THE EASTERN ORTHODOX FAITH
By Louis Cassels
United Press International Feature Writer
Reprinted by permission The Goyan
It comes natural to most people to speak of “the three great religious faiths,” meaning Protestants, Catholics and Jews. This national habit is a source of considerable irritation to some 5,000,000 Americans who are members of the Eastern Orthodox churches. They believe that Eastern Orthodoxy is entitled to public recognition as a fourth major confession. Slowly but steadily, they seem to be getting their point across.
The U.S. armed forces now use the letters “EO” on dog tags to identify the Eastern Orthodox Christians, who were previously lumped in with Protestants. President Eisenhower invited an Orthodox prelate to offer one of the four prayers at his second inaugural. The legislatures of 17 states have enacted resolutions officially recognizing Orthodoxy as a fourth major faith. Similar legislation is pending in other states and will be introduced in the U.S. Congress next January.
To the Orthodox Christians, this is not just a matter of pride, but of bringing popular usage into line with the facts of history.
For the first thousand years of its existence, the Christian church was undivided. But friction developed between two main centers of ecclesiastical power — Constantinople in the east and Rome in the west. The Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Greek speaking Eastern Churches which followed his leadership, refused to acknowledge the claims of the Pope of Rome for supremacy over the entire church.
In 1054, the estrangement was formalized by what historians call “The Great Schism.” The Roman Pope excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Patriarch excommunicated the Pope. The Latin speaking western churches remained under the Pope, and became what is called today the Roman Catholic Church. The eastern churches became the Orthodox communion.
Orthodox Christians say they did not split off from Rome — Rome split off from them. Their churches claim to be the “direct heirs and true conservators” of the original Christian faith as it was spelled out at the seven great councils of the primitive church. The familiar Nicene Creed, formulated at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. is one of the fullest expressions of Orthodox doctrine and is recited at each liturgy.
Orthodox worship is elaborately realistic. The church recognizes seven sacraments: Baptism (which is administered to infants and adults by triple immersion) Anointing or confirmation (which immediately follows Baptism) Penance; Communion; Holy Orders; Marriage and Holy Unction (which is administered to the sick, but not necessarily as a last rite).
Candidates for the priesthood may marry before they are ordained, but not afterward. All Orthodox bishops are members of a monastic order which practices celibacy.
Orthodox churches have never been governed by a single head. Since the time of the great schism, the Patriarch of Constantinople has shared ecclesiastical authority with four other Patriarchs of major eastern cities.
Eastern Orthodoxy has tended to divide into independent, self-governing national churches, which have remained in full communion with one another. The largest national churches grew up in Middle East and Slavic countries, notably Greece, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania.
The First Orthodox church on American soil was built by Russian monks at Kodiak, Alaska, in 1792. The Russian missionaries won many converts among the Eskimos, and built a cathedral at Sitka, before Alaska passed into U.S. hands.
The growth of Orthodoxy in the continental United States was slow until the present century, when immigrants began to arrive from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. These immigrants transplanted to America the national church loyalties of their homelands.
Today there are 21 Eastern Orthodox bodies in the United States. Their total membership, as reported to the yearbook of American churches, is just over 2,500,000. But most Orthodox churches count as members only adults who are heads of households. If women and children are included, the total is probably between five and six million.
The largest U.S. body is the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America, with 378 local churches and upwards of 1,150,000 recorded members. The next largest is the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America (755,000 reported members) which has been entirely independent of its parent body in Russia since shortly after the Soviet Communist Revolution. Other major bodies are the Romanian, Syrian, Serbian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches in America.
Orthodox churches are represented, along with the most of the principal Protestant denominations, in the National and World Councils of Churches.
On December 5, 1958, Mr. Louis Cassels, Religious Editor of United Press International. released an article on Eastern Orthodoxy, which appeared in hundreds of newspaper subscribers to United Press International, thus publicizing our faith on a scale hitherto unknown in the great American press.
We suggest that our readers write to Mr. Cassels at United Press Association. National Press Building. Washington 4, D.C. expressing thanks for the excellent and informative article, which we reprint here.