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February 16, 2021

The Orthodox: Arrival and Dialogue (Fr. John Romanides) - Part 1 of 5

The following little-known and historically important text of Fr. John Romanides was included in a chapter for the book What's Ahead for the Churches? that was published in 1963. Originally it was published in the journal Christian Century that same year as part of a series of papers that were eventually to form the book by distinguished scholars of various faith backgrounds dealing with their representative faith and its future in the part of the world they knew best. At the time, Fr. John Romanides was a professor at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, so he decided to write about the current and future challenges of Orthodoxy in America. Fr. Romanides takes his critical and prophetic task seriously and offers a fascinating look at how an Orthodox scholar viewed the current state of Orthodoxy in America and its future from the perspective of 1963. Because it takes up 19 pages in the book, I have divided it here in 5-parts.
The Orthodox: Arrival and Dialogue

By John S. Romanides

The appearance of Orthodox churches in the western hemisphere, particularly in the United States and Canada, could prove to be one of the most important factors in the current move toward Christian unity. That may seem a strange credit to impute to the relatively late insertion of 5 million or so Orthodox Christians into a religious and cultural complex made up of some 100 million Protestants and Roman Catholics. But to the Orthodox theologian it is obvious, and it will become more clear as Orthodoxy completes her evolution from the status of immigrant to that of native American church, a process that will render her capable of interpreting herself to her new neighbors.

The United States and Canada are the only non-Orthodox countries with Orthodox populations large enough for sustained dialogue to be carried on with earlier established Protestant and Roman Catholic groups. Such opportunity is unique in Christian history; it should be taken seriously and utilized. A short article is not the place to spell out in detail the possibilities of such dialogue. But it may be helpful, for the sake of striking acquaintance between Protestants and Roman Catholics and their Orthodox neighbors, to say a few things about Orthodoxy in the western hemisphere, her problems, and the possibilities relating to her arrival as an American church and her role in a divided Christendom.

In the last quarter of the 18th century an Orthodox mission was established by Russians in Alaska. Today, in spite of the problems created by the Russian revolution and by the activities of non-Orthodox missions, Orthodoxy is still the religion of a large portion of Alaska's native population.


Within the United States and Canada there was no more than a handful of Orthodox until the last quarter of the 19th century, when substantial groups of Greek Orthodox and Uniate Greek Catholics began immigrating from central and southeastern Europe, the Near East and Africa. The Uniates from central Europe were descended from Orthodox Christians who had been brought under control of the papacy in the late 16th century through political and social pressures exerted by the ruling Roman Catholics in Poland and the Austro-Hungarian empire.

As the 19th century opened the Uniates were more numerous in the United States than the Orthodox. However, many of them, recalling their Orthodox background and the way their ancestors had come under papal control, started what turned out to be a major revolution against the papacy. They asked to be admitted to the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox archdiocese and were accepted. Meanwhile, the archdiocese had been moved to San Francisco (in 1872); with increased Orthodox immigration to the east coast it was moved to New York to facilitate administration of the new churches. Today this church counts in its rolls nearly 1 million members.

Though union of the Uniates back to Orthodoxy was blunted somewhat by the turmoil created among Slavic Christians by the communist revolution in Russia, it did not stop. The Greeks, who had arrived in great number between 1900 and 1926, received into their jurisdiction (Constantinople) about 100 Ukrainian and Carpathorussian Uniate parishes which have since attained a combined membership of some 200,000, organized into two groups. From time to time other Uniate groups found their way back to the Orthodox fold; of the around 5 million Orthodox now in the United States, between 800,000 and 1 million are either former Uniates or descendants of Uniates.

What turned out to be the largest single Orthodox church in the United States owes her growth to Greek immigration - from the kingdom of Greece, the Ottoman empire (parts of which were added to Greece and other Balkan countries or became part of the Turkish republic), Cyprus, the Dodecanese islands (Italian possession), Egypt, Palestine, Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Russia. Of the approximately 1.5 million Greek Orthodox in the United States, perhaps half are here as the result of political and social disruptions created by the Balkan wars and expulsion from the newly formed Turkish republic of some 2 million Greeks.

The third largest Orthodox immigration stemmed from Russia proper and from the Ukraine, followed in size by immigrations from Yugoslavia, Syria, Lebanon, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Poland. A few thousand have come, too, from such lands as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and Finland.

