The Eastern Orthodox Saints of North America

(This is Neil) Should we recognize sanctity in the different churches and ecclesial communities? It is difficult to imagine a negative answer being theologically intelligible – would we constantly have to adopt an arbitrary suspicion towards “what appears to be holiness”? In any case, such an answer would also be inconsistent with Roman Catholic practice. The Ecumenical Commission of the Central Committee of the Great Jubilee Year 2000, in its letter to national committees in 1998, noted:

In many places Christians have acknowledged in their midst martyrs and exemplary confessors of faith, hope and charity – both men and women. Some of these, such as Francis of Assisi, Roublev, Johann Sebastian Bach, Monsignor Romero, Elizabeth Seton, the martyr Anuarite of Zaire, and Martin Luther King, have been for various reasons recognized beyond confessional boundaries. Ecumenical groups could look at the example of some of these witnesses with a view to identifying how the work of the Holy Spirit can be distinguished in them and what their role might be in the promotion of full communion.

Already, in preparation for the Jubilee, Pope John Paul II echoed his predecessor Paul VI in claiming that “The witness to Christ borne even to the shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants.” He would also refer to the Russian Orthodox “Saint Serafim of Sarov” as an exemplar of mystical prayer in Crossing the Threshold of Hope.  More recently, after the death of Brother Roger of Taizé, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Brother Schutz is in the hands of eternal goodness, of eternal love, and has arrived at eternal joy,” making it clear that he saw him as a saint.

(None of this, of course, is meant to overlook difficulties. The Ecumenical Commission’s letter acknowledges that there are some figures who seem to be symbols of “division” or “rupture,” and counsels that “an examination of these figures could be undertaken in a particular place in order to arrive at a reconciliation of memories” – a “new perspective” that would truly open a “new chapter” on these figures, but still be accountable to history.)

Thus, it is rather unfortunate that most Catholic knows very little about Eastern Orthodox saints. And, since this post is originating from the United States, I can say that it is very unfortunate that most American Catholics probably can’t even name a single Eastern Orthodox saint from North America. Thus, this post will ask a simple question: What can we learn from the Eastern Orthodox saints of North America? I’ll try to provide an answer by looking at a very interesting recent article [sub. required] by Amy Slagle in Spiritus that suggests that these saints might serve as models of cultural engagement.

Professor Slagle tells us that Orthodoxy confronted ethnic and religious diversity in North America. One might expect that the Orthodox saints would model a safe withdrawal into a fortress of unchanging “doctrinal verity, ritual ancientness, and patriarchal authority.” But this is not the case. This is, in part, because of their missionary impulse to share their treasure and bring others to fulfillment.

When the first missionaries arrived in Alaska in the late 18th century, and, in a second wave, in the 1820s, as Metropolitan Theodosius recently recalled, they “did not equate the preaching of the Gospel with the eradication of a particular culture” but “sought to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that would transform, rather than destroy, a particular culture.” For example, St Innocent Veniaminov created the Aleut alphabet in collaboration with native teachers, maintaining “cultural diversity,” and preventing “Christ and the Gospel from being associated solely with Western European culture and civilization.”

St Innocent, Slagle tells us, even saw “an experiential overlap between Orthodox and Native Alaskan religious forms.” He met with a shaman who claimed to heal through heavenly visitors. Innocent told him to continue meeting with what he described as “Good Angels” and even sought to visit these “angels.” Bishop Kallistos Ware has noted that, when the monastery of Valaam issued a volume in 1894 commemorating the centenary of the mission to Alaska (which had originated from the monastery), they referred to St Innocent’s ethnography and said that he recognized the “spark of divine truth” in Alaskan traditional religion. The monks refer here to St Justin Martyr, who claimed that the divine logos had scattered seeds of the truth, logoi spermatikoi, in all humanity, and it is the role of the church to take up the scattered seeds and nurture them.

Professor Slagle also tells us that St Tikhon, the Russian Orthodox archbishop of North America from 1898 to 1907, did not favor withdrawal into separate ethnicities. He did suggest that the different immigrant group form ethnic dioceses, but this was to be in preparation for an autocephalous American Orthodox Church. Thus, he consecrated the Syrian priest Raphael Hawaweeny to serve as a bishop to the Syrian Orthodox immigrants. And he supported the development of an English-language “Western Rite” liturgy based on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Raphael Hawaweeny is also commemorated as a saint, in part for recognizing the Russian Tikhon as archbishop. An akathist dedicated to him reads, “Knowing that in Christ, all are one whether Arab, Greek, or Russian, thou didst rejoice in God.” It later says, “As a self-proclaimed Syro-Arab by birth, Greek by education, American by residence, Russian at heart, Slav in soul, thou didst minister to all, teaching the Orthodox in the New World to proclaim with one voice, ‘Alleluia.’”

What, then, can we learn from the Eastern Orthodox saints of North America? Professor Slagle tells us that they show an Orthodoxy that is not a “museum-piece Christianity” but a religion “endowed with a strong sense of missionary engagement with and compassionate sensitive towards differences amongst people both outside and within its ecclesial boundaries.” They show an Christianity that does not disdain cultural and ethnic differences.

