A few decades ago a western missionary visited Keralam and returned to his homeland. The members of his church inquired about his missionary travels in Keralam, and particularly about the ancient Church of Keralam, the Malankarese Orthodox Syrian Church. His first description about the Church of Malankara was this: “I saw a church that deifies dead bishops. I had the opportunity to visit many churches. Wherever a bishop was buried people considered him equal to God, and they worshipped him by lighting candles and praying at his tomb. The Syrian Church is a church that accepts only the sanctity of its bishops, not of its priests or laity”
This perception of our church by a foreign missionary more or less depicts our general practice, if not our belief. The Church clearly teaches that everyone is called to sanctity, and that a layperson can attain Christian perfection and holiness equal to or more than a member of the clergy or a bishop. However, I wonder if our church is emotionally capable of recognizing the sanctity of an ordinary priest of layperson.
Indian culture and tradition are basically benevolent and charitable to anyone who is reported to be a Sanyasi or celibate. In other words, our culture venerates a celibate even if he is unchaste, and frowns upon a married person even if he / she excels in Christian virtues. Look at the awe people have at a single priest, even if he is not a monk, or a member of a monastery. In other words, one’s marital status is a great deterrent for people to accept his / her sanctity. Even if there was a layperson with outstanding Christian virtues, the recognition of his sanctity would be a matter for his immediate family. Even if there was a priest with outstanding virtuous life, the recognition of his sanctity would still be a matter for his immediate family or some people who knew him personally; if he was married, the appreciation of his holiness would be much less. I had the opportunity to visit many shrines and churches within our Church. Nowhere did I see people (other than family members) lighting a candle and praying at the tombs of persons other than their relatives.
It does not mean that those priests and laypersons were less holy than a prelate or a monk of the church; many of our people and ordinary priests did excel and do excel in holiness at a much higher degree than the higher clergy. It is sad to note that our Church does not have a system or policy to recognize the sanctity of her ordinary members. In the history of the Church we had many infants, laypersons, virgins, ordinary deacons and priests whose sanctity was solemnly recognized by the universal church.
The Roman church still fosters this tradition. Recently within the Syro-Malabar Roman Church in Keralam, a priest and nun were elevated to the rank of “the blessed”, a step before canonization. An ordinary nun, Sr. Alphonsa was named Blessed; and a priest, Fr.Kuriakos Chavara, was recognized for altar veneration. Byzantine Orthodoxy is still doing it. Coptic Orthodoxy is also promoting this tradition. When this writer was in Egypt, he could personally witness this noble practice. Unfortunately, our Syrian or Malankarese tradition does not seem to promote this practice. When a bishop dies, people flock to offer burning candles at his tomb, pilgrimages are arranged to his tomb on diocesan level. Secure safes are ceremoniously placed at his tomb to exploit the piety of ordinary people. As a result of this pecuniary motive, even his severe critics and bitter opponents at the parish where a bishop is buried also get enthusiastic in erecting a bigger shrine to perpetualize his memory. Anniversaries of that bishop take the form of jubilant festivals for that parish and diocese inviting pilgrims. Although he was contemptuously and abusively treated while alive, the scene is different after he dies. His tomb immediately becomes a holy place!
When we do not try to universally recognize the celebration of the sanctity of our ordinary folks, we are implicitly saying that there is no holiness shared by our ordinary people and clergy; what we are saying is that sanctity is the call only of the higher clergy. Thus we are denying role models for ordinary people and priests. If there are no saints from the rank and file, and the ordinary people that make up the church do not have heroes to follow in their own walk of life, can we call the Church holy, which is one of the notes of the Church as enshrined in the Symbol of our faith, the Nicene Creed. If sanctity is the call and monopoly of bishops, the Church does not have a mission on earth.Recently, there were two canonizations within the Russian Orthodox (Orthodox Church in America).
