Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Met. Joseph speaks expansively on COVID, politics

Some people really enjoyed this letter. Others, not so much. Either way, give it a read to see how one hierarch is navigating contentious topics.

(Antiochian) - Dear Reverend Clergy, 

Greetings and blessings to you and your families in the Name of our Great God and Savior, Jesus Christ! 

I pray that you and your holy communities have celebrated joyous and grace-filled feasts of our Lord's Nativity in the flesh, Circumcision on the eighth day, and Baptism in the Jordan. In all of these holy feasts, we witness the love, humility, and obedience of our Lord. He was born to the humble Virgin and laid in a manger to unite His divinity to our humanity. He submitted to circumcision in the flesh in accordance to the Mosaic Law to heal the uncircumcision of our hearts. He bowed His head to be baptized by the hand of His creature to heal the stiffness of our necks. What love and condescension we see in the saving dispensation of our God! 

The contrast between the example of our Lord and the world we see around us in these latter days can hardly be more stark. All around us, we see not the humility, obedience, and love of Christ but rather the pride, divisiveness, wrath, and defiance of the ancient enemy from which Christ has set us free. Our world has undergone the trial of a pandemic the likes of which we have not seen for over a century. The United States is witnessing a deterioration of its civil society not experienced since the Civil War. 

Of course, these situations will bring out anxieties, and the anxieties will bring out our passions, but dear clergy, our role is to be icons of our Lord to the faithful – humble, loving, and obedient. We offer the Holy Eucharist to the faithful that they may be the Body of Christ in the world and thereby transfigure it. Too often, we and our faithful are joining with the world and fanning the flames of the passions instead of offering the world the peace which is beyond all understanding. 

I write to you today as your father in Christ, joined by my brother hierarchs, to call us to unity. During our recent meeting of the bishops, we discussed how the bishops must speak with one voice to our clergy, and our clergy must speak with this one voice to the laity. Our recent communication quoted St. Ignatius of Antioch likening our ministries to the strings of an instrument playing a harmonious chord, and we must demonstrate this unity for our faithful in this extremely dangerous time in the life of our world. This unity does not stop when we take off our cassock or sign onto the internet – we are always priests! 

While I mean this call to unity to be general to all aspects of our Archdiocesan life, I would like to speak about some specific issues in this letter: 

We wrote previously that our clergy are not to engage in politics and not post about divisive political issues on the internet or social media without an express blessing from me. I offered the beautiful quote from St. Nicholas Planas about keeping silence rather than speaking out and causing more turmoil. Unfortunately, I continue to receive reports from members of our faithful who have been scandalized by posts that they perceived as provocative coming from their clergy. The belief that clergy should sit silent on political topics is a convenient one. How much easier is it to henoticon over tough issues than to engage. And yet we look at St. Maximus or Ambrose and others and see a great willingness to speak truth to power. Maybe the distinction is advocating a position and not advocating for a particular candidate? One can be ardently pro-life, pro-free speech, anti-euthanasia, etc. without putting a donkey or elephant sticker on one's car. But let me also say, if a priest doesn't occasionally scandalize some people in his congregation, he's not doing his job. The faith calls us to do things that are uncomfortable and at time divisive. 

Let me share with you that during the chaos of the Lebanese civil war, our father in Christ, Patriarch Ignatius IV, distinguished himself from the other religious leaders of the region by rising above the disastrous sectarianism that was raging and stoking violence at the time. He was the one that all sides knew could be trusted because his only allegiance was to Christ. His example had a profound impact on my life and ministry, and I share this with you that you may be edified by it as well. 

