esber's Vision of the Church and the Youth Movement

From the March issue of Majallat al-Nour.

The context here is soul-searching about the place of the Orthodox Youth Movement, occasioned both by the 70th anniversary of its founding.Although it is specifically about the Youth Movement, this essay gives an understanding of how Met. Saba understands the Church of Antioch today.

The Movement in the Heart of the Church

These words are about the Movement. They are not an analysis or a description. Rather, they are some of what I experienced in it as a youth, a priest, and a bishop and what I hope for it.

I came to know the Movement shortly after entering secondary school. From that time, I began to get a feel for my Orthodox Church, which I was living outside of at that time. I found in the Movement a specifically churchly environment, which rooted me in my Church. Everyone loves the Church and looks to her as the bride of Christ, without blemish or defect. The Movement's weekly meetings involved doing the prayers of the Church as a group. In order to become a member, you must first attend the divine liturgy for three consecutive weeks. Then you are accepted into it, so that you can participate with the brothers in the program of life based on morning and evening prayers, daily reading from the Gospel, participation in the divine liturgy with the brothers once a week, in addition to a common agape fund.

I did not find in the Movement religious instruction in the school sense, so much as I found an effort toward a common Christian life that uses religious knowledge as one of the ways to arrive at the desired communion. This is not to deny the strong concern for spiritual, theological, and intellectual revival that I found there. However, the experience of the Church as true communion among the faithful was its most prominent feature. It is what drew me to be involved with it and caused me to love the Church. From there, I began to feel my calling to the priesthood.

We (I and some of the brothers and sisters) had the blessing of experiencing true brotherhood in Christ, in every sense of the word. The expressions of this palpable brotherhood were in prayer, shared thinking, material support, visiting each other, and serving the Church within our range of abilities. It is one family whose head is Christ-- glory to Him. The Church is its mother who nourishes it with the divine mysteries, especially the mysteries of repentance and the Eucharist. Harmony and solidarity between the members, the leaders, and the spiritual fathers (the priests).

In it I got to know priests, monks, nuns, and faithful who are no less consecrated to their faith and their Church. I also came to know the uniqueness and originality of my Church. In its spiritual activities, I became acquainted with the mystery of confession and began to practice it. I did not find there some phrases I started to hear later, which still today seem strange to me, like "the Church and the Movement", "the Movement within the Church or outside her", "clergy and laity", "lay movement", or... which indicate tension or error in understanding or practice.

The environment I grew up in was churchly in every sense of the word. By the word "churchly" I mean that we did not feel while we were in the Movement that we were not in the Church or even in a place near the Church, but rather completely within her.

From this angle, I will try to look at the Movement today, seventy years after its establishment in the See of Antioch. I understand the Movement, as I have experienced it, as a group of faithful who are aware that one does not become a true, active, faithful member in the Church on his own, but rather within the communion of the Church. In order for the understanding of this communion to remain alive, the faithul must truly and continuously live it and experience it with brothers and sisters who share with them in this Christian life and churchly vision. 

This is the starting-point for how a member of the Movement sees the Church as God's family on earth. He experiences communion as it is talked about in the Acts of the Apostles. He bases his view of the Church on the image of the vine and the branches that the Lord gives in the Gospel of John and on the image of the body with its various members and one head that the Apostle Paul gives.

What drew me to the Church is that she is not an institution of this world, even if she uses institutional means to bring Christ's salvation into the world and to extend it, to His glory in it. In my opinion, what has preserved the Movement until now, despite its weaknesses and missteps, is that it has not entirely lost the spirit of communion in which it was born and grew. It has not lost it completely, despite the absence of this basic spirit of communion here and there or its weakness and decline.

For this reason, I think that the primary duty of every member of the Movement and lover of the Church is to help it to regain the impetus for this churchly life of communion, in order to draw people to the Church and to realize the primary and most important incarnational expression of Christian faith. This familial spirit of communion is the greatest thing that the Church is lacking today.

