“There is a First-Hierarch in the American Church who prayerfully unites us all.”

A conversation in Moscow with Archimandrite Zaccheaus Wood, representative of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) to the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.

On 25 April, the First-Hierarch of the Orthodox Church in America, His Beatitude Metropolitan JONAH, will arrive in Moscow. Father Zacchaeus, could you please tell us what kind of questions Patriarch KIRILL and Metropolitan JONAH might discuss during their meeting. And what is the schedule for his visit to Russia?

I will begin with the question about his schedule, since it’s a lot simpler to answer.

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah should arrive in Moscow on Saturday, 25 April. He will be met at the airport by the newly-appointed head of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Hilarion of Volokalamsk. Bishop Alexander of Dmitrov will accompany the First-Hierarch of the Orthodox Church in America throughout the course of his visit.

From the airport, we will try to arrive on time for the Procession of the Cross at our St Catherine Church of the Field; and thus His Beatitude can immediately after his arrival in Moscow visit the Moscow metochion of the American Church. We hope that he will head the last Paschal Cross-Procession of Bright Week.

Saturday evening, Metropolitan Jonah will pray at Danilov Monastery.

On Sunday, 26 April, on [Doubting] Thomas Sunday, Metropolitan Jonah and His Holiness, Patriarch Kirill will serve together in the Church of Christ the Saviour.

After that will be a very important event for the American Orthodox Church: His Beatitude the Metropolitan will serve a moleben before the relics of Saint Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow, whom we call the Apostle to America.

On Monday, 27 April, a visit is planned to Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra and then a meeting with the US Ambassador to Russia.

The next day there will be a meeting of Metropolitan Jonah with Patriarch Kirill, at which they will discuss questions concerning, among other things, the problems of Orthodox unity on the American continent and the perspectives for strengthening relations between the American and Russian Orthodox Churches. Metropolitan Jonah was recently chosen as head of Orthodox Church in America, and His Holiness, Patriarch Kirill recently became head of the Russian Orthodox Church; so this will be the first meeting between the two First-Hierarchs. We certainly hope that, by the mercy of God, this meeting will be very fruitful and important for both Churches.

Then His Beatitude Jonah will go for a pilgrimage to Valaam. Valaam is for him a kind of spiritual home, since before taking monastic vows, while still “in the world”, he lived for almost a year on Valaam. And he considers himself a novice of Valaam Monastery. For him, this is like a return home. But now not as a novice but as First-Hierarch.

And with Valaam is connected the sources of the Orthodox Church in America. The first preachers and propagators of Orthodoxy on the American continent were monks from Valaam Monastery—Saint Herman of Alaska, Hieromartyr Juvenaly, and others. St Herman received his spiritual training, his monastic foundation, on Valaam. And so for Metropolitan Jonah and for all of us, this pilgrimage should be spiritually very important. This will be a return to our sources.

Then Metropolitan Jonah will come back to Moscow and on Saturday, 2 May, will serve liturgy at our metochion, in the Church of Great Martyr Catherine. For us, this is a great source of spiritual joy, and we thank God for it.

On that same Saturday will be the Annual St Innocent Seminar [Readings], which is organized jointly by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and St Tikhon’s Orthodox University; this year’s Seminar is dedicated to the fifteenth anniversary of the opening of the OCA’s Representation to the Moscow Patriarchate. The seminar-readings will be held in one of the university buildings on Pyatnitskaya Street. And in the church there that evening, will be the Saturday-evening vigil-service; then on Sunday, 3 May, the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, at the Dormition Cathedral in the Kremlin, will be His Beatitude’s second co-celebration during this visit with His Holiness, Patriarch Kirill.

On Monday, 4 May, His Beatitude Jonah should already be leaving Moscow for his return-trip home to America.

Regarding what kind of questions will be discussed during the visit between Metropolitan Jonah and Patriarch Kirill, naturally it is difficult to say ahead of time. The Spirit of God we pray will inspire the heads of the two Churches during their conversation. Of course there will be mutual congratulations and greetings, since they are both newly-appointed primates; such formalities have their place. And then, I think, they might perhaps try get off to the side alone together for a private discussion of various issues, outside of official circumstances; because it is very important when heads of Churches, like ordinary people, get to know each other and become friends. And we have our hopes that between His Holiness Patriarch Kirill and His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah there will be warm relations.

