St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Orthodoxy, The Silent and Suffering Church

There are millions of Orthodox Christians in the United States, but many American are unaware of the church and its history. We may know the history of the Spanish colonization in the southwest or the British background of the original thirteen colonies, but Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Near East draw a blank – and those places mark the heart of Orthodoxy. Here’s a quick overview, in part as a follow-up to the recent 60 MINUTES segment on the Patriarch of Constantinople. Check the 60 MINUTES archive for the program.

Orthodox Christianity is the ongoing continuation of the church that developed in the first century out of the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic missionary movement. The church spread in all directions and was highly visible in countries now known as Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Bulgaria, and others. Move to the 7th century and beyond, and you have the remarkable growth of Islam in that region, after which Christianity diminished throughout the area. In the 10th century, Slavic lands became Christian under St Vladimir of Kiev. Russia and Ukraine became Christian in 988. Go next to the 11th century, and a split occurs between East and West, with Rome then leading the western church. Shortly thereafter came the Crusades, the last of which debilitated the Eastern Church, sacked Constantinople, and most likely killed more Christians than Muslims. The Byzantine Empire lumbered on, deeply wounded, from 1250 to 1453, when the Ottoman Empire swept through the near east and captured Constantinople which today we call Istanbul. By the end of the 15th Century, lines of communication between East and West were almost gone. In the 16th Century, the Reformation further split the western church. The Reformation did not affect eastern Christianity.

Not only was communication difficult if not lost from the 15th century on, the churches of the Eastern half of the world suffered immensely at the hands of successive regimes up until the crowning blow, the reign of Communism that lasted seventy-five years in Russia and its surrounding “satellites,” as they were called. The Ukraine, in the southwest of the USSR, lost between six and seven million people to the great famine of 1932-33, which was in fact engineered by Stalin to punish the people. In Russia itself, thousands of churches and monasteries were destroyed and tens of thousands of priests and theologians, monks and nuns were killed along with millions of citizens.  The Ceausescu Regime in Romania oppressed the church terribly and in Albania the church was almost extinguished. We Orthodox call the renewal of the church in Albania a Resurrection, so total was the communist suppression. The struggles of the Ecumenical Patriarch with the Turkish Government seem mild by comparison to the worst horrors of the twentieth century, but they remain indicative of the ongoing struggle of Orthodoxy throughout the eastern world.

Orthodoxy is no longer “Eastern.” Orthodoxy has been in America since the late 18th century and has steadily if quietly expanded, until recently by immigration and family growth. Nowadays, however, we welcome many, many converts who have come home to the ancient Church. If Orthodox Christianity in America occasionally seems invisible, it may be partially because of concern about the countries of origin of the various jurisdictions and the history of silent suffering. Only two decades have passed since the fall of Communism, and people continue to suffer economically in many of the old countries.

We invite you to explore Orthodoxy with us through an Introduction to the Tradition at our office, 255 W. Hadley Street, at 7:00 PM on Thursday, January 21. Please feel free to come. We welcome visitors.

published 15 January 2010