The Concord of Orthodox Youth pilgrimage, which includes young people from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, concluded its six-day visit to Belarus.
On Saturday, July 31, 2010, the Concord group departed via bus to Moscow from the most ancient of cities of Belarus, Polotsk. Arriving in time for all-night vigil at the monastery of St Evfrosiniya, Princess of Polotsk, the youth venerated the relics of the holy founder of the convent and the protectress of the Polotsk region, which are housed in Elevation of the Cross Cathedral.
On Sunday, the clergymen accompanying the youth celebrated Divine Liturgy at the Church of St Evfrosyiniya, which contains the verigi [heavy chains] which the saint had worn under her garments for decades. After the service, the youth visited the other holy relics of the monastery.
The saint was the grand- grand-niece of Holy Prince Vladimir, Illuminator of Rus’. She was born in the first half of the 12th century. At age 12, the princess made the staunch decision to become a nun, and was consequently tonsured. As she matured in body and spirit, St Evfrosiniya began to gather other nuns and founded a monastery, with a church dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Lord. Increasing her spiritual and physical labors, St Evfrosiniya donned the verigi. Her dream was to visit the Holy City of Jerusalem. In her old age, her dream came true: she went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She loved it so much that she prayed the Queen of Heaven to allow her to die in the Holy City. Her prayers were heard, and she gave up her ghost in Jerusalem, where she was buried. Only a few centuries later were her relics sent to Kiev, where they remained until 1910, and as a result of numerous pleas by the citizens of Polotsk, her relics were delivered to Polotsk by Royal decree and placed in the convent she founded. (The centennial of the translation of her relics was celebrated this year.) The future fate of the relics was similar to the fate of Russia itself in the 20th century: during World War I, in 1915, the relics were evacuated to the city of Rostov; during the Bolshevik regime, the relics were opened and desecrated, and were taken for a time to the Museums of Atheism of Polotsk and Vitebsk. When the Germans occupied Belarus in 1943, the convent was returned to the Orthodox Church and the relics were ceremoniously returned to the joy of Orthodox Christians. They have since remained in their rightful place.
The oldest church of Belarus, Holy Transfiguration Cathedral survived difficult times, as did the Polotsk region itself. The first few peaceful centuries brought the convent eternal spiritual glory. But the pillar of Orthodoxy in Belarus did not escape the assault of Catholics. In 1579, Stefan Batory handed the convent over to the Catholic Church, and later it was transferred to Uniates. The church was desecrated, the ancient frescoes were painted over, and its exterior was changed to suit the tastes of the occupiers. Only after the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Russian Empire in 1820 was the church returned to Orthodox Christians. During World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, the buildings were badly damaged, and in 1925, the convent was closed by the communists. When the Germans occupied Polotsk, they allowed the church to be reopened in 1943, and monastic life was reestablished, surviving until 1960, when the Soviet regime once again closed it, driving out its nuns. It was only 1989 when the monastics were allowed to return to the convent and work began on restoring its edifices, which by then were in a critical state. Through the efforts of the nuns today, headed by Abbess Evdokiya, the Elevation of the Cross and St Evfrosiniya Churches have been restored, as were the bell tower and monastery dormitories. A new church was built, and Holy Transfiguration Church is now also being restored. The painstaking task of restoring the frescoes of the 12th and 19th centuries remains. Its restorers are trying where possible to remove and preserve the last two layers of iconography, and find the originals. In some instances it proves impossible, since the Catholic vandals of various periods scratched their own names through the icons, sometimes inscribing blasphemous or indecent words.
After lunch, the Concord group visited the ancient St Sophia Cathedral, located on the banks of the Zapadnaya Dvina River, the Publishing Museum (the only one of its kind in Belarus), and Krasniy Bridge, where a battle against Napoleon’s forces occurred in 1812, which hindered his attempt to reach St Petersburg. The young pilgrims also viewed other points of interest of Polotsk.
On Monday, the youth rested in the town of Vizdy, where they stayed the night and relaxed at the local lake after lunch.
