Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The celebration of the golden anniversary of the founding of our Eparchy of Parma is slowly winding down. Throughout this anniversary year, with our spiritual programs and festivities, we have expressed gratitude to God for His many blessings and graces in the past fifty years. At the same time, our great anniversary also motivates us to ponder our future — how do we want to move forward? Growing and advancing is not about starting from scratch, but about taking our cues from who we are and what we have at our disposal, and having the courage to see the future with hope. With this letter, I wish to present to you my vision for our future.
The most precious treasure that we have in our Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Parma is you, our faithful, from our youngest children to our eldest believers. For you, we toil in the vineyard of the Lord by proclaiming the crucified and resurrected Christ. You are that pearl of great price, for which we are investing in our future by the building up of the Kingdom of God, irrespective of the fatigue, energy or finances that it may entail, because every human life is a gift of God. Other material things or finances, even if they are important in life, are secondary to me. The Book of Genesis teaches that man was created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, every single person deserves respect in our eparchy. Human life is and should be of the greatest value, from its conception to the moment of natural death.
The demographics of our eparchy have changed dramatically in the past fifty years. The common experience that was lived out in our parishes over this time in the twelve states of the Midwest, from Ohio to Nebraska, is no longer true today due to many factors. According to surveys we have conducted in the past three years, an average of 2,000 faithful regularly attend the Sunday liturgies in our 29 parishes. Of these 2,000, 300 are children, age 12 and under. Many of our believers leave our eparchy for study or work; others move south to retire. Many of our faithful are burdened with old age or illness, and thus are not able to attend our churches. Many of our brothers and sisters have left our parishes because of moral scandals that did not bypass our Church.
The future of our parishes resides the Spirit of the Gospel that expresses itself in hospitality and openness to life. Therefore, every new visitor at our liturgies should be welcomed warmly. It is my hope and prayer that this spirit of hospitality and openness to new believers will reign in our parishes. We must not lock ourselves in our own world, with our own problems. That won’t help us. I strongly encourage you to reach out. We cannot do without outreach. For example, one of the many possibilities is to be open to Hispanic communities, offering the Divine Liturgy in Spanish in each of our three regions. Let us not be afraid to be open to the diversity of the faithful and of cultures, for only this is the way to a flourishing future. I am firmly convinced that our Byzantine Catholic Church in the United States has a future, because it offers the Gospel, the joyful message of the living Jesus Christ, through a millennia-old authentic experience. We must let others know about it. The following concrete steps will help us to accomplish this vision.
The priority of my ministry as the bishop is to proclaim the Word of God — Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. God’s Word must become for everyone in our eparchy a daily meal, as something without which we cannot live. If we depart from the Logos, the Word of God, we will run the risk of our churches becoming social clubs where people enjoy being together, but do not need anyone else in their company. The Church is not a club; the Church is a community of baptized brothers and sisters. The Church is in motion; she is a pilgrim, moving constantly toward her heavenly fulfillment. Yes, oftentimes the Church is and will be humiliated and rejected, as Christ Himself was. The maturing of God’s Word in us should lead to spiritual fruits. We must be fruitful in faith. The tree is known by its fruit. If we are spiritually sterile, we will have no future. The five points of Theophan the Recluse on the causes of the weakening of faith, which I published in the Pastoral Letter at the beginning of our 50th anniversary in January 2019 and encouraged priests to incorporate in their homilies, are still relevant, and we need to use them as guidance in our personal spiritual lives.*
While in the southwest portion of our eparchy, we have some new faith communities that are in need of priests to establish new parishes, the unsustainability of some parishes in other parts of the eparchy, which are not able to maintain themselves and their priest, will lead me to make the difficult decision for merger or closure. For the good of the faithful, gradually, we will have to examine all of the regions of the eparchy and see what is the way forward. There will be clear criteria for the establishment of new parishes, as well as criteria for assessing the vitality of parishes, such as membership, financial stability, demand and availability of priests for pastoral work, which may lead to recognizing the need for a merger or closure. As I mentioned, parish closure is one of the most difficult decisions a bishop has to make. Accordingly, I have always been and remain open to dialogue. However, at the same time, I am forced to act in order to stop the severe financial bleeding we are experiencing. In this type of situation, it is not wise to attempt to save a building for the sake of the building; we need to stabilize ourselves as a community first.
Today, people across the United States are thirsty and hungry for God and for the spiritual life that our Byzantine Catholic Church can offer them. There is so much potential. We need to get into colleges, to be with the young, to have a vigorous presence in social networks. We need to focus more attention on families and help them with raising their children in the faith. We need to be more flexible and look for new ways to reach people. We need to pray to the Holy Spirit to show us what to do and how to do it. Non-believers must be challenged and awakened in their hearts by our authentic testimony of life, to the extent that they, too, will desire to become members of our parishes.
