“Come and See”

Primate of the Orthodox Church in America Makes Historic Pilgrimage to Tulsa, Speaks About Orthodoxy       

This article originally appeared in the Oral Roberts University student newspaper, the Oracle, on Friday, Nov. 5, 2010. View the web version of the article here.

Metropolitan Jonah

Metropolitan Jonah celebrates the Divine Liturgy. (Photo Credit: Ryan Meyer)

While the 90s heartthrob boyband Hanson was wrapping up a concert in Florida, their parents were hosting none other than the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America during his pastoral visit to Tulsa Nov. 5-7.

The morning of Nov. 6., after speaking at Grace Lutheran Church the night before, Metropolitan Jonah traveled to Ss. Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church in Hartshorne, Okla., to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and to meet with the elders and parishioners of one of the oldest churches in Oklahoma.

Sunday morning, Nov. 7, he celebrated the Liturgy at Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Church and joined the congregation for a luncheon afterward. His visit wasn’t without precedent, especially given his pastoral role as acting bishop of the Diocese of the South, a title he held for just eleven days before his election as metropolitan.

When His Beatitude stepped into the chapel of Holy Apostles, it was the culmination of many months of preparation and hundreds of prayers by the small congregation in Bixby, Okla.

Jonah was elected on Nov. 12, 2008, to fill a position that had become mired in scandal and has tasked himself with restoring credibility to the OCA, the only autocephalous—or self-headed—Orthodox Church in the western hemisphere in full spiritual union with the Eastern Orthodox Communion.

During the hour-and-a-half-long drive to Hartshorne, the metropolitan explained that his elevation to the position was decidedly unexpected.

“I never expected to be metropolitan,” he said. “I thought someday maybe I might end up a Bishop when I’m old.”

The metropolitan was born Jonah Paffhausen in Chicago and grew up in San Diego. Although he was raised an Episcopalian, he converted to Orthodoxy after what he described as an “intense conversion experience.”

“When I picked up a book on Orthodoxy, it was kind of love at first sight. I knew it was the truth,” the Metropolitan said.

He referred to the opening sentence of that book, “Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church” by Vladimir Lossky, which reads, “In a certain sense all theology is mystical, inasmuch as it shows forth the divine mystery: the data of revelation,” as a defining moment in his conversion.

“I knew that was right,” he said.

Jonah graduated from the University of California at San Diego and, after earning his Master of Theology and beginning his graduate studies at Berkeley, moved to Russia where he found his “spiritual father.”

In Russia, he encountered many of the spiritual leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, many of whom had spent years suffering in Soviet gulags.

“My spiritual father there took me to one of these elders and I asked him what should I do, what’s the will of God for my life and he said, ‘It’s very simple: be a priest-monk.’ and he blessed me.”

“When you have somebody with that degree of spiritual maturity and that degree of wisdom [tell you that],” he said, “you know in the depths of your soul, whether you like it or not, what they say is the truth.”

Not long after becoming a novice at Valaam Monastery in the far north of Russia, Jonah returned to the United States in 1994 and founded St. John of San Francisco Monastery in California in 1996.

From the monastery, on Nov. 1, 2008, he was consecrated as the auxiliary bishop of Fort Worth for the purpose of succeeding Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas who was preparing to retire.

Eleven days later, after a speech addressing many of the scandals and problems facing the OCA at the time, which many credit as cementing his election, Jonah was elevated to Metropolitan, the head of the council of bishops (the Synod) of the OCA. The body governs over 700 parishes across the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Since his election as metropolitan, Jonah has also focused a lot of his energy on bringing unity to the many scattered Orthodox bodies in the United States, most of which are governed by overseas synods.

“There’s a major international movement where the patriarchs came together and authorized their American branches to get their act together,” he said.

Although other efforts to unify the American Orthodox Churches were attempted in the past, they failed to make headway as they didn’t have the blessing of the patriarchs.

According to the metropolitan, now that they have their blessing, there is an “imperative” to bring about that unity.

The metropolitan has also engaged in ecumenical dialogue with non-Orthodox churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church and other traditional bodies, although he points out the Orthodox don’t readily compromise.

In the context of ecumenical dialogue, the OCA withdrew from talks with mainline Anglicans due to the ordination of women and gay men and women to the priesthood in that church. According to Metropolitan Jonah, a high-profile signer of the Manhattan Declaration, this means there is nothing to talk about.

“As Orthodox, we’re pretty unbending,” he said. “We received the faith of the Apostles directly.”

The metropolitan described mainline denominationalism and evangelicalism as “dying on the vine” and also pointed out a downward trend in other Christian movements in recent years. He believes a general desire for a solid and steady foundation will draw people back to the Orthodox Church, a body which has stood mostly unchanged for two millennia.

“The Orthodox Church has watched empires come and go,” he said. “It’s watched social movements come and go. It’s watched [the power of the West] come and it will watch it go and then be present for whatever is next.”

Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Church

Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Church in Bixby, Oklahoma. (Photo Credit: Ryan Meyer)

When asked what he would say to the average ORU student interested in the Orthodox Church, he said, “Come and see.”

Jonah went on to stress the importance of people knowing what they are coming to see, especially for those who grew up in a culture that taught them to be hostile to the Orthodox manner of worship.

“The Orthodox liturgy is the direct continuity with the worship of the Temple of Jerusalem, which was a very highly developed ritual,” he said.

He encourages people to approach the Orthodox Church aware of the great tradition that surrounds the church and to be open to allowing God to use tradition to do his work, even in a modern context.

“Basically,” he said, “these disciplines which have been given to us have been tried over the course of the centuries and have been found to be a sure way of leading us to a place where we can be completely open to what God is doing now in a new way without superimposing our own agendas on it.”

The metropolitan highlights the role tradition has played over the course of the Orthodox Church’s history and sees it as one of the great strengths of the church, which, in his opinion, is more stable than any other.

He also pointed out that opinions regarding the church’s practices, even his own, largely don’t matter.

“There’s that which has been given to us by Christ through the Apostles over the course of the centuries which has been time-tried by hundreds of millions of people over hundreds of years across hundreds of cultures and who am I to say this is wrong?”

“I think our task is simply to accept that which has been given to us,” he went on to say. “To submit to this great wealth of the tradition so that we can be formed in a similar way.”