An interview with His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion,
First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia
by Tatyana Veselkina
Cherry blossoms have already come to New York, and the syringas will soon bloom. Metropolitan Hilarion celebrated Pascha in 2013 in New York with the “Protectress” of the Russian diaspora, and soon after the Bright Holiday, he marked his fifth anniversary as First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad.
Your Eminence, for five years now you have led the Russian Church Abroad as part of a united Russian Orthodox Church. What have these years of union given us?
Turning back, I think: Where do I begin? I can say this: the annual return to her homeland of our Protectress—the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God “of the Sign”—and the pilgrimages throughout the various dioceses of Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and this year it will go to Vladivostok and Japan for the first time.
I can talk about the teachers, the monks and priests who came from Russia, Ukraine, enriching our Orthodox traditions. This exchange is continuing, and expanding. Hundreds of students and young people who go to Russia and the CIS not only to meet other youth but to do real work—restoring Russian holy sites in Solovki and Tikhvin, for instance.
I could tell you about the publications, films, returned archival documents. Or about the all-diaspora conferences, joint youth pilgrimages… The marriages, and now their own offspring who are born on various continents. You can read all about this on the Internet. But this could not have happened without our joint prayer at the Divine Altar, without the spiritual enrichment of Eucharistic communion with the Mother Church, her episcopacy, clergymen and laity. Naturally, we might have differing points of view in some matters. It is important that the unity of our Church exist exclusively on the foundation of Truth and purity. That is why the reestablishment of prayerfully communion within the Russian Church, the fifth anniversary of which we celebrated last year, is in our opinion an historic event, and the most important one in recent decades.
Do you often travel and perform divine services in the Fatherland, do you pray at the holy sites in the Homeland?
I had visited many more holy sites when I was still vicar bishop in New York and the diocesan bishop in Australia. Now I only have the chance to serve in or near Moscow, and only during official church events, whereas before I had more of an opportunity to travel to the holy places of Russia and Ukraine with our pilgrims from various countries. The first time, as Bishop of Manhattan, I came to Russia in 1990 and over the two-month pilgrimage—June and July—I visited Valaam and St Petersburg, Kiev and Pochaev Lavra, where I met its prior, Archimandrite Onoufry, now Metropolitan of Chenovitsa and Bukovino. Then I also met my relatives in Ukraine. I had always wished to learn more about my family’s roots, my cousins, but I dared not hope that this would ever happen. With time I came to know other relations in Russia with the help of a genealogist in St Petersburg I found others living in Russia removed by ten generations.
Vladyko, how did your family end up living outside of their Homeland?
I was born in Canada, and my parents were from Obenizhe, in Volynia oblast. This small town exists to this day, in what is now Ukraine. When Volhynia became part of Poland, the authorities began a policy of “Polification”: schools were forced to teach Polish, and they tried to introduce the new calendar to the Church.
Then my father suggested to my mother that they move to Canada, which was in needs of workers to cultivate virgin lands. My brothers and sister were born there, as was I, the youngest. At home we spoke two languages—Ukrainian and English, I learned Russian later, when I enrolled in seminary in Jordanville, in the US. As most immigrants, we led a “double life,” Canadian and Russian, rich with tradition and a spiritual legacy, and never separated our people into Russians and Ukrainians: we always felt we were one people.
My parents were literate, but like all immigrants, lived in constant need: our farm barely provided for us, and my father was constantly looking for more work.
During the summer I would help my parents with farm work: from the age of eight my father and I would work the mower and baler. Then I would work alone on a tractor and combine, and from the age of twelve I drove a car. Like all children, I would tire of monotonous work, but when I grew up I was grateful to my parents for giving me the opportunity to learn how to labor and value love for work.
For what other character traits do you owe gratitude to your parents?
Hospitality, honesty, humility in everyday life. My parents were always satisfied with the simple things, they were kind and welcoming, and for me this style of life became natural.
Who influenced your decision to enter monasticism and become a priest?
