[A homily delivered by Fr. Alexis on the 2021 feast of All Saints of North America]
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints of North America. The first Sunday after Pentecost is always dedicated to All Saints of the Church everywhere. This Second Sunday is dedicated to the Saints that have be glorified in our specific lands or country. You might notice All Saints of Russia are also commemorated this day on the calendar. As our Church has Russian roots, it was our practice to celebrate all Russian Saints, but since have been blessed to have many Saints of America glorified, we celebrate both, with the feast of Saints of North America now taking prominence.
This Feast as near and dear to me for several reasons. I am an Orthodox Christian born in America. I am so grateful we can honor and venerate those holy ones who have gone before us “never failing to worship God in Spirit and Truth”, faithfully living and preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ in our own lands. Among them are several missionaries who worked tirelessly to establish communities and build up already existing parishes in Alaska and even in various places in the lower 48 states. One such Missionary was the inexhaustible St. Jacob Netsvetov, Enlightener of the Native peoples of Alaska. Because of the remoteness of the Alaskan villages and due to the lack of available priests, St. Jacob was given the assignment of serving the Atka parish---which covered an area of 2000 miles. He built churches, schools, and established new Missions. From May of 1828 til his death in July of 1864, a mere 36 years, St. Jacob, this amazing mission priest, himself had baptized thousands of people, Chrismated over 400, and married and burial hundreds.
My recent trip to Dallas to attend the Episcopal ordination of Bishop Gerasim reminded me in a few ways of why the today’s feast is especially dear to me. Many faithful, priests, and hierarchs gathered for the Divine Liturgy. It was definitely implausible to have every priest present concelebrate, so many priests, myself included, did not vest. When it came time for all the clergy to receive Holy Communion, those of us not serving, partially vested with stole and cuffs; a common practice for non-concelebrating clergy who are receiving Communion at the Altar. After concelebrating clergy received, us non concelebrating clergy filed up through the deacon door to the altar to receive Communion from the hand of Metropolitan Tikhon, who was presiding at the Liturgy that day.
The other hierarchs were seated around the back of the altar area. I had a moment, after receiving Holy Communion, to ask a blessing from our Diocesan Hierarch, Archbishop Alexander. As I walked away from His Eminence, I overheard him say to another Hierarch “that’s Fr. Alexis, my Mission priest for Mississippi”. Now, this isn’t formal title for me per se, but it really is quite literally what I do. Its why Matushka and I moved back down to Mississippi, where I’m from---for me to be the Mission priest who travels around the State to serve our Missions in Mississippi. This feast is dear to me because I work as a Mission priest, just like St. Jacob and the other American Missionary saints did.
The other way I was reminded of why todays’ feast is special to me was Fr. Paul being awarded the miter at this Divine Liturgy. I have a policy as a priest “I defer to Fr. Paul. When I don’t defer Fr. Paul, I defer to Fr. Paul.” I very much admire him and look up to him as a mentor and a model for the priesthood. What a great joy to see his tireless work recognized by our Diocese and our Holy Synod---the entire Orthodox Church in America! Metropolitan Tikhon mentioned Fr. Paul missionary efforts in Mississippi. With over 40 years of priestly service, he has guided and faithfully served so many people. As a Mission priest, I look to his work.
St. Jacob, Fr. Paul, myself, all being considered missionary priests, all laboring in the vineyard; but in many ways, our ministry is very different. So what exactly is a Mission priest? Is he different than other priests? Is it a title? A location? A situation? Is it a personality, an attitude? My spiritual father, the Archpriest Alexander Atty, of blessed memory once said “All priests are mission priests.” Whether you’re a priest in an enormous Cathedral or parish, or in a tiny Mission, or yes, even a remote village Chapel in Alaska, you are a Mission priest. All priests are called to be Missionaries.
But Why am I bringing this to your attention? The feast of All Saints remind me of the important work that we are doing here together---and the important work that lies ahead. Mississippi needs more Orthodox Churches. A lot more. Plain and simple. At current, we have Three Antiochian parishes, two Greek parishes, One OCA parish, three OCA Missions, and a ROCOR Mission. The list of places where a church is big and is growing: Meridian, Natchez, Oxford to name a few, but at least a half dozen also come to mind. Even with the amazing and heroic work that has been done by you all and so many others, there are still many Orthodox Christians who drive over an hour or more to attend Divine Liturgy each Sunday. But only in our communities that are able to have Divine Liturgy every Sunday—nearly half of them do not.
