Fr. Peter explains how phyletism undermines the catholicity of the Church.
In our previous program, we discussed the whole question of phyletism, and we’re going to continue our discussion today. We are going to look at how phyletism undermines the catholicity of the Church. If you’ll remember we talked about what phyletism is and is not. We also said that phyletism is a heresy, and it is a heresy which undermines the faith of the Church—our faith in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. In particular, it undermines the catholicity of the Church, the catholic nature of the Church.
And how does it do that? Does it do it in terms of geography? That less people become Orthodox? No, not mainly after all. And that’s often times how catholicity is understood. Catholicity is understood in terms of geography, a matter of geography, that the faith has gone throughout the universe, throughout the whole world. But that’s really not the essence of catholicity. That’s something secondary. The nature and the meaning of catholicity has to do with the content of Orthodoxy.
An Orthodox Christian is one who can see the whole world and his life in an integral way, in a catholic way. He’s not blinded to basic truths, but the whole truth is understood in the Church and lived in the Church. He understands and lives the whole truth, the inner essence of things, the real being of man and of this world, the inner essence of the things of this world.
This is what truth means when Christ says: “I am the Truth.” He does not say “I am an idea.” This is not the Greek understanding of truth—an idea, an abstract idea, a thing. But it is Old Testament and Christian understanding of truth, which is the being: “I am He who is.” This is “I am the Truth.” That’s what that means. “I am He who is.” I am the real being, the understanding of things as they are in their essence.
This is what has been bequeathed to the Church and what the Church experiences and lives and understands—the meaning of life, the real meaning, the real essence of things. This catholicity is what was brought to the world with the Incarnation and with the establishment of the Church. This new, this evangelical, this proper understanding of man and life is what liberated Him and what liberates us from the worldly restrictions and conventions of this life. We’re freed from the limitations of man’s logic, of man’s fallen understanding, and even the customs and the perceptions that have been handed down through generations. Some of those are oftentimes restrictive; they blind us to the truth.
With catholicity, man is freed. That’s what catholicity means. It means we are freed from the limitations and the restrictions. And in particular, it means man is saved. What is he saved from? Well he’s saved from disintegration, from division, from schism, from death. That’s what salvation is. When we say we’re saved. Are you saved? Protestants often say: “Are you saved?” What are we saved from? What does it mean to be saved? It means to be saved from disintegration, from division, from schism. It means to have wholeness, health, spiritual health, to be an authentic human being.
And what the first Christians, and what true Christians, live, how they live out this catholicity is that in practice, we see each other, even if they’re not baptized, as brothers, human beings, of the same nature. We don’t have foreigners. There’s no longer a foreigner. No one is a foreigner to us—as they say in Greek, xeni. This has come to an end with this new evangelical and proper understanding of life, this catholicity.
And that’s why we can say that every local Church is a catholic Church, is the catholic Church, because it has the whole God, the whole faith, the whole truth, all of life and salvation is given to every local gathering, synaxis of the faithful. There’s nothing missing from the local Church when it is gathered around it’s Holy Altar—a bishop, priests, deacons, and faithful. The whole of the Gospel, the whole of salvation, is given to each and every local Church, each and every parish.
Now phyletism, as we can see when we understand catholicity properly, attacks the wholeness of the Church, divides the Church. It sets up divisions, barriers, between Orthodox Christians and between people generally. But mainly we’re speaking about the Church, and this is what concerns us—that in the midst of this wholeness, this unity, there is division; there is disintegration; there is schism; there is a loss of the whole truth and a loss of brotherliness and brotherhood.
Catholicity of course—and we should put phyletism in its proper perspective—is undermined in many ways, not just by phyletism; phyletism is but one way. Phyletism is an expression of secularism. It is a worldly way of living and understanding. It belongs to this world, and it makes the Church into something of this world. It limits it and does not allow it to be the Kingdom of Heaven. The whole truth is no longer understood and is made into the world. So phyletism is an expression, is one aspect, of secularism.
Along with that, there are other ways that catholicity is undermined. We’ll try to briefly give a description of a few of those. Conservativism or an extreme attachment to the letter of the law, to the external aspect of the faith, making things into ritual without meaning, a type without essence, as opposed to tradition, because tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Conservativism is something that, again, is a part of this world, and it is purely human attachments and not divine life.
Again, another way that catholicity is undermined is a loss of the Orthodox ethos,that is the expression, the way of being an Orthodox Christian. The ethos of the Church when it is lost, not just the morality, but the way of moving and acting and looking and living out and experiencing the presence of God and the Holy Spirit, when that is distorted, when that is perverted, then also catholicity is undermined.
