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The Unlost Generation: The 12th All-Diaspora Russian Orthodox Youth Conference 

By Antonina Maga

 

Conferences of Orthodox youth have been a tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia ever since 1973. But this time the forum had special significance: it was the first one held after the reestablishment of canonical communion—young people from the Russian Church and the Church Abroad partook of the Holy Mysteries together from one chalice.

“What was once impossible and unrealistic for us we are today witnessing first-hand. That which our predecessors, our valiant hierarchs, longed for, their successors manifested, that is, to praise and sing the praises of God ‘with one mouth and one heart,’” wrote His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America and New York, First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, in his address to the youth.

More than 120 people participated in the conference, among whom were delegates from America, Australia, Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Poland and Moldova.  In accordance with venerable tradition, the main relic of the Russian diaspora presided over the event: the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God.

His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia also sent a greeting to the 12th All-Diaspora Conference. In it, His Holiness Vladyka noted that “The common principles of Orthodox Christian mission do not depend upon the age, nor the continent upon which they are manifested. One must remember that the development of youth ministry among those who belong to the Russian world bears importance, for the young people commune of the abundant wealth of our culture. This communion, however, must be manifested with an eye to local particularities, traditions and the national color of each concrete nation.”

“[T]he Church must speak to young people in a language they understand, exploiting at the same time the latest achievements in information technology,” wrote the Primate.

The main idea of the conference was expressed in its slogan: “New forms of youth service to the Holy Church, preserving the purity of Orthodoxy.” His Grace Bishop Theodosius of Seattle, Vicar of the Western American Diocese and personal representative of Metropolitan Hilarion, noted in his keynote address: “This conference gives the participants the opportunity to speak in their own voice to the entire Church, to speak their vonmem! [let us pay heed]. We must take advantage of this and approach this responsibly. If the young people unite and work to serve God and mankind together, then we Orthodox Christians will be able to achieve great things for the Church and for Orthodoxy.”

One of the organizers, Vice President of the Synodal Youth Department of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Protopriest Andrei Sommer, talked about the main working forms which proved so effective at the conference.

“It is important for the youth to not only hear lectures by renowned priests and bishops on the topic of missionary work, but that during the event, they must make concrete proposals which can be put into action afterwards: each will take to his home diocese projects which they themselves developed,” said Fr Andrei in an interview with the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate.

“The participants were broken up into eleven sections, in which we intentionally included delegates from various countries and various Orthodox youth groups, so that they could hear different opinions and on that basis work out proposals which would have a universal character,” he added.

“Such workshops proved very effective for the young generation. Each group reached its own decision fairly quickly, and the jury was amazed that multi-media presentations were immediately prepared for each proposal, for image is a very important thing for today’s youth, which is easily created on a computer. As a result, one of the winning proposals turned out to be an “Orthodox cafe,” said the priest.

“Indeed, the kids were able to clearly grasp each idea: the creation of a city club where an Orthodox library in the local language would be made available, free Internet access, Lenten food or traditional Orthodox cuisine with recipes, a space for meetings and lectures. That is, a little cultural center, which can become not only a place for leisurely activities, but can also play a missionary role and teach practical Christian life,” stressed Protopriest Andrei.

At the speeches, lectures and workshops, one could see the difference in behavior and interests of Orthodox youth from various countries. For instance, young people who live in the CIS were most interested in the workshops, while according to some participants from America and Europe, they were especially inspired by lectures and speeches by the clergymen, which were read over the course of three days. Bishop Theodosius said “Young people are sometimes too shy to ask priests certain questions, let alone bishops. When they see people their age who have been believers since childhood, who have a developed spiritual life, it is easier to first talk to them, then to the clergymen. They get the answers they need during these conferences and reject those things which do not lead to salvation in this life.”

The speech by the patrologist and lecturer Hiermonk Irinei (Steenberg), renowned in the English-speaking Orthodox world, Rector St Tikhon of Zadonsk Chapel in San Francisco and Director of the St John of San Francisco Orthodox Academy, was actually a sermon on the topic. The cleric spoke about the meaning of the word “mission” and the opportunities in today’s world, and his presentation evoked lengthy applause. “Often people begin to do missionary work, not knowing what it is and what it is for—they simply have the desire to act. In this desire, they might be similar to sectarians. Once two Mormons knocked on my door, and asked me if I had ever heard of Jesus Christ. I replied, yes, I’ve heard something,” said Fr Irinei. “It is important to remember that missionary work must first of all be done within one’s own heart. It is impossible to give the world something that we don’t possess ourselves,” he emphasized.

Protopriest Serafim Gan, Secretary of the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, also attended. His lecture contained elements of theater, in which he was both very accessible yet very proper in explaining the meaning and rite of the sacrament of matrimony. He had previously achieved great success at an American youth conference, and responded to numerous requests by repeating it here, supplementing his answers to questions on family life in Christ. “The main goal of our forum is to discuss the things that young people are most interested in. Even young people close to the church, when they fall in love, don’t even consider these days what Christian marriage is,” opined Fr Serafim. “An enormous number of Orthodox families in Russia and America fall apart because the young people were not properly prepared for the mystery of matrimony.”

