Monday, January 27, 2014

A reader's response to Monomakhos on the March for Life

A reader sent me a response to Monomakhos' article (vide infra) and asked me to post it as he does not have a blog of his own. I agreed to do so and have added some editorial commentary in blue.

A recent piece on Monomakhos entitled “The DC March for Life: Part I–Another Nail in the Coffin?” proposed that the choice of Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos to give the invocation at the 2014 March for Life in Washington was the playing-out of a larger ecclesiastical battle, and a symptom of a supposed loss of moral authority of the OCA.

The author describes it as follows:

“As most everybody in the OCA knows, Archbishop (sic) Tikhon Mollard, the primate-apparent of the OCA, was slated to give the opening invocation, as per long-standing tradition. This custom arose because of the good relationship between Fr John Kowalchik (sic), the Chancellor of Philadelphia, and Nellie Gray, the legendary leader that made the national March for Life happen.”

This notion that the OCA’s participation in the March for Life can be taken as some sort of recognition of both moral and ecclesiastical authority is unfounded. In the first place, where is the evidence of this “long-standing tradition” and “custom” for the OCA’s primate (or even an OCA cleric) to give the invocation? Here is a breakdown of clergy who gave the invocation since 1993. (Any lacunae are simply because I could not locate information about who gave the invocation that year.) Readers are welcome to fill in the blanks.

1993: Dr. Stephen Lowrey
1994: Rev. Harry Johnson
1995: Archbishop Herman
1996: ?
1997: Rev. Benjamin E. Sheldon
1998: Rev. Benjamin Sheldon
1999: ?
2000: ?
2001: Dr. Thomas Bronson
2002: Dr. Robert F. Ray
2003: ?
2004: Rev. Ed Martin
2005: Pastor Luke Robinson
2006: Pastor James Nesbit
2007: Pastor James Nesbit
2008: Bishop Henry Scriven
2009: ?
2010: Bishop Martyn Mimms
2011: Archbishop Joseph Naumann
2012: Metropolitan Jonah
2013: Sean Cardinal O’Malley
2014: Bishop Demetrios Kantzavelos

Yes, the OCA has changed primates a few times in recent history, but I do not believe all these men have been metropolitan.

We can leave aside the question of how the organizers of the March have historically decided on the clergyman to give the opening prayer, and the fact that the March is not a specifically religious or Christian event (even though it is religion- and Christian-friendly). We can focus, instead, on the OCA’s role in past events, and what we see developing recently regarding the invocation.

Any “OCA connection” with the March for Life can be attributed to one man: Metropolitan Herman. He marched many (if not most) years of his episcopal ministry, first as bishop, then as archbishop, and finally as metropolitan. It was due to his personal friendship with Nellie Gray, as well as Fr. John Kowalczyk’s pro-life activism, that he was often invited to the dais to address the crowds. (This is not the same as giving the invocation.) This did not stem from any ecclesiological stances of the March for Life organizers, or the recognition of “moral authority” within the institution of the OCA, but from a well-established inter-personal relationship. Moreover, even though he addressed the crowds year after year, Metropolitan Herman’s actions do not establish a prerogative of the OCA vis-à-vis other Orthodox jurisdictions. Likewise, this personal ministry of Vladika Herman does not give the primates of the OCA any privilege with regard to addressing the crowds, since for most years, he was not metropolitan. How often did Metropolitan Theodosius march or address the crowds?

In any case, Orthodox participation in the March has never been exclusively an OCA venture. Hierarchs, clergy, seminarians and laity from many jurisdictions have marched. The late Metropolitan Nicholas of the Carpatho-Russian Diocese (Ecumenical Patriarchate) marched on a number of occasions. In fact, it bears mentioning that the founding priest of Orthodox Christians for Life is a priest of ACROD. If memory serves the reins of the Orthodox Christians for Life is currently under discussion. In 2009, Archbishop Nicolae of the Romanian Archdiocese marched. I am sure others have as well. What puzzles me is how the author can state that Bishop Demetrios’ participation in 2014 was the “GOA’s first open participation” while also acknowledging the presence of then-Bishop Maximos in 1989? Was that not “open” enough?

