The Enduring Legacy of St. Aftimios Ofiesh: True Orthodoxy's Beacon

By I. Butakov
St. Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh
Official Icon in the United Roman-Ruthenian Church

St. Aftimios Ofiesh is a name that resonates with controversy and reverence in the annals of Orthodox Christianity. As the successor to St. Raphael of Brooklyn, St. Aftimios was poised to continue a legacy of faith and dedication within the Syrian-Russian Orthodox community in North America and stands as one of the most intriguing figures in Orthodox history. However, his tenure as an Orthodox patriarch was marked by significant challenges and disputes that have led many to malign his contributions to this day, largely due to misunderstandings and self-righteous resistance from other Orthodox leaders. Despite these controversies, an examination of his life and actions reveals a steadfast commitment to authentic Orthodoxy and true Christian spirit.

Orthodox Spirit Amidst Adversity

Despite facing significant opposition, St. Aftimios remained steadfast in his commitment to authentic Orthodoxy and the true Christian spirit. His dedication was evident in his pastoral care, theological contributions, and efforts to establish a united Orthodox Church that transcended ethnic and national divisions. 

The backlash against St. Aftimios was swift and severe, coming not only from within his own jurisdiction but also from other Orthodox Churches globally. Critics accused him of abandoning traditional Orthodoxy for personal gain and innovation for its own sake—charges that were both unfair and unfounded. Despite these accusations, those who closely studied his works would find a man deeply committed to the core principles of Orthodoxy; love, unity, and faithfulness to Christ’s teachings above cultural or nationalistic divisions and above jurisdictional snobbery.

Discrimination against a Married Archbishop

St. Aftimios also faced discrimination due to his marital status as an archbishop. However, it is important to understand that his marriage was not inconsistent with Orthodox Christianity but rather a matter of jurisdictional discipline. While doctrine represents core theological beliefs that are unchangeable, discipline refers to rules and practices that can vary across jurisdictions. In some Orthodox jurisdictions, celibacy is required for bishops and some priests, while others permit or even encourage marriage among clergy members. St. Aftimios's decision to marry falls within the latter category, making it a matter of jurisdictional discipline rather than a doctrinal violation.

St. Aftimios and his wife, Mariam

Despite facing prejudice and criticism additionally for his marriage, St. Aftimios remained steadfast in his beliefs and practices. He firmly believed that marriage did not diminish his commitment to the Orthodox faith or compromise his spiritual authority as an archbishop. Indeed, he felt it enhanced it, and he promoted and authorized a married episcopate.  This courageous stance challenged artificial norms and forced people to question their assumptions about married clergy.

St. Aftimios's refusal to conform to discriminatory expectations demonstrates his commitment to authenticity and staying true to both his personal convictions and Orthodox tradition. His actions remind us that the true essence of the Orthodox faith lies in love, compassion, and understanding in the example of Christ.

The Legacy Lives On

The impact of St. Aftimios’s work is still felt today across several jurisdictions that hold apostolic succession from him. These communities continue to embody his vision of a unified Orthodoxy—free from ethnic barriers and open to all believers. Among the most prominent of these is the United Roman-Ruthenian Church, embracing its Orthodox and Catholic heritage; preserving its own ethnic heritage while breaking down barriers and being open to everyone in the spirit of Christ. 

A Misunderstood Shepherd

While many contemporary Orthodox leaders still view St. Aftimios with skepticism, perhaps out of jealousy or jurisdictional power games to which even the Church has never been immune, it is essential to recognize his pioneering role in shaping traditional Orthodoxy in the modern era. His actions were not those of division but rather attempts at reshaping the church to be more inclusive in the example of Christ. And, it is crucial to recognize the positive impact he has had on modern Orthodoxy—especially in North America.

Several jurisdictions descended from St. Aftimios bear testament to his lasting influence on the landscape of global Orthodoxy. These communities embody his vision for an authentically inclusive Church, transcending barriers, and remaining faithful to traditional doctrines. The ancient apostolic succession emanating from St. Aftimios is an unbroken chain that not only validates his own ecclesiastical authority, but also underscores the authenticity of his successors' faith and practices.

