Anecdotal Observations of a Struggling Parent, Priest, and Academic
by Bogdan Bucur
What is offered in the pages to follow is something deliberately personal, drawn “from my own spring,” stripped of references to the studies, books, and learned opinions of others. It is a subjective account of my ongoing experience as an Orthodox Christian in Western Pennsylvania, a Romanian immigrant, married to a Romanian and father of three Americans, a priest serving a small Antiochian parish, and an academic in the Theology Department of a Catholic University.
An Orthodox Immigrant to the New World
In retrospect I see clearly that my wife Cristina and I lived a typical immigrant story. But this was not true when we first arrived. At the time I was a doctoral student in Patristics at the University of Bucharest and, after passing the qualifying exams, I had realized that the very inadequate holdings of journals and books made it impossible to write a serious dissertation on Saint Irenaeus of Lyon. The solution was to do an MA at Marquette University and to photocopy whatever I needed for the Romanian doctorate. My mentality at the time—and I was not shy in sharing my thoughts—was that I was, like the Israelites, “plundering the Egyptians” and making off to the Holy Land (Romania, of course) with photocopies of their books and articles. For what true theological light could be found in America, that decadent, hedonistic, heterodox Whore of Babylon?
Two days after landing in Chicago, I found myself in a weird little OCA church in Milwaukee, for the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. Everything was, of course, wrong: the pews; the odd sound of Orthodox worship in English; the music (a mixture of four-part Russian music sung by two voices and some kind of simplified Byzantine chant); the fact that there were only a few dozen people present even though the bishop was visiting the parish; and, above all, the notion that one would go from Holy Communion straight to coffee and donuts. A few weeks later I was homesick and nostalgic about worshipping in my mother tongue, and I sorely missed the insistence on praying for our departed loved ones, so very pronounced in Romanian Orthodoxy.
I came to love this little church, however, its priest, the priest’s wife, the deacon who went out of his way to pick me up for services, the chanter who became and to this day remains my first and dearest American friend, and the community as a whole, complete with its idiosyncrasies (pews and coffee hour included). “Many Nations, One Faith: Orthodox Christian Identity in Contemporary America”—the theme of our 2018 symposium—describes the situation there quite aptly. The original Slavic background of the parish had been changed by a good number of converts who identified as “regular Americans” and by a large number of Ethiopians, a large group of Romanians, and a smattering of disaffected Greeks and Serbs popping in from time to time.
What won me over, beginning on that very first Sunday, was the fact that these were genuine, unpretentious, generous, warm Christians who were glad to be Orthodox. The same was true of the parish I joined when I moved from Milwaukee to Pittsburgh; the same holds true of the parish I came to serve several years later after I was ordained a priest. Church offered an oasis of sanity during those stressful years of graduate studies and beyond, but these multi-ethnic churches never became for me “a slice of Romania”; instead they were a slice of the Kingdom of God, evidence that Christ is “our God and our hope,” that God loves us, that forgiveness is sweet, that discipleship is worth the world and eternity.
I came to appreciate the variety of perfectly “valid” expressions of Orthodox chant, iconography, foods and, yes, theology and spirituality that I encountered in America. Some three or four years into this change, I was fortunate to encounter Fr. Roman Braga of blessed memory, who, although from an incomparably higher spiritual altitude, spoke of Orthodoxy in America in ways that I had also discovered to be true.
An Orthodox Parent Struggling to Not Mess Up too Badly
I am a parent of three. Our oldest, Irina, was only one and a half when she came to the US; she is now in college; the other two are “proudly made in the USA.” Since Irina was, like us, a Romanian accidentally in Milwaukee, we naturally wanted her to maintain this identity we shared. Just as we were determined to keep our Orthodoxy pure and undefiled in the American ocean of heresies and moral decay, we strove to keep her Orthodox and Romanian. But, of course, reality forces one to keep it real: her best friend was the son of our best friends—American; pre-K, kindergarten, and school were also, unsurprisingly, a microcosm of America’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-colored reality. And the church we worshipped in, as I already said, was not in the business of cultivating and consolidating ethnic identity, Romanian or other.
