Orthodox leader seizes own ‘Obama moment’

They already are calling him “His Beatitude,” and comparing him to Barack Obama.

In less than a month, Metropolitan Jonah, 49, will be enthroned as the leader of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), the nation’s second-largest branch of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Some have termed Metropolitan Jonah’s election an “Obama moment” because of perceived parallels between him and the U.S. president-elect: a much younger man with little experience shaking up a corrupt status quo by coming from outside the establishment via an electrifying speech.

He was an unknown junior prelate, who had been Bishop Jonah of Fort Worth only since Nov. 1. A few days later, he flew to Pittsburgh for a special convention of Orthdox laity and clergy that would elect the successor to Metropolitan Herman, the previous OCA head, who retired in September.

When the new bishop delivered a stirring presentation the evening of Nov. 11 on how to reform the scandal-plagued OCA, he created considerable buzz. About $4 million had been embezzled from the OCA under two previous metropolitans.

“At that point, a lot of delegates began to see him not only as a possibility but the best choice,” said the Rev. Gregory Safchuk, rector of St. Mark’s Orthodox Church in Bethesda. “We felt the Holy Spirit had raised him up and given him to us as the best choice. He was not connected in any way to the problems we’ve had in the past few years.”

In an interview with The Washington Times, the new metropolitan said he hopes to establish “trust and good will” among OCA members. Although the previous bureaucracy has been discharged, he said, a change in mentality is still needed.

“A lot of the scandal was growing pains, moving from an old-style, centralized church into a 21st-century church conscious of itself as a nonprofit that has to abide by normal modes of operation,” Metropolitan Jonah said. “Previously, what the bishop wanted, the bishop could do without checks and balances.”

Born in Chicago as James Paffhausen and raised in the Episcopal Church, the new metropolitan converted to Orthodoxy as a college student and entered the priesthood in 1994. Given the name Jonah when he became an Orthodox monk in 1995, he is the first American-born convert to lead the OCA.

His election as metropolitan was a surprise.

“He wasn’t even on the radar,” Mr. Safchuk said. “He had 11 days of experience as bishop. Nobody even considered he’d be a candidate, and his was not a name anyone was talking about.”

On Nov. 12, Bishop Jonah was nominated as one of four candidates for metropolitan. He led after the second ballot. All the assembled bishops then processed to a secluded area around an altar where they, according to Orthodox custom, would determine the winning candidate in a final vote. Bishops are not bound to choose the leading candidate as their primate, and the two previous metropolitans were not the winners of the popular vote.

While Bishop Jonah and a runner-up sat apart from the other bishops, the remaining leaders placed their ballots in a chalice, and the votes were counted. Bishop Jonah knew he had won when all the bishops rose and formed a circle around him.

“They expressed their complete support for me as a leader,” Metropolitan Jonah said. “It was an incredibly humbling experience. Most of the bishops are 10 to 35 years my senior.”

He was led out to an applauding crowd, then vested in a light-blue cape and a white miter signifying his new position.

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About the Author
Julia Duin

Julia Duin

Julia Duin is the Times’ religion editor. She has a master’s degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry (an Episcopal seminary) and has covered the beat for three decades. Before coming to The Washington Times, she worked for five newspapers, including a stint as a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle and a year as city editor at the ...

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