A Different Path into Another Ancient Church

Dear Christina,

Thank you very much for your heartfelt and forthright recounting of the journey into traditional Roman Catholicism that you and your family have made.  And thank you also for your frank assessment of social justice efforts on the part of the contemporary Roman Church.

Since you’ve told us your basic story, I’ll share mine, in a nutshell, with you.  I also was raised and nurtured in various non-traditional expressions of Christianity, until, in the midst of the spiritual fervor and excitement of the Charismatic Movement (Neo-Pentecostalism), I found myself in the newly formed Master of Divinity program at Oral Roberts University, in the mid 1970s.  Since Rev. Roberts wanted to help spread the Charismatic Movement into all the different Christian denominations, the faculty at his new seminary represented quite a few denominations, including an Orthodox professor teaching Systematic Theology, which he taught historically (chronologically), beginning in the early centuries of the Christian era.  On the first day of class, with no words of introduction, he started the class by praying the Trisagion Prayer (“Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!”); and I remember thinking to myself, I’ve never heard anyone pray like this before!  Then, again with no words of introduction, he read to us the story of St. Pelagia the Harlot from around the year 500 A.D., which begins with the words, “This is a story of a great repentance.”

This professor gradually opened up to us the history of the Early Church, emphasizing the Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists, the early heresy of Gnosticism and its refutation by St. Irenaeus, the persecutions and martyrdoms; and then into the fourth century with the conversion of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and his calling of the First Ecumenical Council, which was so crucial in condemning the heresy of Arianism; with the writings of St. Athanasius the Great and the Cappadocian Fathers; and with the rise of monasticism in the deserts of Egypt.  Through all this, it dawned on me that the Christian Church was alive and well in those early centuries—that the Lord Himself had actually kept His two crucial promises about His Church: 1), that He would build His Church, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18); and 2), that He would send the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, Who would lead His disciples, and all those after them, into all Truth (John 15:26 and 16:13).

As our professor continued to guide us in our study of the Lord’s Church through the centuries and up to the present day, many of us came to understand that the spiritual ethos, the doctrines and spiritual practices, the liturgical/sacramental life, and the conciliar/hierarchical structure of the Church of the 4th century—when the Church could express its life openly after the era of the persecutions—are in all essentials the same as those of the Orthodox Church today.  With that realization, we found ourselves, like Peter, saying, “Where else can we go?” (John 6:68).

And we also realized that we had to come to the Church on our knees, humbly, with the prayer that the Lord would change us through the life of His Church—and not with any presumption that we were joining the Church with plans to change it.  We had become so convinced that indeed the Lord, just as He promised in the Gospel, had preserved the fullness of Truth in His Church continuously through the centuries, that we could fully trust that Jesus, through the life of that same Church, would lead us safely into the heavenly realm – both in this life, and in the next.

So I can definitely relate to various aspects of your story, although seeking for the fullness of the sacramental life, and especially the Eucharist, and thirsting for majesty and awesomeness in worship, were not central themes in my journey into the Church.  Rather, all the richness and splendor and power of the sacraments and the liturgical life of the Church unfolded their beauty and glory after the facts of history brought me there.

And I can relate to your frustrations with typical Roman Catholic worship since Vatican II, and your finding majestic worship mostly only in the TLM congregations.  But I can’t help thinking how sad it is that you don’t have that enriching worship in your native English language.  And how sad and ironic it is that the current Pope is now trying to seriously restrict and weaken the TLM congregations—the very ones that are the most flourishing!  That must be very painful.

From my Orthodox perspective, I’m immensely grateful that the Divine Liturgy never changes. At the same time, what has happened to the Roman Church after Vatican II is a powerful object lesson for us of what can happen when the traditional patterns of worship are radically altered.  I’m also very grateful to have the liturgical life in my own native language, which is the traditional Orthodox way—although admittedly, some Orthodox churches in North America still use much Greek or Slavonic or Arabic or Serbian, and so on, due to patterns of immigration from the Old World.  But the use of English is gradually becoming more and more prevalent.

I also appreciate your additional comments about social justice efforts in the Roman Church.  I especially appreciate your inclusion of the abortion issue in your comments.  Perhaps you wonder, along with me, how it is that so many people who care so much, and rightly so, about the health and welfare of those who are marginalized in our society—the ones who are very much at risk of being treated unjustly—are not also concerned about the health and welfare of the ones in our society today who are the most at risk of being treated unjustly, and indeed cruelly—the ones who are the most fragile, innocent, and helpless humans in our midst—the unborn children in the womb.  For the Orthodox Church in America, protecting life in the womb is the most pressing social justice issue of our time.

Thank you again, Christina, for your heartfelt, insightful, and eloquent comments.  I hope this reply is helpful!

Yours, in Christ,

David Ford

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