The Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian church in the world, with an estimated 225–300 million adherents. Arguably, one of its smallest parishes is centred at St. Aidan Orthodox Church in Cranbrook, which draws its congregation from communities around the East Kootenay. St. Aidan is also one of the newest Orthodox churches, started when it took over the former Ukrainian Catholic church on 7th Avenue a few years ago.
This week, St. Aidan and the local Orthodox parish received a special and important visitor. Irénée Rochon, Bishop of Ottawa and the Archdiocese of Canada — visited Cranbrook while on his first official tour as the head of the Orthodox Church in Canada. Bishop Rochon came down to the offices of the Townsman for an interview upon arriving in Cranbrook.
"I try to visit every region of Canada at least once a year," he said. "Smaller parishes are harder to get to, for financial reasons. But we try to combine them with bigger [parishes] — I have to go to Winnipeg anyways, and I have to go to Edmonton, so there's time in between to visit smaller parishes, get to know the people, get to serve there. And there's no wasted time."
Bishop Rochon has actually been serving in the position for a few years, due to his predecessor's — Archbishop Seraphim's — trial for molestation charges, the conviction of which is currently under appeal.
On October 2, 2014, Bishop Rochon was canonically elected by the Holy Synod on October 21, 2014.
"I've been doing this for five years already," he said. "A few years as administrator, but a year before I was officially elected I started visiting the parishes.
"I love getting to know people, getting to know what they need, trying to help them and give them what they need. Their priests are there, but the priests need to be given the means to help the people. That's my job.
"I just wish I was younger — if I was 40 I'd have more energy. I'm going to be 66 in a few days."
The Orthodox Church, like every church, is facing its challenges — especially the pressures of "secularism and the dechristianizing of society," as Bishop Rochon says. Leading by example is the best way to meet these challenges.
"The message of the Church is the gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ," he said. "We have the duty to be witnesses to that — not necessarily to stand on the corners and scream, but by our way of life, our behaviour, the way we help others in need, to show the true message of the gospels."
The Orthodox Church traces its history to the church established by St. Paul and the Apostles, through the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and regards itself as the original Church founded by Christ and His apostles. Some 2,000 years ago, the Christian church split into its eastern and western halves — the Roman Catholic and Orthodox — an event known as the great schism. In recent decades, there has been attempts at a reconciliation — Bishop Rochon describes it as "talk."
"But it doesn't lead anywhere," he said. "Because they are not willing to come back to the faith of the 1st Century. They are set in their doctrines, which were the cause of the separation in the first place.
"There were five patriarchates, and Rome went on its own. And the four others continued. And then later, within the Western Church there were other divisions (the Reformation).
What sets the Orthodox Church apart, and keeps it vital?
"The message of the Orthodox Church is the message of the Gospel, which was handed to us through the apostles from our Lord Jesus Christ," Bishop Rochon said. "And the Church of the East — the Eastern Orthodox Church — the old Church of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople — have preserved this message for 2,000 years now. And the important thing for us is never to deviate.
"St. Vincent of Lérins says that the universal faith is what has been believed and taught always, since forever."
Bishop Rochon was in the company of Orthodox Church members — Father Andrew Applegate from Creston, who presides at St. Aidan; Deacon Kevin Wigglesworth from Sparwood; and Archpriest Phillip Eriksson from Calgary.
The Orthodox Church is heavily centred in Russia and Eastern Europe, but has proved a draw to many not necessarily of that geographic background. Eriksson, Applegate and Wigglesworth spoke to that phenomenon.
Father Applegate mentioned the current Convergence movement, whereby some Protestant churchgoers are finding inspiration in the writings and history of the early church. "It tends to be very serious Christians that start reading church history and discovering for themselves that the (Orthodox) church still exists. It's quite a shock to them sometimes.
"I'd say over half of our church would probably come from people like these, who've really been searching for the early church."
"I actually grew up in Sparwood in the United Church," Deacon Wigglesworth said. "So I'm not too far away from home. But 10 years ago I was introduced to the Orthodox Church and basically, gradually fell in love with it. It's a much richer, much deeper theology and history than what the United Church in Canada had to offer."
Father Eriksson said that in Calgary, the congregation is about to move into a new church in the spring. "We've had one to five new families come and check us out each Sunday. We haven't had room in our small church. So there's a huge interest out there."
While in Cranbrook, Bishop Rochon and the others were to attend a service and divine literary at St. Aidan. One member of the congregation was to be made a sub-deacon, another long-serving member was to be given a gramota (official letter of recognition).