Carpatho-Rusyns are one of the major ethnic groups of Pennsylvania. From the time they settled the state’s small towns and cities in the late 1870s until the present time, Carpatho-Rusyns have left an indelible mark on the state, and their story should be told. This blog is about a project that will do just that. Read more

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An edifying read: "Fr. Alexis Toth, Bishop John Ireland, and the Grace of Reconciliation"

I thought I would give this post (new to me) a boost.

Fr. Alexis Toth, Bishop John Ireland, and the Grace of Reconciliation
May 18, 2016

The history of the "two lungs" of the Catholic Church in the United States has been marked, at times, by acrimony, misunderstanding, and controversy.

Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.

Left: Bishop John Ireland (1838-1918); right: Fr. Alexis Toth (1853-1909).

Christ, before his Passion, said to his apostles, “My soul is sorrowful even to death.”1 He was about to enter the garden to pray, and his disciples would soon fall asleep, flee him, and become divided. Christ’s agony in the garden envisaged the entire history of the Church; perhaps one of the Church’s most enduring traditions, unfortunately, has been division. William Blake (1757-1827) once wrote that, “It is easier to forgive an enemy than a friend.”2

One of the more ill-fated examples of division in the Church is the antagonism between the Eastern Catholic priest, Father Alexis Toth (1853-1909), and the Roman Catholic bishop of Minneapolis, John Ireland (1838-1918). According to several sources, when Toth and Ireland met on December 18, 1889, their brief exchange planted seeds that matured into an intra-ecclesial antipathy resulting in the departure of thousands of Catholics into Eastern Orthodoxy. Toth recalled that after handing the bishop his papers:

[N]o sooner did he read that I was a “Uniate” than his hands began to shake . . . .
“Have you a wife?” “No.”
“But you had one?” “Yes, I am a widower.”
At this he threw the paper on the table and loudly exclaimed, “I have already written to Rome protesting against this kind of priest being sent to me!”
“What kind of priest do you mean?” “Your kind.”
“I am a Catholic priest in the Greek Rite, I am a Uniate. I was ordained by a lawful Catholic bishop.”
“I do not consider you or this bishop of yours Catholic.”3
After Toth had returned from his audience with the bishop, Ireland directed a local Polish Latin Rite priest to “denounce Toth from the pulpit” and published a decree summoning all Catholics to renounce Father Toth.4 Ireland was not acting alone; many of his fellow bishops in America shared his interest in expurgating Greek Catholics, and their married priests, from the United States.

Not only did this encounter precipitate the exodus of many Greek Catholics, but Father Toth’s long friendship with his fellow Ruthenian priest, Father Nicephor Channath (d. 1899), was likewise strained. The story of Toth and Channath is, in the end, perhaps the most hopeful spark of Christian charity and reconciliation that emerges from the tragic incidents that transpired after Toth and Ireland set the stage for decades of disputation and division between Western and Eastern Rite Catholics in America.
Perhaps the most notorious result of these factions was the conflict, mentioned above, between Bishop Ireland and Father Toth and Toth’s conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church; much ink is still spilled over this incident. From the Eastern Orthodox point of view, Toth’s conversion is described as a “return” to Orthodoxy, and from the Catholic point of view Toth’s fateful decision was an act of “disobedience” and a break from the authentic “Church founded by Christ.”18 Whatever the interpretation, as Procko puts it, Toth “became an energetic advocate of the Russian Orthodox Church among the Ruthenians in America and a bitter opponent of Catholicism.”19 By 1901, Alexis Toth had succeeded in converting thirteen Ruthenian Catholic congregations to Orthodoxy, causing nearly 7,000 Greek Catholics to become Eastern Orthodox.20 In the end, “Alexis Toth led fifteen Byzantine Catholic parishes with more than 20,000 faithful into the fold of the Russian Orthodox Church.”21

So successful was Toth in influencing Greek Catholic to become Orthodox that on May 24, 1994, he was canonized (glorified) a saint by the Orthodox Church in America.22 Needless to say, Alexis Toth, who had become an evangelist for Eastern Orthodoxy, and his close friend, Nicephor Channath, who was a tireless supporter of communion with the Successor of Saint Peter, had become bitterly estranged. By 1907, the pope was aware of the turbulent situation in America between Latin and Greek Catholics, and he had settled upon a possible resolution. During that year, Pope St. Pius X (1835-1914) appointed Monsignor Soter Ortynsky, OSBM (1866-1916) the first Eastern Rite bishop of America. Despite Ortynsky’s tireless efforts to reign in tensions between Eastern and Western Rite Catholics, and the sustained conversions to Eastern Orthodoxy, conflicts and conversions continued during his life in America.

One event, however, shines through the shadows of this era with a light of Christian charity and reconciliation; Fathers Alexis Toth and Nicephor Channath were at last able to set aside their ecclesiological disagreements and embrace, at least in their hearts, the Christian unity called for by Christ.
Fr. Alexis Toth as a Russian Orthodox priest. (Photo: Fr. Ivan Kaszczak)

Alexis Toth and the Grace of Reconciliation

On December 30, 1898, Father Channath lay dying on his hospital bed in Lackawanna Hospital in Scranton, Ohio. As he was nearing death, he agonized over the rupture between himself and his beloved friend, Father Alexis Toth. By then Toth was a Russian Orthodox priest, deeply despised by many Greek Catholic clergy, and seemingly unapproachable. Channath could not bear to die unreconciled to his friend and so summoned two Latin Rite Catholic priests to his hospital room and asked them an urgent favor. As the end advanced, the barriers and bereavements precipitated by cultural and ecclesiological difference faded in light of the grace of friendship and reconciliation, and when Father Toth received the two emissaries from his old companion his heart was softened. The next day, Nicephor Channath passed beyond the veil, and George Eliot’s (née Mary Evans, 1819-1890) remark that, “It is surely better to pardon too much, than to condemn too much,”23 seemed preferable to the spiritual malady of resentment. On the day of Channath’s funeral Liturgy, January 2, 1899, Father Alexis Toth sent a wreath of flowers to the body of his friend as an expression of his grief and reconciliation. Their love for each other as brothers in Jesus Christ had been restored, although the manager of the funeral home refused the flowers.24

When Toth learned that his wreath was refused, he issued a response in the Ukrainian periodical, Svoboda. Toth was deeply afflicted by this refusal, and recalled that Channath had sent the two Latin Rite priests to offer and seek forgiveness for the “unpleasantries” exchanged between the two friends. Toth wrote: “This was said in a Christian manner and I as a Christian and as a priest, touched to the depth of my heart, replied. . . . ‘I forgive all and remember no injury’.”25 In their supreme act of Christian charity and friendship, Nicephor Channath and Alexis Toth illustrated the grace of Christian reconciliation, despite the divisions that persisted between Toth’s followers and the Eastern Rite clergy in America who remained in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Reconciliation between Latin and Eastern Rite Catholics was more difficult to come by, and it was not until the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II (1920-2005) that conditions between these two Churches began to genuinely improve.
You may find the entire article at Catholic World Report.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome your feedback, inquiries, and suggestions. Hostile or off-topic comments will not be approved.