Orthodox Mission In The Twenty-First Century: Guatemala

Understanding the background

Historically, the Central American Republic of Guatemala was part of the great Mayan Empire that extended over south-eastern Mexico, and the northern part of Central America, including the entire Yucatan Peninsula.   It was gradually conquered by the Spanish from the early sixteenth century until the final fall of the last independent kingdom in 1697. Guatemala attained its independence from the colony of New Spain (Mexico) in 1821 as part of the Federal Republic of Central America, which dissolved in 1841.

For most of the next century (1840-1944) Guatemala was ruled by ‘Caudillos’, a succession of classical American dictators.  At times they were conservative and favoured the church and the landed classes; but under the liberal, Justo Fufino Barrios (President 1873-1885), the Jesuits were expelled, the monasteries closed, church property seized, the power of the aristocracy curtailed and secular education introduced. A popular uprising led to the overthrow of President Jorge Ubico (1931-44) and came to be known as “The Ten Years of Spring” (1944-1954) during which the Revolutionary Party, adhering to “spiritual socialism” introduced significant social and economic reforms, especially an Agrarian Reform Bill.  President Jacobo Arbenz (1951-1954) began the country’s first and only land reform but his initiative galvanized rightist opposition. Military officers, supported by the U.S. Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency overthrew him in a coup d’état and returned all expropriated holdings to their previous owners, among them the U.S.-based United Fruit Co. (UFCO).

From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala underwent a bloody civil war fought between the U.S.-backed government and leftist rebels, the so-called ‘Guerilla Army of the Poor’ which began an insurgency campaign against the government. In response the Guatemalan military adopted scorched-earth tactics, killing hundreds of thousands of indigenous Mayan peasants in the western highlands in an effort to get them out of the oil rich region of northern Quiché. Some Catholic orders were also targeted by the military, as they were seen as subversive in the spread of Liberation theology. Guatemala again experienced more destruction in 1976 when an earthquake took the lives of 20,000 people and injured 80,000. More than 200,000 people, most of them civilians, were killed or disappeared. Despite an official finding that 93% of all atrocities carried out during the civil war had been committed by the security forces, moves to bring those responsible to account were long delayed. As recently as May 2013, Ríos Montt (President 1982-83) was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison, but only days later the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the conviction, voiding all proceedings and ordering that the trial be “reset.”  It resumed again in January 2015, but after further legal arguments, proceedings were suspended sine die.

Since the end of the civil war, Guatemala has witnessed both economic growth and successful democratic elections, but it continues to struggle with high rates of poverty, crime, drug trade and instability. The current advice for travellers issued by the UK government notes that “Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America; there were over 6,000 violent deaths in 2013. Although the majority of serious crime involves local gangs, incidents are usually indiscriminate and can occur in tourist areas. These and sexual assault can take place anywhere and at any time of the day. Attacks usually involve firearms and motorcycle riders. There is a low arrest and conviction rate. Victims have been killed and injured resisting attack.”

Having been predominately a Roman Catholic country, in the latter part of the twentieth century Protestantism grew so rapidly that Guatemala now has the largest proportion  of Protestants (approximately 25%) of any Latin American country. This boost largely came from the efforts of Pentecostal missionaries from the USA. In an attempt to stem the loss of its faithful, Charismatic Catholics came from other countries to support the relatively small number of native Guatemalan priests and appealed to the reforms of Vatican II to revitalise the laity. Additionally, the mobilisation of the indigenous Mayan population against Catholic hegemony appealed to their historic resentment of the Catholic Church’s expropriation of traditional Mayan holy sites for the erection of Catholic churches. 

The official language of Guatemala is Spanish, but in addition there are approximately twenty-three indigenous languages spoken by more than 30% of the population, and about 40.5% of the population is indigenous. The estimated median age in Guatemala is 20 years old, 19.4 for males and 20.7 years for females. This is the lowest median age of any country in the Western Hemisphere and comparable to most of central Africa and Iraq. Social inequality is a major feature of Guatemala. Poverty is particularly widespread in the countryside and among indigenous communities. Illiteracy, infant mortality and malnutrition are among the highest in the region, life expectancy is among the lowest and, in common with many of its neighbours, the country is plagued by organised crime and violent street gangs. It is a major corridor for smuggling drugs from South America to the United States.

