On someone else’s Facebook timeline the other day I came across a gentleman whose profile reads partly as follows:
Russian Orthodox Christianity
I support the NRA, Pro Life, no homosexuals or their advocates at the Communion Table, Blue Lives Matter, Border Wall, deporting of illegal aliens and vetting them….
No homosexuals or their advocates at the Communion Table.
As I narrated (here) this past May, I served as a priest in rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan during the early to mid 1990s. One day I received a phone call from a Lutheran lady whose stepfather of fifteen years belonged to my parish. We’ll call him “Joe” (not his real name). He was 66 years old at the time his stepdaughter phoned me. I was 36, in my fourth year of priesthood.
“Joe’s in big trouble,” she said. “Mom has already left. You’d better go see him right away.”
I put on my cassock, riassa, and cross and drove to town, half an hour away. Joe flung the door open as soon as I knocked. “Oh Father Peter, am I glad to see you!” He looked worse than I’ve ever seen a man. He poured me a cup of coffee and sat opposite me at the kitchen table. “So what’s going on?” I asked gently.
That morning he had been to see his centenarian mother at the local care home. On the way out, he stopped into the room of the mentally handicapped adult daughter of the town’s highly esteemed retired Lutheran pastor. A nurse walked into the room to find Joe fondling the disabled woman’s genitals. As he told me his story he left nothing out and made no excuses for himself. I have never seen a man so ashamed, so remorseful. Tears streamed down his face.
In a town of 1,600 news spreads faster than a man can drive home. Joe’s wife was already packing her bags. Within the hour she had set out in her car for the provincial capital some 400 kilometres (250 miles) away.
In many places the Holy Canons allow a pastor to admit a person to Communion immediately after the commission of a very serious sin—without a period of temporary excommunication—provided that the individual demonstrate a profound, genuine sense of remorse. At some point in my conversation with Joe it became clear to me that there was only one way for me to save his life spiritually and emotionally. “Would you like to take Holy Communion this Sunday?” I asked quietly.
His eyes opened wide in disbelief. “You would let me?” He began to cry even harder.
I told him that he had to agree to certain conditions:
- He had to read the Prayers before Communion every day between now and Sunday.
- He had to come to Vespers and confession Saturday evening. In confession he needn’t repeat everything that he had already told me, but simply to acknowledge his sin and ask for the Lord’s forgiveness.
- He must allow the legal proceedings to run their course. He must be as truthful in court as he was with me. He must plead guilty. He must accept the judicial consequences as his due. (I was adamant about this.)
Joe readily agreed to everything. That Saturday he made a tearful confession after Vespers.
The church was packed to the rafters as usual at the Divine Liturgy the next morning. When Joe placed himself in the communion line the entire congregation leaned forward to watch as one man, mouths agape with shock. (I was known for a certain level of strictness.) The closer Joe came to the Chalice, the further the people leaned forward, and the more their mouths hung open.
Finally it was his turn. He faced the congregation, made the sign of the cross, bowed deeply at the waist, and cried out “Forgive me!” above the choir’s voices. When he turned to face me again the tears were flowing down his radiantly glowing face as I recited the mystical words: “The servant of God, Joseph, receives the precious Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Saviour, Jesus Christ, for the remission of his sins and unto life everlasting. Amen.” For me it was one of those unforgettable moments as a priest when time stands still and eternity breaks through. Even now I weep as I type this.
It seemed as though a heavenly cloud carried him back to his place among his brothers and sisters in the church.
As the line formed to venerate the cross at the end the Liturgy, I noticed out of the tops of my eyes that “Andrew” (not his real name) placed himself conspicuously at the very end of the line. In his 60s, he was the sort of man who would normally push to the front of the line. He had a genuine heart for Christ and took Communion every Sunday, but, at the same time, was probably the most self-righteous man in the parish. I knew I was in for a tongue-lashing.
He did not disappoint. Before he kissed the cross he turned to make sure everyone else was out of earshot. “Father Peter!” He practically spat the words at me. “How dare you give Holy Communion to a man like that?!”
“Andrew,” I said with a pleasant expression on my face and friendly tone of voice, “do you know the prayer before Communion? The one that starts I believe, O Lord, and I confess?”
This was not the reaction he expected from me. “Um, yes,” he replied.
“Do you know it by heart, or do you need the book?”
“I know it by heart.”
“Tell me how it goes.”
“I believe, O Lord, and I confess…”
“…that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God…”
“…who camest into the world to save sinners…”
“…of whom I am first.”
“That’s right!” I said, suddenly very stern. “You should have asked me how I dare give Communion to the likes of you! Now kiss the cross and go!”
From that Sunday on, both Joe and Andrew became two of my most loyal and devoted parishioners. Joe fell asleep in the Lord nine years later, long after I had left; Andrew served as one of his pallbearers.
To the measure that I remain unconvinced in my deepest heart that I stand before God as the lowest of all men, I have not even begun to understand what Orthodox spirituality requires of me, nor have I even begun to draw near to God. Who am I, the first among sinners, to judge the 10th, the 300th, the 5,000th, the 10,000,000th among sinners? No one has committed the sins that I have….