- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008

In a ceremony redolent with incense and rich with tradition, about 300 members and friends of the Orthodox Church in America gathered Sunday at St. Nicholas Cathedral in the District to enthrone 49-year-old Metropolitan Jonah as the head of the church in North America.

The meteoric rise of Jonah, who was only elected as bishop of Fort Worth, Texas, less than four months ago, shows a great “hunger for change” in the OCA, his former seminary dean said.

(Corrected paragraph:) “This is a brand new, unprecedented time,” said the Very Rev. Thomas Hopko, dean emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y., where Jonah studied for master’s degrees in theology and divinity.

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“Change in the sense of a new engagement in the life of the church, in terms of parish renewal,” Father Hopko added.

In a 15-minute homily, Jonah stressed not the occasion of his elevation, but rather the uniqueness of the Christian message.

“The real essence of who we are is hidden with Christ,” said Jonah, a former Orthodox monastic.

“It’s about how we live, [and] what witness is in our hearts,” he told the congregation in the cathedral, as well as about 50 others in an overflow room watching via closed-circuit television. “God is out there, but He is in the depths of our being. What’s most important is that inner witness and pristine beauty of that person who is united with Christ.”

Jonah asserted that Jesus “has given us a unique mission … go forth and reveal to people God’s love and forgiveness.” In so doing, he said, “we will be transformed into living icons of Jesus Christ.”

That illustration likely was not lost on Jonah’s congregation, who largely stood during the three-hour service surrounded by icons of Jesus, the Apostles and numerous saints. Jonah made reference to those icons at the beginning of his homily.

But while a comforting past was evoked by incense, icons and a mostly English-language liturgy sung in a cadence reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, OCA leaders and congregants are looking to the new Metropolitan of All America and Canada for modernization.

Questions about financial mismanagement led to the retirement of Metropolitan Herman and to the surprise election of then-Bishop Jonah, the first American-born convert to lead the OCA.

Jonah, Father Hopko said, was “not one of the mold of the past 30 to 40 years. … He’s very well-educated, learned and cosmopolitan. He’s very capable of reaching out to other people, a man who is known in other Orthodox churches in America.”

But Jonah, Father Hopko said, has a chance to unify the various Orthodox groups in a community that has been plagued by assimilation and shrinking family sizes.

While the Orthodox Church in America marked its U.S. bicentennial 14 years ago - it came to Alaska as a mission of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1794 and later became its own diocese - the movement “broke up” after the 1917 Russian Revolution and, Father Hopko said, “all the money dried up.”

The OCA, estimated to have from 100,000 to a million members, is now one part of the Orthodox presence in the United States, which is otherwise largely split on ethnic lines based on immigrant communities - Russian, Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Serbian and others.

In Jonah, OCA leaders and faithful hope they have found not only a new primate, but also someone who can help revive the faith.

“His vision of the challenges that we face in the OCA and the way to address them has kindled hope in the hearts of many Orthodox faithful both in the OCA and outside of our church,” said the Rev. Andrew Jarmus, the church’s communications director.

The new metropolitan was born in Chicago in 1959 as James Paffhausen and baptized an Episcopalian. While studying at the University of California at San Diego, he became interested in Orthodox Christianity and was received into the OCA in 1979. He was ordained a priest in 1994 and tonsured as a monk the following year. For 13 years, he served as an Orthodox priest in California, opening several new parishes and establishing a monastery in Manton, Calif.

Two local OCA members voiced their support for the new leader. “This is something you only see once in a lifetime,” said Rosalie Luster, a member of an OCA congregation in Bethesda. “God willing, you won’t see it again for another 30 years.”

Jonah, she said, “has a lot of hope and vision.”

Standing next to her, husband Jim Luster concurred, saying Jonah “has a newer way of thinking.”

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