A Light from the East: What to know about and learn from UD’s Orthodox Christians

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The University of Dallas’ affirmation of Catholic teaching and the values of Western Civilization will seem familiar to most of UD’s students. The vast majority are Roman Catholic while some are Protestant. Despite these two having many differences, both have been ultimately influenced by cultures and ideas of Western Europe and the United States. As such, this tradition will seem natural to UD’s mostly conservative student body of a western Christian orientation. 

Yet for one group of students at UD, their Christian faith is rooted in an entirely different culture and mindset, practically unknown to most of UD. They are Orthodox Christians, a small but slowly growing group of students whose faith lives are relatively obscure to the majority of the student body.

Despite being a tiny minority in the United States, the Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest body of Christians globally. The Orthodox and Catholics were originally one Church for roughly the first thousand years of Christian history. However, the Church split over theological issues such as the role of the bishop of Rome and the wording of the Nicene Creed, among others. The resulting division left two Churches: the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, which have remained to this day. 

The Orthodox arrive at their faith from many different backgrounds, yet share a similar desire to find a faith that exhibits values UD students hold dear: Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Most were converts from other religious faiths who either joined on their own accord or were brought in with their families. 

Sophomore English major Anya Van Arnam, the president of the UD chapter of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship, was initially raised atheist, but then began investigating religion and Christianity in middle school. “I toured around a lot of Protestant churches and looked at the Catholic Church and the Episcopalians before coming into Orthodoxy,” said Van Arnam, eventually becoming Orthodox at 18. “It was a long journey, but I’m really glad I found Orthodoxy.” 

Others, such as Becca Telander, senior philosophy major, was in the Anglican Church in North America, but then converted to Orthodoxy shortly before coming to UD. “I eventually decided I could no longer maintain my faith within that church,” said Telander, finding that research on her theological issues with Roman Catholicism were solved with the Orthodox tradition.

Though they are united in one faith, the Orthodox at UD hail from different parts of the Church: due to Orthodoxy’s more decentralized structure, Orthodox Christians belong to various jurisdictions — Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Antiochian Orthodox are a few examples — yet they can commune in parishes of other jurisdictions. 

Sophomore classics and philosophy major Jocelyn Connour is officially part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which is under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate. Yet, while at UD, she attends a parish that is part of the Orthodox Church in America, which was granted its own jurisdiction by the larger Russian Orthodox Church to better manage affairs in the United States. And though Van Arnam and Telander are both Antiochian Orthodox, Telander is Western Rite. An equivalent to this is the various Eastern Rites of the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Byzantines. 

When asked how students react to them being Orthodox, the interviewees said it was a mix of responses, though generally most students do not know much about Eastern Christianity. Many will assume that the Eastern Orthodox are just Byzantine Catholics or that one can only be Orthodox if they are ethnically Greek or Russian. 

However, Charity Wells, junior psychology major and an OCA Orthodox Christian, noted that although most people don’t know what Orthodoxy is, there is a great curiosity to learn more. “When they hear that I’m Orthodox, they are always interested in finding out more,” Wells explained, adding that the Catholics are at least more familiar with the Orthodox Church than Protestants are. 

UD’s education has actually helped Orthodox students add depth to class discussions and has also strengthened their faith. Telander noted that she could help explain certain nuances in Lit Trad IV that dealt with “Crime and Punishment,” as Russia has deep Orthodox roots. At the same time, theology classes encouraged her to look deeper into certain topics. 

“It pushed me to do a lot of my own independent research to make sure I had good responses,” Telander said.

Faith differences aside, the Orthodox at UD have much admiration for their Western counterparts. Connour pointed out the immense humility that UD Catholics have, especially in comparison to how some converts to Orthodoxy can act. “There is so much pride in the Orthodox Church with a lot of young people converting”, especially with those who are heavily involved with social media. At the same time, she noted that the physical beauty of many Catholic parishes left much to be desired. “I have never really been in a Catholic church that was as beautiful as a Russian church” she said. This is especially important as aesthetic beauty is critical to Orthodox worship and liturgy. 

Though the community is small, there are plans in the works for greater Orthodox outreach to the UD community. Van Arnam wants OCF to help build a strong faith community while also wishing to educate students more about Orthodoxy. “Even if you are not Orthodox, you are always welcome to come up to me or our members to ask questions,” said Van Arnam. There are plans to host prayer services, as well. 

Orthodox and Catholic Christians will certainly have disagreements, especially at a place with such a strong Christian culture as UD. Yet UD’s Orthodox hold much in common with the rest of UD, and want to see its mission succeed. “I am so grateful for UD,” said Van Arnam, hopeful for what the future holds for the Orthodox Christians of UD. 

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