The family is a unit of society, the foundation of the nation, a domestic Church. These definitions are familiar virtually to everybody, and few would want to refute them. However, there are actions that essentially destroy families, while keeping them formally intact. In an Orthodox family, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that catechistic discussions (if any) often overlook the subject of family ethics, and without an understanding of the basics of the family life one cannot be a firm member of the Church. Besides, even elementary moral requirements associated with family life are quite often perceived by modern people as unfeasible. Most notably, this applies to abortions.
In the church
“I am disappointed in human beings,” was the first thing I heard, when I answered the phone call from a priest I knew. This priest was a father of five, a quiet and collected person, who was no stranger to moderate and appropriate humor and absolutely averse to melodrama. These words were uttered with the utmost seriousness, in an unusually suppressed, hollow voice that betrayed his barely contained emotions. I was so disconcerted at first that I didn’t know what to say. Then I learned what had happened.
With the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, this priest’s rural church (just like many other churches of the Russian Orthodox Church) was collecting signatures for an anti-abortion campaign.
When the Liturgy ended, the priest said a few words about the importance of this effort and called upon the Orthodox people to sign the petition. The priest’s address was brief, as he believed that the subject was self-evident and wouldn’t cause any controversy among the believers. There were 150 or more people at the service, and 60 or 70 of them took the Communion (it was the second Sunday of the Great Lent). Yet only about fifty people signed the petition. The others deliberately ignored the volunteers who were collecting the signatures, either walking past them silently or saying, “I don’t agree with this” as they walked away.
This parish is located quite far away from the city, so most of the parishioners purposefully come to this particular church. That is why there are few casual visitors or so-called “walk-ins”. The two parish priests diligently perform services, take confessions and are always responsive to people’s needs and requests. Due in no small part to their efforts, the number of parishioners had increased greatly in the recent years, with young and middle-aged men notably forming the greater part of the congregation.
Unexpectedly, this pro-life event revealed that two-thirds of the parishioners were not against abortion. In other words, Orthodox Christians who regularly attend services, go to confession and partake of Communion believe that abortion is acceptable. People go to church, repent their sins, purify their hearts, fight their passions, observe fasting periods, bless their houses, ask the priest’s blessing for medical operations, read morning and evening prayers, ask for God’s blessing for every new undertaking, avoid eating or drinking after midnight before Communion (some don’t even brush their teeth), yet they believe that is okay to kill your own child.
That was what shocked the priest. His reaction was quite understandable as he realized that his years of toiling the vineyards of the Lord were mostly to no avail. He was taking confessions, administering Communion, praying for his parishioners, forgiving their sins, providing advice, fulfilling their requests and performing last rites for their relatives. Naturally, he was dismayed to find out that for the majority of his parishioners it was all theatrics, a pretence, a hypocritical mask or a pious disguise they were wearing to conceal a potential or actual infanticide.
“Would you have given birth to those children?” the priest asked. The confessor’s response shook the priest to the core. “What, all ten of them?” she said.
In this context, it is worth noting the feelings with which some middle-aged women who had had abortions in the past often come to confession. The same priest told me once about a woman that repented that she had abortions in her youth.
“Tell me,” the priest asked her at the end of the sacrament of penance, “you can’t change the past or resurrect the killed infants, of course, but if you were in the same situation now, what would you have done? Would you have given birth to these children?”
The confessor’s response shook the priest to the core.
“What, all ten of them?” she said.
In the Choir Gallery
A father of a large family who has been occasionally singing in the church choir of one Orthodox church decided to ask the members of the choir to sign the anti-abortion petition. He hoped to collect at least fifteen additional signatures—every little bit helps, doesn’t it? But his hopes didn’t come true.
First, he asked a man from the choir to sign the petition to protect the unborn children, yet his response was disheartening.
“Imbeciles! They need to ensure that people have decent lives, instead of coming up with new bans! Idiots!” he said, making no effort to supress his emotions.
The women were less aggressive in their opinions, but they were equally uncompromising.
“You can’t tar everyone with the same brush. Many things can happen in a person’s life…”
The most frequently used pro-choice arguments were “You can’t tar everyone with the same brush. Many things can happen in a person’s life…”
This unfortunate collector of signatures got an earful about himself and others like him from another member of the choir who happened to be a practising physician.
“What are you, nuts? Do you know who has the most children nowadays? The homeless and the drunks… They all need to be sterilized! Do you know how people live in the real world? You’ve got everything taken care of here in the church! People sympathize with you! They give you donations! But there are people who can barely provide for one or two kids! And now you want to ban abortions? You should be sterilized yourself!”
Four or five choir members put their signatures on the petition, but on the quiet, making sure that nobody saw them.
