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The Beauty and Strength of El Paso’s Orthodox Church

The Beauty and Strength of El Paso’s Orthodox Church is Unmatched. It's a Must see.
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The Beauty and Strength of El Paso’s Orthodox Church is Unmatched. It’s a Must See.

My Convrsation with Fr Joseph of St George Antiochian Orthodox Church

I’ve been taking photos for a very long time. Like most photographers, I have my favorite subjects: churches, cemeteries and flowers.

What follows are photos of St George Antiochian Orthodox Church, in El Paso, Texas. This church is both beautiful and peaceful. I hope you enjoy the photos.

The article is one I did, after an interview with Fr. Joseph, former pastor of St George Church, for the El Paso Herald-Post.

Ever since I picked up a camera, my favorite subject has always been the Church. I’m not talking about the Baptist Church or Methodist Church.

No. I’m talking about the liturgical churches – the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Episcopal Church – any Church that possesses Apostolic Succession.

There has always been one Church I’ve wanted to photograph and write about, but never had any luck until recently.

Very recently, Rev. Dr Karl Heimer of San Pablo Lutheran Church and Ysleta Lutheran Mission Human Care introduced me to a ministerial student who has connections to Saint George Antiochian Orthodox Church, and Father Joseph Hector Abouid.

A couple of phone calls were made, and the interview was set. (Author’s note: this is just to let you know up front, that this is going to be the first in a series of articles with Fr. Joseph Hector Abouid and the Orthodox Church.)

So, what is the Orthodox Church? It’s not as prevalent in El Paso as the Catholic Church, as there are only two Orthodox Churches in town: Saint George and Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.

“The Orthodox Church, the way we understand it historically, is the original Church of the Apostles,” says Fr. Abouid. “If we look at the historicity and the path that the Church has had throughout the years, the Orthodox Church has remained the same, especially where it was first started.”

The Apostles began to found Churches in Asia Minor, Caesarea, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Moscow, Georgia and others. These Churches, according to Orthodox history are the same today as they were nearly two-thousand years ago.

The Orthodox Church has stated the same while most of the Christian world has changed. There are significant differences between, for example, the Orthodox Church and the Roman Church. The first, though seeming insignificant, rather important: the Filioque.

“The procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son is something we don’t have in our Creed,” says Fr. Abouid.

The Filioque clause is the part of the Nicene Creed where one recites “and in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father…”

This portion of the Nicene Creed indicates that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Scripture, however, indicates that it would only proceed from, come from the Father. (The word “Filioque” is a Latin word meaning “and son.”)

This led to the split between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches in 1054 A.D.

According to Fr Abouid, the Orthodox Church still recites the rest of the Creed.

“But then, both Creeds are the same,” says Fr. Abouid of the Nicene Creed without the Filioque. “We believe in one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The term Catholic actually comes from the Greek καθολικός (katholikos), which means universal. So, what is implied is the universal church, the whole world.”

“In the Christian world, back during the Apostles time, during the Holy Fathers, the first thousand years of Christianity the Church was the Church,” said Fr. Abouid. “You were a Christian, and that was it.”

During that time, you could practice your faith and receive communion in any Church within the Roman Empire. You could be from Jerusalem and attend Divine Liturgy in Rome and, barring differences in language, it would be the same, and you would be accepted.

That brings up another difference between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

If you were to travel between El Paso and Mexico City and attend services, you would notice, in the case of the Orthodox Church only one difference – language. Even if you are a member of an Antiochian Orthodox Church in the States and visited a Greek Orthodox Church in Mexico, the only difference would be language.

If you were to visit a Roman Catholic Church in Mexico, and you are a member of one in Chicago, you would notice differences beyond language. An example would be the consecration of the host during the mass.

In the United States, one kneels during this part of the mass.

In Mexico, the congregation stands. (I’ve attended mass at Santo Nino De Atocha here in El Paso, and the Priest reminds the congregation that they must kneel during the consecration).