A Surge of Converts in Guatamala

Eastern Orthodoxy

Ayau Garcia, was born in 1951, the daughter of Dr. Manuel Ayau (1925-2010), a prominent Guatamalan engineer who was a member of Congress 1970-74 and an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1990. Coming from a wealthy family, she was educated through high school at the Instituto de la Asunción and then attended Marian College in Indianapolis. She returned to Guatemala to study architecture at the Universidad de San Carlos De Guatemala. At the age of twenty she joined the Assumption Sisters, a Catholic community of nuns committed to effecting change in society through prayer and education. In 1972 she began to study theology at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin, a school founded by her father. Sister Inés, as she became, first encountered Orthodoxy through her reading of the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, studying liturgical texts and books on iconography, which led her to the practice of the Jesus Prayer.  Her ten years of theological studies, first in Guatemala under the Silesians; then at Instituto de Sagrada Escriptura Santo with the Holy Spirit fathers in Mexico; with the celebrated French Jesuit theologian, Cardinal Jean  Daniélou (1905-1974) in Paris, and later with the Jesuits in Belgium and El Salvador. In 1983 she graduated cum laude in Theology from UFM in Guatemala but  she was reluctant to return to Latin America because of the insidious spread of “liberation theology.” Church-State relations in Guatemala were also poor, so she was given permission to join her order in the Philippines, where she became a professor of theology at Assumption College, Makati, Metro Manila. Here she found that the community was also interested in Orthodox spirituality and were planning to reform it by adopting the Eastern Rite. Unfortunately, several sisters left, some to marry, leaving only Inés and Sister Maria (Amistoso). Sister Inés was held responsible for the losses and eventually asked to leave the Philippines because she was thought to be spreading revolutionary sentiments.

Whilst staying in Jerusalem she came into direct contact with the Orthodox Church and invited Sister Maria to join her as they became more familiar with the various Orthodox communities in the Holy Land. There appears some discrepancy in the dates that follow,[1] but in 1986 the two nuns left the Catholic Church and became Orthodox. They received the blessing of Metropolitan Damaskinos (Papandreou) of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to establish a monastery in Guatemala and to place themselves under the jurisdiction of a local bishop. Three years later, having accepted a donation of 34.8 acres of land, building work began immediately, although the hermitages were not completed until the beginning of 1994. In 1993 they placed themselves under the jurisdiction of Archbishop Antonio Chedraoui, Archbishop of Mexico, Venezuela, Central America & the Caribbean of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. The two nuns were tonsured on 10 August 1994 and Mother Inés was installed as Abbess the next day. 

The great-great-grandfather of Mother Inés, Don Rafael Ayau, founded an orphanage in 1857 and entrusted its management to a monastic order. In 1960, the government of Guatemala took control of the orphanage and deported the monks, following which the orphanage fell into disuse. In August 1996 President Álvaro Arsu turned over control of the “Hogar Rafael Ayau” orphanage to the nuns of Holy Trinity Monastery and in October 1997, following basic reconstruction and renovation, it reopened its doors and received 115 boys and girls who were transferred from another dilapidated government institution so that now it provides shelter and education to children birth to adolescence. The orphanage is the oldest and largest in Guatemala.

Mayan Orthodoxy

Andrés de Jesús Girón de León was born in Santa Cruz del Quiché  in Guatemala on 14 February 1946, and was raised in the municipality of Tecpán in Chimaltenango. While growing up in Guatemala in a family of privilege, he was moved by the sufferings of the poor. A strong desire to devote his life to alleviating the poverty of his people, particularly the Mayan Indians, led him to seek holy orders in the Roman Catholic Church at an early age. He received religious training at the seminary of Santiago de Guatemala and later in the United States. Upon completion of his seminary education in Columbia, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest on 9 November 1978 and returned to Guatemala as a parish priest and itinerant preacher, ministering to the people in the remote and nearly inaccessible regions of the country.

In rural Guatemala, poor mostly indigenous farmers scrape a living off the nation’s poorest soils while wealthy finca (large plantation) owners reap the benefits of an agricultural system based on international exports and the exploitation of cheap labour. This inequitable land distribution system is rooted in the Spanish conquest, when the nation’s richest soil was seized from the indigenous populations and granted to colonisers who exploited the indigenous farmers in order to sell products such as sugar and cacao on European markets. The native farmers were relocated to the most unproductive farmlands where they barely survived off of subsistence farming.[2]

