In the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), our Orthodox jurisdiction granted self-governance known as autocephaly (i.e., the OCA elects its own bishops and does not answer to a foreign hierarch), the Second Sunday after Pentecost is dedicated to All Saints of North America.
This is a logical extension of the post-Pentecost theme of last Sunday, narrowing the focus of holiness to those who labored on behalf of the Gospel and the Orthodox Faith in our own country.
The first American saint so recognized by the Church was St. Herman of Alaska, acknowledged concurrently with the granting of autocephaly in 1970. St. Herman, a missionary monk in a group of 10 from the Valaam Monastery in northwest Russia, came to the Alaskan peoples in 1794 and lived first on Kodiak Island and then Spruce Island until his repose in 1837.
On hearing of the martyrdom of 14 year-old Peter the Aleut, killed by Franciscans while in captivity in California, St. Herman immediately declared Peter a saint; thus St. Peter the Aleut is listed among the North American Saints. Others continued the mission among the Alaskan peoples, notably the Proto(first-)martyr Priestmonk Juvenaly, the Priest-martyr Jacob Netsvetov, and Apostle-to-America Bishop Innocent (Veniamin). These faithful shepherds translated the Scriptures and services of the Church into the native languages and fearlessly preached and taught the Gospel amidst opposition from unbelievers and the harsh natural environment.
In the lower part of the continent, the Priest Alexis Toth with his Parish was received into the Orthodox Church from his Eastern-rite Roman Catholic past, signaling a return to Orthodox roots for many Uniates. St. Tikhon (Belavin), future Patriarch of Moscow (d. 1925), organized Orthodox Church life eventually consecrating Bishop Raphael (Hawaweeny) as the first bishop elevated in North America. Bishop Raphael criss-crossed the United States ministering to the needs of the scattered parishes. With the blessing of St. Tikhon, the Priest John Kochurov was instrumental in establishing parishes in several states as well as overseeing the construction of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago, IL; St. John returned to his native St. Petersburg, Russia, only to become the first Priest-martyr of the Bolshevik Revolution on October 31, 1917.
“There is no greater proof for the existence of God than the lives of the saints” (Met. Hierotheos Vlachos). This is why we commemorate All Saints of North America. Their lives bear witness to the truth of God in our country. Their examples empower us to bear the same witness to the truth of God in our country, our state, our county, and our local community. Consider the impact of the lives of St. Herman, the Martyr Peter, etc., etc. The Good News of salvation begun in the tiny nation of the Jews has reached across the oceans, the mountains, and the fields to give birth to the one true Faith in Christ in the hearts of Americans.
Providentially, this Sunday of the All Saints of North America coincides with the great American civil holiday of the 4th of July – Independence Day. Americans are freedom-loving, self-sufficient, and hard-working people. We possess a degree of prosperity and material success unprecedented in the history of the world. America is composed of peoples from every other part, condition, and philosophy of the world. As acknowledged by the Founding Fathers of our nation, we are bound together by fundamental principles of a God-created origin, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness under our common laws of equality, mutual respect, and basic morality.
Though the foundational principles of our American constitution are being challenged today in ways not done so in their history, and though as a human constitution (see 1 Pet. 2:13) our civil institutions will always be imperfect, still this 4th of July provides an opportunity to celebrate the blessings given and maintained among us by God. The first and foremost blessing is the freedom to worship the true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and rejoice in the Gospel of Jesus Christ for our life and salvation.
We Orthodox Americans are called first and foremost to be saints in North America just like those holy ones we exalt today. We are called to transform what is good and right in our country into the virtuous life of the Kingdom of God. “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus…” (1 Tim. 2:1-5).
One striking aspect of the hymns for this Sunday is the mention of the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary being the Protectress of our American land. She also figures prominently in the icon of the North American Saints.
No matter where our earthly allegiances lie, regardless of our national or ethnic origins, our ties to the Kingdom of God predominate. She and the saints pray for us and encourage us in this divine life. “Let it be to me according to your word,” the Virgin responded to the angel Gabriel, conceiving God in her womb (Lk. 1:38).
We with all the saints repeat this same response, this same vow, this same creed of allegiance to God who saves us unto everlasting life. As with the Theotokos, God has called us to be participants in His plan of salvation here in this American land.