For this, and because members of the Movement experience the Gospel's concept of communion and try to live it in its fullness, they cannot rest as long as the Church is lacking in something or tainted by a blemish. There are many faithful who have no doubt about their faith but who nevertheless are not concerned about the affairs of the Church and her integrity. They are only concerned with their personal salvation. They treat the Church like a hardware store for realizing their salvation, while the institution of the Church, with its needs and missteps, is not one of their concerns about salvation. They have entrusted it to to a group that they consider to be "hired" for this, and thus it is their sole purview.

I view the Movement as a gathering of consecrated people whose concern is that the Church be a blameless bride, starting by purifying themselves and believe that in this way they carry out their role. What is striking in the history of the Movement is that it put its understanding of the Church on a theological basis, not on personal or individual opinions or on a limited pastoral or service basis. This is because it views the Church comprehensively. A member of the faithful might find that need requires him to serve on a parish council, charitable committee, or endowed institution... A member of the Movement sees the Church as a whole and thus finds himself within her in the place suitable to his talent and wherever he is he strives to serve, with the other faithful, to realize service that is faithful to the spirit of the Gospel and dogma, as he learned and experienced in the Movement.

Today, after seventy years, in practice many things on the ground in the Movement have changed, while the theoretical principles remain the same. However, the reality of the situation is that new generations, new associations, and lifestyles are in constant change, which prompts the Movement to examine it closely, in a spirit of prayer. The Church's reality has greatly changed. Much that the Movement strived for has been realized and from its ranks have come clergy, monks, and laity who have changed the face of the Church in many places. The question that is precisely posed today is, what is the Movement's role in the reality of the Church today?

The Movement has given priority to bringing up the faithful, especially youth and children, while realizing that it does not neglect adults. However, the greatest emphasis has been on youth.  At the time of its founding, there was one diocese that was concerned with religious education, so the Movements took this upon itself. Today, with the existence of dioceses that want to take on responsibility in this field, what is the Movement's role in it?

The situation of the instruction that the dioceses provide today is that it differs from one diocese to another, wither regard to the avenue of instruction, the type of curriculum, the way that teachers are prepared, and accompanying programs. There are some that completely match the Movement's work in this field. However, the originality of the Movement is that it used instruction as a means toward a life of Christian communion among its members. Here lies its role that, in my opinion, the faithful need more than they need religious education, despite its importance. How can members of the Movement realize the experience of a life of Christian communion today? Does it not provide this witness when it makes active, as it should, the numbers that the Movement is accustomed to providing from the ranks of its educational groups?

The reality of the struggle that is occurring today between clergy and laity in the Church-- and which, as a bishop I am flabbergasted by because I do not understand the reason for its existence in principle-- requires calm and careful examination so that we can know where the defect is. This defect seems to me to be based often on misunderstanding. Here all need to cooperate so that the Church can exit this crisis that is causing her to lose her capabilities, her glow, and her loving face.

Antiochian witness is in a dilemma today because parts of the single Antiochian body are not in harmony as they should be. Likewise, the temptation to fall into individual activity, whether on the level of a person, parish, organization, or diocese, is very present. Who will save the Church from falling into the trap of being confined to the geographical boundaries of the Church, the parish, or the diocese? Modern Antiochian history shows that the Movement never once retreated to a limited geographical context. Rather, it was the greater expression of the Antiochian communion of faith. This is another field that calls upon it to make its service active there.

It seems to me that through its history, the Movement has fallen into the trap of knowledge. In its effort toward general Orthodox revival, it has focused on religious knowledge, which is something natural. With the passing of years, its efforts have born fruit, and the means for knowledge in the Church of Antioch as a whole have developed. So while I knew the Movement between knowledge and life, the balance has tipped more towards knowledge. This has shown it to be an intellectual movement more than a movement of the Christian life of communion. What has made matters worse is the spread of different theological opinions in the Church and the Movement has taken some of the blame directed at these opinions since, for example, someone might speak about them at a meeting and all opinions are accepted without there being an official announcement about its truth or error. It has stopped, just like the Church has stopped, giving theological instruction today.

