Rediscovering our Apostolic Zeal
The life of a seminarian is always very busy and full of excitement. The learning process is extremely rewarding but also very intense. Our formation is equally academic, pastoral and spiritual. We all put in a great amount of work and sacrifice, but that is not always an easy task. And although we all come to seminary with the intent of serving the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church, we are constantly in search of our specific “call”…Where will I be assigned? In what capacity will I serve? Will I be able to support my family as a priest in a small parish? These are all valid worries, but, as worries, they are also distraction and temptations.
This past summer I took a class on Missiology and in one of the assigned texts, I was struck by a quote from Archbishop Anastasios of Albania. When he found himself having to take one of the most important and difficult decisions in his life, Archbishop Anastasios asked himself, “Is God enough for me?” His decision of following God’s will and putting aside all possible worries and distractions, led him to answer: “Yes, God is enough in my life.”
Wondering if God is enough for us and for our lives is a question that we are called to ask ourselves when we are in search of direction and we attempt to understand God’s will. Twenty-one years ago Archbishop Anastasios decided that God was enough in his life and that leaving his prestigious position in Greece, for one of the hardest missionary challenges of modern era, was indeed God’s will. God was, in fact, going to work through His Beatitude for the Resurrection of the Church in Albania.
In May, my wife and I were blessed to join the 2012 Missions Institute and OCMC Albania team led by Fr Luke Veronis, and witnessed God’s incredible work among the Albanian people. Our mission trip was preceded by a week of class at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology where we studied The Missiology of Archbishop Anastasios, the theology and the history of missions, the relationship between culture and gospel, and the effects of globalization on religions.
A central starting point was to understand that missions are not only important for the few who are interested in becoming missionaries, but are an essential part of the Christian faith. We, as members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, are commissioned to evangelize all nations. How do we evangelize? If we look among converts, we realize that people often come to the faith by observing another person, through the living example of a Christian presence. For us Orthodox, the question that arises is: are we comfortable with evangelization? Are we ready to be a light to all people and not only to take care of our own?
Missions play a central role in Christianity, and Archbishop Anastasios courageously affirms that a denial of missions is indeed a denial of Orthodoxy. Any parochialism that limits the work of the Spirit is a denial of God and the Church. Mission work is the combination of the two great commandments: “Go forth and make disciples of all nations” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
During this summer class, we learned how unique the situation in Albania was even when compared to other former totalitarian countries which suffered social, cultural and religious oppression. In 1967 the ruthless dictator Enver Hoxha declared the country to be the world’s first atheistic state. Hundreds of churches and mosques were systematically destroyed, and hundreds of religious leaders killed or sent to camps. Owning a Bible meant ten years in prison and sometimes even cost your life. The communist regime had deprived the people of Albania of the Word of God.
In class we talked about Albania as a developing country and how the Church has “resurrected” over the past 20 years. Our goal for this trip was to analyze how the Church has succeeded in living out the missiology of the Archbishop, and where the Church has not yet lived up to this missiology.
During our two weeks there, we visited many of the local Church ministries, such as the children and the youth ministries, schools and a university, radio, a women’s group, a very dynamic humanitarian organization called Diakonia Agape, as well as the Theological Academy and an orphanage. We met many people who offer their ministry to the Church and dedicate their lives in the service to the ones in need. We had the opportunity to interact with the youth and the university students on several occasions and share with each other our experiences, thoughts and perspectives. We engaged in some group discussions over themes such as secularization, social media and challenges that a Christian faces in today’s society.
Founded in the time of the Apostle Paul, the Church in Albania now presents a reality similar to the Church of the apostolic era. Christians live in a great excitement and hope even if the cross they carry is particularly heavy. Certainly, there are problems, difficulties and struggles, but while visiting the many ministries in Albania, I marveled at how people work for the Church in joy, faith and love. Many of the people we met were part of the youth who participated in the university ministries and summer camps run by Fr Luke and Presbytera Faith Veronis over 15 years ago, and who now have grown into leaders of the Church in Albania. The missionary seeds planted years ago are bearing fruit.
This experience impacted my seminary education, and more generally my life as a Christian, in a profound way. What I realized from this experience is that even before learning about missions and ecclesiology, what we were studying and seeing was simply how to be a Christian and what Christianity really means: loving our neighbor regardless of his or her race, culture and religion. We bring witness to our Christian faith by providing an example with our own life, a life of love for all people.
Every human being is a divine image of God, and as Christians who love our God, we are also called to love all people. With the same love we are asked to share the Good News of our Savior, and, as Archbishop Anastasios admonishes, not to simply wear the cross as an ornament by practicing a comfortable Christianity, but rather to preach the gospel to ends of the earth fearing nothing because the safest place for us is in the will of God.
Christianity means sharing with others what we have received. We need to overcome the objection of going beyond our national borders simply because the Church has her needs here. Our focus and our effort for the proclamation of the Gospel has to be simultaneously at a local, at a national and at a global level. We Orthodox are proud of the apostolic succession of our Church and we claim that our faith is the same one given to the apostles. The challenge now presented to us is to regain our lost apostolic zeal, that missionary spirit which took the apostles and Christians for many centuries to proclaim the Good News to all nations.