The Feast of All Saints of America reminds of the importance of Mission work. We form communities and bonds. Like the hymn of the feast says:
“With faith, hope, and patience as their armor, they courageously fought the good fight. Comforted by the beauty of the Orthodox Faith, they labored in mines and mills, they tilled the land, they braved the challenges of the great cities, enduring many hardships and sufferings. Never failing to worship God in spirit and truth and unyielding in devotion to His most pure Mother, they erected many temples to His glory.”
This brothers and Sisters is us, this is our work too. I heard a priest once say to his congregation “someone built this Church for you and now, it’s your turn to build this Church for someone else”. This means our work is never done in terms of living and spread the Faith. It is the responsibility of each generation in every Church community, no matter how big or small.
We here have a particular work that rises to the very top for us. While remaining faithful to Christ and preaching the Good news as the Saints of our Lands did, we in Mississippi, given the time and place in which we live, must set our sights on completing a task that involves firmly establishing our communities and helping to seed the others that need to exist. This task lies at the core of Mission work in Mississippi. It really is the single most important factor in our future endeavors.
What is this task? Back in October 2020, Fr. John Parker, Dean of St. Tikhon’s Seminary, released a document which was published in the OCA website entitled “Vocation as a Church wide endeavor”. This 2020 document provided an analysis of priests currently serving the 640 parishes of the OCA. In essence, 30% of all priests currently serving are post-retirement age. Fr. John notes that even if current seminary enrollment figures remain steady over the next ten years AND all eligible men are ordained that enroll (which in itself is not a guarantee), still, we will be facing the reality that at least “another 40+ parishes across the Orthodox Church in America will not have a full-time parish priest.” And “additionally, the Church will lack priests that can be sent out to the many areas…where there is presently no Orthodox presence.”
This task for us brothers and sisters is to work to provide the situation for a fully compensated, full time priest. But not just here---in all the current Missions we have AND even in the places in Mississippi that do not yet exist. Just this year, as I concelebrated Holy Week services with Fr. Paul Yerger, he exclaimed to me that “we need more priests here in Mississippi!” St. Ignatios of Antioch long ago pointed to the connection between the priesthood and mission work. He wrote “Where the Bishop is, there is the Eucharist, there is the Church.” In the Early Church, the community was served by the bishop. As the communities grew it quickly became impossible for the bishop to serve in in place every Sunday, so priests were ordained to serve in the place of the Bishop. The priest has been, from the very beginning, the only one in the parish, who represents the Bishop. Why? Because he alone can serve the Eucharist when a Bishop is not present. It is the Eucharist which lies at the core of each parish. Without the Eucharist, a community cannot be a parish---meaning no priest, no Church.
Before I arrived in January of 2020, I worked with Fr. Jason, Fr. Paul, and Our Archbishop to create my current situation which allows me to travel around our state and serve as a Mission priest. My idea has been from the beginning to help build up the mission communities into parishes. I created the Orthodox Mississippi website for this reason. My vision is to work to help establish many more such communities across our State. In this way, though our task is similar to the work of great Missionaries like St. Jacob and the North American Saints, our efforts are to build further on the work already laid out by our own great missionaries, like the Mitered Archpriest Paul Yerger.
During this luminous time after Pentecost and with this great Feast of the Saints of America fresh on our minds, let us enter in faithfully, diligently into the work that lies ahead of us. Let us create in our community, a paradise of worship and fellowship, one dedicated to serving one another in the love of Christ. Let us work to raise our voices in hymns and worship, glorifying our Lord. Let us live blessed lives, inspired by the beatitudes, in today’s Gospel. Let us work to become firmly established, so that many Divine services and Feasts might be offered and that our clergy too might be fishers of men. Let us look to the great Saints and Missionaries, both further off and those close by, and let us build up the work they’ve done. Let us build this Church for someone else.
O Holy Saints of North America, pray unto God for us!
Tuesday June 22nd, 2021 3rd Day of the Holy Trinity
Welcome to the Official beginning of the Blog for Orthodox Mississippi. A short first entry will suffice. Check back here frequently to read about our expereince in Mission work across Mississippi. We'll point out some of the exciting things that are happening. We'll also share some insights from life.