St. Marks Orthodox Fellowship
Fourth Annual Conference
"The Church Sacraments"
"And Our Spiritual Life"
Antiochian Village, Legonier, PA, 27th-30th of August, 1999
Members of the Convention started to arrive on the evening of Friday August 27 till midnight. The number of those who attended this year convention was 86 coming from Washington DC, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Michigan. Others came from Canada, many of them attending for the first time. This is a positive event that has been occurring every year. It is also the 2nd consecutive year in which the convention is held in the Antiochian Village with its great facilities, beautiful landscape and spiritual atmosphere including its Orthodox chapel. After registration and room assignments, members were invited to a reception ceremony and the event was concluded by the compline prayer led by Fr. Tadros Malaty who served many churches in the immigration land in addition to his original church in Alexandria, Egypt, and who came specially from Canada upon the invitation of the Fellowship.
On Saturday 8/28, after breakfast, the convention was opened with a prayer followed by an introduction of the program of the convention and its main theme by Dr. Gamil Soliman. Fr. Antonios Amin, pastor of St. Mark COC in Heliopolis, Egypt, who came specifically to attend the convention, gave the first topic in the meeting on "Salvation Through Church Sacraments"(1),. His talk included the following points: 1- Institution of Eucharist occurred the night of the sufferings of the Savior and consequently this sacrament is the center of all sacraments. 2- The Lord has sanctified matter by His incarnation and His life as a man like us except for sin. His vestments (matter) shined as light in the Transfiguration. It is the Holy Spirit who changes the material bread and wine into the true body and blood of Christ. 3- Man has still a role in his salvation. Despite the fact that it was God who searched for man to save him from death and that He prepared the plan of salvation by dying on the cross as a free gift, it remains for man to accept God's salvation (by faith) and to unite with Christ in the sacraments and to redirect his ways everyday by repentance. Fr. Antonios gave the example of the flood. It is God who ordered Noah to build the Ark in a specific way with the intent to save Noah and his family (by grace). But without Noah's obedience and his building of the Ark, he would not have been saved. 4- The sacraments are directly related to the person of Christ. They should be regarded in submission and with the reverence that is proper to the presence of God. He pointed to the lightness and irreverence that are seen in many wedding and baptism ceremonies and even in communion which became for some people a habit unassociated with repentance or the fear of God. 5- The effect of the sacraments is not magic and needs a preparation from the believers by prayer and repentance and a faithful life looking always for Christ and His Heavenly Kingdom. This explains why the spiritual life of many people is not changed, and many divisions exist among families who apparently take communion and do not receive its effectiveness. At the end Dr. Yousry Armanios, from Ohio, gave an English summary of the talk.
Fr. Tadros Malaty gave the second talk. Its subject was "Unity of the Church through the Sacraments"(2), and it included the following points: 1- The sacrifice of the Cross is the center of all heavenly gifts and we have to realize the desire of Christ, in the night of His crucifixion, to bring all to unity (Jn.17). God knows all of us and we have to recognize the work of the trinity in our life. 2- The sacraments which are heavenly in their nature, transform earth to heaven, and the church is an icon of heaven (Hail to the church the house of Angels) and the family of God. 3- The sacraments lead to the unity of the church: a- Baptism is a return to the new Paradise, b- We are sanctified through Chrismation and we all become totally for God, c- The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity, rest, thanksgiving (for God's grace), the new testament with God, the Passover to heaven, and the communion in God's supper, d- In the sacrament of repentance the sinner is freed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and returns to the bosom of the church, e- In the sacrament of the unction for the sick, the whole church pray for the sick as an act of unity, f- In matrimony, God consecrate a small new church within the One church, g- In the Holy Orders, the servant is consecrated for the Holy Church as St. John Chrysostom said: "The priest is the father of the whole world". In the discussions after this talk, Fr. Tadros referred to the recent theological agreement between the Chalcedonian (Eastern Orthodox) and non-Chalcedonian (Oriental) Churches as removing great obstacles from the way to church unity and paving the way to mutual participation in Liturgy and Communion.