I am pained to say, beloved clergy, that if my previous directive was not clear enough to dissuade you from this kind of behavior, I need to warn you that I must begin to bring disciplinary actions against those who are disobedient. I say this not out of a spirt of anger or vengeance but fatherly love. You cannot be a priest in the image of our Lord and engage in behavior that does not model His love, humility, and obedience. You may point out the instances in the gospels where Christ acts forcefully with righteous indignation, but I would point out that every instance had to do with the failures and hypocrisies of the religious leadership of that time – never with the politics of the Roman Empire or the public policies of Pontius Pilate or Herod Antipas. Call your people to greater piety and repentance – not politics. If our people are living Christian lives, the political situation will take care of itself. The Christian lives of a small minority of Orthodox in this country will not allow politics to "sort itself out." Every MLK Day we throw up photo after photo of Orthodox marching for civil rights - THE political issue of the '60s. Would this issue have sorted itself out without a Christian call to conscience? Racism was enforced by political pressure and it was our counter-pressure that attacked the cancer of racism in our country. And saints spoke against unfair taxation or mercenary wars or the mistreatment of prisoners among other such unchristian actions. Decisions made by politicians with political motives. Again, I think a priest can speak on the topics of the day through the lens of Christian morality without devolving into the Reds and the Whites and the Blues and the Greens.

From the outset of the pandemic, we have striven to avoid the extremes of overacting based on irrational fear and underreacting based on irresponsible zeal. We have tried to balance opening our churches for the people to receive the sacraments and utilizing the strategies asked of us to mitigate the risks of our people spreading the virus among themselves. From the outset, we have had clergy and laity attempting to pull us to one extreme or the other, but I believe we have stayed the course, and I have a clear conscience regarding the directives we have put in place during these trying and confusing times. The course has not been much of a course. We misunderstood fundamental aspects of the coronavirus and policy was continuously changing - often contradicting itself. At some periods the church was responding to daily alterations in expectations. Airborne, not airborne. Masks not useful, masks absolutely essential. Everything you touch is dangerous, the virus doesn't live well on things. But we were not alone as every business or organization in this country was equally flummoxed.

One of the most divisive issues throughout has been the wearing of masks. Our directives have been clear that you must strongly encourage the wearing of masks by the faithful. We stopped short of using the terms “mandatory” or “required” because there are legitimate health reasons given by WHO and CDC that may preclude some people from wearing them. We did not stop short of mandating masks because we wanted to provide a loophole for our parishes to get around the directive. Our expectation is that all the faithful will wear the face-coverings in church, and we expect our clergy not to encourage their flocks to disobey the letter and the spirit of our directives. And the people are responding. There is a constant ebb and flow of parishioners now "changing churches" based on what each parish is mandating or - apparently of equal importance - the manner in which clergy and empowered laity enforce such regulations on adults and children. In fact, entire churches are forming from dissatisfied laypeople searching for a place to pray that mirrors their views on this issue.

We understand that this issue has been a heated one. There are two competing sets of values that have come into conflict. Those who do not want to wear a face covering tend to believe they are showing courage and trust in God, while those who do want to wear one tend to believe they are showing love and compassion to their neighbor. These are laudable virtues in themselves, but we must show discernment in how we balance them. The former group often declares that no one can contract a virus in the church during services, but over the course of dealing with this pandemic, that has been demonstrated to be untrue around the world and in our Archdiocese. We continue in our assurance that Holy Communion is never a source of spreading disease, nor do I believe the holy things of the Church are, but we as sinful people can spread sickness among one another. We have to be honest about this and take reasonable precautions. 

Regarding the clergy wearing masks during the services, our initial directives precluded celebrants from wearing them except after the services while giving antidoron. This directive was issued at a time when we were not doing clerical concelebrations, and we would like to update the directives to say that the clergy may wear a mask while concelebrating in close proximity to others. We also reiterate that the clergy must wear a mask when interacting in close proximity with the faithful. Again, I do not write this out of some kind of lack of faith but out of the lived experience of this past year and my fatherly concern for you and the faithful.  Some clergy are wearing masks and plastic face guards through entire services. Some are wearing them not at all. It will be an interesting study in a few years to look at the repercussions of these decisions. 