If we want to speak about “customs” and “traditions” regarding the invocation of the March, perhaps it would be better to bring more attention to the new custom that has arisen: the Orthodox (both Eastern and Oriental) and Catholic (both Roman and Eastern) bishops now stand together in prayer as a united witness to the sanctity of life. To my mind it is also lamentable that we continue to speak to the nation as Orthodox in a divided fashion. If one wants to invite "the Orthodox" to an event the immediate question is "Which one?" Sadly the recently upset apple-cart that is the Assembly of Bishops makes one-stop-shopping for an Orthodox representative a near impossibility.

In 2012, when Metropolitan Jonah gave the invocation, he noted the presence of Catholic and Orthodox bishops coming together. In 2013, Sean Cardinal O’Malley mentioned the continuance of what he termed a “new tradition” of having the Orthodox and Catholic bishops together on the stage. That year, Cardinal O’Malley invited Bishop Benjamin of the OCA to lead the Orthodox bishops in singing “Memory Eternal” for Nellie Gray.

This year, as March for Life chairman Patrick Kelly welcomed Bishop Demetrios to the podium, he announced this new joint Catholic-Orthodox prayer rather matter-of-factly, as if it had always been done. What is the old saying: one time is precedent, two times is custom, and three times is tradition?

(As an aside, Bishop Demetrios, before beginning the prayer, acknowledged all the other Orthodox hierarchs standing with him, starting with Metropolitan Tikhon. How exactly did this push aside the OCA?) Also worth noting is that St. Vladimir's Seminary was definitely running the show this year (chartering a bus, supplying the music, etc.) with St. Tikhon's Seminary and Christ the Saviour Seminary also in attendance. Holy Cross Seminary sent no seminarians at all.

In future years, we will probably see this joint Catholic-Orthodox hierarchical prayer become an ordinary feature of the March for Life. If the pattern holds, a Catholic bishop will give the invocation next year. If anyone should feel pushed aside by this new tradition, it should be the Protestants—they gave more invocations over the years than Orthodox and Catholics combined.


  1. "In the first place, where is the evidence of this 'long-standing tradition' and 'custom' for the OCA’s primate (or even an OCA cleric) to give the invocation?"

    The long-standing tradition that George referred to was obviously the custom that the March for Life begins with an invocation. He did not say that it was tradition for the OCA primate to do so.

    "What puzzles me is how the author can state that Bishop Demetrios’ participation in 2014 was the 'GOA’s first open participation' while also acknowledging the presence of then-Bishop Maximos in 1989? Was that not 'open' enough?"

    He did mention Bishop Maximos attending the march, but there is a huge difference between attending the march (being simply one of 100,000-500,000 depending on the year) and taking a public role by offering prayer or a speech.

    What actually happened this year was that +Tikhon of the OCA was invited to deliver the invocation. A short time prior to the march, however, the March for Life withdrew that invitation at the request of the Greek Archdiocese. Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos gave it on behalf of Archbishop Demetrios instead.

    The 2009 invocation missing in your list was delivered by Fr. John Kowalczyk of the OCA. He has addressed the crowd many times as you say, but that year he delivered the invocation itself.

    Just prior to the 2012 March For Life, it was decided that Orthodox and Catholic bishops would take turns offering the invocation, with Metropolitan Jonah chosen to offer the first. Metropolitan Jonah was invited to address the march every year of his Primacy, giving the invocation himself in 2012.

    Josephus Flavius, you said "Also worth noting is that the 'new kids on the block' St. Vladimir's Seminary was definitely running the show this year". Actually, SVS has sent a busload of seminarians to the march for several consecutive years now, that is nothing new.