His Grace Bishop Agapit of Stuttgart spent some 4 months in Australia. Before his departure back to Germany, Vladyka kindly agreed to speak to the Editor of [the Russian-language periodical] Unification.
- Your Grace Vladyka, what was the main goal of your visit to the Australian Diocese, and were you able to accomplish everything you set out to do?
- I was asked by Metropolitan Hilarion to take his place in Australia for about 4 months. During this time, I was relieved of my duties in the German Diocese. The four months flew by pretty quickly. I visited most of the parishes in Australia, participated in divine services, met with priests and parishioners, and now my sojourn is ending.
- In what ways does the Australian Diocese differ from the German Diocese, and in what ways are they similar?
- They are similar in the number of parishes, I would say. But the environment is completely different. I was born and raised in Germany. In Europe, the difference between nations, for example between Germany and England, is great. The people are very different, as are their cultures. When you Australians speak of Europe as a whole, you must keep these essential differences in mind. When I came to Australia, I clearly felt that an English culture reigns here. As far as the Russian people here, I noticed the quick assimilation and the rapid decline in the use of the Russian language in the younger generations. It seemed to me that this process is faster and more powerful than in Europe. I noticed that even young priests, although they serve in Russian, often switch to the English language amongst themselves.
- Why is the process of assimilation slower in Germany? Is it because Germans set a moral boundary between the natives and the newcomers?
- Yes, one could say that, though after the war, German society changed, and some degree of Americanization is in fact occurring in Germany. What is characteristic for Australia--the presence of immigrants from many countries--applies equally to Germany. People from Asia and Africa also go to Germany, and it is gradually becoming a multi-cultural nation, with the same problems that people are beginning to talk about openly.
In Australia, a significant number of Russians found themselves in the country in the second immigration wave, after World War II, from Germany and China. There was a great deal that was new for me as I met people here, especially those who came from China. For the first time I was able, for example, to serve with a priest who lived and served in China for 60 years.
It is a joy that the Church Abroad has been able to preserve its unity in such remote points of the globe as Europe, America and Australia, with such different cultures, on the foundation of the familial aspect of our Church. When we grow within the church organism, we accept the priest and members of the parish as part of our family—our father, brothers and sisters, and so it is in the church. I came here from a different country, but here, in the Australian Diocese, I found a common tongue, mutual understanding. The way people behave is founded on the traits of the Orthodox way of life.
- You have traveled throughout the country over these four months. Where exactly have you been?
- I visited all the parishes in the Diocese except for Perth and New Zealand.
- What have you noticed?
- First of all, the second wave of immigrants has been preserved here more than in Germany. Its presence is felt here more strongly. Second, it is that the social well-being of the Russian population here is much higher here than in Germany.
- Can you give us examples?
- For example, in almost all the cities, large parishes set up homes for the aged. We don’t have a single such institution in Germany. We had senior homes in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but they closed. Many of our churches in Australia have big parish halls where the parishioners meet after divine services. Some parish schools have their own buildings. All this shows the social structure, the strength of Russians in Australia. Especially noticeable is how well organized the large parishes are. In Stuttgart we are trying to set up an Orthodox section of the local Protestant senior home. When we ask our seniors who would like to live there, the response is weak. This tells me that people cannot imagine their life in Germany as permanent, and do not tend to their final years. Here in Australia, it is completely different. The final stage of life is organized in advance, people think about and plan for it. Indeed, what I witnessed in Dandenong and Cabramatta is truly remarkable.
- A new person always has a fresh viewpoint. What problems did you witness in the Australian parishes?
- There is a noticeable lack of young people in the parishes. This can be explained in part by the fact that as they grow up, young people move to different places in search for work. But this isn’t the only reason, apparently. I would need to spend more time here to gain a better understanding.
- Probably the assimilation you brought up also plays an important part. A significant percentage of the children and grandchildren of post-War immigrants grow up and leave their parents’ house to enter Australian life and they gradually move away from Russian society and the Church.
