His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH’s 2006 State of the Diocese Address
May 26, 2006
San Diego, California
The Right Reverend, Very Reverend, and Reverend Fathers and Reverend Deacons; the Esteemed Officers and Members of the Fellowship of St. John the Divine, the Antiochian Women, SOYO, and the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch; and all the Faithful of the Holy Diocese of Los Angeles and the West:
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28)
It is a true joy to be with all of you, my family. This Diocese IS a family, more than anything else. We are a family born of the water and the Spirit. Through Baptism and Chrismation, we receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit that unites us all beyond the power of human blood. We receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and become one Flesh with Him, and so with one another. This erases ethnic and political bounds, and we rejoice in our diversity, knowing that we have something greater than ourselves.
Our Antiochian heritage is not one of race, as we do not bear the name of any race. Our Antiochian heritage is open to all peoples: Americans, Arabs, Greeks, Russians, Serbians, Romanians, Albanians, Bulgarians… the list goes on. Our Archdiocese, under the leadership of His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP, has built upon our Ancient Traditions of openness and hospitality, spreading the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ to all peoples. Whereas the ancient city of Antioch was a place where many races coexisted in peace, so we build the new Antioch here in America, embracing all who desire to find the Way to God.
It is our sacred obligation, therefore, to prepare the ‘Way of the Lord’ as the prophesy speaks of St. John the Baptist. We must prepare people to receive the Way, our Lord Jesus Christ. We must never fail to preach the Gospel, and to live it in every moment of our lives. What good is the Gospel if it cannot be with us in all that we do? If the Gospel fails in this or that way, why should we follow it at all?
To prove Himself to those who are weak in Faith, the Lord has always worked miracles in the midst of those who preach His word. Even now, in an age where people are abandoning themselves to worldly pleasures and hedonism, we are growing. Each day, the Lord adds to our numbers. This in itself is the greatest of miracles, a sign that God has overcome the world and is calling His people to Himself.
As more and more people come to us in search of God, we who have accepted the Faith must also accept the responsibility to care for those who come to us. We must prepare the hearts and minds of catechumens and our children, so that the fullness of the Faith may enter into them and perfect them. If we do not prepare people to receive the power of God’s blessings, they will break under the strain of such great power. God’s grace is not a toy; it is not to be taken lightly.
This is why we must renew our commitment to personal prayer and liturgical participation, to keeping the fasts of the Church, to give of our time and financial resources to the ministries of the Church, and, most especially, to be healed through self-examination and Confession. To aid us in these difficult tasks, the Lord has raised up men of faith and courage, who have pledged to sacrifice themselves for this task.
I am speaking of the clergy, the priests and deacons of this Holy Diocese. These men who are in your midst are those whom God has called to bravely fight for your salvation. They are your leaders, the fathers of their parish families. I am their father, and they are my sons. We are bound to one another in love, and we together are united in our commitment to serve God and all of you. I am proud of every one of them. Each has his own gifts and strengths. We hold one another up, and I have full confidence in them. They have all my love, support, appreciation and gratitude.
As this Diocese gradually organizes itself, we have many difficult decisions that must be made. Therefore, God has blessed us to form a Council of Presbyters, which held its first meeting in February of this year. I am relying upon them to formulate solutions to many of our challenges. Over the next few years, the clergy will be instrumental in developing new policies and procedures. Our ways of handling pastoral and administrative issues will be changing, and I ask all of you to abide with the new guidelines that I and the Council of Presbyters will be issuing. Just as the clergy are in obedience to the Bishop, so the laity are expected to obey the clergy, thus preserving the good order of the Church. Without self-discipline, we cannot know the God who calls us to obey Him, that we might abide in the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who refuse to obey cast themselves into their own prison of resentment and anger.
Our new policies and procedures are motivated out of love and the desire to make our Diocese a more stable and consistent place in terms of pastoral care. Chaos and confusion are the devil’s fruits, and so we are rejecting satan when we formulate such regulations. Though some may be hard to understand at first, I urge you all to try to abide with them as I and the clergy present them to the Diocese. As your fathers, be confident that our combined experiences are going into all of these, and that we are seeking to better organize the Diocese out of love for all of you.
This, of course, will require that we be ready for change, and we must now prepare ourselves. It is my desire that all of the people of this Diocese seek personal spiritual guidance from a clergyman of this Archdiocese, or a monastic who is of one mind with us. I have encouraged our clergy to make pilgrimages to established monastic communities, and many of them have shared with me how these visitations have brought them greater peace and faith in God’s mercy. Depending upon one’s personal spiritual condition, such pilgrimages are a necessary part of the Orthodox life. But, one must exercise discernment with one’s Confessor prior to scheduling such a journey. Too much too fast can be harmful, and we must prepare for such a journey.