In the 1960s Girón taught Catholic doctrine in the Memphis slums, where he became an admirer of President Kennedy and met and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the city’s garbage strike. Supporters of Girón claim that his family was ensnared in the repression. Five of his relatives were slain, including a favourite aunt and his father, a former town mayor and provincial senator who was killed in 1981. Opponents, however, claimed that they had a long history of exploiting the poor and that Jorge Girón had used his position as mayor to enrich himself at the expense of the native community. His assassination was in revenge for the killing of a supervisor of schools, who had protested against Mayor Girón’s massive logging of the local forest for private profit. Guatemalan society was deeply divided and too often violence and murder were used to settle problems. Fr. Girón claimed he was forced by death threats to flee into exile to Texas in 1980 but his critics denounced him claiming that “behind his sacerdotal frock, is an opportunistic exploiter just as his father was. Instead of helping to preserve Maya culture in his fincas, as he claims, he mixes together communities of different backgrounds and attempts to sever their ancestral attachments to Mother Corn. Like other self-styled ‘protectors of the Indians’ dating from colonial times, Girón’s paternalism ultimately promotes the eradication of our ethnic identity.”[3] He returned to Guatemala from his second stay in the United States in 1984 and became the parish priest for 78 villages and 120,000 families along the south coast.

In 1986 Vinicio Cerezo, a Christian Democrat was elected as President, thus ending sixteen years of frequently repressive military rule. It was at this point that Father Girón decided to act and started the National Peasant Association for Land (Asociación Nacional Campesina Pro-Tierra). Within a week, it was reported that it had 19,000 members; a month later, 45,000, and soon 115,000. Emulating the example of Dr. King, the union organised marches lasting weeks across the countryside, as well as protests and hunger strikes. In May 1986 he led 16,000 peasants on an 88-mile march from Escuintla to Guatemala City. Girón was dubbed ‘Father Revolutionary’, but if his opponents were finding it more difficult to challenge his sincerity, they now criticised his political and economic naïveté, “Padre Girón is a politician …. He is confusing the peasants. The campesinos are not asking for land. What they want is work.” They explained that it is economically foolish to break up large land holdings and that the prevailing system was the best way to provide poor rural residents with work.

However, he was soon to declare that President Cerezo’s reforms were too slow and too little. “The change in Guatemala is a façade …. The country’s still run by the military. We have a nominal power and a real power. I’m going to force open the door to political change or make them slam it shut.” Guatemala’s bishops issued a plea for land redistribution but, tired of waiting for a Government programme, Fr. Girón announced that he would take a leave from the church to run for the Presidency in 1988. Death threats had been made regularly, even before this announcement, and he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when thirty men in military uniforms shot at his car on a rural road near his parish in Tiquisate, ninety miles southwest of Guatemala City. His bodyguard, Rodolfo de Leon Velasquez, 52, was killed in the attack and his 17-year-old adopted son, Fernando Castellanos, a novice, was seriously wounded.

In May 1990 Guatemala’s Episcopal Conference ruled against Girón’s petition for permission to run for the presidency. He had latterly been associated with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement and had rocky relations with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. On 15 May he relinquished his parish of Nueva Conception and Tiquisate and launched his campaign as a congressional candidate on the Christian Democrat ticket. He told supporters that he had “hung up his frock” to serve social justice but he would continue to proclaim the word of God as a lay preacher. In fact on 23 June 1990 he underwent episcopal consecration as Bishop of Escuintla in Nueva Concepcion, Guatemala, at the hands of Archbishop William Francis Forbes, assisted by Bishop John Joseph Lehman for the ‘Holy Orthodox Church, American Jurisdiction’, the remnant of the abortive American Orthodox Church founded in 1927 by the Syrian Bishop Aftimios Ofiesh (1880-1966). He later adopted the title, Iglesia Católica Ortodoxa de Guatemala (ICOG).

On 17 August 2000 the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Guatemala, meeting in Asunción, Paraguay, under the presidency of  Mgr. Víctor Hugo Martínez Contreras, Archbishop of Los Altos Quetzaltenango-Totonicapán, in consideration of Girón’s “known publicly for his involvement in partisan politics on several occasions,” and as a Congressman during the administration of former President Serrano Elias (1991-1993), noted that he had refused communion with his bishop and adhered to a church known as “Holy Orthodox Church, American jurisdiction” in which he had been consecrated a bishop, declared that he had gone into schism and broken communion with the Catholic Church