- This is a function of their loss of the Russian language. Often, parents themselves do not realize that, losing the Russian language, they tear their children away from their Russian traditions, their roots. We must fight this by any means possible. This is not only a problem for Australia.
I would also like to note that the Australian youth, because of their remoteness, senses a certain separation from global culture. When I talk to students here about their classes and studies in college, it seemed to me that they only study what Australia is interested in. This is a narrow range of subjects, meanwhile, the other knowledge which might be obtained, say, in Europe, especially the humanities, could be neglected. I think it would be good if young people could come into contact with this in Russia or the other European countries. But for this, you need to speak the language. There are more than a few instances in Germany when young people go abroad to study. My nephews themselves expressed the desire to study in Russia.
In our world today, daily comfort often is often our priority. One can survive this way, but there will be no spiritual satisfaction. For a person does not live by bread alone. Especially now, when a new period has begun, and Russia has been emancipated. Important processes in the rebirth of church life are occurring there. Young people who go study in theological schools are very engaging. To spend time with them is simply a pleasure. They are full of ideas and life. What is happening in Russia is much different than what is happening in Europe.
Orthodoxy is the only alternative to what is happening in the world. In Europe, the Catholics and Protestants have battled each other for centuries. And what was the result of these wars? Everyone is tired of conflict, while religious values have been squeezed out of society. That is why society discusses temporal matters, while important spiritual and religious principles, without which mankind will lose its way, are not even topics of discussion. This is spiritual paralysis, of course. It is the source of alcoholism and drugs in the world today.
- During the Soviet period in Russia, when religious life was for all practical purposes banned, society acquired many of the problems you mention.
- For the Church in Russia as a whole, a fertile period has arrived. She has been loosed from her shackles. And there is a great opportunity to do a great deal to benefit society. Churches are being restored. If twenty years ago, Moscow had 35 active parishes, today there are 830. There is no country in the world where so many churches have been opened in such a short period of time. Although for the 16 million official and unofficial residents of Moscow, 830 parishes is not enough. The Church has a difficult missionary task in the capital itself, and throughout Russia in general. Now there are many conversations about the introduction of the Law of God in schools. In Germany we have children who study this subject in school or at church, and they can add the credits to their record. They don’t have that in Russia yet.
- Tell us about your church in Stuttgart. How many people attend services?
- There is a beautiful, historic building in Stuttgart, in the center of town. It is over 100 years old. Our parish has grown significantly in the last 20-30 years. Every Sunday, between 250-300 people attend. On Pascha and Christmas, of course, we have more, but that is the exception, what is important is how many attend on a regular basis. A large percentage of them prepare for service, partake of the Eucharist. We have 120 children attending Sunday school.
- Let’s return to our Australian parishes. In Sydney, for instance, for 30-40,000 Russians, there are about ten Orthodox parishes. This isn’t bad, but among them are big parishes, financially secure, and there are smaller ones where the parish cannot support the priest, who must take a civil job to feed his family.
- This surprised me. As I said before, even with such social stability, half of our priests work at other jobs. This is terrible, of course. Parishes are obliged to support their priests. The priest bears a great burden. If he must also work elsewhere, sometimes at great distances, this hinders the main task of the priest. In most churches, services are held once or twice a week. In the big cities, of course, we should strive to provide daily services. That would be the norm for church life. In the emigration, we don’t have enough resources—for priests, for a choir, for readers. Everything hangs on a thread. But community consciousness must mature, and if we want to give our children a religious education, the priest must set aside time for his main task, to which the Lord called him. We had a similar situation in Stuttgart. In the 1990’s, we had two young priests, Fr Ilya and Fr John. They both had civil jobs at first. Gradually, over 10-15 years, the parish grew, and at one point, not long ago, we were able to free the priests from the need to work outside the parish. The resulting change was immediate—many more parishioners began to attend, we began ministering to youth, the school expanded its work.
Now we have four priests hearing parishioners’ confessions. And not only during big holidays. People need this, and the church is meeting them halfway. But this is only possible if the priest is available.
