Orthodox Christians from parishes and villages across Alaska gathered at St. Innocent Cathedral in Sitka for the Feb. 21 consecration of Bishop David Mahaffey as the new Orthodox bishop for the Diocese of Sitka and all Alaska.
More than 40 priests and deacons were on hand, along with four bishops from the Orthodox Church in America.
Father Leo Walsh, the ecumenical and interfaith officer for the Archdiocese of Anchorage attended the ordination as a Catholic representative. He told the Catholic Anchor that he has met informally with Bishop Mahaffey since his arrival in Alaska several months ago and is “delighted to call him my friend.”
“In Bishop David, not only Orthodox Christians, but all Alaskans are receiving a man of great faith with deep pastoral sensitivities,” Father Walsh said. “I think all Catholics will find him to be an affable collaborator in the work of Christian unity and a tireless shepherd in his efforts to spread the Gospel to all corners of our state.”
At the recent ordination, Metropolitan Tikhon, Archbishop of Washington, laid his hands upon and formally ordained the 61-year-old Bishop Mahaffey. According to a report on the Orthodox diocese’s website, at the conclusion of the liturgy, the cathedral thundered with the singing of traditional hymns in Yupik and Slavonic until everyone had the opportunity to receive Bishop Mahaffey’s blessing and offer congratulations.
On the eve of his ordination, Bishop Mahaffey spoke to his new flock during a vespers liturgy at the cathedral, asking the people in his charge to pray for him.
“I am but a simple man, and of my own self I am capable of very little,” he said. “Please pray that I am kept from pride and from self-importance.”
He then noted his appreciation of Saint Patrick, a man he finds worthy of imitation as a bishop.
“In the Breastplate of Saint Patrick is a prayer I try to pray every day,” Bishop Mahaffey said. “It concludes with these words, ‘Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me.’ May it always be, my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, that you never see me, but that you see Christ working through me.”
Bishop Mahaffey served as an Orthodox deacon for 12 years before entering the seminary in 1991 to become a priest. In 1993 he was ordained at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Pa., and served as a parish priest before moving to Alaska last year. He has bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and theology, as well as a master’s of divinity. He also has a history of working with Catholics. During his time in Pennsylvania, in addition to teaching at St. Tikhon’s, he served as a professor at Alvernia University, a Catholic college.
Bishop Mahaffey’s recent ordination comes at a time when the Catholic Church is renewing efforts to restore greater unity with the Orthodox.
The work is being spearheaded by Pope Francis who, in May, is scheduled make a joint pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Eastern Orthodox archbishop of Constantinople.
As the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew is “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox communion, which includes more than 300 million followers worldwide. The fact that he is committed to ecumenical dialogue with Catholics is seen by many as a hope for greater unity in the future.
As reported by Catholic News Agency, the aim of the upcoming Holy Land trip is to commemorate “the historic meeting” between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras I, that occurred 50 years ago.
At that 1965 encounter the pope and the patriarch each lifted the mutual excommunications of their predecessors issued in 1054, an event which contributed to the now 1,000-year split between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, the two historic churches of Christianity that trace their origins back to the time of the Apostles.
In an effort to heal divisions with the Orthodox, Pope Francis has repeatedly presented himself as the Bishop of Rome “which presides in charity over all the churches.” This expression harmonizes with a document published by the joint Catholic-Orthodox theological commission in 2007, which laid out the Catholic and Orthodox understandings of how the Bishop of Rome should exercise his authority over the global church.
“Both sides agree,” the document states, “that Rome, as the Church that ‘presides in love,’ according to the phrase of St. Ignatius of Antioch, occupied the first place in the [Churches’ order] and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the [first] among the patriarchs.”
The document also notes, however, that the sides disagree on the “prerogatives of the Bishop of Rome as [first], a matter that was already understood in different ways in the first millennium.”
For his part, Pope Francis has indicated a willingness to examine how the Bishop of Rome relates to the bishops of the world, a move that may have ecumenical value with the Orthodox.