CLERGY CONFERENCE - By Fr. Vasyl Sendeha
The Clergy Conference of 2021 was planned, as is normal for our annual conclave, to take place at the MetropoliaCenter, the heart of our Holy Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA in South Bound Brook/Somerset, NJ. When I received the notification from our hierarchs of these plans for our regular three-day Clergy Conference, I was actually thrilled about the possibility of a return to a further sense of normality. However, due to rising cases of Covid Delta variant and new travel restrictions in different states throughout the USA, and hesitance of many to travel, the conference was changed to a Zoom format as we have done in the past two years. It was convened on 9 October with Their Eminences Metropolitan Antony and Archbishop Daniel hosting us in loving fashion.
Ninety-five of our brothers logged in to the meeting constituting the largest attendance in decades. Archbishop Daniel welcomed us all with great enthusiasm and led us in prayer for the Guidance of the Holy Spirit in our discussions and Metropolitan Antony gave an archpastoral blessing asking at the same time that the Grace inspired into each of us especially during our ordinations would prevail throughout our time together. Even though it was a virtual-video format, it was a joy to be in the presence of brother clergy. It is so spiritually magnificent to be connected in prayer with one another even though we were so far away from one anotherphysically.
He offered a reflection on faith. He asked us all to recitedthe Creed of Faith together as a basis for what he wanted to communicate to us. His Eminence touched the issue of living the Faith as clergymen on a daily, hour by hour,basis especially during the crisis of this ongoing pandemictogether with the profound political and societal divisions we are experiencing as a nation. This is the reality we live in and it has definitely influenced our faith in one wayand the manner in which we conduct ourselves as priests of Christ’s Body. However, according to His Eminence declared, however that this is NOT a time to let our guards down or fall into a despair, but a time to work even harder in the contemplation of that very essential, “I believe in...” with which we begin that Creed, because “I believe in” is an expression of commitment. When we believe in someone, we identify with that person, a relationship exists between us. The Metropolitan emphasized that what we believe is what we become. What or Who we believe in, we accept and embrace, allow it to influence our views and our actions.
We must ask ourselves every day the very simple “Is my belief enough? How much to I trust God? How much to I trust His providence?” He said that it is one thing to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; it is quite another to believe IN the Son of God. It is one thing to believe that Jesus Christ reveals God’s will to us in the Gospels; it is quite another to believe IN what He says and what He does and what He commands. It is one thing to have a mountaintop experience with Him – like the three disciples did at the Transfiguration and we did at the moment of our ordinations; it is quite another to come down from the mountaintop WITH Him. It is one thing to kneel before Him; it quite another to FOLLOW him and share IN His ministry of healing and reconciling and caring. This belief IN Christ and sharing His ministry must, without ANY EXCEPTION ever, be primary for each of us as His priests.
The first presentation of the Clergy Conference followed. As a recipient for tens of thousands of dollars from the UOC of USA and its St. Andrew Society, Metropolitan Serhiy of Donetsk and Mariupol (Orthodox Church of Ukraine), joined the meeting to offer his reflections on the ministry of the Diocese located just seven kilometers from the front line during the times of the ongoing invasion war in Eastern Ukraine. His Eminence wanted to share the goodness that has become reality because of the love and compassion of our faithful here in the USA. It was so timely to hear about the troubles His Eminence and his priests have endured for nearly a decade. It was a powerful inspiration for our clergy to hear how much the Metropolitan, his clergy ad faithful have sacrificed to continue to serve God and His people in the war-torn Eastern Ukraine.
Even though, clergymen of His Eastern diocese were persecuted, arrested, tortured, seen their wives raped and their church temples desecrated, they have not abandonedtheir priestly ministry to the people, which includes not only spiritual care but also humanitarian care – because of their belief IN our Lord and their commitment to His ministry. They have established hospitals to care for wounded, they have established soup kitchens serving hot meals every day. As well as they have established homes to care for the elderly displaced by war.
Metropolitan Serhiy has expressed his gratitude to our hierarchs and to all the clergy and faithful of the UOC of USA for an ongoing support of their ministry. In so many instances, that support meant life or death to many of his faithful. The Bishop and his clergy truly serve the needsof their people on every level. It was truly moving to listen to the presentation of Metropolitan Serhiy. It made us all think. It made you be more grateful to God for what we have been blessed with despite the pandemic we’ve been dealing with for the last 18 months. Most importantly, it reminded us that “what we believe is what we become”! These are true servants of our Lord IN His ministry.
Deacon Ihor Mahlay concluded the presentation of Metropilitan Serhiy with comments about the work of St. Andrew Society in funneling donations from our faithful to heal the lives of people affected so long by life in war-torn Eastern Ukraine. He called upon the clergy to support these efforts as best they can. Archishop Daniel announced that the Consistory has approved a grant for the purchase of 25 tons of coal to fuel the furnaces keeping the elderly warm during the coming winterMetropolitan Antony our Church remains committed to supporting these vital assistance efforts as much as possible.
The second presentation of the conference was offered by Natalie Kapeluck-Nixon the director of Consistory Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry. She reminded the clergy of the importance of taking the Youth Ministry Survey posted on our church website on the Youth Ministry page. She also guided the clergy through the constantly updated website of youth ministry; in www.uocyouth.org, which has a lot of resources for those who work in educating and ministering to the youth at our parishes. She explained the unique curriculums created to address the needs of today’syouth. The offered courses of distant learning to enhance the knowledge of Sunday School teachers were mentioned as well. Everyone agreed that the strong network of communication must be maintained by priests in order to share the ideas implemented and proven successes in their pastoral ministry. Natalie declared that she is available to any of our clergy who need assistance in developing a youth ministry in their parishes. She emphasized that numbers do not matter. Even if there are just a few children, we have the sacred responsibility to ensure that the learn how to live their Holy Orthodox Faith on a daily basis.
The remaining time of the Clergy Conference 2021 was devoted to a discussion of pastoral concerns during the pandemic and beyond and the sharing of pastoral experiences throughout the pandemic. “Priests definitely need priests in their lives” as His Eminence MetropilitanAntony frequently quotes V. Rev. George Hnatko, and such opportunities as these, where any priest present has the opportunity to express his thoughts, emotions, needs and ideas, inviting his brothers to comment and share their thoughts is extremely important. It felt awesome to hear other priests and their successful ministry despite the unprecedented times of pandemic. When there are so many of the clergy gathered together, time proves to be short and certainly not everyone had the opportunity to speak. We must definitely put more effort into staying more connected with one another, even if it is only via video meeting on the Zoom platform.
Metropolitan Antony assured us all that at next year’s conference will be all be gathered together even if we still have to practice distancing, certainly by that time life will be more “normal” – whatever the real definition of it is. Together, it will be possible for us to break into our usual small groups to discuss and report upon the special topics or issues of the day. His Eminence led us in a closing prayer, beseeching a powerful blessing upon each of us so that our belief IN our Lord truly becomes part of BEING His ministry.