The largest group of non-Chalcedonian Orthodox in the United States is made up of Armenians, followed by the Syrian Jacobites, the Ethiopians and the Copts (from Egypt). Differing from the Chalcedonian Orthodox only in christological terminology, they have a worldwide membership of between 30 and 40 million, bringing the total world membership of non-Protestant, non-Roman Catholic Christians to some 250 million. Both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Orthodox are united in witness to the faith of the ancient church and for all practical purposes have presented a united theological voice in dialogue with Protestants in the World Council of Churches.


Although perhaps 75 percent of the world's Orthodox rarely encounter Protestants or Roman Catholics, all of them know about those two groups from their catechism, their national literature and their history courses, which as a matter of course cover such topics as the Roman schism, the crusades and the Reformation. In contrast, the average American is only of late becoming aware of the existence of Orthodox Christianity. Recently I spent the time it took to get a haircut trying to explain to the barber how one could be a Christian without being a Roman Catholic or Protestant.

The situation is not so surprising when one notes in a book titled Chats with Prospective Converts (written by Father M.D. Forest, with a preface by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen) the surprising statement that the Orthodox church "comprises only some oriental races, especially Greeks" (page 44). At fault too are deficiencies in the teaching of Roman, Medieval and European history in the public schools, teaching which leaves pupils unaware that Orthodoxy was the religion of the citizens of the Roman empire until its collapse in 1453, just 30 years before the birth of Marin Luther, and that it remains the religion of more than 100 million Europeans, to say nothing of "orientals."

Such ignorance on the part of the general public has had some serious consequences in the lives of Orthodox Americans. Only since World War II have Orthodox members of the armed forces been privileged to have their religious designation placed on their identification tags, which previously recognized only Roman Catholics, Protestants and Jews, with other veterans marked off as having "other" or "no" religion. More than anything else, it was the "dog tag" experience of World War II that led Orthodox veterans and their families to press their leaders into organized efforts to have Orthodoxy recognized as the nation's fourth major faith. Not only has the identification tag situation been resolved, but Orthodox chaplains have been added to the armed forces roster.

A supporting factor in Orthodox determination to be recognized as a major faith is the cultural, social and political disability associated with non-recognition. For instance, the Greeks are puzzled by the fact that while so many Americans - to say nothing of their history textbooks and their periodicals - are at great pains to recognize Western civilation's indebtedness to Greece, they pay little attention to the Christian form of Greek civilization. Some Greeks jokingly suggest that had they remained faithful to the gods of Mount Olympus, Greek paganism might have long since been recognized as the fourth major faith in the United States.

Still another prod to the Orthodox drive for recognition has been the example set by the Jews, who do not greatly exceed the Orthodox in number of nominal and practicing adherents; indeed, the number of practicing Orthodox may be as great if not greater. The Jews have of course not had to overcome general ignorance of the mere fact of their existence, but they have been much more aggressive in asserting their right to equal status. Perhaps partly because the Jews are not fellow Christians, many if not most Protestant and Catholic leaders have been very active in helping them achieve such status - yet I know of no major Protestant or Roman Catholic religious leader or writer who has taken up the cause of Orthodox recognition.

Achievement of full status as a major American faith might mean more fair play, particularly in regard to proselytizing tactics which take advantage of the socially weak position of many Orthodox. I must say that on the whole Protestants have abandoned such tactics in favor of creating an atmosphere of dialogue. But in recent years Roman Catholics have spent millions of dollars beefing up the Uniate movement in America and intensifying anti-Orthodox activity - a crusade which they consider an expression of love but which in Orthodox eyes is a sure sign that after 400 years Roman Catholics still mistake their own thoughts and feelings for those of others.

In spite of this and similar crusades, with the return to Orthodoxy of close to 1 million Uniates in America and 9 million in central Europe there are probably not more than 1 million Uniates of Chalcedonian background left in the Roman Catholic Church. One would think that by now Rome would have changed her attitude to the Orthodox to one of dialogue, particularly since the illiterate peasant who could be confused by identity of ritual is almost a thing of the past. The claim that the Uniate defections from Rome in central Europe were due to communist pressure may well be true, and if so the fact is to be regretted. But the uncoerced and in most cases unsolicited return in America of Uniates who originated from the same part of Europe opens up the possibility that coercion in that area was not as great as has been claimed.

This year all Orthodox youth organizations in America arranged their conventions and summer activities to coincide in Pittsburgh, culminating in a Pan-Orthodox festival on August 31. The purpose of that festival, which was attended by 11,000 youth leaders and other representatives, was to emphasize Orthodox solidarity in the United States, to draw attention to the determination to achieve recognition as a major faith, and (indirectly) to inform Roman Catholics and their Uniate propaganda center in Pittsburgh, that the Orthodox are in America to stay.

Part Two