Even though the Roman Church uses the same lectionary worldwide, there are differences within the actions taken during the Mass.

Another difference you will notice is the icons (holy images). These works are small views into heaven and the lives of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the Saints.

Like stained glass windows in the Roman Catholic Church, icons have been used to teach the faithful about God, the story of salvation, and key points from the life of Christ.

Walking through Saint George, and looking up, you can see the story of Christ around the domed ceiling.

Around the dome, you will see the birth of Christ as he lays in the manger, His baptism, His crucifixion and His resurrection. The story of salvation, the story of God’s love for humanity played out within these icons.

Another reason for the icons was for prayer, for helping others with prayer and meditation. As you sit in the Church, looking at the icons, you are focused on the event you are seeing, you are focused, and your mind tends not to wander during prayer.

“When I went to seminary I studied in Lebanon, and is ‘okay, so we were together [speaking of the Roman Catholic Church before the schism], when did they change, or when did we change if we all had icons?’” says Father Joseph about the use of icons and why we don’t see them in the Roman Church.

“The concept iconography is the same at both churches,” says Father Joseph. “For us, we believe that they are portals to that other, unseen world and they deserve veneration, not worship.”

Father Joseph pointed out that the type of art you see goes back to what was prevalent within the area before they were Christians. So, in Rome, one would see statues being used rather than icons.

“When Christianity grew in what was before the center of paganism at the time, they kept a few of their ‘church’ art which was basically, they have icons like we do, but they also kept statues,” said Father Joseph.

Another difference between the Orthodox and Roman Churches?

“Priests get married in the Orthodox Church,” says Father Joseph Abouid. “That’s something that’s never changed.”

In the Roman Catholic Church, during the First and Second Lateran Councils in 1123 and 1139, priests were barred from marrying. Before this, in 1074 Pope Gregory VII said that one seeking to be ordained must first declare a pledge to be celibate.

Then, in 1095, Pope Urban II had the wives of priests sold into slavery.

Before this, in the ninth century, Saint Ulrich, a bishop, put forth the idea that the only way to purify the Church from the worst aspects of celibacy (abortions, infanticide – see Council of Aix-la Chapelle) the church must allow priests to marry. This was the norm until Pope Calistus II and Pope Innocent II.

So, celibacy is a tradition, and not so much dogma.

“The good thing about it,” says Father on celibacy of the priesthood, “they can dedicate more of their time to the enriching of their knowledge, educating themselves and study and ministry. As opposed to a married priest.”

In the east, the practice was that all men were to get married.

“These are communities that were more influenced by Judaism,” said Father Joseph. “The High Priest was married.”

In the west, in the period before Christianity, priests did not marry in the pagan world. That tradition carried over until the second and third century where it became a topic of heated debate in Rome. In the east, where to be a rabbi one must be married, that became the tradition in the Orthodox Church.

There are so many differences and similarities between the Eastern and Western practice of faith. These are just a few, by way of introduction to the Orthodox Church. I do invite you to watch the video above or listen to the audio below of my conversation with Rev. Fr. Joseph Hector Abouid. It runs just under ninety minutes but is worth it. It is worth listening to!

In closing, Fr Abouid did have a message for everyone.

“In the beginning of the 1900s, when the first Churches were being established, in the first Orthodox communities,” says Father, speaking of when the Church first began in the United States. “It was an event that was going to happen; it was unavoidable, people would come up and knock on our doors and ask who are you, what are you. So, my final message would be the same message that Philip gave Nathaniel in the gospel of John, ‘come and see.’ Come and see.”

Father Abouid said the Church is not closed to visitors nor closed to those earnestly seeking God and their place in his world.

You can find St George Antiochian Orthodox Church at 120 North Festival Drive or give them a call at 915- 584-9100.

Divine Liturgy is at 10:30 Sunday Mornings.  For more information, visit them online or via their Facebook page.

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