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Part Three: The Inception of the Western Rite

Reflections on the Priesthood, III
By Economos Antony Gabriel

One of the fondest memories that I must share is, when Professor Sergei Verhovskoy lectured, he did so with his eyes mostly closed and with no notes. In between him saying, “Well, well, you see,” my classmate, Fr. Thomas Hopko, and I envisioned him before the Holy Trinity contemplating Divinity. He once surmised that one could not be a good Christian unless he/she was a good human person. Once when asked if he believed there was life beyond this planet, he replied pensively, “Well, why not? God is greater than this universe. His creativity is not bound to only the earth.”

In my last year at seminary, I was granted permission to take a full load of the graduate courses that had been recently added to the curriculum. The main reason, besides my love of theology, was in my second year I took ill with a rare blood disease called Boeck-Sarcoidosis, and I was compelled to leave school for surgery at the stem of my brain. Lynn offered to be with me as I left classes in the late fall. We had missed one another during the summer break, I was her main protector during our first year at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and we forged a strong bond in humor, studies and loving to be in New York. On my trip home we decided to go to Canton, Ohio, which was her hometown. While there we decided we wanted to be married. We called the then-Father Philip Saliba (later our Metropolitan), pastor of St. George Church in Cleveland and asked if he would marry us. Lynn loved Father Philip from her SOYO days, so off to Cleveland we went and we sort of eloped. When Metropolitan Antony Bashir heard this, he called Fr. Philip and asked, “Are those two crazy kids with you?” He was none too happy as he had other plans for his namesake-to-be. After our little ceremony we returned to Syracuse where I underwent surgery.  

Even though the doctor who did the blood test in Canton told us not to marry, we thought we would conquer the world! I studied all summer at home and was ordained a deacon on the day of the annual mahrajan (picnic) by Metropolitan Antony. It was at that time he insisted on ordaining me with the name “Antony” after himself; an honor indeed. When I returned to Seminary, I lived from “pillar to post,” as we had lost our apartment after our landlady had died. Lynn remained in Syracuse and I lived with various friends, including in an attic with the mice.

During our seminary days, we were treated by Fr. Paul and Shirley Schneirla of St. Mary Church in Brooklyn for evening soirees at their Park Avenue apartment. Father Paul was our professor of Old Testament who was witty and extremely quick on the draw. His lectures were fast-paced, and woe to anyone who missed a class. The Schneirlas were amazing hosts. They invited us from time to time to find some relief from the drab conditions of West 121st Street and Union Theological Seminary.  Their company was always intellectually stimulating as well as gracious. 

This was a special time because Fr. Paul and Fr. Alexander Schmemann were engaged in a debate over the notion of a Western Rite for Eastern Orthodox Churches. Fr. Alexander argued that the Eastern Liturgy was more than authentic and inserting the Western Rite would be contrary to our Tradition. This debate would go on until the late evening and was actually published in the St. Vladimir Seminary Quarterly. Nevertheless, Patriarch Alexander III of Antioch approved the Western Rite and Metropolitan Antony endorsed this movement. Metropolitan Antony received and ordained former Anglican bishop Alexander Turner as an Orthodox priest at St. Mary Church in Brooklyn. Fr. Paul, who championed the Western Rite, allowing former Anglicans to be integrated into the Antiochian Archdiocese, became the father of the Western Rite and its Vicar General until his retirement.  In any case, the discussions that ensued were enlightening and helped prepare us for the challenges we would face in our parishes.

One of my last oral exams for the graduate course in Dogmatics by Prof. Verhovskoy was on the New Testament. He asked, “What inanimate object in the Epistles of Paul was a reference to Christ?” He just threw in that question. I responded, “A rock.” He clapped his hands and replied, “Well, well, my dear, you have studied.” He was proud his youngest student was quick on the draw. We all loved him beyond measure for his innocence and his love of God. He did not write a “tome” with all the knowledge packed into his head – which he could have easily done – but his impact remains to this day.

All of our seminary professors made unique contributions to our priestly lives. No one can forget in those days the influence Fr. Alexander had on the “Metropolia” as it was known back then (now Orthodox Church in America) and at each Sobor. We were proud that he was the friend of the great Soviet critic Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Father John Meyendorff held a lecturing position at Dumbarton Oakes in Washington, D.C. All of the professors had distinguished themselves in a variety of disciplines. We were in awe of the vast knowledge we gained at each lecture or even a casual conversation. Although we lived in close quarters and hot classrooms, and worshipped in a small, cramped chapel, our lives are much richer, our ministries are much deeper and our worship is more profound by the unique encounters with each and every professor who imparted their wit and wisdom to us. Their very presence among us greatly changed the landscape of Orthodoxy on this continent and abroad. We pray ceaselessly for their eternal memories. 

 
Economos Antony Gabriel is the author of several books, including The Ancient Faith of New Shores, an authoritative history of the Antiochian Archdiocese from its founding to present day. You can order a copy from the Antiochian Village Bookstore.