After lunch the second part of the program started with a lecture by Dr. Nosshi Abdel-Shahid, Director of the Center for Patristic Studies in Cairo, on "Baptism as the Sacrament of the New Creation"(3). In the introduction, Dr. Nosshi explained that all sacraments are mysteries, belonging to the Divine Mystery itself, and revelations of the mystery of God's love. He talked in detail about the relation between baptism and the death and resurrection of Christ, and the relation of baptism to new birth (Jn.3) and putting on Christ (Gal. 3:26,27). The new birth is a birth from above that makes us children of God. He also presented the relation between baptism and faith. It was a prerequisite that faith precedes baptism for the adults. As to the baptized infants, they had to proclaim their faith in its right time and practice it through the Holy Spirit they received in baptism. Church history books indicate that up to the 14th century this was practiced in the church (according to the "Precious Jewel" written by Zakaria ibn Elsibah), i.e. the parents took their children when they were 13 or 14 years old to the church to proclaim for themselves their faith in Christ and renounce Satan, as their parents or God parents had done early on their behalf. For the adolescent, his/her salvation is not only by baptism but also by faith with the baptism.
The lecture was followed by a workshop directed by Dr. Emil El-Shamaa from Columbus, OH, entitled "Healing of the Sick: Medical and Spiritual Issues"(4). He started by talking about the healing miracles that Jesus Christ and His disciples performed. Next, he talked about the sacrament of the unction of the sick in the church, and that it is intended to heal the sickness of the body and soul and encompasses repentance, seven prayers and the anointing of the sick with oil. He then presented what is happening in some western churches related to the healing of the sick, and what surrounds these healing services of strange theatrical acts that take it away from the true solemn faith and raises doubts of the possibility of using demonic forces to confuse the believers and shift their attention to the persons performing these acts. The workshop included a wide discussion dealing with the many facets of the healing process, and the role of prayer and faith.
After dinner, all members gathered at church for the Vespers prayer that was officiated by Fr. Antonios Amin. Following Vespers, Dr. Rudolph Yanney gave the fourth and last talk for the day, "Eucharist in our spiritual life"(5). The talk was an example of how to read and to interpret the Bible (1Cor. 11:18-34). He presented many aspects related to the practice of the sacrament of Eucharist and explained the inordinate behavior of some believers in the early church during communion as cited in 1Cor 11:18-22. He emphasized the meaning of the "unworthy manner" of (rather than an unworthy person) partaking of the body and blood of Christ (1Cor 11:27,29), and the condemnations that occurred to some because of their behavior of disdaining and neglecting others (the poor believers). Those who did that were considered guilty to the body and blood of Christ (the Church/Eucharist). The spiritual life is not divided into separate compartments. When we approach the Eucharist, we have to examine ourselves and conduct ourselves with all respect and dignity that are due to this sacrament.
The second day of the convention started with the Holy Liturgy(6) officiated by Fr. Antonios Amin. After that, many of the conventioneers gathered in the gardens of the Antiochian Village to have group pictures taken with Fr. Antonios and Fr. Tadros (Photos will be mailed with the next mailing package to the members that appear in them). After lunch, all members returned to the convention hall as Dr. Heshmat Keroloss (East Brunswick, NJ) directed a discussion on "Repentance as a sacrament and daily practice"(7). He emphasized that repentance is the message of the gospel "Repent and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). It was declared by the Lord in the beginning and the end of His ministry on earth (Luke 24:46,47), and it was preached by His disciples (Acts 2:38-39). It is also the response of man to the calling of the loving God who is great in His mercy. The assurance of forgiveness to the repentant is guaranteed by the blood of Jesus Christ that has been shed on the Cross (for the redemption and forgiveness of sins, Eph. 1:7, Col. 1:14), the sinners confession of his unfaithfulness to his covenant with God, his/her confession of faith in the Son of God as the only Savior, as well as his forgiveness to others who trespassed against him.
At the end of the day, Fr. Antonios Amin led a discussion on: Marriage, priesthood, monastic life, and consecration(8) as different facets of the submission of our life to God, and our service to the Church and to the world. It was mentioned in the discussion that the world is in need of consecrated people who are spiritually and scientifically fit for the needs of the Church in the coming century. There was a similar need in the church in Egypt 50 years ago which brought many to the field of service and produced a great revival that history will remember. This is what is needed nowadays. We have to withdraw from our rush to construct or acquire huge buildings that take much of our energy and finances and rather concentrate our efforts on attracting the souls who are faithful in their ministry to God and preparing them for God's ministry as it is done in other western churches. The revival of the ministry will affect the members of the church. In this way family problems will diminish which is the most dangerous problem that the church faces inside and outside Egypt. There will be a great demand for consecrated men and women for the youth services that cannot be done only by the priests who are already burdened with many responsibilities.
