What does it mean to be a “Mission?” – Part 2

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January 14, 2013 by Orthodox Whitehorse

In a previous post, we began to explore the meaning of “mission.” This post continues that – with a connection to our essential identity and as Orthodox Christians in North America today, in the 21st century.

“Mission” means that we, as Christians, have been sent out by Jesus Christ into all the world, to bear witness to the Good News of the Kingdom of God. The Church, in this sense, is an apostolic continuation of the Incarnation of God. The word apostolic, or apostle, from its Greek roots, means sent.

As the Lord Jesus Christ Himself said, when He appeared to His Disciples after His Glorious Resurrection: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20.21)

The first official Orthodox missionaries to North America that we know of were sent to Alaska in 1794 from Valaam Monastery in northern Russia. They were apostolically sent out to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to unite people to Him. Among this first party missionary party was St. Herman of Alaska. Originally sent as the company’s cook, he laboured on many years after the rest of the missionaries had either died or returned to Russia.

"Farewell to America of Patriarch St. Tikhon," by Filipp Moskvitin, 2003

“Farewell to America of Patriarch St. Tikhon,” by Filipp Moskvitin, 2003

In subsequent decades, from its base in Alaska – and then spreading to San Francisco and New York – the continent was evangelized by two particularly gifted and holy Bishops, now recognized as saints: Innocent and Tikhon, the “Apostles to America.” Both of these remarkable missionary Bishops were known for their compassionate love for their people, and their commitment that the Gospel and the Orthodox faith are for all people, not just those of a traditionally Orthodox background. The Church in North America was always considered as a “missionary Diocese,” and was often simply referred to as “the Mission.”

Father Leonid Turkevich, pictured together with his family, prior to the repose of his wife, Matushka Anna, in 1925.

Father Leonid Turkevich, pictured together with his family, prior to the repose of his wife, Matushka Anna, in 1925.

In the 20th century, one missionary priest – Fr. Leonid Turkevich – was a particularly close co-worker with St. Tikhon. A diligent pastor and theological educator, Fr. Leonid established the North American Mission’s first seminaries, and grew several major parishes to maturity. He represented the North American Diocese at the important Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917, which saw the restoration of the Patriarchate, and his own former bishop – Tikhon – chosen by God for that ministry. After he was widowed in 1925, he accepted monastic tonsure taking the name “Leonty,” and in 1933 was raised to the episcopacy.

In 1950, His Eminence Metropolitan Leonty was chosen to lead the North American Missionary Diocese (also known as “the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in North America”). This Orthodox Church was often called the Metropolia, because it was headed by a Metropolitan.

His Eminence, Metropolitan Leonty (Turkevich)

His Eminence, Metropolitan Leonty (Turkevich)

Now, some readers may ask, what does all this history have to do with us being a “Mission?”… especially a remote Mission of the Archdiocese of Canada way up here in Whitehorse. How is any of this relevant?

Glad you asked! During his long ministry, as a Missionary priest, Bishop, and as Primate, Metropolitan Leonty continually referred to the Church as a Mission… and not just any Mission, the Mission. He posed questions like, “how many new priests will we need for the Mission?” “How will the Mission be extended into parts of the country that currently have no Orthodox presence?”

Sometimes communities may progress through the formal stages of being a “Mission Station,” and then a “Mission,” finally becoming a “Parish,” only to lose touch with the truth that the Church is always a Mission! If a Christian community loses its essential character of being “sent” by Christ into the world, as His Body, for the life of the world (John 6.51), and its salvation – then that “parish” has, in a way, “perished.” Any Orthodox community that has grown insular, focused on its own needs to the exclusion of others, is not authentically Orthodox nor Christian.

This self-identity of the Church as a Missionary reality – a community sent out by Christ into the world, for its life and salvation – was very close to to Metropolitan Leonty’s heart. By his example and prayers, let us remind ourselves of our missional essence, and respond accordingly – here in Yukon, and in all the world, where God has called and placed us!

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