September 1, 2014

Fr. Steven Kostoff: Reflection on Archbishop Job – A witness to the truth

Fr. Steven Kostoff asks, why wasn’t Bp. Job’s courageous stand for the truth during the OCA’s recent time of trial acknowled at his funeral?

Fr. Steven Kostoff

Fr. Steven Kostoff


His Eminence, Archbishop Job of Chicago and the Midwest fell asleep in the Lord on Friday, December 18.  His funeral services were held in Chicago on December 22 & 23, and he was buried in Black Lick, PA on Saturday, December 26.  Thus, we have lost an able archpastor who served us well in the Diocese of the Midwest. This was during a time of great distress throughout the entire Orthodox Church in America, when we were forced to come to terms with a “Church scandal” that exceeded the boundaries of the merely “financial.”  I have no intention of rehearsing the facts of that story beyond what would be essential here, as I offer a personal assessment as to how I now understand the role of Archbishop Job in serving the Church throughout this “time of troubles.”  I believe that his role was essential, decisive, and yet painful for him personally.  I also believe that His Eminence grew in stature throughout this ordeal by his principled position, and in so doing he manifested a human capacity for “self-transcendence.”  Perhaps I am using this term somewhat modestly in this context, but I am referring to his ability to stay on course despite his own limitations, flaws and weaknesses, when the pressure on him was enormous to fall back into the dreary conformity of personal and institutional self-defensiveness.  Yet, even with that modest understanding of the term, I am certain that Archbishop Job’s clear demonstration of self-transcendence was part of the process of theosis that we hold to so dearly in our Orthodox theology.
 
I need to acknowledge that I was not personally close to His Eminence. My observations are thus made from something of a distance.  However, we spoke more often and much more candidly as the years passed, and I believe that we had a mutually respectful relationship.  His pastoral visits to our parish were always very positive experiences for our community, and many of our parishioners also deeply respected him for his witness to the truth.  A good deal of this was made possible by the creation of the Columbus Deanery during my ministry in Cincinnati and our open meetings during the time of the Church scandal.  His Eminence always shared openly with his clergy concerning the unfolding – or covering up - of events in Syosset and his reactions to them, yet always drawing a line between that sharing and idle gossip.  He trusted his presbyters and we, in turn, respected him and supported him in the realization that His Eminence was acting as a good bishop should.  It was encouraging to experience the build-up of that support and respect by witnessing Archbishop Job “do the right thing” time and again by witnessing to the truth and not being intimidated into meaningless silence.  This was a time when the normal was positively heroic!  This was his podvig (a Russian term meaning a “great feat” or “spiritual deed”). 
 
I believe that four of the most important words that His Eminence ever uttered – or put to paper – during his entire episcopal ministry were:  “Are the allegations true?”  These words were formulated in response to the “revelation” of financial malfeasance within the OCA in late 2005 and the stiff opposition that was forming against an open and unbiased investigation into this unsavory revelation.  How utterly liberating that simple question, based on those four words, proved to be!  These words were the breath of fresh air that blew through the odor of corruption that was immovably and noxiously hovering over an already beleaguered central administration.  How meaningful that word “truth” was when it was in danger of being eclipsed, forgotten, and buried amidst an avalanche of legal jargon, pseudo-pious rhetoric about “serving the Church” by a cynical manipulation of the virtue of obedience, obfuscation, and deliberate falsification.  A desire to uncover and know the truth served as a rallying cry for all members of the Church who were convinced that there was no other legitimate way “forward.”  One modest archbishop’s witness to the truth most certainly inspired and awakened many men and women from a sense of frustration, discouragement and complacency, to an emboldened sense of commitment and a fierce insistence that we could, actually, “handle the truth” as mature and responsible Orthodox Christians – as sordid as it may be.  If there was a march on Syosset by faithful members of the Church who were demanding accountability, I am certain that amidst the icons and banners held aloft, there would have been a large banner in bright letters that read:  “ARE THE ALLEGATIONS TRUE?”  Would it be too bold to say that those four words may have redeemed many past mistakes, or even sins, of Archbishop Job’s past ministry?   May it be so!
 