Rumours also circulated of a secret deal worked out between Girón and the Christian Democrat presidential candidate, Alfonso Cabrera Hildalgo, who trailed badly in the polls. In exchange for turning over his large following to the Christian Democrats, Cabrera would name Girón the party’s leader in Congress immediately following the election.  Girón was duly returned to congress and he was appointed head of its Human Rights Commission. After six months he found that his position had failed to bring him the wide support he had expected, his Asociación Nacional declined in membership and importance and his effectiveness was neutered, so that even his followers complained that he was enriching himself at their expense. His service in congress until 1996 led to a land reform movement among the rural poor and today, there are some 44 villages founded by him and many more which sought his leadership and counsel.[4]

In January 2010 seeking to enter canonical Orthodoxy, Mgr. Girón and Mgr. Mihail (Fernando) Castellanos (who had been consecrated as an assistant bishop to Girón on 18 March 2006) of the independent Iglesia Católica Ortodoxa de Guatemala and their followers, who it was claimed numbered 527,000 members, were received by Metropolitan Athenagoras, Metropolitan of Mexico and Exarch of Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Islands of the Caribbean, a hierarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Girón and Castellanos travelled to Mexico City, where were both reordained and blessed as Archimandrites during the weekend of 19-21 March. Fourteen students from Guatemala were enrolled in the St. Gregory Nazianzen Orthodox Theological Institute Licentiate degree programme. Support was also forthcoming from the wider family of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Rev. Fr. Peter Jackson and his wife, from the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR) committed themselves to spend part of each year teaching at St. Peter & Paul Orthodox Seminary in Huehuetenango and translating liturgical texts into various Mayan languages, as well as raising support for the mission when they were back home in Miami. Father John Chakos and his wife, a retired priest of the Greek Orthodox Church in Pennsylvania, followed a similar pattern.[5] Fr. David Rucker from the Department of Evangelism for the Orthodox Church in America and his wife, also went to teach at the Seminary. The prestigious St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary, which had also supported Mother Inés, actively promoted the new Guatemalan mission. Seminarian, Jesse Brandow, also began a two year term of service in 2012. All this came as Fr. Girón’s health was beginning to fail and, in his battle with diabetes, his right leg was amputated. Two days after his 67th birthday, on 16 February 2014 he died, creating what one of the missionary priests described as “a tremendous shift.” Frail though he was, Fr. Girón’s charisma and the personal devotion of so many of his followers, would mean that the church would take time.”

It is officially admitted that “People, villages, parishes: all three are hard to quantify in a changing and mostly rural church” and with the estimated numbers fluctuating from one extreme to another, ranging from 500,000 people to a few thousand people, it is helpful to know that as of 2015, Fr. John Chakos is still unsure about the specific number of people, saying simply that “here are thousands of people, but not hundreds of thousands.” In terms of villages and churches, there are several dozen independent communities. Despite the uncertainty in these numbers, one thing is absolutely clear: this is a very large group.[6] 

At the time of their reception it was announced that the community included 334 churches in Guatemala and southern Mexico, 12 clergymen, 14 seminarians, 250 lay ministers, and 380 catechists, with an administrative office on 280 acres, a community college and 2 schools with 12 professors/teachers, and a monastery on 480 acres. A more realistic assessment reports that although the number of people is very large, there are only a tiny handful of priests. For roughly 40,000 people and 100 parishes, there are only six priests available to provide sacraments and spiritual guidance (when Fr. Andrés still lived, there were eight). Further, these few priests must travel for miles on steep, mountain roads where landslides and thick mud can easily prevent passage. The churches do find additional support from a few hundred catechists who live in the villages as elders and leaders of the communities. Nevertheless, these catechists know very little about the church that they have joined, and as laypeople, they cannot fill the tremendous need for more frequent sacraments. Recognising that more people need to be trained, both as priests and as skilled lay leaders, and that training is one of the responsibilities of the missionaries, in November 2014 the priests from Guatemala met with Metropolitan Athenagoras in Mexico City to develop a strategic plan for Guatemala which  included enabling  Fr. Fernando to succeed Fr. Andrés as leader in Guatemala by sending him abroad to study theology and identifying potential deacons and priests in the Guatemalan villages and train them on-site. Fr. Rucker admits that as new leaders come to the forefront, it is hard to predict how the communities will react and adapt.

At this point, the priests have received the most training in Orthodox theology and liturgical practice, some of them even travelling abroad to find a more immersive experience of Orthodox worship. At the grass roots level, however, most people do not fully understand the church that they have joined. Nevertheless, almost all of the people identify as part of la iglesia ortodoxa (the Orthodox Church), often with a sense of pride and hope because this identity tells them that they “are not alone”—a common refrain among the community leaders.  So, overall, the people self-identify as Orthodox and are generally eager to learn, but they are still at the very beginning of a long process of transition.[7]

The Renewed Ecumenical Catholic Church

Eduardo Aguirre Oestmann was born into a devout Catholic family in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, on 5 March 1952. He  grew up in San Andrés, where his family had property and went to school there before finishing his studies at the Lyceum in Quetzaltenango, with the Salesian fathers. He then spent a year (1969) at the Major Seminary of Santiago de los Caballeros, before graduating to the Major Seminary in Mérida,  Yucatán in Mexico (1970-71) and finally at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (1971-78), where he gained many academic distinctions, including his Doctorate in Sacred Theology.  He was ordained priest in 1974 in the Church of Panajachel and spent seven years in charge of the Curia for the Diocese of Sololá, Chimaltenango, specialising in canon law. In 1985 he served for two years as pastor in Mazatenango, where he founded the Missionary Fraternity of Mary. He resigned from that on 3 January, 2003 to found the St. Mary’s Seminary of the New Exodus (Santa María del Nuevo Éxodo), where he was criticised for sharing the sacraments with non-Catholics. Oestmann’s defence was that he was “responding to the call of thousands of brethren who were abandoned, or in many cases, deprived of the sacraments, finding themselves as sheep without a shepherd.” Having been admonished, but persisting in this ministry, he was formerly excommunicated from the Catholic Church on 15 August 2006 for having distanced himself “from the communion and the norms of his priesthood.” In a statement signed by the Archbishop of Guatemala, Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada, it was reported that the controversial priest together with the priests who currently follow and “the faithful who freely and responsibly adhere” to his group had incurred excommunication after having “exhausted all possible pastoral and canonical means” to resolve this unusual situation. It was revealed that Oestmann was asked to make a profession of faith in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed, to recognize the authority of Pope Benedict XVI by an oath of fidelity and obedience and to renew his oath of allegiance and obedience to the diocesan bishop. He was also required to temporarily suspend all pastoral activities undertaken by his schismatic group and to go the Vatican “to clarify ambiguous concepts and doubts and seek a legal solution to their pastoral activities”. From all this, he was only willing to make the profession of faith, the statement said. The Auxiliary Bishop of Guatemala, Mgr. Gonzalo De Villa, noted that Oestmann “was an exemplary and excellent priest” until he decided to found the controversial group in 2003.[8]

From October 2006 they were in contact with the Union of Old Catholic Churches of Utrecht. Oestmann explained, “The smooth communication with them, as well as our agreement on matters of ecclesiology and the fundamentals of the life of faith, of sacraments and witness, led to my being invited to meet with the three bishops of the Union and with representatives of their council of theologians. In spite of the advanced stage of our communication, the problem of language and cultural difference made us decide to initiate contacts with the Catholic Apostolic Church of Brazil, but without breaking our communication with Utrecht and with the firm wish of continuing to make our relation and communion with the Union of Utrecht closer. As result of communication with the Catholic Church of Brazil, we were invited to participate in its nineteenth General Council, celebrated in Brazilia  during July 2007” which spontaneously resulted in them desiring intercommunion. The Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church is a loose federation of bishops deriving their succession from a former Brazilian bishop, Dom Carlos Duarte Costa (1888-1961), who left the Catholic Church in 1945.   On 27 October 2007 in the church of San Juan Comalapa, a largely Mayan town about 60 km west of the capital, he received episcopal consecration as Bishop of Icergua and Primate of Iglesia Católica Ecuménica Renovada en Guatemala at the hands of  Dom Josivaldo Pereira de Oliveira, assisted by seven other Brazilian and American bishops. It was declared that “we are neither Roman Catholic, nor Orthodox, nor Brazilian but renewed ecumenical Catholics. That is, we are open to communion with all Christians because we are guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, as did the early church. The relationship we maintain with the Brazilian Church is autonomous and full communion.” 

Oestmann’s first Pastoral Letter, ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic’ issued shortly after his consecration showed that his ecclesiology is firmly rooted in the Orthodox Tradition with a strong emphasis on the place of the local church and conciliarity. For him the ‘local church,’ is to be understood as “the People of God who in a particular region are organized as a communion of communities that professes the faith in accordance with the witness of the Holy Scriptures and the Confession or Ecumenical Creeds, and who observe the liturgy of prayer and sacraments.” It had been made clear that the primacy and authority of Rome were the causes of the rift and in fact the Roman Catholic hierarchy was viewed as having broken communion with them. Oestmann expressed his pain and sorrow at this break, but he feared that it was Rome which had abandoned the apostolic tradition. “I feel very close to the doctrine and organizational system of the Orthodox Church, as … more authentic than the Church of Rome.” The choice of the church’s name ‘Renewed Ecumenical Catholic’ demonstrate that they are “not founding a Church but trying to rediscover the Church Christ founded: one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Although claims have been made that the community numbered between 60 and 80,000 souls, in March 2009 the church itself claimed only a membership of more than 350,000 gathered in 750 communities, with 990 extraordinary Eucharistic ministers.

At this point Oestmann was supported by eleven clergy who stood with him in the Nazareth Community, which “constitutes the heart of our communion”, with an additional thirty-eight seminarians, aged between 35 and 50. In addition there were two secular priests in Guatemala and three secular priests who had been incardinated. They were also in the process of incardinating 4 priests from Peru, a priest and deacon from Mexico, 2 priests from Cuba, 1 priest from Colombia, one priest from Ecuador and 2 priests and a deacon in Germany. Ninety-eight per cent of Oestmann’s following come from fourteen indigenous ethnic groups. By contrast with Girón, he has not been a high profile figure politically, but the fact that the great majority of his flock live in situations of extreme poverty and that very many are located in the areas that suffered the armed conflict, where they were persecuted, massacred, and displaced, means that his pastoral outreach is heavily involved in practical as well as spiritual support. His largest area of support is in Huehuetenango, followed by Quiché, Alta Verapaz, Petén and Totonicapán. “Charismatics are the majority in our communities.” 

In 2011 they had committed themselves to compile a Liturgy which corresponded completely to the Latin Liturgy used in the West before the Great Schism.” Between 22-26 August 2011 Bishop Jerome of Manhatten, ROCOR Vicar Bishop for the Western Rite Vicariate, paid an “unofficial” visit to Oestmann’s community in Guatemala and in 2014 he stated that the Western Rite in Orthodoxy was beginning to bear more and more fruit, and that “several large groups (one of them huge) were on the verge of joining us — even half a million people in Guatemala, who were already officially petitioning the Synod, and seemed to get a positive response from our bishops at the 2011 Sobor — till suddenly their hopes were dashed.” Only a month after this comment (July 2013) Bishop Jonah was removed from his oversight of the Western Rite. [9]

However, rather than follow Girón into Eastern Orthodoxy, Oestmann turned to the Oriental Orthodox family. Discussions with the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch appear to have began in 2012 with Metropolitan Mar Clemis Eugen Kaplan of the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of the Western United States acting as intermediary. Their request to enter into communion with the Patriarchate of Antioch was discussed at the meeting of the Holy Synod in Atchaneh-Bikfaya,  Lebanon 10-14 September 2012. Matters progressed rapidly as on 16 October 2012 Oestmann, wearing full Syrian vestments, celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the Seminary according to the Syriac-Orthodox Rite of the Patriarchate of Antioch prior to his departure to the Lebanon the next day. The purpose of the visit was “that our Church may reach the full Apostolic Communion”. He arrived in Beirut on 18 October where His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I, was residing at the Monastery of St. Jacob Baradeus’ Convent in Atchaneh-Bikfaya,  Lebanon. Between 19-21 October The meetings were presided by Patriarch Zakka I with the support of   Mor Clemis Eugenio Kaplan; Mor George Saliba, Secretary of the Synod and Archbishop of Mount Lebanon; and, as envoys appointed by the Holy Synod, Mor Clemis Daniel, Metropolitan of Beirut; Mor Michael, Patriarchal Vicar for pastoral and social works; and Mor Mathías, assistant to the Patriarch. The conversations were described as taking place in “an atmosphere of deep harmony, sincerity, and brotherhood.” Oestmann brought a long report detailing the life, situation, and organisation of his Church. In summary he said that their faith “corresponds wholly and unconditionally with the catholic, apostolic, and orthodox faith as recorded in Scripture, in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and as it was given shape in the three Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus, which is the faith that the Syriac-Orthodox Church of Antioch has faithfully conserved and transmitted.” After the meetings, Patriarch Zakka sent Oestmann a note saying that, because of its importance, the conclusion reached by the envoys of the Synod was to be communicated in writing. A letter detailing this conclusion accompanied the note. In this, the Patriarch recognized the communion between the community in Guatemala and the Syriac-Orthodox Church of Antioch, designating them as the “Archdiocese of Central America.” The next step, according to the Constitution of the Holy Apostolic See of Antioch, was the consultation of the Holy Synod in order to reach the goal of the process undertaken. At the end, His Holiness gave a blessing and a pectoral ikon to Oestmann.

To His Eminence Eduardo Cristián Aguirre Oestmann
Archbishop of Central America, Guatemala

Beloved Brother in Christ:
We offer our Apostolic Benediction and the benevolent prayers to you and to the esteemed Clergy and Faithful of your Archdiocese.

Following to the decision of the Holy Synod convened from September the 10th to the 14th 2012 at Atchaneh, Lebanon, we are very pleased to have welcomed you at our St. Jacob’s Monastery and discussed the matter of having you as part of the Universal Apostolic Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. As a result of our meetings held from October the 19th to 21st, recognizing the existing intercommunion between the Universal Apostolic Syriac Orthodox Church and your Archdiocese of Central America, we willing to reaffirm our blessing and as part of the procedure to complete the process, at this point, according to the constitution of our Apostolic See of Antioch, we are going to consult their Eminences, members of the Holy Synod, to be able to fully achieve our goal, which, God willing, is going to take place at our next meeting to be held from Tuesday March the 5th 2013.

May the grace, blessing and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you and your beloved Archdiocese of Central American. Amen.

Issued on the twentieth day of October, in the year Two Thousand and Twelve of our Lord, which is the 33rd year of our patriarchal reign.

Returning to Guatemala, on 26 October 2012, at a meeting of the ICERGUA Presbytery in the Finca María Auxiliadora in La Ciénega, San Raymund, Oestmann reported in detail the outcome of his visit to Patriarch Ignatius Zakka, as well as the implications of the letter in which His Holiness recognised the communion existing with their Church and also blessed the process of ecclesiastical incorporation that had begun. All the presbytery was very satisfied with the process up to this point, and all were committed to pray intensely that the process would reach its goal.

On 3 March 2013 Oestmann returned to Beirut for further meetings with Patriarch Zakka and members of the Synod. He was officially notified of the Synod’s approval of the process of his incorporation within the Patriarchate. Patriarch Zakka then proceeded to confer on him the monastic tonsure and eskeem (the monastic cowl), giving him the spiritual and ecclesial name: of  Yacoub (Jacob), which translates in Castilian as Santiago. The name was chosen in honour of Yacoub Baradæus. As he was recognised as already being in communion with the Patriarchate, he had been received in his episcopal rank without any ordination or, it would appear, anointing with the Holy Myron. Patriarch Zakka merely symbolically clothed him with the episcopal dress and hat  and handed him a hand cross and pastoral staff. After the porrection of instruments, all the bishops present approached Mor Yacoub to support the staff with the bishop who has received it, symbolising  acceptance of the new bishop among their fellowship and that together they will maintain oyalty and unity in the Church. Members of the Holy Synod supporting the Patriarch in this were Mor Theophilus George Saliba, (Archbishop of Mount Lebanon); Mor Clemis Eugene Kaplan, (Patriarchal Vicar Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Western USA); Mor Athanasius (Monastery of Mor Ignatius of Omalor, India); Mor Clemis Daniel (Archbishop of Beirut); Mor Chrysostomos Michel (Patriarchal Institutions Atchaneh, Lebanon); Mor Timothy Matthew (Patriarchal Secretary); Mor Timothy Matthew (Patriarchal Secretary for Indian Affairs) and Mor Youhanna Chrysostom (Archbishop of Argentina).

Patriarch Zakka formerly issued the decree erecting the Archdiocese of Central America, with its headquarters in Guatemala and jurisdiction over Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, Venezuela and existing missions in other countries. The Staticon also admonished the new Archbishop “to take care of the Archdiocese with the responsibility that is conferred by Our apostolic authority, preserving and disseminating true faith and apostolic doctrine with parental love and care; to promote knowledge and spirituality of the early Fathers of the Church and Christian identity, as it was given by our Lord and His Apostles; to work intensely to spread the Word of God and the growth of the Church, establishing missions, creating parishes, schools, organisations and undertaking all other initiative necessary for the fulfilment of the ministry entrusted to him.”

These seeds for the growth of Orthodoxy are all to be welcome and owe much to the visions of three very different pioneers, whose examples have inspired many, but the parable of the sower warns of the dangers to newly implanted seeds. The multiplicity of Orthodox jurisdictions working in this area offers an opportunity for selfless collaboration and we must hope that this will be their future and that they will not treat other as rivals. It is unfortunate that the Eastern Orthodox come within two distinct jurisdictions (Greek & Antiochian Orthodox) but there has already been some positive interaction between them. Two of the Mayan clergy were ordained at the nuns’ monastery by Metropolitan Athenagoras, and at one point some of the orphans from the Hogar lived with Fr. Andrés Girón. At this point, however, the collaboration has not developed further[10] but any attempts to fragment it must be resisted. The support by clergy of other Orthodox jurisdictions, if continued in the spirit of pan-Orthodox unity which has been manifested so far, can only be fruitful. It is to be hoped that the two families of Orthodoxy will similarly show the same eirenic spirit.

The senior hierarchs of all Orthodox Churches need to set an example by their active encouragement and engagement. Both Girón and Oestmann came to Orthodoxy through uncanonical jurisdictions, whose very existence suggests that the ancient Patriarchates have largely failed to make a greater commitment to ministry outside the historic homelands of Orthodoxy which might have provided a haven for those escaping the rigid hegemony of Rome. Eastern Orthodoxy’s inflexible approach to those in ‘independent’ episcopal orders deprived Girón’s followers of direct episcopal oversight; whereas Antioch’s extraordinary flexibility in bringing Oestmann’s entire community into Orthodoxy without the need for any reordinations, has ensured that a strong leader and founder is still at the helm.

In missionary situations, where the faithful are not only learning a new faith but ‘unlearning’ the old, there will be many challenges and economia rather than rigor may be needed for some time. The Syrian Orthodox have a precedent in having authorised the use of the Roman Rite in the mission of the late Archbishop Alvares, but it would be a pity to continue with the Novus Ordo Missal when other options are available. Orthodoxy, filled with the Spirit of God, must always be charismatic but there are also dangers of importing singular interpretations of those gifts of the spirit, which may not accord with the true Orthodox tradition. Soundness of doctrine must not be diminished by changing emotions.      

The Catholic Church, which has lost so many of her faithful in recent years,  cannot be happy at these developments and will be ever vigilant to draw them back to the fold. If they can show a willingness to respond to these losses in a good spirit rather than adopting a critical and negative stance, it will be to the benefit of all concerned and manifest a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness which still needs to transform every aspect of life in Guatemala. 

Abba Seraphim

[1] “Orthodoxy Has a Great Future in Guatemala”, [http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/print31235.htm] says Mother Ines was 36 (1987) when she became Orthodox and a “History of The Orthodox Church and Monastery in Guatemala” [http://www.hogarafaelayau.org/who-we-are.shtml] gives 30 April 1986 as the date when “Mother Ines and Mother Maria left their Roman Catholic congregation in search of monastic life according to the ancient monastic tradition”, whereas another account [http://www.svots.edu/content/igumeni-ines-ayau-garcia] says she was received into Orthodoxy in 1993.

[2] Lisa Viscidi, “La Plataforma Agraria: Land Reform and Conflict in Guatemala”, Counterpunch, 8 September 2004.

[3] Victor Perera, Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemala Tragedy (University of California Press, Berkeley: 1993), p. 309.

[4] Perera, op.cit. pp.310-311;  “Guatemala: A Fragile Democracy”, National Geographic, Vol. 173, No. 6, June 1988. pp. 791, 798, 800; L. Gruson, “Land-reform crusader weighs running for presidency of Guatemala”, Globe and Mail, December 28, 1988, p. A9.; “Closing the Space: Human Rights in Guatemala, May 1987 – October 1988”, Washington, D.C., November 1988, pp. 35-36; “Father Giron Encourages Illegal Land Seizures”, Prensa Libre, June 20, 1989, p. 7; reported in Foreign Broadcasting Information Service, No. 89-147, August 2, 1989; Chicago Tribune, 12 May 1987, New York Times, 27 December 1988, Los Angeles Times, 19 March 1989.

[5] http://www.thewordfromguatemala.com/

[6] http://www.mayanorthodoxy.com/faq/

[7] Ibid.

[8] https://www.aciprensa.com/noticias/sacerdote-que-fundo-secta-en-guatemala-quedo-excomulgado/

[9] http://www.rocorstudies.org/interviews/2013/06/17/bishop-jerome-of-manhatan-on-western-rite-in-the-rocor/

[10] Ibid.

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