What, from your point of view, has changed in the life of the Orthodox Church in America with the choosing of the new First-Hierarch?

Unfortunately it’s no secret that the last few years have been a difficult time for the Orthodox Church in America. This is connected with a series of financial scandals which have been very painful time for all of us as faithful sons and daughters of the Church. When the time came for the choosing of a new First-Hierarch, the members of the Church and all the delegates at the All-American Council were extremely worn out by these scandals. No one wanted any more reminders, any more hints or allusions; it had all been just too difficult.

Vladyka Jonah*, then a bishop, was a new person in the Church hierarchy who was in no way connected with those scandals and problems. He was a breath of fresh air in the life of our Church. Of course we were all stunned: how could it be that a person with whom we are not that well acquainted, be chosen as Church First-Hierarch? But we are certain that this was of the Holy Spirit; because only the Lord can inspire people to choose a Head of the Church.   [*Vladyka: an endearing word for a bishop]

And we see already the beginning of a new epoch in the life of the Orthodox Church of America. And we perceive this with tremendous enthusiasm. Metropolitan Jonah has been able to unite under his omophorion very different kinds of people, and that takes tremendous wisdom and strength of prayer. I feel sure that this has come about because of his monastic leavening. He is a sincere and genuine monk. We thank God that now in the American Church there is such a First-Hierarch, who prayerfully unites us all. This is the most important change in the life of our Church.

Earlier we would choose a person who could be a good administrator, who had the associated hierarchical experience. But Metropolitan Jonah before his election had been a hierarch for only 11 days; he had no experience of this type. But experience comes with time. On the other hand, he does have faith, sincerity, love for the Church and a desire that everything be better in the Church; all this he does have. And we will be glad if we can share this with the Russian Orthodox Church during Metropolitan Jonah’s time in Russia.

Many Orthodox mass media write about the possibility of forming one united Orthodox Church in the territory of the USA. Could you comment on this point of view?

That’s a very complicated thing. There already exists a Local Orthodox Church located specifically on the American continent—the Orthodox Church in America. This is a fact which became a reality in 1970, when the Moscow Patriarchate through a Patriarchal tomos [edict] granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America. This is a reality not subject to doubt. But we also understand that there are Local Orthodox Churches which do not recognize our autocephaly ; for example the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria.

There are no questions regarding canonical status; everyone is ready to concelebrate with us and recognize our sacraments. But there remains the question of our autocephaly status. Resolution of this is very complicated. But we have already existed about 40 years; and despite such problems--now and again influenced by political factors—we know that the Church is progressing. People come to us from other confessions. We have now very many new converts. Among the present members of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, there are no hierarchs who were born into an Orthodox family; in this also is our distinctiveness. And Vladyka Jonah himself also at first was baptized into the Episcopal Church.

I think that at some time in America there will be one Church, but that is a very long and complicated process. If it happened easily and quickly, perhaps we would not value it.

We know that many people wish there would be in America one united Church. The Eastern patriarchs have many cares about spiritually feeding their flocks on the American continent. So we should not judge them but rather try together with them to discuss this question, and little by little move toward its solution. But when and how this will happen, we can’t even make conjectures.

I hope that during their conversation, Metropolitan Jonah and Patriarch Kirill will discuss various possibilities for the normalization of this situation. We know: where there is true oneness—there also is the Spirit of God; and where there is disagreement and discord—everything is completely different. And we hope in the mercy of God; and at every liturgy we always pray for the union, the oneness, of the Churches. Oneness—this is our main goal.

The American Orthodox Church has great reverence for two missionaries who came from Russia to the American land—Saint Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow; and Saint Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow. Tell us, please, what is being done to preserve the missionary spirit and tradition in the Orthodox Church in America. What is the direction and orientation of missionary work in your Church today?

