Everyone knows that Orthodoxy doesn’t allow married men to become bishops. This is kind of a live issue here in America, because a lot of our jurisdictions have trouble finding qualified episocopal candidates, while excellent priests are ineligible if they are married. I wouldn’t hold my breath for a revival of the married episcopate, for a whole bunch of practical reasons. But what’s often lost in the conversation about the celibate episcopate is the category of widowers. That’s what we’re going to start talking about today.
I have long been fascinated by widower bishops. They got married, often had children, experienced the challenges of family life that force a man to grow up and prioritize others over himself. They didn’t get into the clergy to become powerful bishops — they were married when they were ordained, so they knew that their ceiling was the priesthood. They all suffered immense loss — the kind of tragedy that can break a person, and often does. They all had to at least consider the possibility of leaving the priesthood and remarrying, as so many widowed priests actually do. Yet this particular group of widowed priests chose a different path — a path of celibacy for the rest of their lives.
Of course, most widowed priests who remain priests do not go on to become bishops. With some help from our SOCHA Facebook followers, I’ve been able to identify 29 widower bishops in American Orthodox history, from St. Innocent of Alaska to the six active widower bishops serving in our jurisdictions today. Without digging too deeply yet, here are some basic facts about these 29 hierarchs:
- Over half of the widower bishops (16 of 29) were consecrated in the OCA or its predecessors (the Russian Archdiocese and the Metropolia).
- Another five were in ROCOR, plus one in the Moscow Patriarchate. All told, 22 of the 29 bishops were in one of the Russian jurisdictions. In contrast, the Greek and Antiochian Archdioceses have only had one widower bishop apiece.
- Six active bishops are widowers: the hierarchs Nikon Liolin, Michael Dahulich, and David Mahaffey (OCA), John Abdalah (Antiochian), Ilia Katre (Albanian-EP), and Nicholas Olhovsky (ROCOR).
- For 27 of the (future) bishops, I was able to identify the age when they were widowed. The median age of these men, at the time of they become widowers, was 54.
- The younger group (under 54) had a median age of 42 when they were widowed and waited an average of 13 years between the death of their wives and their consecration to the episcopacy.
- The older group (54 and up) had a median age of 64 when they were widowed and waited an average of just 2 years before becoming bishops.
- ROCOR has been particularly willing to consecrate older widowers as bishops. The four oldest widowers on the list — ranging for 70 to 82 — were in ROCOR.
Only one of the bishops on this list — St. Innocent — is a canonized saint, but several more left behind significant legacies and are considered, at least by some Orthodox Christians, to be saints. These include:
- Metropolitan Leonty Turkevich, longtime primate of the Russian Metropolia (predecessor to the OCA), and someone who could very reasonably be canonized in the not-terribly-distant future
- Archbishop Arseny Chahovtsov, a Russian Metropolia bishop who is regarded by some members of the OCA’s Canadian Archdiocese as a saint
- Bishop Basil Rodzianko, who was an active bishop (in the OCA) for only a few years, but had a long “retirement” as a traveling evangelist and teacher
- Bishop Andrei Rymarenko, a ROCOR bishop who, as a married priest, founded a women’s monastery, and is a notable figure in the life of Fr. Seraphim Rose
- Bishop Mitrophan Znosko-Borovsky, also of ROCOR, who was widowed at 80, consecrated at 83, and lived for another decade, regarded by many as a wise and venerable elder
On the flip side, two of the 29 widower bishops were forced to retire due to some kind of problem. No need for me to go into details, but I think it’s reasonable to characterize those cases as being on the “unsuccessful” end of the spectrum.
Probably the most striking thing about this little collection of facts is just how many of the widower bishops in American Orthodox history have been in the OCA/Metropolia and ROCOR — and how few have been in the other jurisdictions, especially the Greek and Antiochian Archdioceses. This might be an indication that these other jurisdictions are not taking advantage of a potential pool of qualified hierarchical candidates — widower priests who choose to remain priests and live in celibacy. By considering these men as viable candidates for the episcopacy, the jurisdictions could, perhaps, discover a small but significant number of diamonds in the rough, for the ultimate benefit of the whole Church.