ONE OF THE EPISTLE READINGS often heard at the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of the Council Fathers, Hebrews 13:7-16, begins with these words: “Remember those who preside over you, who have spoken the word of God to you. Follow their faith, considering the outcome of their conduct” (v.7). Clearly this passage was chosen for this day to honor the Fathers of the first six Ecumenical Councils for expressing with clarity the Orthodox faith.
When this passage was written – in the first century AD – there were no ecumenical councils. The first one (Nicaea I) was called in the fourth century, some 150 years later, so who are the leaders mentioned in the epistle?
The Greek word for leaders used here is hegoumenoi, which the monastic tradition would later use to mean the head of a monastery. In the first century this term, like proistamenos, was used to refer to the head of the local community: the person who presided over its gatherings and, indeed, all its activities. At first the hegumenos in some communities was one of the Twelve; in other places he might be one of the other apostles, the Seventy chosen by the Lord and dispatched by the Twelve to communities in various parts of the region. Thus Barnabas was sent home to Cyprus, Timothy to Ephesus, and Titus to Crete.
Scholars suggest that the term hegumenos was most used in Palestine while the terms bishop or presbyter were more common in other places. In any case, the Epistle is calling on believers to revere the faithful leaders for bringing them the Gospel and for the outcome of their faith for, as St John Chrysostom observed, “One’s faith is declared in the purity of one’s life.”
Remembering Our Leaders Today
The framers of our liturgical tradition set a precedent for us. They applied the Apostle’s call to remember their leaders to their own era, the age of the councils. We continue to remember them on this Sunday, but we should also consider applying this text by remembering the leaders of our more immediate past. Take the following little quiz to discover whom we might recall in this spirit. Can you identify and of them by name:
In our Liturgy we regularly pray for “the ever to be remembered founders of this holy church.” Who are these founders? What do you know about:
- The first pastor who gathered your community.
- The first members who thought it important to provide a church for their families and descendants.
- The first bishop of your eparchy.
- Those who built or adorned your parish church.
In addition we may recall other notable figures in the life of our Church: the bishops, priests and deacons as well as the lay leaders who made important contributions to its life. Reminiscences of your parish and eparchial history are often found in souvenir journals, diocesan periodicals or, increasingly, on Church web sites. Explore these resources to become more familiar with the Fathers and Mothers of your local Church.
The Spiritual Leaders of Our Day
In addition to the founders of our parish or eparchy we remember with profit those who made our Churches bear spiritual fruit in the recent past. First among them will be the so-called “new martyrs” – those who suffered for their faith under Communism or Islam.
There are others who set directions for the renewal of our Churches which are still affecting us. Ukrainian Greek Catholics remember in this vein Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky who began the process to rediscover lost elements of Tradition in the life of their Church. Melkites recall the Fathers of the “School of Cairo,” including Archbishop Joseph Tawil and Archimandrite Oreste Kerame, who did the same for their Church.
All Catholics, Western as well as Eastern, are indebted to the Eastern Fathers at the Second Vatican Council, particularly Patriarch Maximos IV, whose thoughts on ecclesiology and liturgy affected the life of all our Churches since that day. When Pope John XXIII announced his call for a council Patriarch Maximos and his synod of bishops began preparing their responses to the ideas circulated by the Roman authorities. At first they were ignored, but their joint responses began to be noticed by other bishops throughout the world.
The witness of their synodal activity would have great effect on the outcome of the council. Archimandrite Robert Taft has called it “collegiality ante factum, long before the work of the Council had made this ecclesiology common coin.” Fr Taft has credited the contributions of the patriarch and his sixteen bishops to the council as including: “the vernacular, Eucharistic concelebration and communion under both species in the Latin liturgy; the permanent diaconate; the establishment of what ultimately became the Synod of Bishops held periodically in Rome, as well as the Secretariat (now Pontifical Council) for Christian Unity; new attitudes and a less offensive ecumenical vocabulary for dealing with other Christians, especially with the Orthodox Churches; the recognition and acceptance of Eastern Catholic communities for what they are, ‘Churches,’ not ‘rites’” (Introduction to The Melkite Church at the Council).
Your Personal Forebears in Christ
Besides these builders of the Church each of us has his or her own spiritual leaders who have been significant in their own personal spiritual development. Let us remember:
- Our godparents, who brought us to baptism.
- The priest who baptized us.
- The clergy, teachers and catechists who helped our faith mature over the years.
- The monastics and religious to whom we turned for guidance or inspiration in our Christian life.
- Each of them has made crucial contributions to our growth, helping us become people of faith.
Eastern Christians have traditional ways of honoring those who have gone before us in the community of faith. We honor those who have been glorified in the Church as saints by displaying and venerating their icons. If your parish does not have icons of, say, the new martyrs, consider commissioning one. Consult your parish priest on the appropriate procedure. You may also request that he conduct an intercession service in their honor on their feast day. Offer to provide bread or kolyva for the occasion.
It is always appropriate to request a memorial service or a commemoration at the Divine Liturgy for the departed. Remembering parish founders in this way is the best way to recognize our debt to them. Most jurisdictions publish necrologies listing the departed clergy of the eparchy and many parishes remember these clergy on the anniversary of their death. And everyone can request a similar service at any time for their personal ancestors in the faith. We can always render thanks in these ways to those “who have spoken the word of God to you.”