In the end, Orthodoxy (as much as we were able to pass it on and she was able to embrace) became the glue holding together my daughter’s American experience and the months-long summer vacations with the grandparents in Romania. She learned, together with us, that the early Christian writing to Diognetus had it just right: “every foreign land is like a homeland to us, and the land of birth like a land of strangers.”
Hmmm… aren’t you skeptical? I think I just slipped into wishful thinking with these conclusions. It would be more honest to articulate them as hopes or even questions. Is the Christian faith really the glue holding together my oldest daughter’s twinned Romanian-American identity? Is she really living out the spiritual identity granted as a robe of light from the Baptismal Font? Does she see herself as, primarily and fundamentally, a citizen of the Kingdom of God sojourning in 21st-century America? Does she (will she) make her small and big life decisions as an Orthodox Christian? I am asking myself, I am hoping, sometimes I despair; other times I spot true gold shimmering in something my kids do or say and I repent of my doubt and anxiety. My parental instinct is to exert control, to mold and, dare I say, to force my children, “Romanian style,” into conforming to those good things of Church life: the services, prayer, fasting, confession, charity. But this is not how God works and there have been several godly people to tell me so and show me so. In the end, I am learning that we need to be godlike in treasuring freedom of conscience as a good in itself, the only soil in which the trees of the virtues can grow. The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom put things so well: “the Church must never speak from a position of strength; the church ought to be, if you will, as powerless as God Himself, who does not coerce but who calls and unveils the beauty and the truth of things without imposing them.”
Our kids are Americans. Even though their roots are Romanian, it is Pittsburgh, not Bucharest; the Allegheny River, not the Dâmbovița; and Western Pennsylvania Orthodoxy, not the bimillennial Romanian Orthodoxy which count as “theirs.” They dream in English, their English is far better than their Romanian, and they do not—and should not—limit themselves to friends from the small Romanian fishbowl or the slightly larger Orthodox fish tank. The way I see it, enforcing our first-generation ethnic identity upon our second-generation children is dangerously delusional: it is largely driven by the nostalgia, remorse, and anxieties of the first-generation immigrant parents; it runs the risk of elevating blood, language, and folklore over Baptism and liturgical and ethical formation, so much so that the Orthodox Church is (correctly) perceived as engaged primarily in keeping “ethnics” and their kids “ethnic.”
There is great pressure on the ethnic jurisdictions here to follow this modus operandi: pressure from the Mother Churches, who imagine they understand the needs of their “diaspora” communities thousands of miles away, and, unfortunately, also from the countries of origin, whose state officials are mortally afraid that their ethnic ghettos abroad are melting away through Americanization. All of this is understandable, but, as we have learned from the Krindach surveys, generation after generation of Orthodox youth over the past century has been decimated by this strategy, which is as ridiculous as it is crippling to the faith.
I refuse to fantasize about my kids speaking Romanian with a perfect accent and being able to recite Romanian poems, dance the hora, grow up as Romanians-in-exile, and marry others of the same pure “sect”; I would rather that they grow to embrace the Gospel of Christ, love the Church, become humble and well-adjusted servants to the society in which they live, cultivate friendship, and learn to love. Because love, the Apostle said, is how God is—the identity God himself shares with us; and it never dies.
An Orthodox Academic in a Catholic University
However much the parameters of our identity were shifting as we “negotiated” our place in the New World and our understanding of it, one element was always clear: we would never be at home in Milwaukee, WI. By contrast, Pittsburgh, where we moved when I was hired by Duquesne University, immediately felt right. Maybe it is the strange resemblance of some of its streets with the streets of my childhood in Bucharest; perhaps, however, it is that I moved on from being a stressed-out, underpaid, overworked graduate student on a student visa with no real health coverage to being a stressed-out, underpaid, overworked college professor with decent health insurance. Whatever the case, I found myself teaching Patristic Reception of the Bible at Pittsburgh’s largest Catholic institution.