Now, some would say, ‘This is a free country, I can go where I please,’ or ‘Who are you to tell me what to do?’ Yes, I appreciate the freedom of this nation, so much so that I became a citizen by choice. But, I will remind you that with freedom comes responsibility. We are not liberated from self-discipline when we are liberated from oppression. Rather, the burden is greater. The more personal responsibility one has, the more one will be held accountable for his actions.
The greatest freedom is to be obedient and faithful to God. As we yield ourselves to God’s love and mercy, we are liberated from the suffering of sins. No longer are we dominated by unreasonable fears, compulsions and addictions. We live in peace and unity with all people. Despair and rage pass away. Yet, these things only come when we bear the responsibilities for our own behavior, admitting our faults and receiving God’s forgiveness. The Church gives us ascetic practices such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving so that we can see our fears and turn them over to God.
One of the greatest fears we struggle with is the fear of change. We live in terror of the unknown when we have no confidence in God. Fear is the fruit of atheism, and so the fearful man or woman has rejected God. We must examine ourselves, find these fears, and ask God to enter into us ever more fully, that our fears will subside. Then we can see that all change is governed by God, and that we have nothing to fear, even if the change does not please us. We can be long-suffering, knowing that God is giving us another lesson in patience and tolerance.
Just as some of us may experience fear in terms of changes our Diocese is making in terms of disciplinary policies, others may be experiencing fear at some of the minor liturgical adjustments the Diocese is making to bring greater consistency amongst our parishes. I will remind you that services are not just about empty forms, but are acts of love to GOD. We do not worship our own desires through the Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy, as well as the other services of the Church, do not belong to us: they belong to the Church. We are not ‘free’ to do what we want with them, but are rather obligated to serve the worship services of the Church as we have been instructed.
I expect that all parishes will abide by the liturgical instructions given by the bishop in consultation with the Diocesan Ecclesiarchs and the Council of Presbyters. Remember, that my instructions are intended to keep our parishes in line with the common practices of the Antiochian Archdiocese, and those who deviate from my instructions are separating themselves from the Archdiocese. It is for this reason that I began to provide the liturgical texts for major feasts and Sunday cycle. Any services other than these must be served only from sources approved in writing by the Diocesan Bishop or the Metropolitan.
Let us not lose the Paschal joy by fighting over forms. Let us be united in our actions, praising God with one voice. As your father in Christ, I have never ceased to encourage you from exploring the diversity of Orthodox music. However, I admonish you that such music is to accompany only approved texts. Let us be united in love, praising God with one voice, removing the confusion of conflicting and sometimes heretical texts. The development of new Archdiocese-approved texts is an ongoing process, and so we must be patient.
On a different matter, I would like to say a few words regarding the recent controversies and heresies over the ‘Da Vinci Code’ movie and the so-called ‘Gospel of Judas,’ both of which have been sensationalized by the media. In both cases, these are long-debunked heresies. The Judas document was such a joke in the ancient world that it was forgotten about within a few centuries. Let us remember that we have gone through such controversies in the past, and the Church has always triumphed over fiction, no matter how pernicious, as our Lord said, “I will build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against her.” I exhort any of you who have questions to visit our diocesan website and read the articles we have posted on these topics. I hardly want to waste any more time on these.
I have one thing I want all of you to come away with. It is this: that we have a sacred obligation to prepare our youth and new members to receive the power of God. If we teach our children to do their homework but not to pray, we are only preparing them for misery. Good grades cannot save you from a tormented conscience. You cannot prepare a catechumen just by getting him to memorize dogmas. You must help him to be healed from the wounds of sin.
We ourselves must live out the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We must beg God to purify us through confession and ascetic practices that bring saving humility. Only then can we be a parent, a brother or sister, or even a friend. We must begin now to practice what we preach: mercy and love, peace and joy.I expect all of you, at all times, to work hard and be dedicated to your parishes. The same way we are working in this Parish Life Conference. We need to help each other to commit ourselves in building part of the path toward the Kingdom of God.
In closing, on behalf of the clergy and faithful of the Holy Diocese of Los Angeles and the West, I would like to extend our appreciation and a big “thank you” to our host priests, Father Hanna Sakkab and Father George Morelli, our Conference Co-Chairpersons, Mrs. Rosemarie Robles and Mrs. Lorice El-Khaouli, the Conference Executive Committee and all the faithful of St. George Church in San Diego for their labor in hosting this Parish Life Conference.
Christ is risen!