Pastoral Encyclical on St. Innocent

OCA Chancery
Syosset, New York

January 15, 1997

OCA Chancery
Syosset, New York

Beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord!

On September 24, 1794, the seeds of Orthodox Christianity in North America were planted on the island of Kodiak, Alaska, by eight missionaries from the Monastery of Valamo in Russian Finland. With love for God and a desire to accomplish His will, they selflessly proclaimed the Good News of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ to the indigenous peoples of this land. Through their love and sacrificial labor, thousands of Aleuts, Athabaskans, Tlingit Indians and Eskimo tribes came to the knowledge of the Truth, and embraced the light of Christ and the Orthodox Christian Faith.

Like a flowering vine, the Church in North America budded forth as additional laborers and missionaries came to tend the vineyard planted in Alaska. Among them was a young Siberian priest from Irkutsk, Father John Popov Veniaminov, born August 26, 1797, barely three years after the first missionaries reached the Aleutian shores. Shortly after his ordination to the Holy Priesthood in 1821, he voluntarily accepted missionary service in America, and settled with his family in Unalaska in 1824.

A man of extraordinary spiritual vision and missionary zeal, Fr. John undertook his pastoral duties with utmost love and respect for his flock. Utilizing his linguistic talents, he learned the various native Alaskan languages, collaborating with the Aleut leader Ivan Pan’kov to devise a written grammar and alphabet for the Fox Island dialect of the Aleut people. He translated the Gospel of St. Matthew and many liturgical texts into Aleut, and wrote the first Aleut book, a spiritual treatise entitled Indication of the Pathway into the Kingdom of Heaven . His linguistic efforts continued as his pastoral responsibilities brought him to the Tlingit peoples of Southeastern Alaska and to numerous tribes in Siberia.

Recognizing that God’s loving presence is revealed in deed as well as word, Father John used his many God-given gifts to prepare himself and uplift his flock. He undertook a detailed ethnographic study of the cultures and habitat of the territory, publishing a major treatise that later earned him membership in the Russian Academy of Sciences. He designed and built churches, including the Holy Ascension Church in Unalaska and the renowned Archangel Michael Cathedral in Sitka, where he also crafted the clock for the bell tower and the furniture for the Mission House which he built for the bishop’s residence and Pastoral School.

Widowed in 1839, Father John accepted monastic tonsure, taking the name Innocent. Elevated to the episcopacy in 1840, he returned to Alaska with the title “Bishop of Kamchatka, the Kuril, and the Aleutian Islands.” The task of ministering to the diverse needs of such a far-flung diocese was immense, but Bishop Innocent’s zeal and untiring efforts distinguished him as an example to all in life, faith, and spiritual understanding. He developed a pastoral school with an ambitious spiritual and secular curriculum for the training of priests. He established the model of a true missionary as he traveled the length and breadth of his diocese (over 12,000 miles) by dogsled, kayak, boat and any means necessary to minister to his flock.

Though nearly blind, and having requested retirement, Bishop Innocent was called to the leadership of the Church in Russia as Metropolitan of Moscow on January 19, 1868, following the death of Metropolitan Philaret. Continuing his vigorous ministry, he established the Russian Missionary Society in 1869 and pursued the further development of the Siberian and North American missions, as well as the expanded missionary efforts in Japan, China, and other areas of the Far East. His long and remarkable ministry continued to the day of his death on Holy Saturday, March 31, 1879. His glorification as a saint was joyfully proclaimed on October 6, 1977.

In prayerful commemoration and celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of St. Innocent of Alaska, Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of North America, it is with great joy that we dedicate the year 1997 to his memory. In recognition of the legacy of his remarkable ministry, we urge our faithful clergy and laity to intensify their commitment to the vision he pursued. We strongly encourage young and old alike to emulate him as a model of wise and faithful stewardship. We call upon our communities to study his life and to follow his example by planting new seeds of faith, especially in this time of faithlessness and open apostasy. We exhort all to discern the means by which his legacy might be rekindled and renewed in our ministry and service in the world. And we seek his intercession before the throne of the Lord God of Hosts, so that we may be made worthy to nurture the seeds which he planted in this land.

We invite everyone to join us in renewing the commitment to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ by word and by deed in all the places where we live and work. The glory to which Saint Innocent has been called is the same glory which we have been challenged to seek in our own lives, our own communities and our own time. We especially call upon the faithful to dedicate Tuesday, August 26, 1997, the actual day of Saint Innocent’s birth, as a day of recommitment to the vision established by Saint Herman of Alaska and nurtured by Saint Innocent—a vision of an Orthodox Church in North America that is a vibrant example of the boundless love of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ and a witness to His Truth.

Dear brothers and sisters, as we prepare to celebrate the memory of Saint Innocent, let us reflect upon the talents and gifts, the blessings and challenges placed before us as the Church in North America. Let us, in the spirit of Saint Innocent, being ever mindful of our calling to evangelize and witness, to go forth to plant and sow the seeds of faith on the same soil once tilled by this saintly bishop. May his life and ministry be a source of inspiration and strength to us, that through our life and mission we may glorify the all-honorable and majestic name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit throughout the coming year and all the days of our lives.

In the love of Jesus Christ and the spirit of Saint Innocent,

Archbishop of Washington, Metropolitan of All America and Canada

Archbishop of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania and the Bulgarian Diocese

Archbishop of New York and New Jersey

Archbishop of Dallas and the South

Archbishop of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania

Bishop of Detroit and the Romanian Episcopate

Bishop of Chicago and the Midwest

Bishop of San Francisco and the West

Bishop of Ottawa and Canada

Bishop of Anchorage