Orthodox convert becomes U.S. church's leader

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Over the course of 11 days in November, the soft-spoken monk known as Jonah saw his life change in ways he hadn't dreamed of.

Consecrated first as bishop of Forth Worth and then days later elected as metropolitan of the 100,000-member Orthodox Church in America, he went from being an abbot to being metropolitan of one of the most prominent U.S. branches of the global Orthodox Christian communion.

Born James Paffhausen, the 49-year-old Chicago native was baptized in the Episcopal Church.

He converted to Orthodoxy as a college student, was ordained a priest and then became a monk, and founded a monastery now located in Manton, Calif., as well other missions in California and Hawaii.

His election as metropolitan, head of the church's synod of bishops, was greeted with joy by members of the OCA, which is still reeling from a September report detailing the disappearance of millions of dollars in church funds under two of Jonah's predecessors.

The special committee that produced the report concluded "the OCA's leadership has been complicit at its highest levels" since 1989, and forwarded its findings to the Nassau County, N.Y., district attorney.

While the church adopted a number of reforms after the scandal, its clergy, laity and bishops were looking for a clean break in electing a new metropolitan — and Jonah fit the bill.

Jonah — like other Orthodox monks, he goes by one name — will be formally installed as metropolitan on Dec. 28 at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington.

Among the formidable responsibilities he now shoulders are the tasks of restoring trust in the church's hierarchy, fostering unity among the different Orthodox churches in the U.S. and raising Orthodoxy's overall profile in a country where its followers make up a small percentage of the population.

Jonah recently called The Associated Press from his new residence in Oyster Bay Cove, N.Y., to talk about his role and the future of Orthodoxy. Here are his answers in condensed form:


Q: How did you react to going from being an abbot to metropolitan in less than two weeks?

A: It's not something I can say I ever really wanted. It was never something I expected and certainly not at this stage. I was very surprised to become a bishop before the age of 50, let alone the metropolitan. I see the incredible value of having been an abbot of a monastery which is a very specific kind of ministry ... The synod of bishops is very similar to a monastic brotherhood in that sense. So I feel kind of at home, strange to say.


Q: You were a college student at the University of California when you converted. What drew you to the relatively exotic tradition of Orthodoxy?

A: I encountered Orthodoxy in a hippie bookstore, picking up a book called the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky. It was one of the few books on Orthodoxy available in English at the time. When I read it, I knew it was the truth. I saw that Orthodoxy is the fully integrated experience and vision of what Christianity is all about.


Q: Orthodoxy in the U.S. can sometimes seem puzzling, with so many different churches, often tied to specific national or ethnic groups. Is that likely to change?

A: Historically, there was one Orthodox Church in the Americas, organized by the Russians, of which the OCA is the direct descendant. After the Russian Revolution, that church broke apart because of the demands of the new immigrant communities and because funding from Russia ceased. So the great task right now, in the broader Orthodox context, is to bring together all of these groups and unify them into a single administrative structure.


Q: The night before you were elected metropolitan, you gave a talk that was very critical of prior OCA administrations, but you also called for forgiveness. How do you see your role now as the successor to those administrations?

A: What happened with previous administrations is that people's hopes were broken. Their trust was betrayed. The hierarchy of the church is a kind of iconic role. The priest and especially the bishops are called to a much higher level of accountability for their lives on all levels, because the hierarchy in particular is called to manifest the presence of Christ in the midst of the people. When we fall short, which is often and usually, in a sense the icon becomes broken. People see through the icon to the very broken and sinful men that we are.


Q: You can see why church history is full of stories about saints who at first didn't want the responsibility of being bishops.

A: A few people have already offered me their condolences (laughs). I think the reason it seems like we have a lot of bishops who are saints is, the ones who achieve sanctity as bishops are so rare they're held up as examples to say, yes, it can be done. As I'm having this conversation I'm thinking of Metropolitan Leonty, who's being considered for canonization in our church. ... He really established the OCA as something beyond a ministry to immigrant communities. He gave it a position to become truly a local church in America. He lived here at Oyster Bay, and there are many miracles associated with him.


Q: Recently, the Orthodox bishops of California signed a joint statement in support of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage there. Do you plan to seek a public role on political matters, the way, for example, Roman Catholic bishops have?

A: There's a difference between political issues and moral issues. When there are things which destroy people's souls, it's our fundamental responsibility to stand up and say, this is wrong, and this is wrong because it will hurt you. It's not wrong because it says so in some book somewhere, in the canons or even in the Holy Scriptures. That's part of the basis of judgment, but it comes down to, it's wrong because it hurts you.


Q: Orthodox churches are getting a significant number of converts from Western Christian traditions. Is that a reflection on Orthodoxy, on Western churches, or both?

A: To a great extent, many of the other churches are falling apart. The mainline Protestants, the Methodists, the Presbyterians. The Episcopalians have lost half their membership. The Baptists, even. The evangelical movement is already coming to an end. It's only about 100 years old in American culture, and it's kind of come to the fulfillment of its potential. The Orthodox Church is the fullness of the apostolic faith and the apostolic tradition. People find in it what they always thought Christianity should be.


Q: Given that situation, how can Orthodoxy go about raising its profile?

A: We very much believe in free will. You can't drag people kicking and screaming into the kingdom of heaven, as much as you might want to try. While we have not had, for the most part, an aggressive outreach, I think we need to look at different ways in which to reach out to the general population. Truly as it's said in many circles, Orthodoxy is America's best kept secret, and it's our fault.


On the Net:

The Orthodox Church in America: http:www.oca.org

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