Given the constant obsession over “Catholic identity” in Catholic universities and the concern to identify and cultivate those ever elusive “specific charisms” of the founding religious order (in our case, the Spiritan Fathers), and the bruises acquired over many decades of intra-Catholic disputes over, well, Catholic identity, I ask myself if my getting the job had anything to do with the way I projected a certain “identity.” There are, after all, two of us Romanians—two Orthodox priests even!—hired to teach Bible and Ecclesiology. I wonder: do we look “conservative” to them (the past, the roots, the deep red wine of undiluted theological and spiritual treasure) or “liberal” (diversity, token “Orientals”)? What is more, are we conservatives; are we progressives?
I used to say, like many others, that our Orthodox identity insulates us from having to take sides. “We are meta; our concerns are spiritual, not ideological, and transcend this petty polarization”… Pretty much the same ridiculous arrogance of other certainties: “evolutionism vs. creationism” is a false debate and we Orthodox do not engage in it; AIDS is a Western disease; materialism, consumerism, and sexual promiscuity are symptoms of the West’s civilizational decay. And on and on … The truth is that, no different from “those in the West,” we are not immune to stupidity and evil, and are just as misguided and ideologically divided, despite our spiritual heritage.
My own experience is somewhat paradoxical. I feel suffocated both by nasty hyper-Catholic types, with their curious blend of saccharine piety and implacable legalism, and by the new inquisition on the Left, with its own set of ideological certainties, tireless activism, and inquisitorial zeal. Paradoxically, I find it difficult to discuss politics or, more simply, “life” with those on the Right, despite our theological affinities; conversely, I carefully avoid discussing theology with friends on the Left.
Overall, I’ve stopped being as enthusiastic as I was in the past about the fact that ethics just isn’t our cup of tea because Orthodoxy is, allegedly, “way deeper,” really “mystical,” not about enforced norms but the transfigured heart. I have come to admire the inflexible ethical commitments to various causes, ideas, or practices, even when I am not fond of some of these causes, ideas, or practices…. Perhaps traditional Orthodox societies and Old World Patriarchates would be less outrageously ineffective and corrupt if we took more seriously the grim pronouncement in the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus, If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead(Luke 16:31): to paraphrase, without taking to heart the Law and the prophets—zeal for God and the life of the neighbor—the vaunted “mysticism” of the Orthodox is often quite shallow and a pretext to moral cowardice.
An Orthodox Priest in Western PA
Finally, I am an Orthodox priest in a small rustbelt town of Western PA. What to say about Orthodox identity from this vantage point? Today’s Orthodoxy, if we are to be honest, functions (or rather malfunctions) as a federation of national churches. Sometimes they cooperate well and even work hard to retrieve a more robust sense of conciliarity; sometimes they have heated arguments or ignore each other coldly. If they so desire, Moscow and Constantinople can carry on their church life without ever meeting each other.
Not so in Butler, PA, where my parish is. Here we don’t have the luxury of geographical remoteness. Walking on Hanson Avenue in this little town takes you, in a matter of minutes, from Syria to Western Ukraine and then to Moscow; another fifteen minutes by car and you can visit Constantinople (or maybe just Greece). The architectural and musical expressions vary accordingly, and I find that the reality of “Moscow meets Constantinople in the Western PA” is a wonderful feature of American Orthodox identity.
In my slice of Orthodoxy, some ninety percent of people in any given parish, irrespective of jurisdiction, are at least as American as my daughter is; there is significant fluidity in the pews, with people moving into town, out of town, and among parishes; and the priests, well, they exemplify the situation perfectly: the large Greek church has a Romanian priest; the Ukrainians have a certain McGrath and have come to learn a lot about St. Patrick; an Australian convert to Orthodoxy is now on loan from the Moscow Patriarchate to serve the OCA parish; and I, a Romanian with a bit of Jewish blood, am in charge of the Syrian parish. “Only in America,” as they say.
In my town we have three Orthodox parishes because this is what we have inherited from the early twentieth century. What was needed then was, precisely, three ethnic parishes for three ethnic groups. Today, however, with everyone English-speaking and Americanized, everyone knows that it does not make any sense to have three struggling parishes instead of one Orthodox parish of sufficient size and resources to have a vibrant life of liturgy, teaching, mission, and charity. My view is that maintaining this situation as though this division were normal and not doing anything to overcome it, is financially ruinous and pastorally irresponsible. We are squandering money and human resources, setting a bad example for today, and leaving a bad legacy for the future.
