Depending on how you count, the Orthodox Christian Church has fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen autocephalous (i.e. self-governing) jurisdictions. To date, three of its autocephalous leaders—Irinej of Serbia, Ieronymos of Greece, and Anastasios of Albania—have been hospitalized with COVID-19; Irinej of Serbia died from it on November 20. At least a dozen Orthodox bishops have also died from the virus. Among the lower ranks of clergy, the numbers are even more alarming. In Russia, more than one hundred priests or monks have died.
Perhaps we should use these grim statistics to remind ourselves that the clergy often serve as “first responders” to the sick and suffering. In the age of COVID-19, a routine pastoral visit can carry genuine risk. Digging a little deeper into some of these cases, however, suggests that too many Orthodox clerics, bishops included, have acted as though they think they are immune to the virus.
Why? Have they wrongly extrapolated what they believe about the Eucharist to extend to their role as sacramental officiants? Do they naively think that God protects the clergy (or perhaps all “true” believers) from illness?
Let’s start with the case of the much-loved and respected Metropolitan Amfilohije (Radović) of Montenegro, who succumbed to COVID-19 on October 30. Prior to Patriarch Irinej’s death, Amfilohije was the most prominent Orthodox bishop to die from the pandemic. Amfilohije was also one of a dangerously large number of bishops who flouted social-distancing recommendations. Not only was he regularly seen in public without a mask, but he also suggested that large religious gatherings (such as a religious pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Vasilije Ostroski he attended in May) were “God’s vaccine.”
Patriarch Irinej presided over Amfilohije’s funeral on November 1. Thousands of mourners attended the crowded funeral. None of the clergy and few of the attendees wore masks during the long service. Nineteen days later, the patriarch died. Again, there were thousands of mourners, and again most of them ignored guidelines on masks and social distancing. Then, on December 4, the locum tenens of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the man entrusted to steer the Church through the election of a new patriarch, was himself hospitalized with COVID-19. It would be difficult to overstate the extent to which the virus has crippled the leadership of Serbian Orthodox Church.
The situation in Greece is only marginally better. To date, six of the nation’s eighty-two bishops have contracted the disease; one has died. Metropolitan Bishop Ioannis of Lagas, sixty-two, an outspoken critic of government efforts to curtail church services during the pandemic, died on November 15. The Episcopal Synod of the Church of Greece has been more willing than their Serbian counterparts in supporting government imposed, social-distancing restrictions. But there are, of course, those who publicly flout the guidelines. One priest in northern Greece urged parishioners to defy government restrictions, irresponsibly proclaiming “you’re either with Christ or the coronavirus.”