St.John Kochurov (1871-1917)
One of the saints canonized for altar veneration was an ordinary priest, Fr. John Kochurov. He was a priest of the Russian Church. He was married and then made a priest and sent as a missionary to serve among the Russian Orthodox in North America in 1895. He was a priest in Chicago and its vicinities. He built the first Orthodox Church in Chicago (which is now recognized as a landmark of Chicago by the City Council) with donations from Russia. He worked among the various ethnic orthodox groups and among the uniates (Roman Catholic Eastern rite people). The fruits of his priestly zeal and sanctity were numerous. He was one among the poorest of the poor in his community. Finally when he was transferred back to St. Petersburg, he died for his Orthodox faith during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. He was canonized in Moscow by Patriarch Alexis II in December 1994.
How many of our priests will die for our faith? Don’t we compromise our faith in ordeals? We are even ready to deny our faith to please the Protestants and get their sympathy. There are some among our priests who ministered to Protestant congregations as their ministers, and there are even priests of our Church who function as Protestant chaplains to earn their livelihood. St.John Kuchurov’s life tells that orthodox faith is worth dying for.
St.Alexei Tovt (1854-1909)
Another priest who was canonized had had an illuminating story of his life.
In 1887 a group of the Uniate Capartho- Russian Catholic Church in Minneapolis began to build a church for their use. They had no priest, and they did not belong to any Roman diocese in America. So they requested the Uniate Bishop Valyi of the Priashev Diocese in Hungary to send a priest for their help. He sent a priest of the Uniate Roman Church, Fr. Alexei Tovt, to take care of their spiritual needs. Fr. Alexei Tovt was born in Austro-Hungry in 1854, attended Roman Catholic Uniate Seminaries, and earned a Doctor of Canon Law degree from Rome. After his marriage, he was made a deacon, and then a priest of the Capartho-Russian Catholic Church; (because the Eastern Churches under Rome generally permit married priesthood). Fr. Alexei came to Minneapolis in 1889 and presented his priestly credentials to the local Roman Catholic Latin Bishop Ireland of St.Paul, MN, so that he could be accepted as a Roman Catholic Eastern Church priest. Roman Canon law stipulates that in the absence of an Eastern rite bishop a uniate priest is under the jurisdiction the local Roman Catholic Latin Bishop. Upon presenting his credentials, Bishop Ireland asked Fr.Tovt (I am quoting their conversation from the dissertation of Dr.Dirud, “The Rusyn Problem in Eastern Europe and America, 1890 to World War I’’, defended at the University of Minnesota in 1976, as this dialogue is very significant for us to learn about the Roman mentality on eastern married clergy):
“Do you have a wife?”
“No!” I replied (Fr. Tovt)
“But you had one?”
“I am a widower”.
Hearing my answer, he threw the papers on the desk and cried loudly:
“I have already sent a protest to Rome that they shouldn’t send me such priests as you…”
“Which priests do you have in mind exactly?”
“Such as you…..”
“But I am a Catholic priest of the Greek Rite! I am a Uniate! I have been ordained by a lawful Catholic bishop…”
“I do not consider you or that bishop Catholics; furthermore, I do not need Greek Catholic priests; it is enough that there is a Polish priest in Minneapolis, he can be priest for Greek Catholics too.”
“But he is of Latin Rite; our people are not going to understand him; they won’t attend his services- this is precisely why they have built a separate church for themselves…”
“I did not give them permission to build it, nor do I permit you any activities here…”
Within a year after this event Fr.Alexei took the historic road to Orthodoxy with his people and they were accepted into Orthodoxy by the Russian Orthodox Bishop Vladimir on March 25, 1891 through the meditation of the Russian Counsel General of San Francisco. Thus Fr. Tovt laid the foundation of the Carpartho Russian Orthodox Church in America, which has a diocese and several parishes now. All the Capartho-Russians had been Roman Catholic Uniates for centuries previously. By 1914 there were over 100 new parishes from uniates converting to orthodoxy, and by 1950 there were over 200 such parishes in North America. All these were popular movements without any direct proselytizing efforts from Orthodox hierarchies. It is comforting to note that for every Ivanios of Bethany there is a Fr.Alexei Tovt in history. I hope the Syro-Malankarese Roman Catholics in Keralam read this part of church history well.
