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Orthodox leader seizes own ‘Obama moment’

- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2008

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.

"The black hole of our scandal was sucking the life out of the OCA," wrote the Rev. Steven Kostoff, a priest at Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, on his personal blog. "The election of an untainted candidate with a good reputation now seems like not only a brilliant and spontaneous response by an alert body, but the work of the Holy Spirit."

During an elaborate ceremony at St. Nicholas Cathedral in the District on Dec. 28, he will receive a pastoral staff to direct his flock as the archbishop of Washington and New York and metropolitan of all America and Canada. The Washington/New York diocese has 85 to 90 churches; the entire denomination has about 100,000 active members.

In his interview, the new metropolitan said he hopes to expand Orthodox outreach, especially on college campuses.

"The thing I am most concerned about is the despair that grips so many of the young people in our culture," he said.

"There is so much nihilism and atheism, all a result of the broken families, drugs, social and economic ills that grip our culture. So many of the young are in a state of existential despair."

Why Orthodoxy?

"It is a very integrated way of life," he said. "It's a lifestyle, a way of self-denial as a way to greater fulfillment. It is a way of spiritual discipline to help people to bring themselves under control so they are not possessed by anger, lust and the seven deadly sins."

He was persuaded to join Orthodoxy through the reading of one book: "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church" by Vladimir Lossky.

After attending St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary on Long Island, he traveled to Russia in 1993 at the age of 33 for a year to think through his future and decide whether to marry his girlfriend. If an Orthodox candidate for the priesthood wishes to marry, he must do so before ordination. Orthodox monks cannot marry at all.

"I wanted some resolution to my dilemma, but I didn't want to go according to my own will," the new metropolitan remembers. "The whole spiritual life is built on obedience, respect and trust in love to your spiritual elder."

After several months at the Valaam Monastery, on a lake island north of St. Petersburg, he was introduced to a venerable Orthodox elder known as Kyrill.

"So I asked the old man what should I do," Metropolitan Jonah said. "Should I get married or should I become a monk? He said, 'I know, I know.' He blessed me and said, 'Become a priest-monk.'"

He was sent back to the U.S., where he established several churches and founded a Manton, Calif., monastery. In 1999, the Valaam Monastery contacted him, desperate for funds because of Russia's collapsing economy. Jonah raised $100,000 for the Russian monastery in six weeks.

"I have major ties to Russia," he said, adding that he can still speak the language. "I really care about the church in Russia."

The OCA was part of the Russian Orthodox Church until it became its own self-governing body in 1970.