Obviously, they have quite a bit to teach all Christians.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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13 Responses to The Eastern Orthodox Saints of North America

  1. Liam says:

    I would just clarify that, for Rome at least, “recogniz[ing] sanctity” has many degrees, even outside the formal canonization/beatification process (which is, so far as I am aware, limited ad intra): inclusion in the calendar (either universal or local) with a common or proper liturgy, inclusion in the Roman Martyrology (well, that is still in the process of being updated after *Trent*, IIRC!!!), and other being various informal gestures (like papal or episcopal remarks and acts of veneration).

  2. Tito Edwards says:

    Great post!

    Eastern Orthodoxy has an immense library from which we as Catholics can learn and grow in our faith.

    I love those Orthodox saints in Alaska!

  3. I have icons of St Seraphim of Sarov, Herman of Alaska, the Tsar-Martyr and his family, Grand Duchess Elizabeth, and even St John of Kronstadt. There is no difficulty in recognizing the holiness of these saints– indeed, many post-schism saints have been put on the calendar (like St Sergius of the Holy Trinity Monastery) which shows that the schism here is of a kind which, though a wound, does not override the sacramental and soteriological role of the Orthodox (and why they can be and are called church, and not just an ecclesial community).

  4. Joseph Hostetler says:

    Your love for the Orthodox Saints is quite commendable. But, perhaps you should also examine those Saints who, while showing forth great signs of sanctity also showed forth a devastating critique of aspects of Catholicism which need correction.

    So, for instance, you didn’t mention St. Peter the Aluet, who was the first martyr in America among the Orthodox. He was a young boy who, along with others, was taken captive by Spanish Catholics (including clerics) north of San Francisco. They insisted that he convert to Catholicism. When he replied that he was a Christian and he would not convert, they began to torture him. When they saw that he was immovable in his faith, they cut off his hands and feet and – being a young boy – he soon thereafter gave up his soul to God.
    When St. Herman of Alaska – one of the monk-missionaries and a wonderworker and apostle – heard of his martyrdom he immediately called upon the intercessions of the Saint, thus recognizing his holiness.

    Perhaps the Pope and the Catholic Church ought to publicly repent for the action of their children – and for all such actions against Orthodox Christians (ex. the martyrdom of those in Romania, Ukraine and Russia by Roman Catholic authorities during the imposition of the UNIA).

  5. Neil says:

    Dear All,

    Thank you very much for your kind responses. I should say two things:

    1. As Liam’s response implies, I am more interested right now in the “various informal gestures,” because they often seem to “say” more than we can officially say in the present. For instance, even with the negative judgments about the validity of orders, does the Pope treat the Archbishop of Canterbury as a layman? He doesn’t seem to do so – what does this mean? The witness to the present woundedness of the church often still has to be an “informal” one.

    2. I would like to thank Joseph Hostetler for his provocative and important response. I am familiar with the story of St Peter the Aleut – I did not mention it because Professor Slagle does not, and because I did not feel that I could put the disturbing story of the young Aleut being dismembered by Franciscans into the necessary historical context. Without that context, I did not feel comfortable making any sort of theological judgment.

    Obviously, I am aware that the Catholic recognition of some Orthodox saints will require a difficult “reconciliation of memories” (see my post). For instance, how does a Catholic interpret the biography of Father Alexis Toth? There have been attempts to do some of this reconciliation, but I am unaware of lengthy theological reflections (and they would have to be lengthy to be sufficient). Perhaps Henry can comment about this.

    It can be said that the Catholic Church has acknowledged that “civil authorities made attempts to bring Eastern Catholics back to the Church of their fathers” and used “unacceptable means” (Balamand Statement). Pope John Paul II, in 2000, asked pardon “for the divisions among Christians, [and] for the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth.” He also referred, when visiting Hungary in 1992, to Protestants killed by Catholics as “martyrs for the faith,” suggesting that Catholics can admit that they themselves have “martyred” others.

    But, then, why hasn’t the Catholic Church specifically repented for specific actions against the Orthodox? My guess would be that, since violent actions were committed by both Catholics against the Orthodox and the Orthodox against Catholics, there is the clear danger that one apology would be met by the desire for another apology, and this might result in rivalry over the prized status of victim, not reconciliation.

    Thank you again.


  6. Henry Karlson says:


    Some brief comments now.

    This question came up in the Orthodox/Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox dialogues. If there becomes a recognition that both sides are ultimately in agreement, how is one to treat the saints otherwise condemned (and not just disliked) by each other.

    There have been many suggested answers. One is to remind people that what is often condemned is a notion which would still be seen as condemned. The saint was a symbol for it but not necessarily one with it (like Dioscorus).

    Second, is the point that even Arians have been recognized as saints (there are a few, not many). This points out that the question of sanctity sometimes differs from doctrine — not entirely unrelated, but the point is outright heresy is more than an erroneous belief, and sanctity does not make one infallible (many saints who are recognized as saints condemned each other — read St Cyril of Alexandria on St John Chrysostom!).