- When I talk to people who have come to church in Australia for 30-40 years, and ask them to compare it with today, it seems that the number of parishioners has gone down.
- One gets the sense that the parishioners are not very young. And the loss of the Russian language has an effect. The English language is not one that lends itself to theology. Greek, Slavonic, these are languages of theology, they transmit the spiritual world given to us by the Lord. When we translate this to English or German, we often fail to pass on the essence of the words. And I feel that the youth do not perceive the wealth which we received from the Holy Fathers because of the language barrier. Take for example the word tselomudriye [literally, “wholesome wisdom,” chastity—transl.]. If we translate it into Germany, and I think the same applies to English, it expresses the meaning on a physical level, the abstention from sexual relations. But the word tselomudriye does not touch upon this and the concept is that man can only pray in a state of tselomudriye, when his mind, spirit, soul and body unite as one. Then, communion with God becomes genuine and earnest, full-fledged. For us clergymen, the Slavonic language is a great help.
- Does that mean that you are against English-language services?
- No, I cannot be against them. For we must bring every person into communion who wishes it. If he only understands English, then naturally we must speak English to him. But those who can immerse themselves in the full Church tradition in Church Slavonic, which is like a tuning-fork of theology, they will get a more complete picture. The entire palette is needed.
- There are difficulties which must be overcome. There are successes, too. Overall, how do you view Orthodoxy in the diaspora?
- If those sufferings endured by Russia in the last century have any meaning, it is that Orthodox Christianity was spread throughout the world. Thanks to this, there are Orthodox Christians in Australia, in America, all over the world. In the 19th century, Orthodoxy was limited in Europe to consular churches, while in this century, according to statistics, there are some one and a half million Orthodox Christians in Germany—Greeks, Serbs, Russians. Likewise, it seems, in Australia. Recently I participated in an important event: all the Orthodox bishops of Oceania served together. This is a good step, a new phase demonstrating that we Orthodox are resolving our problems together. I think that with God’s help, we will succeed in Europe in the same way. It is important for our youth to understand that we are not only the Russian Church, we belong to the Slavic Church. Orthodox Greeks and Orthodox Serbs are closer to us spiritually than Catholics and Protestants, with all their cultural differences. When you understand the familial structure of our Church, it is easy to see interrelationships with Greeks and other Orthodox Churches.
- Your visit to Australia is coming to an end. What is your mood as you leave this country?
- I gained a great deal of spiritual experience here. I came to know many very interesting people. I came to love the Australian nature, which is so close to civilization that they actually intertwine. In Germany, for a bird to fly onto our table during breakfast is a real event, but here, the birds don’t fear humans. This is very beautiful, and for me as a person who grew up in Europe, it was a new experience. It is nice that the Australians are such good caretakers—they love their country and tend to it, preserving the best of it.
- You are returning to Germany; what awaits you there in the near future?
- We will soon be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the episcopal service of Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Germany. Our First Hierarch, His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch will fly in for the ceremonies, so I will meet him there. I will tell him about my trip to Australia, who knows what else we will talk about.
-I would like to express gratitude on behalf of our readers for the great work you did here over the last four months. For many parishioners it was a great joy to have a hierarchal service in their church. It provided a boost to them. I hope this experience with Australia will not be your last.
Vladimir Kuzmin, Sydney
Bishop Agapit (Gorachek)
Born on September 25, 1955, in Germany to a Russian family. One of his grandfathers was a Czech national living in Russia. Graduating from high school in Frankfurt-am-Main, the future hierarch studied architecture in Darmstadt, but, desiring the monastic life, abandoned his studies. In 1979, he joined the brotherhood of St Job of Pochaev in Munich. He was tonsured to the rassophore on November 9, 1981, received the mantle on March 29, 1983. He was elevated to the rank of hegumen in 1995, awarded the ornamented cross in 1998. On May 1, 2001, he was consecrated Bishop of Stuttgart, Vicar of the German Diocese of ROCOR.