New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
When considering a spiritual leader whose counsel about the isolation necessary to protect against the virus pandemic before, during, and now after the Paschal season–would speak to both younger and older Orthodox faithful alike, His Eminence Metropolitan Savas of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh, an active presence on the internet and communications expert, came first to mind. We thank Metropolitan Savas for taking the time to respond to the GN from his own self-isolation in his headquarters in Pittsburgh, which right now seems pretty far away.
GN: Christos Anesti, Your Eminence! How are you?
Alithos Anesti! Thanks be to God, I’m well, all things considered. I confess I’m going a little stir-crazy, having been living here in my Metropolis headquarters since March 15, but God is great. I’m in regular communication with the Archbishop and my brother hierarchs, with my priests and their parishes, with my family and friends, by telephone and text and email and social media and video conferencing. It’s not as satisfying as the real thing, but it’s something, and I’m grateful to God for it.
GN: Did you celebrate Holy Week anywhere or were you alone?
MS: Alas, I haven’t left headquarters. I’ve directed my clergy who are at the greatest risk of acquiring this novel coronavirus – men over the age of 65, those who are vulnerable because of previously-existing heart- or lung conditions, who are immuno-comprised or living with someone who is – to refrain from participating in public worship, and as I count myself among them, I’m trying to lead by example.
GN: That must have been very difficult.
MS: It was and is and will continue to be while the current conditions prevail – not just for myself, I hasten to add, but for all my brother clergy who couldn’t do what they were ordained to do. And yet, the season was not without its wonders and, if I may use a word usually associated with another feast, epiphanies. It’s been my practice since I was ordained a bishop in 2002 to participate in or preside over each of the holy services from Lazarus Saturday to the Agape Vespers of Pascha at a different parish. That usually comes out to fourteen parishes over nine days! Since my elevation to the Metropolitan Throne of Pittsburgh in late 2011, I’ve focused on a different region every year – the communities in and around Pittsburgh, my parishes and monasteries in northeast in Pennsylvania, my parishes and monasteries in Ohio, and those in West Virginia. This year, through the wonders of modern technology, I was able to visit many more communities – sometimes several in a single evening! – by watching their live streams.
GN: But the holy services were very different from any other time in my memory, or perhaps ever! Were you not disappointed to watch priests and chanters celebrate in empty churches?
MS: Of course, it pained me! What Orthodox Christian was not pained? But on the other hand, it gladdened my heart to see the prayerful effort my clergy and their assistants – and I include here their technical assistants! – put into these rich and complex services. The burden on them in many ways greater than in years past.
GN: What challenges did they face?
MS: Many of them were without senior or retired clergy to assist with the chanting and the readings, their efforts to improve the quality of their communications in terms of camera placement and sound quality and lighting were evident and appreciated. I was also heartened by their messages and was especially glad to see senior clergy who could not participate in the worship contribute to the teaching ministry from their homes! In video conferences I’ve had with my clergy since Pascha, many have remarked on how intensely they engaged in the prayers and readings. I myself conducted versions of the services in the Metropolis Chapel of St. Photios the Great, and I experienced that as grace-filled. Of course, I couldn’t celebrate a Divine Liturgy, as the Eucharist presupposes a community, even as small as two.
GN: How soon do you see a return to ecclesiastical life as we knew it before the advent of Covid-19?
MS: I wish I could give you the answer you and your fellow Orthodox Christians are longing to hear, that the danger has passed or diminished to such a degree that all constraints will be lifted soon, but I have to say that isn’t so. Orthodox Church leadership is fully engaged on a daily basis in the developing reality of this historic moment.
The Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, our own Eparchial Synod of the Archdiocese of America, the Executive Committee of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States, all meet regularly in ways made possible by the new communication technologies to review the developing realities presented to us by the world’s scientific communities. The gift of knowledge is a gift of God, and the Church depends on people of science to offer their evidence-based analyses of what we are facing.
GN: You’re thinking that it may take weeks? Months?
MS: We’re all losing patience; we’re all wishing for a speedier resolution – I know that. I hear it. I feel it. I understand it. But I stand with my brother hierarchs who stand with the civil authorities and the scientific community on this. As our grandparents said, “We’re going slowly because we’re in a hurry.” We want to get it right the first time. We don’t want to act hastily and then have to resort to even stricter measures should the situation worsen. Sadly, too many believers of various faiths throughout the world have wanted the natural world to stop at the borders of their sacred spaces. All have suffered the consequences of their hubris. Can’t make bad decisions and expect to be vindicated for them by our loving Father.
GN: Do you have any words of hope to share with us? And some thoughts on how we can benefit from our time of isolation?
MS: Of course! Christ is Risen! Death no longer has dominion over us! As St Paul wrote to the Romans, “I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Rom 8:38-39).
Meanwhile, let’s make the most of the time given to us. Let’s not focus on an uncertain future but rather engage from this present hour with saving truth of the Risen Christ, which is present through the gift of the Holy Spirit “at all times and in all places.” Strengthen the Church in your own dwelling place, whatever it may be. Consecrate a space for prayerful engagement with God in Christ. Feast daily on His Word, as interpreted for us by our God-inspired Fathers in writings available with the touch of a few buttons. Seek out learning opportunities available on Orthodox Christian sites throughout the world. Seek out Christian interaction and fellowship online. Pray for the sick and the suffering, and those who minister to them. Continue your financial support to your local ministries. Pray for the leaders of your Parish and Metropolis and Archdiocese and Patriarchate… for the Church throughout the world!
When His Eminence Metropolitan Savas was enthroned as Metropolitan of Pittsburgh on December 8, 2011at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh he had served in the Holy Priesthood, had been titular Bishop of Troas, Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and Director of the Archdiocesan Office of Church, Society and Culture. The Eastern half of Ohio and most of Pennsylvania and West Virginia are included in the Metropolis of Pittsburgh, which consists of 50 parishes and 3 monastic communities.