by His Grace, Bishop Matthias
When I contemplate the events of my life, I suppose there were times when, in regards to the Orthodox Church, I may have asked the question, “Why am I still here?” I am what some call “cradle Orthodox,” meaning I was baptized in the Orthodox Church soon after birth. My father is cradle Orthodox, and my mother converted to Orthodoxy prior to her marriage to my father. Growing up, we didn’t attend Church regularly. In fact, we were Christmas and Easter Orthodox Christians. The turning point in our Church life was when I was about ten, and my grandmother on my father’s side departed. The priest showed kindness to my family and buried her from the funeral home, and it impacted my father in a positive way. This same priest, Father Stephen Jula, left what was then the Metropolia (future OCA) and started a mission parish in the Carpatho-Russian Diocese. My parent’s faith renewed, we began attending this new parish on a regular basis.
At the age of twelve, I became more involved in the Church by reading the Hours and Epistle. Soon after I graduated high school, Father Stephen invited me to travel with him to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to visit the seminary. I met Bishop John, the Hierarch of the Carpatho-Russians at the time, as he was leaving the Cathedral in his beautiful and impressive vestments. He was walking to his home next door, and I’m sure an 18-year-old was the last person he planned to talk to that day. Bishop John stopped and asked what my plans were now that I had graduated. I told him I planned to join the Marines. He said to me, and these words still ring in my head, “Why don’t you join the army of Christ and come to seminary?” It was as though the Lord had spoken to me. I went home with my priest and decided to go to seminary that September, just to try it out. I remember making the commitment that I would attend for one year, whether I liked it or not, and then decide what to do. After a few weeks of experiencing the studies, the services, and the brotherhood of seminary, I made up my mind that it was for me. I eventually graduated seminary, got married, and was ordained to the Holy Priesthood. This bishop gave me five minutes of his time, and it changed my entire life.
I actually considered monasticism during my last two years of seminary, probably because I didn’t think I would ever meet someone I wanted to marry. Once again, the Lord had other plans. I met my future wife, Jeannette, during my last year of seminary, and there was no doubt that I wanted to marry her and be a married priest.
We had a wonderful life together, serving the parishes to which we were assigned and raising two beautiful children. We had been married 24 years and our children were in college, and I remember a particular moment when I thought life couldn’t be any better. I remember how happy I was and that I felt blessed to have the family I had. Then, the unthinkable happened. My wife was diagnosed with acute leukemia. It was a type that needed to be put into remission immediately. So, for the next eleven months, we battled this disease with prayer and the best doctors in Philadelphia. She spent seven of those last eleven months of her life in the hospital and fell asleep in the Lord on March 26, 1997. She departed this life minutes after receiving the Eucharist from me in her hospital bed in our home, following the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. I didn’t know how I would live without my soul mate. I remember being devastated and filled with fear. Fear, because I really didn’t think I would be able to survive or live life without her.
I visited monasteries for the next several years figuring I would eventually take the monastic tonsure since I truly believed that Orthodox priests are either married or monastic. I felt that monastic tonsure would be my recommitment to the Holy Priesthood. After many trips to the Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage in Guatemala where I spent time with the nuns, I also stayed more than a month at the Iviron Monastery on Mt. Athos in 2003. I was tonsured a monastic on October 14, 2003. I remained a parish priest but also visited monasteries and tried the best I could to live a monastic life, though I felt that I fell so short.
In 2006, I was assigned to St. Gregory Church in Seaford, New York, where I thought I would stay until my retirement, at which time I would begin my continued ministry in Guatemala. Once again, God had other plans. I was nominated and then elected by the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America to be the Bishop of Chicago and the Diocese of the Midwest. I was elected November 16, 2010, and consecrated April 30, 2011.
Why am I still here – in the Orthodox Church? I guess the best answer to that question is found in the exchange that our Lord had with St. Peter the Apostle in St. John’s Gospel, Chapter 6. At the time, Jesus was preaching “… unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6: 53) Many of the disciples stopped following Christ at that time saying, “This is a hard saying, who can understand it.?” (John 6:60) Jesus asked the Apostles if they too were going to go away, and Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also, we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
The Orthodox Church is the New Testament Church – it is the Faith of the Apostles and the Fathers! Where else would I go when I know the Orthodox Church has the fullness of Truth and has been faithful to the teachings of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I have been blessed with many things in my life and, although I have experienced loss and tragedy in this fallen world, I know that it is the Lord that strengthens me and is united to me through the Holy Eucharist. I look forward to the life beyond this fallen world. No matter the crosses we bear in this life, no matter the tragedies we experience, no matter the failures of human beings, the Lord remains faithful to us! The Lord and His Bride, the Church, will always sustain us, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.