Finally, we hear reports that there are clergy encouraging the faithful not to receive the vaccines. Some cite ethical questions raised about possible connections the vaccines have to aborted fetuses, some about whether the vaccines are safe, and some about conspiracy theories. The bishops’ meeting discussed these questions at length. The two vaccines being offered in the United States did not use fetal cells in either their development or production. While there was confirmatory testing done on a stem cell line tracing back to the 1970s, neither I nor any of the bishops believe this indirect connection is an impediment to the faithful receiving these vaccines in good conscience. Whether or not the vaccine is safe or adequately tested is a question beyond the scientific knowledge and training of our bishops or clergy; this conversation should solely be between the faithful and their doctors. Is he saying that if you don't make a vaccine using our unborn, but instead use the unborn for "confirmatory testing" it's ok? That's like saying shooting innocent people in a firing line is unacceptable, but using those same innocent people as targets to sight rifles first is fine.

As for the conspiracy theories, I do not believe this warrants discussion other than to say this is unacceptable for our clergy to engage in such things. I would like to point out that you are a priest of this Archdiocese, and you venerate my name on the antimension before offering the Holy Anaphora. You owe obedience to Christ and the Gospels, the Mother Church of Antioch, this Archdiocese, and my office as the Metropolitan Archbishop not to internet personalities you find on Facebook and YouTube – whether they be priests, bishops, or monastic elders. 

To conclude, I would like to offer one corrective to what I believe may be a source of some of our controversies over these matters. Many of our civil authorities have claimed to impose restrictions on us with the claim that they were acting for public safety but instead acted with unfairness towards the churches. They have claimed their decisions were guided by science but seem to have been guided more by aggressive secularism. We worked with our sister jurisdictions of the Assembly of Bishops to address the more egregious of these unfair regulations, and we rejoiced at the recent decision of the Supreme Court to ensure our rights of free exercise are respected. As I said months ago, it is a travesty that for a time in this country a priest could not celebrate the Liturgy on a Sunday while a man dancing in a flexible pizza costume on a street corner was considered an "essential worker." There's a reason some protestant congregations held church in the middle of Walmarts when their churches were closed. To some in government rollback savings trump salvation itself.

With fewer governmental regulations at this stage, we are called upon to be more responsible for ourselves. We have worked with Orthodox Christian doctors and public health officials at every step of the way to ensure that we are informed on the relevant science by those who also share the beliefs of the Faith. I believe that this is vitally important because we should be informed by science but not enslaved to a secular scientism. We are adopting mitigating strategies (wearing masks, social distancing, cleaning, asking those with symptoms to stay home, etc.) that hopefully work together in tandem to protect our people but with a humble realization that these are imperfect and ultimately, we are in the hands of God and His inscrutable will. 

We should be clear that the pestilence will not go away simply because of our strategies or even a vaccine. We will find deliverance only when we call our people and ourselves to repentance. I believe too many of us want to do these restrictions temporarily and take the vaccine to have life return to a previous “normal” of engaging in passions and lusts. God wants to see that a deliverance from this pestilence will bring about a “new normal” of greater piety, increased participation in the sacraments, and more love and service to our neighbor. We can adopt the worldly strategies to fight this virus, but we must not forget to utilize the heavenly ones. Let us stop raging about the inconveniences of the worldly strategies in order to focus ourselves and our flocks on the heavenly ones. I think millions of people out of work, some finding it difficult to access food, some in the depths of depression or despair, and in all other manner of difficulty want to hug their loved ones and earn a living. I have difficulty seeing how a shot is a gateway drug to "passions and lusts." Certainly times of trial are an opportunity to understand our true dependance on God and how He can be active in our lives, but I struggle to see the death of millions as a divine catalyst for piety.

I deeply appreciate the work you have done amidst the anxiety and pressures of this historical moment. I write all of this as a loving father. Let us join together in brotherly concord and play that harmonious melody spoken of by St. Ignatius for our faithful. 

With paternal love and fervent prayers on your behalf, I remain, 

Your Father in Christ, 


Archbishop of New York and Metropolitan of all North America ​ 


  1. Hmmm. Seems a bit "sepatationist" for a Incarnational faith. IMO the vaccine risk is worse than the disease risk

    1. Your opinion about the risk of the vaccine being worse than that of the disease is prima facie absurd. We know the virus kills, sickens and wounds permanently, whereas the vaccine is not KNOWN to do any of these things. “Do your own research”’

    2. The virus is dangerous to old, fat and old and fat people. Some individuals have had an autoimmune response to the virus. Other than that, no, it is not a particularly dangerous virus. I've had it, by the way.

