By Dr Nathan Hoppe
Central to the experience of COVID-19 for the Orthodox Church of Albania has been the guidance and witness of archbishop Anastasios. From the beginning of the crisis, one and a half years ago, Archbishop Anastasios guided the Orthodox community in Albania to take all reasonable precautions including wearing masks, keeping appropriate distance, using disinfectant and hand sanitizer, reducing the number of participants in activities and canceling activities where necessary. The archbishop has emphasized that we do these things because they are wise in light of the risks we face, but that we must not live in fear.
Because of his advanced age (91) and other health problems, including asthma, Archbishop Anastasios is in the highest risk category for COVID-19. As appropriate for his circumstances the archbishop followed a protocol of strict quarantine, keeping his contact with people to a minimum.
In spite of all precautions taken, Archbishop Anastasios contracted COVID-19 in early November 2020. The witness of Archbishop Anastasios during his illness was an inspiration to the Orthodox faithful in Albania as well as members of other faith communities. Because of his high-risk status, the archbishop followed the advice of his doctors and immediately traveled to Greece where he was admitted to the hospital. At no point prior to, during or after his illness did Archbishop Anastasios minimize the seriousness of COVID-19. When he himself was diagnosed, he took all appropriate medical measures for treatment of the disease, but he did so, as the Orthodox prayer says, “with peace of soul and the firm conviction that God’s will governs all.”
Shortly before leaving Tirana for the Annunciation Hospital in Athens, Archbishop Anastasios said, among other things: “... I think that participating, even in this way, in the common pain, is a Gift from God. We should not always face it as something difficult. There are some light symptoms, and the difficulty was greater. I have a sort of weakness in the lungs, having had asthma for many years. I believe we will pass it. Yesterday there were chills, but today we are well. This afternoon I believe I will be at Annunciation, a hospital which we know well since we have also faced difficulties other times and overcome them. So do not get discouraged or upset, it will pass. ‘For whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.’ And these words are a great consolation for all of us.”
Through his words and actions Archbishop Anastasios demonstrated the transforming power of life in Christ that brings peace and joy even in the most difficult situations. Archbishop Anastasios recovered from COVID-19 and returned to Albania in time to serve the Christmas liturgy. He was welcomed home with joy and thanksgiving by the faithful.
Suffering and challenges in the Orthodox community
Despite taking reasonable precautions half of the Holy Synod of Bishops in the Albanian Orthodox Church have now had, and recovered from, COVID-19. Many leaders in other Orthodox churches have also had COVID-19 including the Archbishop of Athens, who had it at the same time as Archbishop Anastasios. A number of leaders have died from the virus, including from our neighboring Church in Serbia, Patriarch Irinej of Serbia, Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro and Bishop Atanasije, whom I have had the privilege of meeting personally. Archimandrite Alexi Chehadeh, who has represented the patriarch of Antioch on the Orthodox-Lutheran dialogue, also died of the disease.
The crisis arising from COVID-19 has been the occasion for significant controversy within the life of the Orthodox Church. There has been considerable tension and debate within the Orthodox community around the world about the proper response to the COVID-19 crisis. There has been a whole spectrum of responses ranging from one extreme to its opposite. Both extremes have been caricatured by their opponents. One would call its opponents fundamentalist and would describe them as believing that true Orthodox believers are immune to the virus as long as they have faith. The other side would call their opponents secularist and would accuse them of being fearful and without faith, denying Orthodoxy in favor of secular science. Most Orthodox Christians would reject both extremes, but there are Orthodox leaders whose behavior could lead observers to conclude that the caricature accurately described them.
The secular media has often adapted the fundamentalist stereotyping and applied it to all Orthodox Christians. As a result, the Orthodox Church has often received very negative coverage in the media.
Despite the gulf between them the fundamentalists and secularists are essentially asking the same question: how do we stay safe? The secularists look to science for safety and religion only for consolation. The fundamentalists believe that safety is found in staunch faith which will prevent viral infection.
The witness of Archbishop Anastasios shows us a third way. The question about safety is the wrong one. Our goal throughout the pandemic is not to be safe but to be faithful. The quest for faithfulness recognizes that there is no safety in this world. We face great danger no matter what choices we make. There is danger in contracting COVID-19, there is danger in isolation, there is danger in being deprived of the Eucharist.
The fundamentalist’s claim that, “It is impossible to contract the virus at a church service, from a holy icon or in the process of receiving holy Communion,” may or may not be true, but simply making this claim trivializes all these things. If I will only come to unite myself with the body of Christ and receive His Body and Blood if I am assured that I am completely protected from the virus, then I am no different from the secularist that chooses not to participate in the liturgy or receive the Eucharist until all possibility of infection has passed. True faith does not say there is no risk in receiving the Eucharist; rather it says I cannot live without the Eucharist and therefore I embrace whatever risk is necessary.
This does not mean foolhardy or reckless risk-taking that could better be put in the category of putting God to the test. In times of persecution throughout history Christians have gathered as the body of Christ to receive the Eucharist at the risk of their lives, but they did not put themselves forward or seek persecution and martyrdom.
There undoubtedly have been words and actions from persons in the Orthodox Church that reflect an unhealthy fundamentalism, that has been rightly criticized by secular media. At the same time, these critics have often displayed a contentious and willfully ignorant approach to their coverage of the Orthodox Church during the crisis. People for whom preservation of their own biological life is the ultimate value cannot understand other people with higher callings and for whom death holds no fear. Lack of fear is seen by the fearful as a personal affront.