This and other things have made it seem to some to be less than pious, especially in the past two decades, after the founding of some monasteries. Those who had found their spiritual sustenance in the Movement through its spiritual activities started to find it in the monasteries, at a time when the Movement's spiritual activities had weakened for reasons related to contemporary social changes. Here I look to the establishment of a clear and constructive relationship between the Movement and current Antiochian monasticism.

Rapid social changes, especially in the past two decades, have negatively affected the work of the Church in general. They have placed her before unfamiliar situations that she does not have previous experience in dealing with. The young generation of the Movement in general seems different from the older, less serious and less spiritual. He we do not do it justice when we are content to criticize its activity, which appears to a great degree to be purely social in some locations. Anyone who deals with education today knows the difficulty of working with the current generation, the degree to which understandings of morality have changed, even in the previous generation that grew up in an environment that some consider to have been more spiritual and virtuous. In reality, true education today requires the cooperation of all experts in the Church, and this has not yet happened.

Pastoral care remains weak, distorted, an we can even say erroneous in many places. There is no official pastoral policy and there is no general synodal orientation, while the challenges increase with alarming speed, putting faithful pastors into a state of genuine confusion about many matters, while at the same time many pastors have fallen prey to despondency and despair. This is one of the fields is most in need of attention. Here there is a wide opening for the Movement, since its lay members share in the challenges of the people more than the clergy and because it has rich experience in dealing with pastoral matters, which the current reality of the Church demands it to activate in the Church today.

I think that the problem of infighting between clergy and laity arises from an erroneous understanding of fatherhood and sonship. The Movement needs to play an active role on this level, regardless of the possibility of applying its results, because it continues to feel churchly fatherhood-sonship and to make it a primary concern of its ethics.

Institutionalism represents a danger for the Church these days. The spirit of institutionalism tempts all human associations that are more than  few years old. Has the Movement fallen into the trap of institutionalism? I fear that if the conflict between it and the clergy persists that it will more and more tend along this path. I fear that its feeling of being persecuted will push it to establish itself in a worldly conception, and this destroys its spontaneous, filial spirit of revival toward the Church.

I remember that the leaders who took charge of my group called us into account for some behaviors that were not appropriate for members of the Movement. The expression that dominated in our center was "sons of the Church" and not "members of the Movement". Any behavior that was not appropriate for a son of the Church was a point of warning and rebuke from the leaders. I do not see personal spiritual guidance in the Movement today on this level. It is as though many of its members have resigned to being content with taking part in regular meetings and some activities. Why should the leader not go back to being a spiritual brother who is concerned with the salvation of those being led and is responsible for them and their personal life, in order to gradually guide them to a spiritual father? Has accountability become impossible? Is it right for a member of the Movement to speak, believe, and behave has he personally sees fit? Should not the collective role of the Movement be active in this regard, so that a member feels that he is responsible for his thinking, morals, and behavior before the brothers with whom he shares the most important thing he has?

After seventy years, the Movement must combat the appearance of elderliness and renew its youth with the cooperation of all who love it and who love the good of the Church through a historic program critically examining its role from its founding until today. This will help it to place its principles in a new cast, and consequently to make its program for work appropriate to contemporary man and the reality of the Church today.

Last but not least, I see an extremely important role for the Church and for all the organizations that are active within her, especially the Movement, namely, focusing on the Philip's words to Nathanael when he talked to him about Christ, "Come and see." If we all truly desire salvation for humankind, we must bear witness in life to realized salvation. Humankind is weary and in need of an oasis of consolation and joy. Enough with us being distracted by words, theorizing, and infighting. There has been enough talk in Antioch today! Let us focus on effacing ourselves so that Christ alone may appear.

I hope that the Movement will be a model of the Church that we desire.

No comments: