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Saturday, December 4, 2004



[ RELIGION ]


"When people see a priest, they come up to ask me to pray for them. People are hungry for the spiritual; they see a priest and it reminds them that Jesus loves them. We live in a paganist world, an anti-religious world. The cassock is my uniform; it reminds people that there is an eternal world."

Archbishop Mar Mikhael
Head of the Eastern Catholic (Orthodox)
Church's Province of the Americas
and the Far East

art
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM

Archbishop
all the time

An Orthodox clergyman cares
for AIDS-infected babies and
ministers to all people

The Mass at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Waipio tomorrow will use liturgical language and a format that is hundreds of years old, but the tithe paid by members will help victims of the most modern of plagues, AIDS.

The small congregation of the only Eastern Catholic (Orthodox) Church in Hawaii will hear Archbishop Mar Mikhael of Daly City, Calif., head of the denomination's Province of the Americas and the Far East, speak at the 9 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. services tomorrow.

They know from his past pastoral visits about the hospice he founded seven years ago in California's San Mateo County to care for babies born to women infected with HIV or AIDS. The diocese opened a second home for AIDS-infected babies in Monterey County last year, he said.

The St. Thomas Home is operated by German nursing nuns in the Order of St. John, a religious organization that traces its roots to the Knights of Malta, formed to do hospital work in Jerusalem during the 12th-century crusades.

"We accept no county funds, no federal money," said Mikhael. "No one can tell us to take the crosses and icons off the walls."

The babies were born to mothers who were drug addicts or prostitutes, he said. "They leave their babies behind, and the county doesn't want to deal with them. Some of the newborns have full-blown AIDS. They are all terminal. During their short lives, they have love from the sisters, who hold them all the time.

"I have buried 80 children," said the archbishop. He believes "they get to go directly to heaven" because each child has been baptized and confirmed.

"That is what the church is supposed to be about. The vow of the Order of St. John is to take care of the poor, the sick, the needy and the dying," said the clergyman, whose education in Germany began with a medical degree before he decided to join a monastery.

Mikhael has negotiated with pharmaceutical companies to get free medications for the nonprofit hospices, and the money he charges for speaking appearances goes to support the operation.

"If we weren't doing this, it would cost $800,000 per child per year, to pay for registered nurses' salaries and drugs at the market price," he said.

The clergyman with 21st-century business sense wore the ancient garb of an Orthodox bishop -- cassock, red-lined cloak, cross and icon pendants across his chest and an ornate staff in hand -- to lunch at Sam Choy's restaurant Thursday. He will travel in the long-skirted cassock when he returns to California next week.

Mikhael doesn't believe in going incognito: "When people see a priest, they come up to ask me to pray for them. People are hungry for the spiritual; they see a priest and it reminds them that Jesus loves them. We live in a paganist world, an anti-religious world. The cassock is my uniform; it reminds people that there is an eternal world."

The German-born Mikhael, son of an Orthodox priest, was ordained 38 years ago. He was elected metropolitan, or archbishop, by other bishops in the province 30 years ago. Like other Orthodox Christian denominations, his church is patriarchal, run by bishops, and does not have the equivalent of the Roman Catholic church's pope.

He said there are 950,000 members in the province, which extends from South America to India -- 35,000 of them in the United States. The Hawaii congregation has 55 members.

The Eastern Catholic Church has held other names, identified as being in the Chaldean-Syrian Christian tradition, which identify its roots in the Middle East. Its liturgy has always been in Aramaic, until Mikhael's predecessor changed the ritual language for the church in the United States to English 50 years ago.

According to its tradition, it was founded by Thomas, one of the original 12 apostles of Jesus, who brought Christianity to India. Mikhael said that at its zenith in the seventh century, the church had 500 bishoprics in China.

The archbishop had an encounter with Christianity in China in 1972. While on an assignment in Macao, he crossed the border into the communist People's Republic. He was arrested and spent weeks in prison -- "in communion with Roman Catholic priests. I was released when the Swiss government intervened. Those Chinese priests were not."



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