Part I of this series addressed a recent letter posted on the website of the Orthodox Church in America, calling out Father Peter Heers for reading a letter from an Athonite elder who spoke strongly against the complicity of Orthodox Christian hierarchs all over the world against the COVID-19 health restrictions placed on churchgoers and the Divine Services themselves, most notably the Divine Liturgy and the administering of Holy Communion. We showed how this letter actually revealed the stumbling block the Church has fallen over – its desire to comply with the government. We began to show how the Church’s present desire to comply with the government, ostensibly to prevent government interference with the Church, has actually caused such interference, and how, like the agreement reached in the Council of Florence, the obedience of one man to the will of God rather than the will of expedient hierarchs, saved the Orthodox Church.
We are in such a predicament now over the coronavirus. But now we need to quit talking about theological comparisons and historical comparisons and get down to the issue of how these changes are practically hurting believers and the Church in general. I have reported elsewhere ample evidence that this is indeed what has resulted.
Now, we look at several very specific examples.
The first two come from the Monomakhos website: an account from a parent named Nora Kowalcheck, known as Mother of Five, who made Orthodox Christianity the center of her life and did everything she could to instill the love for Christ and His Church in her daughters, and a second mom, known as Mother of Toddler, who previously attended an OCA Church and felt compelled to visit an Antiochian parish that might be more ‘family friendly,” for lack of a better way to put it. The experiences related here are uniquely personal to each of these parents.
Yet a third mom, owing to her own specific circumstances, felt compelled to come forward to add her own reflections because the COVID restrictions impacts families differently, as each family deals with a unique set of challenges.
It is important to understand that the central problem has been echoed by many people in different ways, and that the matter of right-ness or wrong-ness in following COVID regulations affects believers and their lives, often very deeply. For the first two accounts, we thank Monomakhos for their permission to reprint these here. It is our hope that further mutual efforts will help create a well-connected network for getting real news to Orthodox Christian believers, and that it will also inform everyone following news like this from the more geopolitical perspective. These two spheres of interest are deeply connected.
Everything that happens in the world is connected to the state of faith and obedience to God that we presently have – or do not have. For the believer, this is an axiom. Here are the letters, (with emphases added).
STORY 1- Mother of Five (Nora Kowalcheck): I am an Orthodox mother. I have been Orthodox for the last 30 years and my husband is cradle Orthodox, born and raised in the OCA. We have four children here, and one in Heaven.
In the last three months, I have not heard one bishop, or directive from a bishop, speak about our children. Not one. The ONLY reference to children has been that if they cannot distance themselves properly, they will need to remain home.
I am deeply grieved by this and, quite frankly, angry and I believe rightly so. My husband and I, like many other Orthodox parents, have struggled and done the hard work, week after week, year after year, for twelve years now, to take our children to church and teach them our faith.
And with one virus, that we are learning is not nearly as deadly as it was reported to be, they have pulled the thread out of not only our twelve years of work but thousands of years of work combined, by all Orthodox parents, all diligently working to pass on our precious and unique faith to our children, as our parents and grandparents did to us. This is all wrong.
I took my children with me to Church throughout the nine months before they were born. I crossed my belly with the sign of the cross because they could not do it for themselves. They were with me as I stood in the choir while I sang. Through me, they heard the prayers and they partook of communion until they were born and then baptized in a Church full of the faithful, surrounded by love.
After they were born, I stopped singing in the choir to tend to them. When they were antsy or tired, I walked with them around the church as they kissed icons on the walls. The ones they could not reach, I had them kiss their hand and reach up high to put their kisses on the icons above. When they were old enough, they would toddle up to the tall icon stands, and although they could not reach the icons above, they kissed the wooden cross, at their level, the one their father built with his own hands before they were even born.
I still watch children do this because they instinctively recognize the things which represent God and they recognize them devoid of fear.
