“Portal-Credo.Ru”: Mark, with your permission, what do you think – why and when did the Maya tribes living in Guatemala develop a longing for the Orthodox Church? What played the biggest role in this process – frustrations with Roman Catholics and Protestants under whose omophorion the tribes had been – or persistent missionary activity of some Orthodox jurisdiction?
Mark Stokoe: While history never repeats itself, it often circles around. So, one thousand twenty five years ago, the people of Kievan Rus did not “develop a longing for the Orthodox Church” anymore than the Mayan tribes have today. Rather, their leaders did - and so they dutifully followed. In Kievan Rus they were led by St. Vladimir and in Guatemala they are being led by a former Catholic priest, Fr. Andres Giron. Fr. Giron is a well-known figure in Mayan and Guatemalan politics – a former Senator, Ambassador, and Presidential candidate, who has led a large and active movement for land reform for decades. This led to tension with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and he was ultimately asked to leave the Roman Catholic priesthood. He became the head of a large group (several tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Mayans), almost all nominal Catholics, whom he is now leading to what we can all hope is a permanent home in the canonical Orthodox Church.
- Why Orthodoxy?
- Well, Fr. Giron is now older, and he wants his people to have a stable, solid, spiritual home. He has survived several assassination attempts, but knows he cannot outrun a natural death. He knows what happens to groups that coalesce around a charismatic leader after that leader passes. All to often the groups disintegrate, and all their works disappear. A serious theologian, a historian, and a leader, Fr. Giron wanted his people to find a home in a “catholic” Church that respects local differences and customs, and had a solid sacramental and theological perspective, and a viable priesthood. The more he learned of Orthodoxy, the more he saw this as the viable option.
Orthodox missionary work had little to do with it – he found us, rather than the other way around. His first contacts were with the OCA, and he visited St. Vladimir’s and Syosset, attending a Metropolitan Council meeting to learn more about how we worked. He was very pleased, and as a former member of the Metropolitan Council who spent hours speaking with him, I was much impressed by him.
Unfortunately, Constantinople was not pleased. They immediately informed Syosset that receiving anybody into the OCA in Latin America, outside of Mexico, would have the gravest consequences, and that they, and they alone, would take over the reception of the Guatemalans. And so they did.
- Does Orthodoxy have any sort of future in this region?
- Of course! I suggest you read Fr. Michael Oleksa’s writings about Orthodoxy and native Americans – north or south. Orthodoxy is already the second largest faith of America’s native peoples. And his point is that Orthodoxy, presented as a living faith, and not a museum of the past, can grow in the future. The real choice our Church in the Americas has to make is whether Tradition is seen as the wind in our sails, or as an anchor to hold us in place.
- Which of the Orthodox jurisdictions would it benefit most – the Greeks, Russians or someone else? Or would it be a problem for everyone?
- Not to blame you, for that is a fair question in today’s world. But alas, we often talk about which “Church”, seen as jurisdictions, such moves benefit. The one question that is to little asked is: “Are the Guatemalans benefited in their journey towards God by becoming members of the Ecumenical Patriarchate?” That is the only important question. And one can only answer: one hopes that will be the case. Historically speaking, however, the Patriarchate does not have a great reputation as a missionary institution, as one open to cultural, linguistic, liturgical and political diversity, does it?
- Might not St. Vladimir’s have been hasty in opening an affiliate in Guatemala? Might the OCA somehow participate in the process in general?
- Many in the OCA – bishops, priests and lay people - have had a long history with the Hogar Orphanage and monastery in Guatemala, in both offering support and adopting children. One expects such personal and local ties will continue no matter what happens corporately with the Gironistas. And if St. Vladimir’s can offer theological training locally, let us thank God they are willing to do it, and the Gironistas are willing to receive it. If the past is any prologue, I suspect any Guatemalans being considered for the priesthood or episcopacy will be sent to Greece, not New York. And if that is case, I suspect a Greek-speaking Mayan priest will be as effective keeping Mayans in the Orthodox Church as Spanish-speaking Mayan priests were effective in keeping them in the Catholic Church.
But as for the OCA officially participating in the process of their being received into the Church organizationally, that door has been closed by the Patriarchate. Such are the sad realities of jurisdictional politics.
Interviewed by Svetlana Vais,