On the last day of the convention (8/30/99), Dr. Nosshi Abdel-Shahid gave his 2nd lecture entitled "The Church as an Eucharist Assembly"(9). In this lecture, he emphasized that the purpose of the Church gathering is the communion in the Lords Supper (Eucharist) which is, therefore, called the Mystery of the Church. The celebrant (priest) and the whole congregation are both involved in the prayers of the Eucharist, which cannot occur with just one of them. Both are considered servants of the liturgy as mentioned in the absolution of the ministers in the Liturgy of St. Basil. The Eucharist prayer is raised in the name of the whole congregation (We are not worthy O Lord....); it is through the Eucharist that the congregation is made a Church, the body of Christ. The convention was concluded with prayer and ended at 1:00 p.m.
The convention included services to the children who came with their parents under the supervision of Mrs. Salwa Salib and Mrs. Angela Ibrahim. Hymns were sung by Dr. Suzan Selim (Ohio) accompanied by the guitar played by Mr. John Girgis (Canada), together with their children. There was also a fair for spiritual and church books presented by Dr. George Basally from NJ.
Also, on Sunday at 4 PM, Dr. Ramzy Labib presented a brief report of the activities of SMOF during the last year and the plans of the coming years. This was done as an introduction to their discussion by the General Assembly(10) on Monday at 11 AM. Dr. Raouf Edward (Canada) has been working in the last year, helped by other SMOF members in Canada, to establish a Canadian Chapter for SMOF. The Chapter was registered with the Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations of ON, Canada, and steps to assure tax exemption are in progress. Approval was obtained to include Dr. Yousry Armanios (OH) and Dr. Raouf Edward (ON) in the Board of Directors of the Fellowship, and also to form an Executive Board that will include youth members in order to push forward the activities of the fellowship. It was also announced that the Fellowship plans to form branches in various cities to have activities within the local areas (Pittsburgh PA, Columbus OH, and Los Angeles CA, and others). These activities may include local conferences and Bible study meetings as well as other activities. Mr. Fateen Moussa (Preaching Committee) led a discussion of a project of writing and distributing brief articles on the topics needed for preaching the non-Christians and informing the non-Orthodox Christians about Orthodox Spirituality. The first fruits of this project will be soon available. Mr. Fouad Youssef (Bible Study Committee) led another discussion of a project of publishing a Bible Study Magazine that complements our present "Short Notes on the Bible" and "Bible Characters". The new publication will contain more advanced, in-depth articles in English and Arabic on general topics related to Bible Study. The first issue of this Bible Study Magazine will be available to all members in the spring of 2000. There was also a general approval that next year convention will be in the same place (Antiochian Village) during the Labor Day weekend (1 - 4 Sept. 2000) and will have as its general theme: "The Holy Spirit".
"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head ... For there the Lord commanded the blessing - Life forevermore." (Ps. 133:1-3)
(1) - A 5-page handout in English entitled "The Doctrines of the COC of Alexandria about the sacraments", and a 90 minutes tape in Arabic with English summary, are available for this lecture.
(2) - A 9-page handout in English and a 90 minutes tape in English are available for this lecture.
(3) - A one-page handout (outline) and a 90 minutes tape in English are available for this lecture.
(4) - A 90 minutes tape in English is available for this lecture.
(5) - A 7-page handout in English and a 90 minutes tape in English are available for this lecture.
(6) - Two audio tapes, 150 minutes total, are available for the Divine Liturgy by Fr. Antonios Amin.
(7) - A 2-page handout in English and a 60 minutes tape in English are available for this lecture.
(8) - Two audio tapes, 150 minutes total, are available for this talk (in Arabic) by Fr. Antonios Amin as well as the discussions stimulated by his talk.
(9) - A one-page handout (outline in English) and a 90 minutes tape in Arabic are available for this lecture.
(10) - A 90 minutes tape of this report and the discussions (in English) is available on request.