In the years that followed, week after week, our family would stop what we were doing on Saturday’s to prepare for Vespers. We took them to venerate the icons every single time.
We got up early on Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, with not one, not two, not three, but four children. We got them dressed in their church clothes, drove them to Church and persevered through the services, walking in and out of the church with them, lunging at them to stop them from running into the alter, taking them to the potty, shushing them during the gospel, and teaching them they are not to speak when Father is speaking. Godparents held them, without fear, also taking them around to kiss the icons to give me a break. I missed hundreds of sermons walking outside with a tired toddler and I did this week after week after week.
We also took them to communion week after week, year after year. Patiently, consistently, faithfully, because THAT is how you pass our faith onto our next generation. They are learning from US. They are learning from all that they see and all that they do, more than what they hear.
Parents do not do this because it is easy. No parent does this for “fun” or for show. It’s too much work. It’s hard, relentless, diligent work. So, to have our bishops and priests, across so many jurisdictions, establish every contradictory protocol we can imagine is catastrophic.
They now want me to sign up to bring MY children to church, where all the adults are now wearing masks, which to a child is very scary. They are required to sanitize their hands upon arrival because they are looked upon as walking germ factories where, God forbid, they should cough or sneeze. Two of my children wear masks and two do not due to their ages. None of them are permitted to kiss the icons or get a hug from their godparents or grandparents or friends, who perhaps are so scared by all this, might even retreat if my children were to approach them.
Then, I take them to communion where the priest changes spoons after they consume it, after dipping it into THE Body and Blood of Christ, which is the most purifying thing we have access to in this world. As we leave the Church, speaking to no one, I’m left wondering if THIS is what I have to show my children after twelve years of diligent work and teaching.
May God have mercy on all those making these devastating decisions. The damage they are doing to the faith of our children is unmeasurable.
If I have “unreasonable faith” as one bishop described it to me back in March, I wonder if perhaps his grandparents and parents had “unreasonable faith,” too, and perhaps that is what lead him to the priesthood and years of service in our church.
Why is having FAITH suddenly becoming so unreasonable? And why are they scolding devout Orthodox, calling us overly pious in a derogatory way, implying we have no care for our fellow parishioners if we do not embrace their new directives? If they believe this is the case, it is a flat out lie.
Over the years, as a mother, I have missed countless services because my children were sick and had to remain home. Now, we who are healthy and not afraid, are being told we must forgo our practice of faith to accommodate people who ARE afraid. We are to alter our faith so they can feel “safe”. My own faith, and the faith of my children, is negotiable and dismissible. Yet, I am the one scolded for being unloving.
If those that fear the practice of our faith want to partake, our parishes should make accommodations for them so our priests can minister to them where they are comfortable. But they should not rewrite the faith due to a passing virus. This is not love. I don’t know what this is, but it is not love.
It’s wrong and I hope more parents and good priests and faithful will speak up and stand up for our Orthodox children and our faith and fight for what we know to be pure and true and right.
We will not take our children to any church where they see adults in face masks, are not allowed to kiss icons, or see different spoons used for communion. I have no explanation for this to my children. None. This is not Orthodoxy. It is not our Faith.
The Monomakhos site got plenty of comments, too, essentially affirming the same sentiment, AND, also pointing out that there are priests operating in the United States who have chosen not to obey the directive. One commenter, named Sophia, related,
“…As a Greek Orthodox Bishop in Cypress [sp?] stated to the police who came to arrest him, ‘whom shall I serve, my son, you or God?‘ I do not judge my former priest and parishioners, I believe that we must pray and follow our own conscience. I will add, that in these churches, no one has experienced the Corona virus up to this point in time.“
I can concur with this in two more areas: that of my own spiritual father, an Antiochian priest in Florida who disregarded the directives. He ran the services as usual with no “precautions” and no one got sick. The same thing here in Moscow, though we were put under some reduction the number of services, and required to have documents to be allowed to come to church – our tiny parish with capacity for maybe seventy parishioners for a wall-busting maximum suddenly found itself with a thirty-five member “choir” as many of our people signed documents proclaiming that they were “volunteers” and therefore had a blessing to be there. And, they did, due to a little trick done by the Patriarch of Moscow. Another parish had people climbing into the temple through the windows to celebrate Pascha.