As it happens, in our case the priests all agree that we should be thinking less about the kind of Orthodox presence that was necessary fifty years ago and more about the kind of church we want for our children. And so we appealed to the bishops, who, as successors to the Apostles, bear the burden of making pastoral decisions. In our case the bishops, too, get along fine among themselves and speak beautifully about Orthodox identity, pan-Orthodox cooperation, “bearing common witness,” and “baptizing America.” As it turns out, however, when real decisions are called for, “Orthodox identity” is chiefly about keeping one’s own turf and flock. There are, of course, many, many nuances and complicating factors to consider—old histories still poisoning present relationships, men with power and money exerting pressure, and ecclesiastical superiors who micromanage or show no interest. Ultimately, however, our grandchildren will look back, fifty years from now, and wonder how selfish, cowardly, and irresponsible we were.
Since, as I said, the so-called diaspora is a microcosm of the national churches who have their parishes here, the various ecclesiastical earthquakes are felt far more here than elsewhere. The more dysfunctional the Orthodox commonwealth happens to be at any given time, the more difficult it is for people in Western PA to understand what the hell is going on in Paradise, in Church. If Moscow and Constantinople have a serious falling out, His Holiness Kirill and His All Holiness Bartholomew will perhaps not commemorate each other anymore, and we will learn of various egregious acts and all kinds of retaliatory measures to protect Holy Orthodoxy. Can we still have our pan-Orthodox picnic, though? Is the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts with the OCA, ROCOR, and Ukrainian priests and faithful still on? And on the missionary front, are we still credible when the disaffected Catholics are knocking on our door and asking how we manage without the Petrine ministry of Rome?
To protect and consolidate Orthodox identity in my slice of America, we would need a new Ligonier, to establish full administrative unity among the Orthodox jurisdictions and greater independence from the Mother Churches. This matter is in the hands of our bishops, who have been charged with dividing the word of truth, shepherding the flock, binding up the injured, and leading us to good pasture.
To sum up this meandering account, allow me to remind the reader, first of all, that this is a very subjective presentation of my ongoing experience as an Orthodox Christian in Western Pennsylvania, a Romanian immigrant, a struggling parent, priest, and academic.
The way I see things, Orthodox identity in today’s America must be something else than one’s ethnic and cultural identity; this is doubly true for the priest and, dare I say, ten times true for the bishop! Our situation of parallel and inevitably competing jurisdictions is complex, truly complicated canonically, near-impossible to solve; but it is pastorally indefensible. I hope my children inherit a united and perhaps autocephalous Orthodox Church here in America before too many in their generation stop caring about Church altogether.
Before we worry about our children and whether they might be the last generation of Orthodox willing to receive and pass on Holy Tradition, the urgent matter is whether our own witness is genuine: whether it is humble; whether, in godlike manner, it is supremely respectful of personal freedom; whether it is faithful enough to reject prostituting the Bride of Christ in ethnic, political, and ideological partnerships that offer “good deals” on convenient and ready-made (but distorted and distorting) ideological molds for our Orthodox identity.
In the night in which he was betrayed, or rather gave himself for the life of the world, our Lord prayed—for us—that we be one (John 17:11, 21) in accordance with the divine Trinity, “the structure of supreme love” and he established the parameters of our calling thus: “they are in this world, yet not of this world” (John 17:11, 14). And although (or precisely because) “what we will be has not yet been revealed” (1 John 3:2), the constant acquisition of our Orthodox identity is a divine-and-human project worth living and dying for.
Acknowledgment: The following essay was first published in Almanahul Credința — The Faith Almanac 2019 of the Romanian Orthodox Metropolis of the Americas, Chicago, IL (pp. 152-62). Given its relevance for the experience of many Orthodox living outside the historical lands of their ancestors, including in the Antipodes, we reproduce it here, expressing our heartfelt gratitude for Father Bogdan’s permission.