On Tuesday, August 3, the Concord delegation visited the First Orphanage School of Vitebsk in the village of Opsa in the Braslavsky Region. It was difficult to see these poor children and adolescents, who suffer from serious psycho-physiological problems, without tears. These children, abandoned by their parents, are in need of tenderness and love, attention and teaching of basic daily skills. The orphanage employees are angelic in their efforts. Fr Igor Chechukovich, the spiritual head of the Belarussian delegation, regularly ministers to the children of the orphanage, and it was apparent that the children know and love him. Our youth immediately found their bearings, and each found an orphan to befriend. As speeches were read, the young people of the Concord group made acquaintances with the unfortunate children. A musical concert was given, games played with the children, and after a humble meal provided by the Concord youth, each orphan received a cross on a chain and a small gift. This visit made an enormous impression on the youth, probably the greatest of the entire pilgrimage. As they boarded their buses to leave, silence reigned and many were in tears from the experience.
The next stop was to a home for the aged in Braslav, where the Concord participants gave a concert to the seniors who were either without relatives or abandoned by their children.
Lunch was served at St Panteleimon Skete in Braslav, a monastery founded only in 2006. There are currently four nuns living there. The new skete only celebrates Divine Liturgy four times a week. Considering the fact that in this ancient Orthodox area, only 10 percent of the population are believers, missionary work is a great spiritual challenge.
After lunch, the youth joined a procession of the cross, traveling from Uspensky Church to the Memorial of the Victims of the Germans of World War II. There, Archbishop Feodosy of Polotsk headed a litany for the fallen, and municipal officials gave speeches.
That evening, a festival was held, title “By the Concord of Orthodox Hearts,” which it is hoped will be an annual event. The Concord’s young participants gave a concert to the local population, which included spiritual, folk and military songs. At the end of the presentation, the local military of Belarus offered the youth dinner at their encampment, lighting a bonfire, where the local youth socialized with the participants of the Concord pilgrimage.
On Wednesday, the youth enjoyed an excursion to the regional museum of Braslav, and after lunch, they headed for the Belarussian capital of Minsk.
On Thursday, August 5, the pilgrims began the day by commemorating the fallen Orthodox warriors of World War II. Belarus is filled with memorials to the heroes of this war for the Fatherland. It is impossible to ignore the fact that in the wars of the West against Russia, the first battlefields were always in Belarus: against the Poles, the Swedes, the French, the Germans, Belarus was the first to suffer for Russia. Only in the most recent war, Belarus lost one third of its total population. Meanwhile, Russians and Malorussians [Ukrainians] gave their lives to emancipate this beautiful region from invaders.
Visits to the holy sites of Minsk followed: Holy Trinity Cathedral, which has a crypt containing the remains of three unknown soldiers of recent wars: the War for the Fatherland of 1812, the First World War and World War II. This recently-built cathedral is magnificent, and the neighboring wooden Holy Spirit Cathedral, also recently erected. As it turned out, the Concord pilgrimage coincided with the arrival of relics of Blessed Matrona of Moscow, which were placed in Holy Spirit Cathedral for veneration, where the youth was able to pray.
On the way to St Elizabeth Convent, the youth passed by Kuropaty, where, in 1988, a great quantity of human remains were found. Upon further research, it turned out that this was the site of mass executions in the 1930’s—the “Butovo of Belarus.” Wooden crosses now surround the perimeter of this site.
The Convent of St Elizabeth was founded only 10 years ago. Over this brief time, an enormous task was accomplished: three churches were built in three styles—Byzantine, ancient Russian and 19th-century Russian. Residential and office buildings were erected, where a huge missionary effort is concentrated, as well as a hospital for the mentally ill, which has four thousand patients. Some of them are able to do some sort of work, and help the monastery in simple obediences.
The Concord youth then proceeded to Transfiguration Cathedral, where they met with His Eminence Metropolitan Philaret of Minsk. The Patriarchal Exarch warmly greeted the young pilgrims, blessing each one with an icon of St Sophia of Slutsk and gave a welcoming speech. Thereafter, the youth sang the song “Borodino” to Vladyka.
That evening, the Concord delegation boarded buses headed for Kursk.