This part of the life of Fr.Tovt should provide us an opportunity to examine our own behavior about welcoming converts to the Orthodox Church of Malankara. If a priest or layperson from a heterodox group comes back to the Orthodox Church we stigmatize him as a reject from his former affiliation, and ridicule him to the extent that he is not welcome in our midst. He is often pictured as a scandal. Some of us would even spread fabricated stories to defame him. Recently, one of our bishops who happened to be a convert from a Protestant church told this writer that some of his priest-colleagues were very jealous of him, and one of them even kept on emotionally persecuting him. When this bishop was elected to the episcopate, that priest (who happened to be celibate) sarcastically observed: “The bread that belongs to the children shall not be thrown to the dogs!” This is a classic example of our attitude towards converts coming to our church. This writer knows that it is not the mind of the church, but is the satanic behavior of a good number of our people including priests. This tendency will never enhance the image of our church, nor will it construct Holy Orthodoxy.
Fr. Alexei Tovt later worked among the poor Orthodox immigrants in San Francisco with great priestly fervor. The people could not support him as they were very poor. Although he had possessed an earned doctoral degree, he had the Christian humility to work in a bakery not only to support himself but also to provide for the temporal needs of his parishioners, such as food and clothes. He had the courage to do any menial job for himself and his poor people. His trials and temptations were innumerable; but he held on to Orthodoxy and to his priestly call. His sanctity was extraordinary. He died in Wilkes-Barre, PA in 1909 as a very saintly priest of his Church.
He was also canonized for altar veneration in May 1994 by His Beatitude Theodosios of the Orthodox Church in America.
These priests were both married, and exhibited extraordinary Christian perfection. They are modern role models for ordinary clergy. Their story tells us that every parish priest can attain sanctity despite the pressures of their families, and the Church recognizes it in order for us to follow such examples. Will we see in our Church such a recognition being ever accorded to our zealous and holy priests in our life time? Or are we here only to venerate our dead bishops?
Before God, there is only one criterion to measure one’s holiness that is the degree of our acquired sanctity in accordance with the evangelical precepts. God does not have different standards to measure the sanctity of His people, although more will be demanded from those that have been given more. Of course, God demands more from a bishop, or a regular priest, than from an ordinary secular layperson who struggles to feed his children by hard labor in a factory or agricultural field. But God’s measuring rod is the same for bishops, priests, monks and laypersons, when it comes to sanctity. A bishop or monk does not get MORE HEAVEN because of his hierarchal status, but there are different levels of God’s presence in heaven based on one’s holiness, or on heroism in achieving holiness. God calls all Christians to sanctity irrespective of their position on earth. When the Malankarese Church initiates canonization procedures only for some bishops (viz. recent canonization and steps for more canonizations), I tend to think that there are no holy people in the church other than bishops. We believe in the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”. Can we call a church HOLY, if the ninety-nine plus percent of her people are devoid of holiness? Then that church is not HOLY! It is the people of God that fundamentally constitute His Church, not some bishops or priests.
At this point may I correct a wrong notion among our people that miracles are the only evidences of a departed person’s holiness. This is a wrong notion we borrowed from that Roman Catholic Church, which bases its process of canonizations on miracles reportedly wrought by a dead Christian. Miracles are possible, and in some cases they are evidences of a person’s sanctity. If you study the history of ancient saints, they were all canonized by the people of God, and accepted by the hierarchy, on the basis of their extraordinary Christian zeal, or virtuous life, or Christian heroism. Our recent canonization of St. Dionysius Vattasseril was based on these three factors.
There are countless saintly people living in families; they work in offices, farms and factories; some of them are least educated, some are most educated. Some of them have a recognizable and measurable degree of heroic sanctity, and are endowed with intercessory privileges before God after their departure from this world; and their sanctity should be recognized, and they should be elevated for veneration like the other saints in the history of the church. I hope our church should be courageous enough to initiate procedures of inquiry into the sanctity of their lives regardless of their marital or hierarchal status in the church.