And finally, I think, one of the things affecting the Church, especially today, perhaps as much as phyletism, and together with phyletism often works against the Church, is confining the Church to an administrative machine, to an institution—making it into an institution and emphasizing the institution above and beyond the spiritual reality and life of the Church.
And this goes hand in hand with phyletism, because oftentimes, at least in Orthodox countries like Greece, so-called Orthodox countries (it’s hard to call any country Orthodox in our day and age) making the Church into an administrative entity, because it sees it as a part of the State or as an expression of the State.
And indeed, one of the things that happened in the recent life of the Church is, around 1980 maybe earlier, the Church began to be paid by the State, as State employees. So I as a priest of the Church am a State employee. I receive a paycheck from the State, and without question, this encourages the people to see me as an extension of the State, and all the negative aspects of this are often attached to the priest.
Well, this is not a church, which in the words of Bishop Augustinos of Florina: “is a free Church,” and that’s what he worked for throughout his life—was freedom for the Church. And he saw the negative aspects of attachment of the Church to the State and a State which no longer works for the spread of the Gospel, for the building of the principles of the Gospel, but is oftentimes, increasingly in our days, more and more a tool of the European Union, the New Age, and this kind of perception and understanding of the world.
And in our days, the State is trying to pass throughout the schools here in Greece, in the first grade sexual education, written by people who are decidedly anti-Christian. One aspect of the enslavement of the Greek people to these ideas and the Church along with it, as oftentimes an aspect of the State, suffers the negative consequences.
Well, we’ve talked about the theoretical aspect of the question of phyletism and catholicity—how phyletism undermines catholicity, brings division into the heart of the Church. Let’s give some examples from here in Greece, first and foremost, and then from a brother priest in Canada. And then, we’ll end the program with a few words about the next program and the next discussion of phyletism.
In Greece here, I’ve had a chance to see, from close up, the way that the Church and the State interact, and my experience in Kastoria, where I was ordained a priest, is most instructive. Kastoria was the heart of the struggle, of the Greek people, during the Balkan Wars—in particular the war between the Greeks and the Bulgarians. The Bulgarians instituted, initiated, fighting in Northern Greece, the Bulgarian people living here in Northern Greece, and a war ensued.
And in Kastoria, there is remembered and celebrated one of the heroes of the Greek fight—Pavlos Melas. And he’s celebrated, just recently, throughout Greece, and one of the main organizers of the event was the Church of Greece. The Church of Greece took it upon itself, and the Diocese of Kastoria, to organize events, liturgies, and other high profile events in memory of Pavlos Melas and his struggle for the Greek people in this war, this very tragic war between two Orthodox peoples.
And the question, of course, is not whether the State should remember, or the country should remember, those who fought for its freedom, but the role of the Church in this remembrance and of course the struggle itself. What is the role of the Church? What’s the proper role of the Church? How should it approach the whole question? In those days, the Church was very, very active in support of the freedom fighters, the strugglers for Greek independence in Northern Greece. Of course, I’m sure there are many versions of this story, and the Bulgarian side, I’m sure, has its own version. I’m just presenting you what I understand to be the Greek version from Kastoria.
Now the bishop at the time was very supportive, and the story goes that he was such a part of the struggle that he had a pistol on him everyday, including during Divine Liturgy and in the Holy Altar. And there is, today, a mosaic remembering the bishop’s work with Pavlos Melas, and it shows him blessing Pavlos Melas and Pavlos Melas having a rifle in his hands. So he’s blessing him to struggle, to fight, for the Greek people.
Now again, the question is not whether one should struggle for his country. The question is what role the Church should play, and what should the Church do today in remembering these events. Should the Church celebrate, organize, and promote the struggle, the violent struggle, of one Orthodox people against another? Or should it see it as tragic events brought about by the enemy of our salvation in which the Church tried, and should have tried, I think here’s the essence, to bring an end as quickly as possible to these divisions and this war?
Perhaps it could have worked with Bulgarian priests and bishops on the other side. Perhaps it could have played a role much more reserved and restrained in support of the people, but not in support of the violent struggle of two Orthodox peoples. And today, the Church continues to celebrate that and that raises the question. Perhaps today one of the aspects of phyletisic mentalities is celebrating divisions and not seeing them as tragic and not mourning them and not creating and cultivating, in the people of God, contrition for such a war.
That’s one aspect of which the Church of Greece today, from the Archbishop down, organized and celebrated the memory of Pavlos Melas, and of course there are positive aspects of that organization, of that support. One wants to support the people, support the union of the Church with the people, be patriotic. That’s not negative. That’s not problematic. But in this particular case, it seems that the proper role of the Church would to be to bring people to contrition and not to celebrate the war and the memory of those who warred against other Orthodox peoples.