The slow unraveling of the crude attempts at stonewalling and cover-up emanating from Syosset was made possible by the role of His Eminence Archbishop Job during the key years of 2005 – 2008.  It is difficult to believe that this could have happened without at least one bishop on the Holy Synod behind the movement toward uncovering the truth of our scandal in the name of “transparency and accountability” - although that mantra-like phrase should not further “cover up” Archbishop Job’s attempt to act in the Name of Christ and the Holy Gospel.  The Church is hierarchical, so it was essential that at least one hierarch from within the Holy Synod of Bishops would assert conscience over convenience regardless of personal cost. This singular position was clearly Archbishop Job’s cross.  As admirable as Mark Stokoe and his ocanews.org website were in relentlessly covering the scandal with journalistic professionalism united to a real concern for the OCA’s well-being; I am sure that Mark would acknowledge that he needed the episcopal protection that Archbishop Job gave to him within the Diocese of the Midwest to continue in working toward that goal.  In other dioceses – the majority?  all of them? - the attempt to “shut down” ocanews.org by threat of ecclesial sanction would have been very difficult to resist.  Surely, great pressure was put on His Eminence to do precisely that in the Diocese of the Midwest.   But, as he famously said:  “We are free men in the Midwest.”   Again, His Eminence trusted the integrity and intentions of the faithful of his diocese.
 
In my estimation, or at least from what I have heard, there were three basic responses to Archbishop Job’s freely-chosen position that left him very vulnerable and isolated on the Holy Synod:  1) Some brother bishops were silent supporters; 2) others offered a kind of passive-aggressive resistance; and 3) there was open hostility against him.  This open hostility led to what His Eminence called the “worst day of my life,” when the now-removed Bishop Nikolai of Alaska made an attempt to remove Archbishop Job from the Synod of Bishops and have him deposed on canonical charges that betrayed their artificiality. To the credit to the rest of the Holy Synod, this ill-conceived attempt at removing – and thus silencing – His Eminence failed to gather any real support.  Yet, from what I understand of this incident, any support offered to Archbishop Job was more “behind the scenes” than openly and boldly vocalized.
 
Unfortunately, this same evasion of acknowledging the integrity of Archbishop Job’s principled position of resisting a cover-up only continued at his funeral service.  Both the Vigil on Tuesday evening and the Liturgy on Wednesday morning were served with due solemnity and with a dignified liturgical grace that was moving for all who were present.  I am very glad to have been present at such a memorable event.  And it was an honor to join in the singing of “Memory Eternal” for our departed hierarch.  What I am referring to, however, are the eulogies/homilies delivered on both Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning.  I must state here that I was not able to remain for the closing eulogy on Tuesday evening, and therefore did not here it with my own ears.  But from a reliable source, I was told that there was no real mention of Archbishop Job’s “witness” and role in serving the Church by struggling to uncover the truth of the allegations. And then I was personally surprised, and not a little disappointed, at what was not stated again on Wednesday morning by our chief hierarch at the Liturgy.  We heard the Christian hope of deliverance from death through our Lord’s resurrection. And, when referred to, His Eminence was treated with respect and compassion, and held up as a model of a good pastor who took up his cross to follow Christ.  But all this was delivered without the necessary specificity of applying it to Archbishop Job’s courageous witness in the face of determined opposition.  Thus, one of the OCA’s greatest hours of honesty and integrity was left unrecognized, as was the application of episcopal integrity to a specific pastoral situation. This was a serious omission.  The “crown” of Archbishop Job’s episcopal ministry, and for which we pray he receives his “crown” by the mercy of our philanthropic Lord, was essentially left unmentioned.  In no way was that “meet and right.”  It was “unfair” to the memory and legacy of His Eminence.  Though it did not need to be dramatized or delivered with rhetoric, that legacy demanded some tribute by specific mention.  It needed to be acknowledged, and I believe that it was something of a “scandal” that it wasn’t.  I wonder if there remains any lingering resentment or envy over the courage of his response.

Fr. Steven Kostoff pastors Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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