    3. NEW ON IVERMECTIN: Ivermectin to prevent as well as treat COVID. Yes. Suggest we read Dr. Mercola while we can.

    4. See the results in March 2020 in the two counties in India with Ivermectin and in the clinical trial of preventive (aka prophylactic) use of once a month Ivermectin in healthcare workers versus placebo. Surely we all care about the icons of Christ who are most vulnerable and/or most exposed daily to prevent wretched suffering. Risk:benefit profile much better for known Ivermectin and HCQ protocols. Please also read the novel vaccine inserts as you decide.

  2. An important and necessary epistle from Metropolitan Joseph which is just as applicable to the laymen under his care. It is sobering to consider that those laymen who appoint themselves as judges of ecclesiastical matters quickly end up not even being of one mind with their own bishop.

  3. "...In fact, entire churches are forming from dissatisfied laypeople searching for a place to pray that mirrors their views on this issue."

    Does our host or anyone else have a concrete example of a new parish being formed in this manner? Several things come to my mind. First and foremost is that it seems an exceedingly shallow basis for a formation of a new parish, though I suppose it could be the proverbial straw in a one or two cases. Hard to believe such a parish would have the depth to last beyond the passionate energy basis of its founding. Second, have not the bishops of the "canonical" jurisdictions not clamped down on this sort of jurisdictional buffet in the last 15 years or so?

    Overall while I agree with Met. Joseph central point around the *passions* of politics, I think our hosts counter point carries the day. I can't help but wonder about a dhimmitude attitude/impulse that may be at the core of his directive. I appreciate his sober and reasonable reflections on vaccines, science vs. scientism, masks and prudential behavior adjustments, etc. to this pandemic.

    1. I do have an example, but doubt I want that community to get the internet Eye of Sauron treatment by pointing them out.

      Parishes have been formed for reasons that defy reason to us today, but made perfect sense to the people at the time. When I see an Orthodox church almost across the street from another Orthodox church, I can guarantee they split over some reason great or small. Is the stated reason the "real" one or just the excuse?

      And to your other point, penitent silence has its place. It just isn't of use to exclusion of action. Faith should guide works as naturally as hunger should guide one to find satiation.

    2. Understood. I think of this in a "foundations" sort of way, and it strikes me that it behooves a person/family to inquire and discern as best they can the manner of a communities founding and how that effects (or doesn't) the "spirit" of the community today...foolish men who build on sand and all that.

    3. Jake, where possible, many folks I know are opting for ROCOR which tends to have fewer restrictions. The closest ROCOR parish to me is 140 miles each way, yet I have considered it even though I have been a member of my parish, which I love, since 1993.

    4. Love does cover a multitude of sins Michael...

  4. A group from a Protestant Seminary joined us last Sunday. About 40 people. They wore masks but packed two pews. What a concept, packed pews.
    The fact is there are any number of preventative meds and natural anti-viral products that DO NOT HAVE, the ethical, moral, political and risk of a dangerous and unproven vaccine.
    My Metropolitan is being naive to maintain the vaccine itself is not political. His letter is a secular political statement that offers no more assurance of a good outcome than the alternative methods but does come with a much higher degree of risk. Is he willing for the archdiocese to bear the life long medical costs of someone who takes the vaccine on his recommendation and gets a debilitating complication? Unlikely.

    I mask, I sign up for Sunday Liturgy, I worship in a Sanctuary that is not even 25% of capacity. No altar boys, and this last Sunday no choir and no assistant priest. No coffee hour. (There are 409 families in my Cathedral parish). No Holy Week, No Pascha Celebration (isn't that ironic).

    This will have consequences in the future--negative consequences.

    Are we hiding "for fear of the Jews"? Or simply hiding.

    And those who commented AXIOS. What is worthy?

