Antiochian.org Interviews Bishop THOMAS
Recently, the editors at Antiochian.org interviewed His Grace Bishop THOMAS of the Diocese of Charleston, Oakland, and the Mid-Atlantic. This will be the first of a series of interviews with our bishops to be published in the coming months. (Read His Grace's biography here. Bishop THOMAS also selects a weekly reflection, collected under Notes from Bishop THOMAS.)
1. Your Grace, you attended the recent Episcopal Assembly in New York. Do you have any thoughts for our readers on this historic gathering?
Given the mutual isolation of our various jurisdictions for so many years, I found it especially encouraging that fifty-five bishops of Orthodoxy on this continent were able to come together, speak the same language together, and begin getting about the business of working out a common Church life together. This is what unity actually consists of, that we live together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
We have to be mindful, however, of some of the things that were pointed out by His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP, in regard to our history in this country, most especially that we as Orthodox Christians in America are not an infant church. As such, any decisions that have to be made regarding Orthodoxy in this country should be decisions made amongst the bishops here in the United States. This is not to say that we don't look for guidance and advice from our patriarchs, but the hierarchs here have to be key players in all matters that pertain to the Church here in America, because they are the pastors of this flock.
2. It seems that all of the Orthodox jurisdictions in the U.S. have endured great struggles and challenges in the past few years. What encouragement do you have for the faithful?
Having grown up in the Church, I feel that our Archdiocese is not only doing a better job of ministering to the faithful, but is particularly doing a much better job in reaching out to those who are not Orthodox. Since the days of the Apostles, struggle and challenge have always been a part of the Christian Church, and there will continue to be struggles and challenges. I believe that we're doing a much better job in addressing these than we did many years ago.
The faithful should be encouraged that we're now beginning to see signs that there is a willingness among many members of the episcopacy of Orthodoxy in America to work together as a family. This is a significant step forward.
3. You travel a great deal. How would you describe parish life in your Diocese today? What are some of the best things happening in communities, and what are some of the greatest challenges?
Parish life in our diocese is one in which the priests are working to make their parishes in one respect a hospital for sinners and in another respect a bridge or gateway to the Kingdom of God for all that are in their communities, both the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox.
Many of our parishes have a full liturgical cycle, excellent Christian education, and wonderful ministry to people of all ages. Some of the greatest challenges we face are the fact that close to half of the parishes in the diocese are not able to pay their priests full time and that many of the clergy have to work secular jobs and cannot focus on the priesthood full time. Also, the economic situation has created a challenging atmosphere for many of our parishes, and a number of our parishes are in also areas with declining population. We will have to renew our commitment to determining how we are going to reach out into our communities, either to expand existing parishes or to begin new parishes in areas that need them. Some of our parishes have for a long time been associated primarily with a single ethnicity. The success of evangelizing the communities surrounding those parishes, in order to bring new people into Orthodoxy, will largely depend on how receptive the people in those parishes are to such a move.
4. What message do you give to the youth when you speak to them during your parish visits?
When I meet with the youth, I remind them that the Church is not a club or an organization as such. The Church is a hospital for our sins. The Church offers salvation. The Church is a place where the Kingdom of God and Earth meet. When we're in church, we're in God's heavenly Kingdom. We remain in the Church so that we will be one with God unto ages of ages in His eternal Kingdom.
5. Which saint has meant the most to you lately, and why?
We're currently in the fast of Ss. Peter and Paul, so these saints have special meaning at this moment. Of course, they always mean something special to us, particularly because of their work of evangelism. It is especially important for us in America to unite ourselves to their ministry, to ask for their intercessions and help, so that we may continue to evangelize America.
6. As your clergy reflect back to you their concerns and hopes, what are some common themes as they express themselves to you? What can we as laypeople do, to help and support them, and their families?
Our clergy in this diocese, for the most part, are concerned with the salvation of their people. Laypeople can support them by coming to the church for the purpose of working out their salvation. They can support the clergy by worshiping more, confessing more, taking the sacraments more, and focusing on the Kingdom of God. In short, the best thing the laity can do for their clergy is to become serious about Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. The rest follows from that.