The fact that this war brought division between two Orthodox peoples, and this division has perpetuated in the memories, should not be a cause of celebration but of regret and remorse. And here we see again, how a phyletistic mentality undermines the catholicity of the Church, the wholeness of the Church. Because the Church doesn’t stop at the border with Bulgaria, but continues and is just as much a part of the Bulgarian peoples’ lives as it is in Greece.
That’s an example from the contemporary Church, and how the mentality of phyletism, of the Church identifying with the ethnicity, the ethnic identity, of the people to the detriment of the pastoral work of the Church, of union and unity of Orthodox. Now, let’s take an example from our life in America and in Canada. And I think it’s a good example. It’s probably an example many of you have lived, and you can relate to, and we’ll try to also talk about what that means for us.
A priest wrote to me, about a year ago from Canada, and described to me an event there, which I think shows the sickness of phyletism fairly well. There was a summer camp for different Orthodox children, from different Orthodox backgrounds, and there was a Divine Liturgy to be celebrated at the end of this gathering of over several days. Now the children were from different backgrounds, but all of them were really basic young children that did not speak, for the large part, the language of their parents or grandparents, but they spoke English.
Now this priest worked with them throughout the week to prepare them to chant during the Divine Liturgy in English. When the day arrives, the priest of the local parish—it doesn’t matter his ethnic background—insisted that the language of the Divine Services that day be the language of his parish. And he insisted to the detriment of the participation and the unity of the people gathered, such that those who did not know the language, which were most of the people, did not and could not participate.
And so the children were lost. After practicing chant throughout the week in English, they could not use it in the Liturgy, and they could not even follow the Divine Liturgy. Here is a good example of phyletism run rampant. See how it works against ecclesiasticization, making, in other words, the people of God into Church, uniting them in the Kingdom of God. It’s not pastoral to ignore the real spiritual needs of the children for the sake of a superficial attachment to a culture or to an ethnic identity.
Here the pastoral work of the Church is put on the back burner. It’s put aside, in order to promote and to prop up an ethnic identity and one that is on the wane. And in fact, not only is the work of the Church not promoted, the mission of the Church is not carried, but in fact the vision is evident among the faithful.
Again we remember that catholicity is liberation from worldly restrictions and conventions. It is real freedom. It is salvation freedom from disintegration and division. And such, so that when we see this phyletism, this excessive ethnic mentality, enter into the Church, enter into the Divine Liturgy, and divide people, well we can see how the catholicity of the Church is undermined. And how in a real, basic, practical, down to Earth way, heresy is dividing the people of God and, in fact, obstructing the salvation of people.
Again, we need to see phyletism in its proper context, and that it is worldliness. It is secularism. It is of this world and does not allow man to enter into the Kingdom of God properly. As an expression of secularism, and this is what we’re going to discuss in the next program, so I’ll leave you just a few thoughts for the next program, which I think will be particularly beneficial for the people living abroad.
We’re going to discuss the question of phyletism in the broader context. In fact, we’re going to talk about how phyletism is a sign of the general spiritual decline and apostasy of Orthodox Christians. It is the sickness of worldliness, as we’ve said. It is one aspect of that, one wing which gives secularism flight. It is one side of the coin of secularism.
There’s another side, and that’s what we’re going to talk about in the next program, of the coin. There’s another wing that gives secularism flight in the Church today and that is ecumenism. And just as phyletism is not restricted to the leaders of the Church, to the theologians, to the official representatives of the Church, but it goes to the very heart, as we saw in this last example from the Divine Liturgy, of the daily life of the Church and obstructs the salvation of Orthodox Christians in the Church.
Well, ecumenism is the same. Ecumenism is not restricted to the representatives of the Church or to the theologians, but it comes down, in a basic way, to the very understanding of the Church and of the world and of the mission of the Church. And it obstructs it in a way similar to phyletism. We’ll talk about that in the next program, how phyletism and ecumenism work toward the same end, and that is the loss of the Church’s catholicity.
They may appear to be at opposite extremes. Phyletism often emphasizes the ethnic identity to the detriment of the Church’s broader mission. Whereas ecumenism appears to encourage a non-phyletistic mentality, a universal mentality. So they appear to be at opposite extremes, but, in reality, they are two sides of the same coin, which is secularization. And most importantly, secularization is the very spirit of Antichrist.
Postcards from Greece:
Phyletism – Part Two
Fr. Peter Alban Heers · August 21, 2009
Audio length: 24:09 minutes
Transcript published: November 13, 2009