The death of the patriarch of Serbia was treated by the media with some satisfaction as proof that the behavior of the church in Serbia was horribly misguided. I do not wish to debate the merits of decisions made by Serbian church leaders. Rather, I would like to make the point that from the perspective of Patriarch Irinej his actions were appropriate, and the outcome was acceptable. He was 90 years old which meant that he was in a high-risk category for COVID-19 but also that he was drawing to the end of a long and faithful life. Regardless of the choices he made in October and November he only had a short time to live. He chose to spend that time fulfilling his duties as patriarch. He could have secluded himself and possibly avoided COVID-19, but he may have died from a heart attack or some other effect of old age in the meantime. By avoiding COVID-19 he would not have avoided death. Death is on the way for all of us. He may have escaped this virus only to spend the last years of his life in chronic illness and pain as his predecessor patriarch Pavle did. Would that have been a preferable outcome?
Archbishop Anastasios of Albania followed a strict regiment of quarantine, but both church leaders contracted COVID-19 at the same time. One of them died and one recovered, both were striving to be faithful to the ministries God had called them to in the best way that they knew how. The recovery of Archbishop Anastasios was a blessing to the Orthodox Church of Albania, but so was the faithful witness to the end given by Patriarch Irinej. His death was neither untimely nor tragic. We must strive for faithfulness not safety.
The pandemic and the digital world
The pandemic crisis has thrust us into the discarnate digital age with abrupt and disruptive suddenness. We have seen this process developing for the last few decades, but the pandemic accelerated it exponentially. We do not know how long this pandemic will last, or when the next one will emerge, but we do know that we will be living in an increasingly digital world for the rest of our lives. The ongoing crisis that we will all continue to face is how we will live the incarnate life of Christ in incarnate communities in this discarnate age. This is a true crisis in the sense of presenting both opportunity and danger. How will we negotiate the crisis to take advantage of the one and avoid the other?
Many of us have made great strides in our communities during the last year to do better ministry in digital spaces and we have seen tremendous opportunities open up, but we also have experienced the limitations and the pitfalls of this kind of ministry. I believe that this challenge, of ministry in the digital world, where people are increasingly isolated from one another, is an opportunity for us as Orthodox Christians to come together, learn from one another and support one another. We believe together that, we witness to the incarnate Christ who makes Himself present to us in His Body and Blood in the Eucharistic community physically gathered around the altar, as incarnate human persons. Many of the challenges which I have described as fundamentalist and secularist that have emerged during the pandemic will continue and be accentuated in the digital life of the future. How can we as Christians help one another to live in faithfulness and without fear as we face these challenges?
During the summer I was in the United States where I had the opportunity to travel across the country and visit many Orthodox communities from a variety of Orthodox traditions. During these visits I was struck by several things. The first was extreme polarization. Almost every community had experienced and was continuing to experience extreme internal tension as a result of issues surrounding COVID-19. The second thing which made an impression on me was that many communities were experiencing growth and were flourishing in unexpected ways. In particular, many parishes across the country had experienced an influx of new catechumens. Often these were young people with no Christian background who had discovered the Orthodox Church on the Internet and set out to find one in their neighborhood. Paradoxically, because young people were living more of their lives in digital space, they discovered the Orthodox Church there which led them to connect with real flesh and blood local communities.
More broadly around the Orthodox world the pandemic has disrupted normal patterns of participation in church life. In many cases this has been painful and destructive. Many people have lost their connection with the church, possibly permanently. On the other hand, removal of the normal props has forced many people to search for a new authenticity in their relationship with God. For us as Orthodox Christians, there is always the danger that our Christian activities will become meaningless religious routines. When the routine was snatched away by the pandemic, people were forced to search for the meaning which they may have been ignoring. Ritualism and clericalism are constant dangers in our Christian life but when people were challenged to live without the normal cycle of services or the ministry of their clergy, they have been forced to take responsibility for themselves in a new way. We must pray that as life returns to normal, this will result in a newly invigorated church life. There is the danger that people will simply continue their journey into isolated individualism but there is the possibility that they will return to the services and the ministry of the clergy with a new sense of their responsibility and calling as Orthodox Christians. This time in the wilderness, could result in a reinvigorated church, where people strive to live faithful Christian lives in new ways.
Striving for faithful witness
Living by the criteria of faithfulness through a time of crisis fosters freedom and opportunity. The quest for safety paralyzes because there is no way to be completely safe. Faithfulness will mean taking all appropriate measures to prevent the spread of disease. It is a choice taken out of love, not fear, recognizing that no amount of precautions can provide absolute safety and that every precaution has a cost. Faithfulness will mean taking necessary risks in the face of danger.
In the quest to be faithful we must recognize that our faithfulness through the struggle is as important as the outcome of the struggle. The goal of crisis is not simply to get to the other side; it is the transforming work of God in our lives through the crisis.
It is important in this crisis, not that we simply figure out how to hang on until it is over, but that we learn to live faithfully through crisis. It is often asked when life will get back to normal, but I think it is better to recognize that the previous normal is gone and that we will probably be living in a world of ongoing crisis for a long time. COVID-19 seems to be coming under control with the deployment of the vaccines, but this is happening much slower than many of us had hoped. We have been shaken repeatedly by new variance and waves of infection. Even if COVID-19 is brought fully under control, we will probably see the emergence of other novel viruses in the coming years. Our delusion that we are in control has been profoundly shaken. As we come to realize that we are not in control we have the opportunity to turn to God in new ways recognizing that He is truly in control.
— Dr Nathan Hoppe is a long-term Orthodox missionary serving under Archbishop Anastasios in the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania for the past 23 years. He is a lecturer in the Department of Theology and Culture of Logos University and the director of the Central Children's Office of the Orthodox Church of Albania. He represents the Orthodox Church of Albania in the official dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran World Federation.