I cannot do this alone. An undertaking such as this requires holy priests and deacons. The situation has also changed in the United States, as our ancient tradition of married priests has been reinstated. In our eparchy, most of our 23 active priests are married. Within the next eight years, we will need 17 new priests to care for the faithful. I will not invest our funds primarily in buildings and maintenance. Rather, I want to invest funds in high-quality priestly preparation and formation of young men from the United States, who want to serve Christ in our eparchy, as well as in priests from Europe who will come to help us. I have already been in contact with eparchies in Ukraine, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovakia to this end. Furthermore, we must reassess the financial support for our priests, so that they may have adequate sustenance for themselves and their families. We must also care financially for our retired priests, who have served for many decades in our eparchy. My expectation of our deacons into the future is that they will be men of the Church, who are willing to participate in the fundamental mission of the eparchy, to beautify the liturgies with their singing, to bear witness with their family life, and to be particularly supportive of the Church with their gifts and talents. From the nuns of Christ the Bridegroom Monastery in Burton, Ohio, I expect that their monastic life will encourage all of us to focus our attention fully on Jesus Christ and to remind us that the fulfilment of deep longings cannot be found in the world, but only in our union with God.
I personally renew my intention and dedication to fulfill the essence of my episcopal motto — To serve — with deeds more than with words, for to minister is to take part in the mission of Christ. I want to be an example as St. Paul was for his churches. I greatly desire and pray that all the priests of our eparchy participate in the mission of Christ for the good and salvation of our faithful. We must acquire the same attitude of ministry that Christ had in His service toward His disciples, which is the only right way for us to follow Him. To serve means to love. He who does not love will never serve another person, not at home, or in his family, or in the parish, or on the street. Love must be paramount, even when we are confronted with finding solutions to unpleasant and difficult problems in the Church or in the family.
More than ever, we need to remain faithful to the Catholic Church. I want to support and promote fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church through our Byzantine tradition, which manifests itself in the liturgy, in spirituality, in the heritage of the Church Fathers, and in the discipline of the Church. All Christians are called to divinization, that is, to intimate union with God, for this is the purpose of our spiritual life. The Church offers us the means to achieve this end: prayer, fasting, and doing charitable deeds for the poor and the abandoned.
In this spirit, the call of Christ to convert (metanoia) is always pertinent. We need to reanimate in ourselves the understanding that, as a Byzantine Catholic Church, we are a community of sinners, who have undeservedly received God’s mercy and grace. We achieve this through the sacramental life, in which the Church mediates salvation. You, the faithful, whenever there is a need, approach your priests with trust in asking for the sacrament of reconciliation. It would cause me great joy if you were to avail yourselves of the sacrament of confession once a month. We all need to experience God’s mercy and the forgiving love of the Heavenly Father in order to be able to forgive each other’s transgressions and, thus prepared, to receive worthily the Most Holy Gifts of the Body and Blood of our most pure Lord Jesus Christ.
The Divine Liturgy is the culmination of liturgical life in all its beauty and fullness, highlighted by song and iconography. Cherish the beauty of our prostopinije, our liturgical chant. We constantly need to work on it. Let us not neglect our traditional liturgical prayers in our churches, whether it be vespers, morning prayers, canonical hours, or molebens and akathists. I encourage my brother priests and deacons to be an example for the faithful with their liturgical prayers and in their personal life. May God’s temple be a place of prayer where sacred silence is kept and appreciated. This is a matter close to my heart.
An indispensable part of the life of the Church and our eparchy is the issue of temporal goods and finances. However, this issue is secondary, which is why I mention it only at the end of my letter. In the past, the chancery often offset the debts of parishes that were not able to pay the required amount to the priests’ pension fund or health insurance plan. At that time, the eparchy had funds at its disposal to loan to parishes. Over time, however, the eparchial finances were used up and were never replenished. Thus, the situation today is markedly different. The chancery can no longer afford to cover for the arrears of parishes because it does not have the requisite funds. In fact, it needs to stabilize itself first and find a new space for its own operations. It is the expectation, however, that the indebted parishes will gradually repay their debts to the chancery in the near future. The amount that is owed to eparchial operations is $2.5 million, including $900,000 for past due assessments, Horizons, contributions to the pension fund and health insurance, and $1.6 million for the repayment of loans from the Parishes Together Fund.
Beloved faithful of our eparchy, to implement the outlined vision and overcome the challenges, we need one another. The priests, deacons and myself alone are not enough. While I am willing to lead and to serve, all of us need to embrace our future together. I hope that you will share my optimism that our future is bright, but we must together embark on the right path. Please pray for me that I may receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially the gift of discernment. I pray for you constantly that, by being united in Christ, in the end we will all meet in His heavenly home.
✠Milan, Eparchial Bishop of Parma
* The five points of Theophan the Recluse on the causes of the weakening of faith:
- Leaving the church and its grace-giving means, which starves the root of the Christian life, disconnecting it from its sources. In this way it wilts, just as a flower does when it is not watered.
- Failure to pay heed to one’s bodily nature, which opens the door for passions to take hold of the soul.
- Forgetting the main goal of life: People do not have direction and lack the means to achieve union with God.
- Neglecting the spiritual life: Prayer, the fear of God and conscience are overshadowed by earthly cares.
- Neglecting to put into practice Christian principles and God’s way of life.