    1. Michael, I had my first shot (Moderna) 14 days ago and besides this strange desire to eat human brains all is well. My wife is a physician and is fully vaccinated (Pfizer)and has been been binge watching zombie movies but otherwise seems fine ;)

      Seriously we own and run a medical practice (I'm on the business side) - physical med and rehabilitation to be specific. Already a portion of our business are patients who suffer from post-Covid debilitating pulmonary and neurological damage and will for the rest of their lives. This is our generations Polio.

      It is your accusations of worshiping Baal, secularism, unreality, and hiding/cowardice that are unworthy...

    2. Jake, over-reaction brother.

      According to Wesley J Smith the Moderna vaccine does not have any fetal cells in its development, Pfiser does.

      Your less reactive input as to why you took the vaccine rather than using the various other alternatives which have a proven track record. Were you forced, i.e, required to use the vaccine?

      I was prime polio age as Dr. Salk's vaccine was coming available, I knew the fear. My Dad. MD, MPH, was the director of the city-county health department. He was an exceptional director.

      Part of my objection to the COVID thing is the horrible job that is being done on the public health aspect. Make no mistake every public health crisis is political in nature but COVID is worse because it is a bio-enginnered virus with international origins.

      One if my Dad's public health principle's that is being violated is "Treat the person, not the disease". The other is the politics have overcome the public health duty to educate, educate, educate.

      Sorry, but my critique stands. You're pyrotechnic critique actually strengthens what I am saying.

      Love overcomes a multitude of sins but I do not see our Metropolitan "laying down his life for his friends" but rather demanding that everyone else lay down their lives (in Christ) for him.

      That is not a genuine call to obedience. That deeply saddens me.

      So if you have rational points

    3. What are your actual objections to being vaccinated this time if you don’t object to vaccination in general? What Political or ethical objections can you hold up? That they rushed this? Maybe this is worth considering. But the virus is a known threat, whereas we do not know that the vaccine against it is b

    4. Jake et al, surely you snd your wife would like to know about options to treat those suffering? Free webinar for all: WED JAN 27 EVE: Pathophysiologic Basis and Clinical Rationale for Early Ambulatory Treatment of COVID-19″. Peter A. McCullough, MD, MPH. See what you think. Registration link below. Posted with permission.

      “Dear AAPS Members and Friends,

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      Date/Time: Wednesday, January 27, 2021, 8:30pm to 10pm Eastern Standard Time

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      Note on CME credit: At the present time AAPS is being denied the ability to offer AMA-approved ACCME Category I credits for our events. However, we believe that our programs meet standards at least as high as those that are granted AMA-approved credit. AAPS is therefore providing a certificate of attendance to those who wish it, and details about our accreditation procedure in the event that your state permits some organization other than ACCME to be the accrediting agency.

      Faculty Bio: After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Baylor University, Dr. McCullough completed his medical degree as an Alpha Omega Alpha graduate from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. He went on to complete his internal medicine residency at the University of Washington in Seattle, cardiology fellowship including service as Chief Fellow at William Beaumont Hospital, and master’s degree in public health at the University of Michigan. Dr. McCullough is an internationally recognized authority on the evaluation of medical evidence concerning contemporary issues in medicine and has published widely with > 1000 publications and > 500 citations in the National Library of Medicine. Dr. McCullough has been a leader in the medical response to the COVID-19 disaster. He and his colleagues published the first peer-reviewed guidance for the medical treatment of ambulatory patients infected with SARS-CoV-2. An update to his work was released on December 30, 2020.
      Copyright © 2021 AAPS, All rights reserved.
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    5. VanOldenPhatt, I do not object to vaccinations perse. It is not an ideological issue for me. I try not to think that way.

      The source of my objection rests in my perception of both the vaccine and the COVID crises are being used as both an ideological litmus test and a route to control over people's lives, especially Christians. Force to compel people to take the vaccine.

      There is some evidence of "quarantine camps" being prepared in Europe.

      Of course both are violations of my Dad's principles of community health.

      However it is the state of fear that is being created and used by government rather than genuine health education. High pressure adds and manipulation. No real informed consent as to risk and alternatives.