Church services made deep impression upon me. Archbishop Panteleimon (Rudyk) would often come to perform divine services; he was under the omophorion of the Moscow Patriarchate. Our farm was located not far from Spirit River. Among the Ukrainian farms there was Holy Trinity Church, but it did not have a regular priest. Clergymen of various jurisdictions would alternate performing divine services and services of need.
The idea of a bishop fascinated me. As a six-year-old, I viewed him as someone from heaven. Coming home, I would gather icons and candles and would “play the priest.” When I was eight, I went to the woods near the house and set up my own secret “church,” adorning it with icons and praying there.
As an adolescent I loved to listen to religious broadcasts on Canadian radio, I would order Orthodox literature, journals and books. Vladyka Panteleimon would sometimes give me an icon, or a booklet, and predicted “You will be a priest.” All through high school I felt in my heart that it was just a preparation for seminary and priesthood.
In Edmonton, I met Bishop Savva (Sarachevich) of the Russian Church Abroad, a person of lofty spirituality and rare kindness. I would tell him about my desire to go to seminary, and Vladyka inspired me with his stories of monasticism.
With his blessing, I went to America, to Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville. This was in November, 1967. Among the picturesque farmhouses, woods and lakes was a snow-covered monastery with a wondrous golden-domed church and a large monastic building—a little part of Holy Rus. At first it was very difficult for me. I even began to despair, and wrote to Vladyka Savva asking him to receive me in Canada as a novice. He replied that if I have the desire to become a real monk, I must remain in seminary and patiently endure all tribulations. I was consoled by his response.
When my studies concluded, I didn’t want to leave because I came to love the monastery so much, the monks, Archbishop Averky (Taushev), the seminary rector, whose cell-attendant I was the last few years of his life. This was a man of profound faith and unusual erudition. We were all amazed at the purity of his soul and his kindness.
After graduating, I taught for some time, but mostly I worked in the print shop: I would typeset articles for the English-language periodical Orthodox Life, then in Russian for Pravoslavnaya Rus’. There I got experience in typesetting and editing.
You became one of the youngest bishops in the Church Abroad—Bishop of Manhattan, then Australia and New Zealand, and fifteen years later in New York again. But it was not the same as it was in the 20th century. The last century was an entire epoch in the history of the Church Abroad. For 90 years she ministered to Russians, who, striving to preserve their faith wherever they went, always made it a priority to build churches wherever they ended up. Has ROCOR’s mission changed in any way now? What challenges does the Church face in our day?
Even now we try to preserve what we have been able to build over the decades: churches, parishes, missions and communities on four continents, we try to maintain them and minister to the faithful.
We have a broad front of pastoral and missionary work in the US. Today we are witnessing a fifth wave of emigres, so the missionary experience the Russian diaspora has accumulated is in demand today. Virtually every city in America has Russian Orthodox Christians, people who need spiritual care, who need the attention of a priest. The Moscow Patriarchate, in accordance with the Tomos of Autocephaly with the Orthodox Church in America, does not have the right to create new parishes on the territory of the USA. Our Church is not bound by such restrictions, but is financially difficult for us to build new churches. With God’s help, however, communities are gradually coalescing; they find the means and build churches. Among the parishioners are many newly-converted, former Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jesuits, and even sectarians searching for the Truth, who turn to Orthodoxy and become active and zealous members of our Church.
If one looks at the practice of conducting divine services in the parishes of the Church Abroad, it is mostly in Church Slavonic and in accordance with the Julian calendar, while most of the Patriarchal parishes serve in English. Is this a sign that the Russian diaspora is trying to preserve the Russian tongue?
For now most of our parishes conduct services in Church Slavonic, while the Russian language, naturally, is kept for sermons and internal communication within the parish. It is a curious thing that the descendants of the first waves of emigres preserved their knowledge of Russian, and the children of those who came from Russia 10-20 years ago often don’t speak it at home. But by and large, of course, assimilation does occur naturally, which happens to all nationalities in this country. Even if many speak Russian, the average Russian American doesn’t write grammatically (I am not talking about those for whom Russian is a profession). One can sometimes only tell by the name or surname that someone has Russian roots. They often only come to church once a year, on Pascha. Orthodox Christians marry those of other faiths, and their children are often not raised the way one would wish.