    Third, connected with this, is the fact that Catholics already have somewhat worked this in — St Photius IS a saint of the Catholic Church. Sometimes what is troubling is the way saints have been used for anachronistic polemics (as was the case with Photius).

    Fourth, just because someone like St Peter was killed by Franciscans does not make him less a saint, nor does it mean all Franciscans are condemned. We must remember how popes like St Martin I were treated by Constantinople and use that as a means to understand political division does not make for less holiness (hence also saints appearing on all sides of the Western Schism, too)

  7. Neil says:

    Dear Henry,

    Thank you for your generous reply. There are, I think, two different situations here.

    In the first situation, two churches eventually come to recognize that they are in agreement, and that their previous disagreements were merely misunderstandings caused by different terminologies or formulas. This is – as far as I understand – the situation of the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, which, afer the Chambesy proposals, are in full communion and have rescinded any past condemnations.

    The second situation is more difficult, I think. For the Roman Catholic, this means recognizing sanctity in those with whom we are not in agreement and cannot enjoy full communion. The obvious theological reasoning, as you suggest, has to do with the fact that “the question of sanctity sometimes differs from doctrine.” But how much does the question differ? If it differs a lot, would we have to conclude that the doctrinal differences are – as the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently suggested – essentially “second order” issues?

    Needless to say, the second situation is rather thorny. But that means that we must think about it.

    Has anyone written at length about it?

    Thanks again.


  8. The situation still comes to the fact that the Orthodox are still Church, and with the sacraments which make us holy. This explains why the Orthodox situation has always been different — indeed, they are in all rights in communion with us, just very very very imperfect (we can take their sacraments, they can take ours, in special circumstances).

    You might want to look into the way St Gregory Palamas was brought to complete recognition by the Vatican (I think it was in the 70s). But before then, from what I understand, nominal agreement was made with the Russian Catholics in their entrance to the Catholic Church — and so they believe they were told they could keep their larger canon of Scripture and any Orthodox saints they wanted.

    • Arsenny says:

      The Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Christians made a condition when they agreed in the late 30s to be under the omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarch that they could keep all their Uniate liturgical forms, except those that were deemed outright heterodox. (The Filioque clause, for example.) So there’s some pecedent.

      As an Orthodox Christian, I have no trouble at all recognizing the sanctity of Roman Catholic saints and blesseds. Such post-schism saints as Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Teresa of the Child Jesus (Lisieux), Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, John Vianney, or John XXIII, for example, ought to speak to the heart of any Christian. In addition, our two churches, along with a host of Protestant denominations, have been savagely persecuted in the last hundred years, particularly under the totalitarian regimes in China, Germany, and the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Maybe that shared experience of witnessing for our faith in the Risen Lord will bring us closer in understanding.

      One last thing: A lot of cross-fertilization is going on at the grass roots level. Our leaders may stumble over theology and dogmatic formulations. I suppose that’s their job. But our world is in desperate need of spiritual healing. Our survival as a species will depend on it. The End Times are supposed to be good news for believers, so I know our current predicaments can be seen from a variety of perspectives. But there’s no denying the widespread misery in the world today, because of rampant greed and its concomitant destruction of the environment. It’s only going to get worse. Jesus gave us the answer in his “new commandment”: Love one another, as He has loved us. This means unconditionally, without any restrictions.

  9. Neil says:

    Dear Henry,

    Thanks for your response. I must admit to not knowing very much about the particular “way” in which St Gregory Palamas was “brought to complete recognition by the Vatican.”

    Of course, I agree with what you write about the Orthodox – that “they are in all rights in communion with us.” The question is: What are the theological consequences of this?

    One possible answer is that, since we then must share (if somewhat “imperfectly”) the same faith, as Cardinal Lubomyr Husar has said, “Questions like purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, or the filioque clause are theological concepts, not articles of faith.” And, since we must share – if, again, “imperfectly” – the same saving faith, the Second Council of Lyons is, as Pope Paul VI suggested, a “General Council of the West.” Other councils, as well, can be judged “General Councils of the West” not Ecumenical Councils.

    I think that this is a fascinating and important (if somewhat thorny) question.



  10. Jim McK says:

    Fascinating indeed. (would we recognize Vulcan saints?)

    How does St Peter the Aleut differ from St Joan of Arc? If sanctity can be recognized among the French, can it not be recognized among the Orthodox? Maybe it would be better to say it as if the English can misinterpret the sanctity of a Frenchwoman, why couldn’t Catholics recognize the sanctity of an Orthodox?

    Speaking of non Christians, V2 declared in Nostra Aetate: “The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that …they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.” If this is true for nonchristians, it should be true for those who share the Christian faith. We strive to recognize the good things, especially their embodiment of Christ, I would think.

    The one hesitation should be on “raising them to the altars”. Saints are a sign of holiness in our community; it would not be right to treat someone of another community as if they were a member of ours. So official recognition, with public prayer to the saint, would have to wait until Catholics and Orthodox recognize that they are a single community, the Body of Christ. In the middle ages, people would steal relics from one shrine for use at another, a practice called “holy theft”; taking a saint from a different community has some similar implications, of taking the best while slighting the community where the sanctity was generated.

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