Rev. Dr. Nicolas Kazarian*
New York City is still the epicenter of the pandemic and people continue to “shelter in place.” Our churches remain closed. However, parishes of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America continue to have liturgical services behind closed doors with a skeleton crew of only a priest, a cantor and a server that helps in the altar, following federal and state regulations. Across all communities, we have seen voices rising against our churches closing their doors. In response to this, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has these beautiful words: “Perhaps some of you have felt that these drastic measures undermine or harm our faith. However, that which is at stake is not our faith – it is the faithful. It is not Christ – it is our Christians. It is not the divine-man – but human beings.” Today, to stay home is to live the radicality of the Gospel. A genuine Christian ethos is an ethos of solidarity and love for our neighbor. During a virtual Town Hall meeting, His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America pointed out: “These special times have brought special measures. Covid-19 has changed the way we conduct our ministries for the service of the people. Even though the means are different, the essence of our pastoral work remains identical: to praise God who offered salvation for all of mankind.”
For Archbishop Elpidophoros, reflecting the centrality of the Divine Services and Liturgies as part of the Orthodox spiritual identity, the priority was to keep church services offered as much as possible, with or without livestream. The first mission of the Church and its clergy is to pray for the world and the “life of the world”. This is why the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has put so much emphasis on online services thanks to the help and support of a strong Internet Ministry. Because of the pandemic, many parishes began to livestream their services. More than half of Orthodox parishes use livestream today. Moreover, it is very interesting that Facebook has become a central platform to share the streaming. It goes back to the very nature of social media which is not only about watching but also allows participation. People respond with love reactions, thumbs up or even write messages during the Service. We can see who in our group of friends watches too. It reproduces a sense of community and connectivity.
In a conversation with one of my parishioners at St. Eleftherios Church in Manhattan, I was amazed by her comment: ”The prayer of the Church has come into my home.” Our faithful have found very creative ways to be real participants in livestreamed liturgical services, especially during the services of Holy Week and Pascha. This transformation of our home into churches takes multiple forms: the position of our body, the use of incense and candles, the bowing of heads and making the sign of the cross, the enactment of processions with flowers, chanting hymns, etc. There has been a very moving creativity among our faithful in conjunction of the use of online technology. I would like to point to the well-received social media campaign of Archbishop Elpidophoros “Come, receive the light” during which His Eminence virtually shared the light of Easter with the rest of the faithful.
Other avenues were explored to foster relationship through online ministries. Allow me to mention some of them that received very good feedback, like the daily prayers by Archbishop Elpidophoros for COVID 19 victims from the St. Paul Chapel at the Archdiocese Headquarters where people are invited to send names to be commemorated, Vitural Town Halls, Bible Studies, Youth Groups, Sunday School and Coffee Hour, support groups, through Zoom. We are also working on promoting online donations, especially on a parish level. These options are available in Resource Centers of the GOA and of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of Americas.
While online ministries are certainly a gift in times of crisis, we also have to acknowledge the limits linked to the use of technology, like internet fatigue, which is real. Imagine how tired you are after your fifth zoom meeting of the day. But there are also more challenges when it comes to participation in the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church, to receiving Holy Communion, to hearing confession, to celebrating funerals under many restrictions, and this is not to mention the many Baptisms and Weddings that are being postponed.
As the crisis evolves, and may continue in time, the pastoral response is being reviewed by the hierarchy. Roll back strategies are being considered. The need for technology and virtual ministry will still be necessary as we slowly come out from the pandemic. Being Christian is to be in communion and to find in communion the source of our salvation. Online ministries help us strengthen our sense of communion and community, while there is a real thrust to reconnect with the sacramental life of the Church and with one another.
* Text presented during the Webinar organized by the WCC on April 29, 2020 on “Churches’ Ministry Online”. Click here to watch the video.