As opposed to eastern America, the West Coast and Australia had a later wave of immigrants, mostly from China, and so the Russian traditions and language are better preserved.
Don’t parish schools help?
They are necessary, even important, but they only involve a small percentage of Russian children. In addition to schoolchildren, we must pay attention to youth. I am happy to say that our clergymen take active participation in the work of the Synodal Youth Department: they organize joint conferences with youth in Russia and Ukraine. Young people come home filled with impressions, many find their mates—other Orthodox Christians, and this is important. This summer, as part of the “Tikhvin” project, young people from Albany, NY, will go to work in a convent near St Petersburg.
At the same time as missionary work in the traditional centers of the Russian diaspora, we try to found parishes where people seek the true faith, in countries that are not Orthodox or even Christian.
How are you reaching those countries?
We didn’t find them, the Lord sent them to us. The first were the Haitians. When I was still Bishop of Manhattan in the 1990’s, I would travel to Port-au-Prince to conduct divine services at a parish. There was only one parish and two priests at the time. Interestingly, today all the priests in Haiti are teachers by profession: they both conduct divine services and teach children. Two students from Haiti are studying in the Moscow Patriarchate’s seminary in France now, and there are more who wish to enroll.
Two communities of the Church Abroad exist in the Dominican Republic: one dedicated to the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God and one in the name of St Seraphim of Sarov. The Dominican parishioners are mostly Russian wives of Dominicans, just like in Costa Rica. Our local priest had studied in the Soviet Union before his ordination, so he speaks Russian and serves in Spanish and Church Slavonic.
Hiermonk German (Castro) serves in the town of Camuala, Nicaragua, ministering to the local populace, and we hope to establish an Orthodox church in Managua for our compatriots.
Not long ago, Priest Peter Jackson, who, before having converted to Orthodoxy spent many years as a Protestant missionary in South America together with his matushka Steliana, returned from Guatemala where they visited several thousand newly-converted Mayans. Having examined his report, I gave Fr Peter blessing to participate in an Orthodox seminar run by the Greek Metropoliate which would prepare clergymen for more than 300 Orthodox parishes in the country, where they are now hoping for a priest.
For almost ten years, an Orthodox mission of ROCOR has been in Indonesia. It is headed by Archimandrite Daniel (Byantoro), who translated the Orthodox services into the local languages—Indonesian and Javanese.
Recently you ordained priests for communities in Pakistan…
I’ve never been to Pakistan myself: I paid heed to warning of the danger of being Orthodox and a foreigner, so three Pakistanis were ordained in Sri Lanka. Fr Adrian Augustus travels to Pakistan from Australia. Pakistan is the second most-populated Muslim nation in the world after Indonesia. About 4 percent of the population there is Christian: half are Catholic, the other half Anglican.
Fr Adrian (before baptism Vishal Augustus) the dean and the spiritual father of the Pakistani community, was born in northern India, in the city of Lucknow, and studied in a Catholic school. He grew disillusioned with Catholicism and converted to Anglicanism, but did not notice much of a difference between them and began to study Orthodox Christianity on the internet. He wrote to me and we began corresponding. Since there are no Orthodox churches in India, I invited him to come to Australia and live at a parish in order to be infused with Orthodoxy. In Sydney I baptized him with the name Adrian, and he prayed in our churches, then he took theological classes. After my election as First Hierarch, he came to New York and was soon ordained a deacon, and now serves as a priest in Australia. On weekdays, as is the case with many of our priests, Fr Adrian holds a secular job in one of Sydney’s banks.
During his first visit to Pakistan, Fr Adrian baptized 174 people, and holds pastoral courses for newly-ordained clergymen during visits there and via the internet, and the local clerics teach catechism for adults and Sunday schools for children. Three local Pakistanis have already been ordained to the priesthood. Priests Joseph, Anthony and Cyrill had studied in a Catholic seminary before conversion to Orthodoxy.
Fr Adrian recently acquired a parcel of land for a church, established a missionary fund for aid to new Christians, collecting money for the construction of a church in Sargodha.