Of course, the most vivid impression was left among the youth by the divine services, which they attended almost every day. On the feast day of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco, the kids prayed at Divine Liturgy at the Church of the Resurrection of the Lord in the Paris suburb of Meudon. Vladyka John himself served here in the 1950’s, and the parishioners preserved witness to his pastoral ministry. The parish primarily consists of the descendants of emigres of the first and second waves.

The present Rector of the parish, Protopriest Michel Goudkoff, told us: “Our parish is very old—83 years, in fact—it is one of the first ones founded by emigres fleeing Russia after the Revolution. Sometimes we have three generations of emigre families attending at once.” In Fr Michel’s opinion, he exerts most of his efforts in trying to preserve the Russian language in the community and that his children and those of his parishioners spoke Russian. “Divine services are held in Church Slavonic, but once a month we serve in French, for the French parishioners who accepted Orthodoxy, for we have a number of them,” noted the priest.

One evening, the clergymen and youth visited Paris Theological Seminary, where they were welcomed by His Grace Bishop Nestor of Korsun, who officiated at all-night vigil in the house Chapel of St Martin the Confessor and St Genevieve. During the polyeleos, the worshipers venerated a barb from the Crown of Thorns of the Lord which is kept at the seminary.

This seminary is a new project of the Korsun Diocese, intended to address real issues of today. The learning establishment has existed now for two years, and now has 15 seminarians. Among them are emigres from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Colombia, Ghana and Haiti. Next year they will be joined by seven new students. “Testimony to the universality and limitlessness of the faith in the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is the main goal of our seminary, which is preparing future pastors of the Russian Orthodox Church for various nations, speaking different languages and prepared to carry out their service in various geographical and cultural milieus,” said the seminary’s Rector Hieromonk Alexander (Sinyakov) to the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate. “It is a special trait of our seminary that its students learn the theological disciplines here while studying philosophy, philology, history and other subjects in lay institutions, in particular in the Sorbonne and the Ecole normale superieure,” he noted.

The conferees also visited the renowned Russian Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky on rue Daru in Paris. Heading the services here was His Eminence Archbishop Gabriel of Koman along with His Grace Bishop Michael of Geneva and Western Europe, Bishop Nestor, His Grace Bishop Ignaty of Bronnitsa and Bishop Theodosius, clergymen of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Russian Church Abroad and the Exarchate of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe of the Constantinople Patriarchate.

The following days of the conference, its participants continued their pilgrimages to the holy sites of France, venerating the Crown of Thorns of the Lord, the relics of St Helen and St Genevieve. They also visited the cemetery at Ste-Genevieve-du-Bois, where a pannikhida was performed. The excursion to the cemetery was led by a representative of the Union of the Russians of Gallipoli, Alexei Grigoriev.

The hierarchy was able to organize a trip to Amien, whose cathedral contains the Righteous Head of St John the Baptist. In one of the chapels of the cathedral, which is the biggest Catholic church in France and a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, Bishop Nestor celebrated Divine Liturgy, after which the Head of St John the Baptist was taken out for veneration.

The kids from Russia enjoyed their visit to our Embassy, where they gave a concert—every evening they gathered for choir rehearsals, and during that week prepared a program consisting of traditional liturgical singing and Russian folk songs.

One must say that the participants themselves acknowledged the historic meaning of this forum. It was obvious that the youth came here not only to meet each other, attend divine services but to possibly meet potential spouses, which is very likely, for this is a common goal during conferences of Orthodox youth.

More than half of the participants are younger, but there were adults over the age of 25 who are close to the Church: these were Orthodox youth activists, members of Synodal departments from various dioceses, editors of Orthodox websites, choir directors and young choir singers as well as teachers from Orthodox schools. They were able to share their experiences and interests, tell about life in other countries, about people with different mindsets and education levels who belong to various social groups yet come to Orthodoxy, and how important it is to witness the truth of Christ in today’s high-speed world. . “Today’s world is very open, and the borders between nations are practically gone. Millions of new immigrants from the countries of the former USSR move to study or work abroad, and they don’t retain the same passion to preserve the remnants of Russian culture and Russian spirituality, which those who fled Russia in the early- and mid-twentieth century had. Yet it is these people that the young missionaries are facing,” said Bishop Nestor in an interview with the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The new generation of descendants of the Russian emigration also formed a significant number of conference participants; they all speak Russian well and are bound by family church tradition. In the words of some young people from Australia, their community of compatriots plays an important role in their lives, they meet regularly, they sing Russian songs, the love wearing Russian costumes and prepare Russian dishes. They aren’t ashamed of this in front of their non-Russian friends, in fact, it is in style now. “That is so Australian! In fact, much of real Russian national tradition has been lost, it exists only conceptually,” noted the choir director and teacher from the renowned Lycee in San Francisco, Nicholas Kotar, who, despite his young age, actively participates in missionary and educational work in his big, established parish of the Cathedral of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow.” Nicholas also belongs to an ancient Russian family—his father and grandfather both priests. Yet he says that there are many Americans in his parish, and often their contact with the Orthodox faith comes as a result of singing in a choir. “San Francisco is a city of culture. Many are interested in music. It seems to me that if we show young Americans what their Orthodox counterparts are doing, through music, through singing, they can be drawn to the culture first, and then they can even convert to Orthodoxy,” said Nicholas.