The second account, known as Mother of Toddler, reflects the absence of grace proclaimed and reinforced by the COVID-19 “precautions” in other parishes she and her family have tried (Minor editing here, with emphases added):
STORY 2 – Mother of Toddler: We tried an Antiochian Orthodox church 45 minutes away this morning. The first thing we noticed was four signs on the front of the building with “stop signs” making sure that we knew masks and social distancing were required.
Up until this point, I have only worn a mask one time to buy my children a large stack of used books (Since the library is not really an option anymore. Masks are required for everyone.) My husband and I both felt we couldn’t breathe properly.
I was so distracted by the mask. The church felt empty and dead. It felt dystopian. It did not feel holy. It did not feel joyful. It did not feel Christian. We were both hoping that maybe, just maybe, the rules were just for show, at least somewhat since I have heard of a few places where this is so. Given the distance of the nearest ROCOR church, we needed to at least see.
I was shocked to see that even young children were wearing masks. It didn’t even occur to me to put masks on my young children, despite the masks required sign. If someone had asked me to put masks on my children (2 and 7) I would have walked out right then and there.
How disturbing. We left at the sermon. It was clear they were going to try to throw communion in our mouths, like in the video above, if we approached.
There were hardly any families there, so it was basically adults, standing perfectly still, with masks on – no joy, no singing, with space between them. Obviously, we won’t be back. We will just resign to praying the Typika at our home for the most part. For the time being, there is a ROCOR church we can get to but it’s quite far.
The experience there was still far from normal but I would say it did feel “holy” in there. We didn’t feel like we need to leave. Thanks for listening. (My community has pretty much been reduced to my immediate family and this blog due to loss of my previous church and homeschool community. You lose friends to become Orthodox and apparently you lose friends to stay Orthodox!)
One of the saddest occurrences observed is a case where a priest from the OCA posted on his Facebook feed that if people came to his church without a mask, he would refuse to allow them into the Church. The question was put to him: why in the two-thousand-year history of the Orthodox Church, through the previous nine pandemics, has the Church never closed, and yet this time, for this very mild pandemic (by comparison to the Bubonic Plague and other plagues in Rome that had people’s bodies stacked thirty deep in church temples waiting to be buried), and yet this time it is so bad we have to go to these measures, nationwide? He never did offer an answer. One might pray that he reconsidered his attitude.
Another sad occurrence came – also through social media – from an Orthodox person who derided the mothers’ writing and thought it was a weak sob story. One of the most evil things about Facebook and other social nets is that they give an opening for people to say extremely evil, anti-Christian sentiments and yet still claim to be Orthodox. This is an easy trap to fall into.
However, there has been no one to my knowledge that has insisted that their parishioners come if they are sick or if they are afraid to get sick. In fact, the message has been quite caring, even from our Patriarch: Do not come if you are afraid! Stay home! It is okay! And if you are sick, please do not come.
These are reasonable requests. The matter of faith or lack thereof is certainly an issue, but it can be worked out between those people who are struggling with their faith, and their priest or friends. No one should be called out for being afraid as though that is a horrible sin. It is where that person is. It can be changed with love and willingness, but sometimes that takes a lot of time.
Yet a third mom patterned her own story after Nora’s. Due to her own unique circumstances, the problems she is experiencing with the COVID restrictions impacts her family in specific and important ways, as well.
STORY 3 – Rose Windlicht:In the last several months, my adult children, not to mention all the children in our parish, have been deprived of the very Church that we made the center of our lives together for the past three decades.