Among the recently baptized are Iranians and Afghanis. In India, zealous Christians have also established communities, study catechism via the internet, and those who wish to convert to Orthodox Christianity are awaiting a priest. Such countries which are so remote to Orthodoxy are greatly helped by the internet, giving them the opportunity to find needed information and contacts, read theological literature and the works of the Holy Fathers.
Some criticize the hastiness of ordination to the priesthood…
This winter I traveled to India, became acquainted with the situation in general and with representatives of these communities. I saw with my own eyes how these people approach this important step in their lives with sobriety, trepidation and zeal, some prepare for baptism, others for ordination. These people burn like candles, living in a world that is foreign to them. If a community does not get a priest in time, if they do not begin to celebrate Liturgy, no one can say what will await them. If they ask Living Water from us, we cannot and must not deny them.
After all, we have already lived for 90 years in foreign surroundings, and we in the Church Abroad have experience receiving the heterodox into Orthodoxy. So when the Lord sends us challenges, I cannot answer No. When people wish to join the Church, have a missionary community, I always try to meet them halfway, because it is our duty to fulfill the commandment of the Savior: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
How much time do you spend on traveling, in view of the fact that you remain Ruling Bishop of the Diocese of Australia and New Zealand?
Our Eastern European Diocese is comprised of the state of Maine and border of Canada to Central America (Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti). Every year I try my best to visit as many parishes as I can, but I can only spend a little time in any given place. We also continue the tradition of always conducting hierarchal services in parishes on their feast days. I alternate in serving in a given parish myself with my two vicar bishops.
Vladyka, everyone knows that the bishops abroad lead a more democratic organization and style of daily life than bishops in Russia…
In the diaspora, we don’t have the same financial resources to maintain a full-time staff: secretary, cell-attendant, service personnel. As a rule, bishops abroad take care of their needs themselves: they drive, they prepare their own meals, do their own laundry…
In New York, do you keep to this tradition and cook your own meals quickly?
Naturally. I love to make a quick soup myself. I often invent dishes. I don’t like to spend a long time at the table: I cook my food, eat quickly and return to work.
But when necessary, our parishioners always lend a hand. In our parishes, on all continents, parish wardens, parish councils, sisterhoods all work on a volunteer basis and also contribute to cover church needs. Most of the priests and their matushkas in the smaller parishes hold regular jobs as laypersons during the week.
Vladyka, a great deal is written about the various interests of monastics. In your opinion, should a monk have a hobby? If so, what would yours be?
Strictly speaking, a monk should best not adhere to anything but prayer. But I loved to collect books my entire life. In Australia I dreamed of establishing a diocesan library based on the books I have obtained over 40 years. We have managed to put together and catalog a large library of books in the Synodal building in New York, which include volumes from the collections of several bishops.
I always tell our seminarians, first of all, that while they are young they should read as much as possible, especially theological works and the writings of the Holy Fathers, because as the years pass, they will have less and less time for reading.
What other advice to you offer?
To pay attention to every person, to try not to avoid people: “I am all things to all men, that I might by all means save some,” as Apostle Paul said. If one thinks that becoming kind, respectful and caring will come to you with age, I say this: rare is the person who succeeds in this. One must train oneself since childhood, in one;s early years. The main thing is to remember that the goal of our life is not material well-being and external happiness, but in acquiring the grace of God and in the preparation for life eternal, and for this, first of all, one must gather spiritual treasures which no one can ever take away.
Vladyka, how do you feel about the fact that you, as a Primate of the Church, still preserve the reputation of being an accessible and kind “Manhattanite?” Many of our compatriots remember how in the early 1990’s, you assisted them, gave them good advice and helped them settle in a new land…
I remember even during Soviet times, and especially after the fall of the Communist regime, many Russian immigrants began arriving in New York. Young people would come and ask to be baptized; many of them spoke no English and would ask for help filling out various forms and applications. I had no experience yet in filling out immigration papers, but soon learned… But is this something to be proud of? Kindness is demanded by Christ, for “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). The ancient saints were exceptional in their kindness and hospitality, and we should follow their example.