      Since I and my family are in a really low risk situation, I see absolutely see no reason to get vaccinated. Plus our pre-existing heath conditions make it more likely that we would suffer debilitating side effects. I do not fear dying.

      That is not everyone's situation.

      Plus the proven natural protection against respiratory viruses that I use. I get it free because it is produced and sold by the business my wife helped found with her brother many years ago.

  5. I don't quite understand your point about vaccines Michael. I see the Metropolitan give a nihil obstat as it were regarding stem cells and then declare himself and all priests as unqualified to discuss efficacy.

    1. These are the risks that Pfizer has identified. In addition it does use a cell line taken from aborted children. I cannot abide that.

      Then there are people like my son. Whenever he has taken the flu vaccine in the past he has come down with the flu.

      Scoff if you like but vaccines, even the most tried and tested ones do not work the way they are intended in a lot of people. His mother was the same way.

      Mostly, however, the whole approach violates every principle of community health my Dad ever taught me. The principles that made him a highly sucessful and honored community health leader.

      1. All life is scared
      2. All life is interconnected, therefore what is done to one life effects all life.
      3. If you improve the health of the person in front of you, you improve the health of the community.
      4. Care for the people in your community who need it most
      5. Treat the person not the disease.
      6. Foster community and reduce isolation.
      7. Be open and honest
      8. Everything is an aspect of community health: medicine, dental, literacy, faith, property maintenance... everything.
      9. Don't spit on the sidewalk.
      10. Educate, educate, educate

      May God's enduring mercy be with you in all things.

  6. James, if someone wants the vaccine, knowing the risks, that is fine. If someone takes the vaccine simply because the Bishops say do it and have bad side-effects, what then?

    Why is there not more discussion of the other possible alternatives by qualified people?

    Fear is the only thing that comes to mind.

    Frank Herbert in Dune had the best description of fear I have ever seen: "Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that leads to total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will allow it to pass over and through me. When the fear has gone past, I will turn my inner eye to its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain."

    My disappointment in what Met. Joseph said was because I was expecting, hoping, they would speak without fear. Not a reasonable expectation when I myself am afraid, is it.

  7. Our religion is eternally unchangeable, while science, by definition, can never be so. The initial directives changed due to the increase of discovery; mask/no mask, etc. this loving gentle Bishop asks us to SHUT UP and do as told, as I would correctly put it and keep your eye on Christ, not the political-scientific milieu. Let our bells be the only hollow things among us.

  8. It is a conundrum akin to Hamlet's. I am retired, live in a rural area. I also take proven, natural anti-virals every day. My wife and son work in a low risk environment. I have decided to submit to Our Lord's mercy and be neither suffering the slings and arrows nor taking arms.

    I have studied as best I can the available options and will not take the Pfiser vaccine ever. I might take the Moderna one but only because of a drastic change in circumstance.
    My parish has had a few mild cases. One of my best friends, a practicing phyician goes to work and home. I am sure he will take the vaccine.

    I will not judge anyone's decision. I commend each and all to the mercy and care of out Lord God and Savior. His mercy endures for ever.

    God is eith us

  9. Than I hope you will watch Wed eve to know all your other safer and ethically nonconfictusl options, Michael. Good health brother!

    1. Nonconflictual or better yet ethically pure!

  10. Troon, thank you for the invitation and the link. I wil get with my wife and see.

  11. It would be helpful if His Eminence would be more direct on dictating that churches should be open, as much or as little as the local authorities will allow. This is an issue for all Orthodox jurisdictions in Canada. In Ontario churches are allowed to have ten people. With a priest, altar server and/or deacon, a chanter and usher/doorkeeper/bouncer this leaves you with 5 people. Some parishes don't seem to think it is worthwhile to open up, some are allowing 5 peopleto come in, light their candles, venerate some icons and leave, others allow line ups for Holy Communion with only 5 in at a time, while others have a system to let 5 people in and stay for the whole service. None of these scenarios are perfect, but at least people have some access to the Holy Mysteries. What is upsetting some people, who are "church hoping" are those parishes that have closed up all in-person contact.