From the Editors: On Monday, March 16, at the Diocesan Meeting, His Grace Bishop Jerome of Manhattan shared some his memories of the ever-memorable Archbishop Nikon, who is buried in the Church of the Protection of the Mother of God, the lower church of St Vladimir Memorial Church in Jackson, NJ. Below we publish segments of his remarks.
When, in the spring of 1971, I was nearing graduation from Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, I was advised that Archbishop Nikon was in need of a kelleinik, or helper. Hearing of this, Fr Gury said the following of Vladyka, “There is the holiest of services.”
Currently, schismatics, fanatics, and enemies of our Church like to distort the memory of our previous hierarchs. They depict them as having been fanatics and neo-Pharisees, like unto themselves: filled with nothing but bitterness and hatred. Since new generations are growing up that never knew the church life of the recent past, nor the practices, nor yet the “old school clergy,” they may believe such disinformation and be led into error.
Vladyka Nikon went to the Lord in 1976. That means no one under the age of 33 saw him at all, and no one younger than 50 today was old enough then to know or recall Vladyka’s views. Therefore it is worth telling something about him.
Archbishop Nikon, in the world Nikolai Pavlovich Rklitsky (the surname is derived from a river in central Europe called the “Rklik”), was born in 1892 in the town of Borki near Chernigov, where his father, Fr Pavel Rklitsky, was the pastor and dean of the district. Nikolai, who was still a boy when Fr Pavel passed away, studied at a theological seminary across the road from the noted Eletsky monastery. Later, he served in the Russian army, and during World War I, when Nikolai was already 25, the Russian Revolution occurred. Evacuated with the remnants of the White Army in 1920, he lived in Serbia between the wars, and was a disciple and close associate of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), whose biographer he later became. During World War II, he took monastic vows and was ordained to the priesthood, and in 1948 was consecrated bishop. He served as hierarch for 28 years, first as vicar bishop, and later as Ruling Bishop of the Eastern American and New York Diocese till his repose in 1976.
And so, his personal experience as the son of a parish priest-and-administrator, and as student of theology in Russia before the Revolution, along with the advice and spiritual direction of Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky in Serbia, and finally his experience as a pastor and then archpastor in the lands of the Diaspora, were sources of Vladyka’s views on how to rule the Church.
For Vladyka Nikon, as for Metropolitan Anthony, “outside the Orthodox Church there is only darkness.” Consequently, within the Church a good deal of variety can be permitted, so long as the unity of the Church of Christ, in Grace and dogma, is kept.
In other words, we must do everything to keep the flock within the fold of the Orthodox faith among those outside the Church.
Vladyka Nikon believed absolutely in the future resurrection of Russia and of the Russian monarchy, and that one day, the reborn Russia would assume a dominant role in the world. He was also convinced that the division in the Russian Church (that is, between the Church Abroad and the Church in Russia) would come to an end, and that the center of our Church would again be in Russia. But, at the same time, Vladyka was also a supporter of missionary work among non-Russians. He was both a Russian monarchist-patriot, and a missionary to other peoples.
Those were often difficult times. In 1965, a Greek-American monastery in Brookline, MA was received into the Church Abroad, with its founder, the priestmonk Panteleimon (Metropoulos, not to be confused with Archimandrite Panteleimon (Nizhnik), who founded the Jordanville monastery in 1930). That priest-monk, through followers whom he had led into his “stricter” teachings, began to undermine both the traditional practices of the Russian Church, and then the hierarchy itself. But it was a curious “strictness” that Fr Panteleimon (Metropoulos) and his coterie applied only to others, not to themselves.
Here is an example of false “strictness:” “spiritual teachers” who claim that the Russian Church has been wrong in approving mixed marriages, and that it is better for spouses to live in sin, if one of them is not Orthodox, in or outside a secular marriage, than to enter into a “mixed marriage” as permitted by the Russian Church: since in their view a mixed marriage would be unacceptable. Thus there was a discrepancy between what the Church actually teaches or allows, and what the Church “should teach,” or “should not permit.”
At the same time, there arose conflicts between the Russian and non-Russian members and the communities of the Church Abroad. Masterfully playing his role, the Boston charlatan either made the non-Russians into his followers, or drove their communities out of ROCOR. Thanks to the direct or indirect influence of the “Boston Elder,” the Church Abroad lost four non-Russian dioceses between 1967 and 1976.
I well remember how, in the early 1970s, one zealot at the St Vladimir Memorial Church began putting a would-be convert out of the church at the dismissal of the catechumens. On hearing this, Vladyka Nikon ordered it to be stopped, since there had never been such a practice in the Russian Church, and it served only to offend.
Vladyka Nikon gave his moral support to “missionary services” in other languages, as well as to the idea of restoring Western Orthodoxy. He saw no harm in allowing the use of the new calendar (but only if needed in missionary parishes, “it would be very foolish for us to go over to it!” he once said to me). He gave his blessing for the reception of converts, even after the 1971 Montreal Sobor, as previously, without rebaptism. Not infrequently, there were requests for permission to hold weddings on Saturdays or in fasting periods, and Vladyka cooperated with pastoral love. Everything was done with the purpose of spreading the Orthodox faith, and encouraging the children of the Russian Diaspora to remain Orthodox.
Vladyka showed a fatherly love to everyone. He was always accessible, he always answered personal letters himself (unless translation was needed), and it was not unusual for him to write 12 or 15 relatively short replies a day. He was mild and kind to the clergy, in some cases even if they were from another jurisdiction. For example, when Fr Peter Popov’s matushka reposed (he was the priest at the OCA parish in Jackson, NJ), Vladyka phoned him to express condolences. After that, Fr Peter began sometimes to be seen at our ROCOR services at St Vladimir Memorial Church.
But when it was necessary, Vladyka could also be quite firm, and impose discipline where it was called for.
In short, for Vladyka Nikon, the grace filled content of Church life was more important than the external forms. He was no “liberal,” but always tried to keep the faithful within the Orthodox Church, lest they fall away. For the non-Orthodox, he wished them to find the path of truth, leading the true believers to the Kingdom of God.
And may the merciful and almighty Lord grant us the same!