During the last couple of weeks, I had the opportunity to spend some time with some of the younger priests in New England, men who, like me, started out life with one occupation in mind and switched midstream. In every case, when I asked them about why they did it, the answer was the same: reading the Fathers completely changed their views about God, the Church, salvation, and even about how they view themselves. The brilliance and beauty of the Fathers is that they still speak to us today.
Every year, on the Sunday falling between July 13-19 we commemorate the Holy Fathers, those who set down our faith in writing through the various Ecumenical Councils. In a more general way, though, we remember all of the Fathers, even those not present at official councils but those whose writings and interpretations became the basis for the Orthodox Church.
Each year, we read the Epistle of St. Paul to Titus, the first bishop of Crete. Every time I read this passage, I am truly amazed at the wisdom of the Fathers of the Church, who put together the Canon of Holy Scripture which speaks to us as much today as it did to the people in the time of St. Paul, in the early years of the Christian Church. We know that St. Paul wrote his Epistles to the early churches, and to the early church leaders, in this case, Titus, to help shepherd the new flock of the church and grow the faith in solid, Christ-centered communities.
Every time I read this Epistle, my mind goes directly to verse 9, where we are told to "avoid stupid controversies (μωράς ζητήσεις), genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile." As a priest for twenty years, I have seen a fair share of "stupid controversies" in our churches, which in most instances inhibit us from doing our work, distract us from doing the real work of spreading the Gospel to the nations. If only we could keep verse 10, and "as for the man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him." Many times, in our interest to "satisfy all parties" involved in the life of our parishes, we cater to the stupid controversies and the small factions who fan them.
Looking at verse 8, we are admonished by St. Paul, in fact he says "to insist" that we apply ourselves to good deeds. The work of the church is to do the things that are excellent and spiritually profitable for the people. The work of the church is difficult, and is becoming even more difficult it seems as time goes by because the world today sees Christianity in such a negative light. Churches of all denominations, including ours, are seeing rapid decline in membership perhaps partly because we have strayed from the good deeds and have become buried in the "stupid controversies."
If the church is going to thrive, or in some places, even survive, it has to be committed to applying itself to good deeds, being focused on the one mission at hand, and avoiding the distractions which always threaten to keep the church from moving forward. This is what the Fathers did and this is what our call is too: extreme faithfulness and living as God was have us live.