In the Church Yard
There are only two or three days in a year when the church can not only compete with the market in terms of attendance but actually win the competition hands down. It’s Theophany (including the Eve of Theophany) and Great Saturday. Everybody knows how busy the churchyards are during these days. In a way, Great Saturday is also an exhibition of culinary arts. Festively dressed people come with their entire families, and women bring all sorts of kuliches, dyed eggs, Golgotha-shaped pascha cheese with marmalade and raisins and other dainties. Gypsies with their pail-sized kuliches, smoked sausages and three-liter bottles of whiskey add a special flair to this event. All these vibrant and joyous festivities are enhanced by the anticipation of upcoming Pascha, the Bright Resurrection of Christ, which invisibly yet undeniably marks the faces and souls of men and women, the old and the young, believers and non-believers.
Knowing that there would be many people at the Great Saturday service, the volunteers of one provincial church chose this day to collect signatures on the petition to remove abortion from free medical insurance coverage.
The parish “food blessing” group followed the long-time tradition. The priest with an holy water brush walked at the head of the procession. Smiling and saying, “Happy Feast Day!” he abundantly sprinkled not only the food laid out on the tables but its owners too, usually causing bursts of genuine joy. Then came the altar server carrying a bowl with holy water. He was followed by a boy with a pail with holy water, in case the bowl runs dry. Three choir members followed, singing the Sunday tone two troparion over and over: “When Thou didst descend into death, O Life Immortal…” Then came one of the regular parishioners with a pail of dyed eggs to give away. At the end of the procession walked a large middle-aged man with a black beard, periodically calling out in a high voice, “Give to the Lord’s church, sisters, to the Lord’s church!” He carried a small pail for donations in his hands. Behind him, walked a man distributing the Parish Bulletin, booklets with information on preparing for confession and Communion and leaflets with information about Pascha.
This was the group our volunteers joined. People are usually happy to take handouts (after all, they are free!). Often, they even ask for an extra copy for somebody they know (although later some handouts end up in a garbage bin). The volunteers in a seemingly natural way followed the procession with their petitions, asking people to sign them to protect the lives of unborn infants.
“Sign the petition please!”
“What is it?”
The volunteer explained. The people’s most frequent reaction was displeasure, even annoyance. Some were even genuinely perplexed.
“What’s wrong with it? An embryo is not a person yet!”
“How can you say that? If you plant, say, a wheat grain, a wheat head grows out of it, but the grain is wheat too! The same goes for embryos. They have all the human organs, and they have souls from the moment of conception!”
“There’s something wrong in what you’re saying! Couldn’t you choose another day… It’s such a great Feast!”
Many people simply ignored the volunteers as if they weren’t there at all, and you could read their thoughts on their faces, “What are you doing? We came to celebrate and you’re bothering us with such inappropriate matters. And in the churchyard, to boot! When it is Pascha!”
“Why are they discussing banning of abortions in the church yard? When it is Pascha!” people fumed and… called the police.
For some reason, most of the people who came to bless their kuliches before Pascha thought that that was very inappropriate time for collecting signatures to stop the killing of innocent infants. However, all these happy people had just venerated the Epitaphion [Burial Shroud] depicting Our Lord Jesus Christ who had been killed even though he was innocent. And nobody seemed to mind.
It is worth it to describe the reaction of one woman who stood behind a table heaped with festively decorated kuliches. The last drops of holy water were still falling upon her smiling face, when the anti-abortion activists approached her. Her eyes widened and her smile vanished as she turned away slowly, waving her hand as if trying to chase some annoying insects away. She said nothing, but if she were to say anything, it seemed that it would probably be something you say to ward off evil.
At the exit of the churchyard, a group of Orthodox activists under the sign, “Know Your Saint’s Day”, were literally pleading the exiting people to find out who their patron saints were and what were their feast days. When people learned that it was free, they happily received the information and then proceeded to look at the anti-abortion petitions. But few of them signed. Some left silently, without saying a word. Others made brief comments.
“I don’t agree!”
“I have a different opinion.”
“There are various situations in life!”
A stout woman in an elegant hat with a veil almost recoiled from the petitions when she learned what they were about.
“Politics here too!” she jumped to an unexpected conclusion. “What have we come to! There’s politics in the church!” she shouted on her way out, loud enough for everybody in the yard to hear.
An elderly regular parishioner who used to be a college philosophy teacher came up. Her head was slightly shaking from old age but more so from indignation.
“Why are you doing this in the church? This is a personal matter!”
The police arrived at the height of the event. The law enforcement officers approached the volunteers and politely asked what was happening.
“With the blessing of the Patriarch, we are collecting signatures on the petition to exclude abortion from free medical insurance coverage. What seems to be the problem?”
“To be honest, we don’t get it ourselves. Some disgruntled people called and said that somebody was staging an unauthorized event in the churchyard and agitating the public…”
The sentiments of most of the people who refused to sign the petition were succinctly expressed by one woman who said,
“Why did they have to spoil such a feast!”
These examples demonstrate that our people are still unaware of the fundamentals of not only Christian but regular human morality. If we limit catechesis to dogmas of faith, then our efforts would largely be in vain, because there is no sense in teaching eternal truths to people if they are willing to justify infanticide for sake of their convenience.