All Saints of North America: Signs of Ecclesiastical Maturity

Each year, two weeks after Pentecost (this year June 10), Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast of All Saints of North America.  Along with the Venerable Herman of Alaska, eighteen other men are specifically remembered by the faithful, in addition to unnamed saints whose blessedness is known only to God. 

Furthermore, according to one list there are as many as twelve Orthodox Christians not yet glorified (canonized), but whose sacrificial efforts in America merit serious consideration in order to begin the formal process. At least one is a woman, Matushka Olga Michael of Alaska (reposed November 8, 1979).  She is revered especially for her humility, charitable works, and for helping victims of abuse.       

The significance of these commemorations is multi-faceted but denotes significant development on the part of our local territorial Church. The celebration of North American Saints is a comforting sign of the Spirit’s activity in the “New World.” Equally important, however, the feast celebrates people on this continent who responded to the prompting of the Spirit, paving the way for future generations.  Their receptivity to the Spirit’s presence indicates ecclesiastical maturity, a spiritual awareness among people of genuine faith and love, “who hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). 

It has been said that, “you cannot save what you do not love,” or conversely “you can only save what you love.” The North American Saints bear witness to this truth.  In their missionary efforts they were motivated by love for God, for those made in His image, and for this country.  Emulating Christ they embodied the New Commandment to, “love one another (love the world) as I have love you” (John 13:34-35; John 3:16). They identified with those to whom they preached and as a result, “thousands around (them were) saved” (St. Seraphim of Sarov).  

In a March, 1972 editorial, as the OCA was still embracing its identity as an Autocephalous Church, Fr. John Meyendorff shared his thoughts on love as the foundation of missionary activity in America.  He stated that, “Mission is not only ‘preaching,’ not only talking about God, or promoting ‘our thing.’ Mission is not a Christian commercial. It is a witness and an act of love. It implies love for those to whom it is directed, and love means self-giving, not simply giving something.”

Fr. John went on to say, “The Orthodox mission in Alaska had been successful in the past not so much because it was financially supported from Russia, but mainly because St. Herman stayed with his Aleutians until his death, and because a few real missionaries, like St. Innocent Veniaminov, gave their whole life to the people they wanted to evangelize.”  (Meyendorff, John, Witness to the World, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1987, pages 188-189). 

As a further example, the blessed Tikhon the Confessor, Enlightener of North America, publicly articulated his compassion for the American people in very personal terms.  Upon his arrival to New York on December 12, 1898, he lamented leaving behind his motherland, friends and family.  He reassured his new flock, however, with words from the prophet Hosea, "I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people..." (Hosea 2:23).  He told them essentially that, just as I was one with the people of Russia, and loved them, so I am now one with you, and I love you also.  (Orthodox America: 1794-1976, Orthodox Church in America, Dept. of History and Archives, Syosset, NY. 1975, p. 90).    

In our day, wherever the American Church reaps the spiritual rewards of evangelism, the sincerity and kindness of her missionaries are almost certainly evident. Conversely, that which often hinders the contemporary Christian witness is lack of love, lack of identification among the faithful with that which they seek to transform.  An ever-present temptation is to remain aloof not only from specific individuals, but from the public square, positioning the Church against society and society against the Church. The implicit message – to the detriment of Christ’s followers – is often understood in black and white terms:  i.e., the Church, and therefore those within it are good; society however, is evil. 

Such an approach is counter-productive to the Church’s mission. It meshes well with modern tendencies toward individualism and isolationism, while ignoring a basic fact: that society, like the Church, is not a faceless, anonymous entity.  It is not a “thing” to be converted. Christians help make up society, as well as the world in need of repentance that Christ came to redeem.  The faithful who daily “work out their salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) are intimately connected to that which is often squared off against the Body of Christ itself. Candidly speaking, the world that crucified Christ is our world.

While remaining vigilant, discerning, and faithful to the Gospel, it would seem that part of a Christian’s responsibility in America is to embrace that which is good in the neighbor and within American culture, building upon these positives, enriching and fulfilling them in the light of Orthodoxy. A quote from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians comes to mind: 

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

This attitude of openness was evident in the Apostle’s preaching to the men of Athens when he revealed to them the identity of their “unknown god” (Acts 17:16-33).  It assuredly characterized the approach of the North American Saints who became “one” with the people of this continent. While laying the foundation of Faith in this new land, St. Herman, St. Juvenaly and those with them, and later St. Innocent, sought commonalities -- points of contact -- with the indigenous population that could facilitate the dissemination of the Good News. (See especially Fr. Michael Oleksa’s impressive work, Orthodox Alaska:  A Theology of Mission, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1992).

Appealing to the above passage from Philippians Fr. Alexander Schmemann commented on Orthodox activity in America: “…we must, without denying any genuine value of our Eastern cultural and spiritual heritage, open ourselves towards Western culture and make our own whatever in it ‘is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious’" (Philippians 4:8).  (The Task of Orthodox Theology in America Today, September 1966).

This spirit of sensitivity remains a guiding principle to those who follow in the Saints’ footsteps.  It is a sign of ecclesiastical maturity within parishes and dioceses whose members seek to identify with those around them, while imparting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.