Both of my daughters are adults now, chronologically speaking, but one of them is autistic and will always be as a child intellectually. I watch both of them and hear them praying every evening in our icon corner as we always have. One of my daughters faithfully reads the readings every morning, reads Orthodox books, and has immersed herself in our church summer camp for years. My daughter who has autism prays and wholeheartedly reads aloud whatever I give her to read when we are praying on Sunday mornings now in our home icon corner since we have not been able go to Divine Liturgy.
They now want us to sign up to come to church, where all the adults will be wearing masks, which to a child is very scary. My adult daughter can understand this, although I wish she didn’t have to. But my daughter with autism cannot.
When and if we are finally able to go to church, we will be required to sanitize our hands, as will the children in our parish because they are seen as walking germ factories where, God forbid, they should cough or sneeze.
As far as I understand it, none of the children in our parish will be permitted to kiss the icons or get a hug from their godparents or grandparents or friends, who perhaps are so scared that they might literally retreat if children were to approach them.
As far as I understand it, when they go up to receive Holy Communion, the priest will change spoons after they consume it, after dipping it into the Body and Blood of Christ, which is the most purifying thing we have access to in this world.
My adult daughter will be participating, as we open our parish, in the sparsely populated services scheduled, as a reader. I will not be attending because my adult daughter who is autistic is not able to volunteer in any way, and would not wear a mask even if I wanted her to. She doesn’t understand them.
Recently I took her to visit the staff of the transitional program she attended after high school. She remembers them so fondly and wanted to go and see them again. We met in a park. One of them insisted on wearing a mask. I could see on my daughter’s face how hurt she was that this woman who loves her and who is beloved by my daughter would not touch her, and kept her face covered. Thank God the other two ladies did not wear masks and responded warmly to my daughter’s overtures for a hug.
There are a few points from all of these ladies’ stories that deserve to be re-emphasized:
- The “one-size-fits-all” restrictions on services clearly did not make sense for parishes in places where the virus was not hitting very hard – this was most of the United States. By comparison, in Russia the restrictions places on churches applied only to Moscow, since that city was having the worst of the outbreak. The rest of the nation continued normally.
- The pastoral approach across many jurisdictions, perhaps one agreed to by the Episcopal Assembly of Orthodox Bishops in North America, was woefully disconnected from the people. It created a sense that “some people are worthy to go to church and the rest of you are not.” It laid out a very lame explanation for what was going on (part of reason #1 above), and then just went on, apparently with little or no sorrow. While this is an interpretation, my own, it seems to be strongly reflected in my friend’s experience.
- There was little information to support this move, either theologically, pastorally, or scientifically. Most of COVID-19 fear is based on a constantly-shifting assessment of the virus with zero honesty – even if the authorities had strictly said “we do not know enough about this” instead of talking about contradictory study after contradictory study, the situation might have been better understood. In Moscow, there was a context on several levels: the virus was spreading in the city as fast as the entire rest of Russia put together. In our own parish, a hospital worker came to tell us about how rapid and aggressive the virus is, and related personally about someone who was in the hospital he works in who got the virus.
These issues do not mean that I think shutting down churches even in Moscow was justified. I have yet to be convinced that it was. But it did at least make a lot more sense to selectively target the hotspot rather than issue a blanket order for the entire nation.
One wonders if the faith our clergy holds is so weak that perhaps everyone just wanted a break? Surely others have thought this way. This attitude appears to be evident in the fact that at least one parish in Colorado, open for ten people during the worst of the quarantine, had no one in attendance at a service save two people and the priest and servers.
Part III of this series features an interview with Dr. Jean-Claude Larchet, a leading French Orthodox patristic theologian. His interview is as thorough as it should be for a matter like this, and we want to offer as much balance as possible to this issue. This is a situation that ought to have the whole Church in deep reflection in the present and near future – for we all sacrificed our faith to secularist controls for a time, and this suggests a major problem with who we believe God is.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.