Reevaluating A Legacy

In spite of being maligned by some contemporaries and successors alike, St. Aftimios's authentic approach to Orthodoxy continues to inspire many believers across different jurisdictions worldwide. His life reminds us that genuine spiritual leadership often requires making difficult decisions that might not be fully understood or appreciated by one’s peers or even by generations immediately following them.

In reevaluating the legacy of St. Aftimios, it becomes clear that his contributions cannot be dismissed merely as controversial decisions made during tumultuous times. He was much more than a controversial figure; he was a divinely-inspired visionary who sought to bring genuine unity and spiritual depth to the Orthodox Church. His work should be seen as courageous steps towards realizing a vision of an orthodox Church truly universal (and indeed Catholic in its most true sense) in its embrace yet steadfast in its adherence to ancient truths—a mission undoubtedly relevant today as it was during his lifetime.  Despite opposition, his legacy, the very legacy preserved by the United Roman-Ruthenian Church, continues to inspire those who value true orthodoxy and Christian fellowship.

Orthodoxy and Catholicism

Q: Are you an Orthodox Church if you are not affiliated with churches such as the Eastern Orthodox Church (Greek Church)?  

Because it is our faith and heritage. Not all Orthodox churches are in communion with each other. While they share a common faith and belief system, there are some that remain independent entities. Orthodox Christianity is comprised of various churches, each with its own hierarchy and jurisdiction. These churches can be categorized into two main groups: those in communion with each other and those that are not.

The Eastern Orthodox Church (officially the Orthodox Catholic Church), for example, consists of multiple autocephalous (self-governing) churches. These include the Greek Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodox Church, Serbian Orthodox Church, and many others. They are united in their faith and share a common liturgical tradition but have independent leadership structures.

On the other hand, there are also independent orthodox churches (such as the United Roman-Ruthenian Church) that do not participate in the broader communion of orthodox churches. These churches may have historical or theological reasons for remaining separate from the mainstream orthodox community. While these independent orthodox churches may differ in terms of governance or specific practices, they still hold true to the core beliefs of Orthodoxy. They maintain sacraments such as baptism and holy communion and adhere to fundamental doctrines such as the Holy Trinity and veneration of saints.

It is important to understand that not all orthodox churches are in communion with each other. Some choose to remain independent due to historical factors or specific circumstances. Nonetheless, despite these differences, all orthodox churches share a common faith rooted in ancient Christian traditions.

Q: Are you a Catholic Church if you are not affiliated with the Roman Communion/Vatican Church?  

Likewise because it is our faith and heritage. When we think of the Catholic Church, we often envision a unified global institution under the guidance of the Roman Pope and the Vatican. However, it's important to note that not all Catholic churches are in communion with each other, or are even under the jurisdiction of the Roman Pope.

The term "Catholic" itself means universal, but there are various branches and independent churches within Catholicism. These variations stem from historical, theological, and cultural differences. One significant example is the Eastern Orthodox Church. While sharing many similarities with Roman Catholicism, including sacraments and apostolic succession, the Eastern Orthodox Church operates independently from Rome. It has its own hierarchy of bishops and does not recognize the authority of the Roman Pope. Also, the Eastern Orthodox Church's official name is the Orthodox Catholic Church.

Other examples include the Old Catholic Churches and the Old Roman Catholic Churches. The reasons for these divisions can be complex and multifaceted. They may arise from theological disagreements, cultural distinctiveness, historical events such as political conflicts or regional disputes. Regardless of their differences, these churches share a common belief in core Catholic teachings such as the sacraments and apostolic succession.

The United Roman-Ruthenian Church descends from Old Catholic and Old Roman Catholic Churches, as well as Eastern Orthodoxy and other Orthodox Churches.

Understanding these variations within Catholicism is crucial for fostering dialogue and respecting diversity within Christianity. It reminds us that while unity is an ideal goal among believers, differences can coexist peacefully within a broader faith tradition.
In conclusion, not all Catholic churches are in communion with each other or with the Vatican. Variations exist due to historical, theological, and cultural factors. Recognizing these distinctions helps promote understanding and appreciation for diversity within Catholicism while embracing shared beliefs at its core