We have great reverence both for Patriarch Tikhon and for Saint Innocent, referring to them as the enlighteners and apostles of America; and it is in honor of Saint Innocent that we have in Moscow the earlier-mentioned Annual St Innocent Seminar, held this year on May 2. These saints are an example and inspiration for us. Indeed, the idea of autocephaly, the idea of forming one Local Church on the American continent, is the idea of Holy Hierarch Tikhon. He himself consecrated an Arab hierarch to feed the Arab flock in America, and consecrated Serbian hierarchs to feed the Serbian diaspora. Saint Tikhon thought that there should be one Church which would unite people of different nationalities: Serbs, Russians, Ukrainians, Carpathians, Greeks, Arabs….

Patriarch Tikhon is the father of the Orthodox Church in America. He was a very wise shepherd; he found the golden mean for both preserving the wealth of Orthodox traditions and of translating them into a language understood by Americans. And he succeeded in it.

Saint Innocent also was a great missionary. Thanks to his labors, the natives of Alaska became Orthodox; and Orthodoxy became their native religion.

In the American Church, every priest has a tremendous desire to spread the faith. Here in Russia, the Orthodox are in the majority; and almost everyone knows what Orthodoxy is. So there is no need here for a detailed explanation of Orthodox concepts and traditions, although even in Russia today there is a great need for missionary work; so what can we say about America, where the Orthodox are a minority?

But missionary work for us is also a great responsibility; we must ourselves know more about our faith in order to talk about it with people who know nothing about Orthodoxy. Thus every Orthodox person in America should become to some degree a missionary, if only to explain to his or her neighbor the fundamentals of our Orthodox faith; missionary responsibilities are very real for us.

It is said that now in America, a large number of people are converting to Orthodoxy.

As you know, Western Christianity is changing now, and I would not say for the better. How people relate now to ethical and moral issues is entirely different than before. Churches, like society, are changing. One can no longer discuss the issue of homosexuality; one cannot say plainly that it is not right. There is intense discussion about the possibility of a female priesthood.

But many people do not want to and are not able to reconcile with these changes; they cannot understand why their Church is changing before their very eyes. And they are seeking a Church which has not changed since Apostolic times. And that Church is the Orthodox Church. She is the one Church that has remained unchanged from the time of the Apostles. And many of such seekers come to us, to the Orthodox Church in America, because it’s easier to communicate with us, since our services, on the whole, are in English. And for the ordinary American, services in English are more understandable. Services in the Greek churches are often in Greek, in the Serbian churches often in Serbian, in the Russian Church Abroad often in Church-Slavonic. A person seeking knowledge about Orthodoxy can find it easier in our parishes. And that the services are in English—this also a type of missionary endeavour.

Everyone knows Dostoevsky’s phrase, “Beauty will save the world.” We know of successful missionary efforts through the arts: exhibitions of icons; lectures about Russian iconography (which is a reflection of the religious consciousness of the Russian people); and talks on Russian literature and religious philosophy; the art of music and performances by Russian choirs also excite great interest. In your opinion, on American soil, which of these types of “preaching through the arts” might have more success?

Naturally, exhibitions of Orthodox icons are very important for missionary purposes, because icons are theology in color, theology through painting. People come and see and feel the grace of God which pours out through icons, both ancient and contemporary. And when ancient icons are seen together with contemporary ones, then one feels the bond between generations, between different times and epochs. And this also is very important for those people who are seeking stability, seeking for a connection with ancient, original Christianity. Our modern world lacks that stability and sense of permanence, of eternity, which is unique to the Orthodox Church. And these bonds and ties are very important for people; they see that the fundamentals—what is cardinal—does not change in the Orthodox Church.

Of course, church singing is also very important; this also is beauty, this also is part of our wealth. Concerts by church choirs lift us up toward heaven; and we see that church-singing and a return to folk and national traditions always arouses an interest in Orthodoxy. I remember when your choir from Sretensky Monastery in Moscow visited the American continent, that there was a great upsurge of interest in the traditions of Russian church-music. If such choir concerts could be combined with exhibits of icons and other objects of church art, then, it seems to me, the impression would be even deeper—Orthodox culture would be presented in greater fullness.

Interview conducted by Hieromonk Paul Shcherbachev.

29 апреля 2009 г.

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