Saint Raphael: the Holy Shepherd of Brooklyn

Sometimes there seems to be a saint who doesn’t really stand out, believe it or not. They are laborers in God’s vineyard, and their ‘claim to fame’ is for something other than what they’ve done. They just seem to have been in the right place at the right time. At first glance, that sums up Saint Raphael of Brooklyn perfectly. He was multi-talented, but nothing really stood out – he founded (and wrote a large number of articles for) what is still the official publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Church of North America, The Word (al—Kalimet), and published fourteen books. He was a teacher – before he came to this continent, he taught Arabic in Russia. He was an able assistant to several of his superior hierarchs. He was an organizer, and worked tirelessly to establish thirty parishes all over the continent in places as far apart as Montreal, Quebec, and Mexico City. He traveled all over the United States, establishing parishes of Arabic Orthodox from Texas to Nebraska to Washington D.C., and of course, the most famous: St. Nicholas Cathedral in Brooklyn, New York.

So far, he’s right in line with all the other missionary saints – St. Nina, St. Innocent, with whom he’s often compared, St. Tikhon, St. Arseny of Winnipeg. There were no wonderworking miracles that occurred during his lifetime: he had no startling visions, there were no miraculous cures when he prayed, neither the Prime Minister of Canada nor the President of the U.S. dramatically converted as a result of his work. What he’s also known for, of course, is being the first bishop to be consecrated on North American soil. Even his brother bishop, Innocent (Pustynskii), who shared vicar bishop duties with him under St. Tikhon, traveled to Moscow for his consecration. It seems as though Saint Raphael was just in the right place at the right time – a beneficiary of circumstances and happenstance. He was canonized in 2000 and his feast day is celebrated on February 27 or, in the Antiochian Church, on the first Saturday in November.

But with God, there are no “just happens.” When we look into the Saint’s work and life, what we find is a dedicated man who simply got on with the job with little fanfare, who cared deeply about his people. He was Syrian by birth (around Nov 8, 1860) and devoted to the Arabic Church and its people to the point where he was suspended from his priestly duties for speaking out about non-Arabic patriarchs. He later repented and was reinstated, but his devotion to his people was what led him to accept, in 1895, the pastorship of the Syrian-Arabic community in New York City.

His traveling across the continent began long before he became bishop – it’s part of what led to his consecration. As one source notes, “Raphael set out in mid-1896 on a monumental pastoral journey, in order to acquaint himself with some 4,000 Arabic-speaking Christians in thirty cities along the main rail lines between New York and San Francisco.” He would talk with Arabic people wherever he was, finding out what they wanted and needed pastorally. He made notes and at his own expense would buy and mail the prayer books, prayer ropes, and other items of piety to them, along with letters of support and encouragement.

He was a visionary. As early as 1867, he realized the need for clergy fluent in English and the adoption of English for liturgical purposes. He established classes – in English – to teach the Arabic youth about their spiritual heritage and as bishop decreed that the liturgical service books would be in English.

Saint Raphael might also have been one of the most open minded saints to live and work on our continent. Because of the mix of Christian and other faiths in both Canada and the U.S., Orthodox hierarchs had to deal with other religions, something many of them had not had to do in their home countries. “Only in America was the reality of having to live in ‘peaceful coexistence’ with other faiths encountered. Raphael quickly adapted to this situation and became highly esteemed for his grace and tact.”

On one level, a quiet worker in the vineyards. On another, a man who brought his faith to action, by shepherding the people he loved, by working toward understanding and respect for all, by doing what was set before him. Modest and humble, he simply got on with what he had to do. And perhaps that’s the best thing we can learn from him – not to worry about our progress along the path to God, but to simply do the jobs set before us to the best of our ability. It’s human nature to want approval and notice and accolades from our fellows (which Saint Raphael received – he was approached numerous times to accept Arabic dioceses, and turned them all down so he could continue his work in America.) It’s normal to want to be noticed for the work we do and the effort we put in. It’s normal to want to know that we’re on track and doing what we’re supposed to.

And most of us are so separate from God that we can’t feel His presence most of the time. So perhaps desiring praise from our brothers and sisters is a way of trying to feel the love God has for us. What Saint Raphael teaches us is not to worry about that praise. God sees, God knows, and God will reward in His own time. We may not all be officially made saints of the Orthodox church if we do that, but we will always be saints to the One who counts most, and rewards best.

NOTE: The difference in feast days is due, according to the Antiochian church, to avoid having Saint Raphael’s feast day overshadowed by another feast, as happens with the Feb. 27 date.

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