Protodeacon Konstantin Semovskih, who came with the Australian youth, pointed out that the desire to recreate one’s own national culture in great detail, including its external manifestations, is very important for Australians with Russian roots. That country has no ancient culture of its own, and it is very important to find some spiritual basis upon which to build a system of world views. As in Russia, not many young Australians, even Russian ones, attend church on a frequent basis and understand everything that is going on. But through the fun of socializing with one’s peers in parish-level “Russian clubs,” between preparing pelmeni dishes and singing songs, profound truths can be brought to them, and they will want to receive them, because this is all familiar, Russian. “Of course, it is difficult to live a Christian life, and not many of them truly become part of the Church,” added Fr Konstantin, “but still, Orthodox culture plays a great role in their lives.” Protopriest Ilya Limberger of Stuttgart describes a much different situation in Germany: “We conduct divine services in Church Slavonic, but of course, not everyone understands the words, for most of the young people no longer speak Russian. What is most unfortunate is that many don’t even complain about the language problem. This means they don’t feel the need to understand what is going on. This is sad. The children of immigrants quickly become Germans.”

Apparently, though Orthodox youth abroad considers themselves a part of Russian culture and makes a great effort to carry it on, today’s Russia is virtually unknown to them, and they have little interest in it. If they or their parents visit their historic homeland, then it is only to find remnants of what once was. Since there is very little left, a visit to Russia more often than not disappoints them, and coming back to live there doesn’t interest anyone. One would hope that meeting our youth from Russia would help them learn about and love the real Russia, not the one they heard of in stories told by their relatives. After a week of socializing, the kids have spawned plans to organize pilgrimages to the holy sites of Russia, and thankfully they have made many new friends who through their efforts and those of their parishes expressed the willingness to take in visitors and organize trips and ways to provide pastoral ministry. The organizers were able to draw delegates from all corners of the former USSR, which has given everyone a complete picture of youth ministry in Russia. Bishop Ignaty, who is the President of the Synodal Department of Youth Ministry, spoke at the conference. He presented the international program “Faith and Works,” which is carried out today by his department and includes interesting forms of ministry, including sporting events and scholarly games, concerts, art projects and charity work. Interestingly, many ideas became crystallized in individual parishes and within the framework of small Orthodox youth groups, and the best of them became the grass-roots projects supported by the hierarchy and developed into long-term projects.

“There is not a great deal of experience in youth ministry in the Russian Church, and so we need to create these forms and methods from scratch,” admitted Vladyka Ignaty. “The main thing is that after a young person comes to church and attends divine services, he doesn’t leave as a stranger. Contact with one’s peers outside of divine services helps a young person understand a great deal,” he added. Among the successful new initiatives of the Synodal Department, Vladyka Ignaty pointed out a course to prepare young people to serve in their parishes: “Two hundred and seventy people finished this course. Every parish in Moscow sent its own representative. Upon completion of the program, and presenting their own proposals, the young people got a diploma and the authority to organize programs within their own parishes.”

It is worth pointing out that youth conferences are a common thing abroad. The traditional means of working with the young generation have been laid down in various countries by emigres of the first wave, and for eighty years they have demonstrated their effectiveness. Among these are Orthodox Russian-language summer camps, amateur choirs performing traditional music, including liturgical singing, various youth groups and the organization of regular youth meetings. It is apparent, for instance, that in Europe, where there are many Eucharistic communities, but a lack of churches due to practical reasons, young people attend conferences to spend time with priests, to pray together and receive spiritual experience. For the youth of the CIS, such meetings are less familiar—they have no need of supporting national self-identification, they already live among other Russians. But although they live in their homeland, young people coming to Church today often don’t have an Orthodox family tradition. Besides, it turns out that today’s post-Soviet society is less tolerant of those who practice one form of religion or another, than, for instance, Americans or Europeans. The delegates from various countries turned out to be of one mind: their classmates are not surprised or alienated by their attendance of church on Sundays, or observe fasting periods. At the same time, there is a certain degree of apathy towards spiritual matters in the world today, and there is little common ground of discussion with one’s peers: you are simply not understood.

That is why I think that the main impression this conference gave its participants from the former USSR was the practical adoption of the innovative forms of missionary work which the Paris forum itself was. Many of them adopted the idea of holding such conferences in their homeland, which was clearly demonstrated by their proposals. The organizers did not hide the fact that they have such plans in hand and will make every effort to manifest them in the near future.

Paris/Moscow

Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate and Tserkovny Vestnik