Your Grace, with the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, you will participate in the 12th All-Diaspora Youth Conference in Paris. As an archpastor and spiritual leader, what is the first thing you wish to address with the young people from various countries?
As a spiritual guide, I would talk about prayer in a person’s daily life, in particular that of a young person, as the sole weapon against the world’s temptations that close in from all sides. As a bishop, I would address the active participation of Orthodox youth in the life of their parish, in society and in their own countries.
- When did you first start working with youth?
- Probably ever since my pastoral service began, in 1988, the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus. Back then we organized youth pilgrimages to various holy sites, in the summers we would take kids and youth to Orthodox camps, where they were taught crafts and held divine services in temporary chapels we set up. The children came to know the proper Christian way of life, learning prayers and studying the Lives of Saints. But I think that in some sense, every pastor is always working with youth. For this does not just mean organized discussions and conferences. This means divine services, and confession, cleaning the church, kind attention and a well-timed good word. In addition to my work and contact with young people I should add my teaching experience both in the schools of Kiev and the homes of children, and in the St John of San Francisco Orthodox Academy and SS Cyril and Methodius High School.
At the Church of St Tikhon of Zadonsk, of which I have been rector for many years, I led spiritual discussions with children and youth, taught the Law of God and church singing and even participated in the preparation of Christmas pageants. It is difficult to say where one kind of work ends and the other begins…
- Do you have a chance to work with youth now, and in what areas? What forms of missionary work are more realistic, what is needed and what are their common forms in the Western American Diocese?
- As a vicar bishop, I cannot avoid dealing with matters involving youth: to hold divine services and participate in Orthodox youth conferences, give lectures and lead meetings and spiritual discussions. These are all the most common types of missionary events in our diocese.
- What new forms of missionary work are there now which the diocese has yet to fully make use of that you would like to bring to the Paris youth forum?
- Today’s secular times present specific challenges in missionary work. Unfortunately, the days are over when parents would bring their children to church from their infancy and the children would remain there throughout their lives, when the authority of parent and pastor was great. Now, the institution of the family has been practically destroyed, there are so many “authorities,” so many television and computer programs. It is not enough to say that the doors of the church are open for all, and to sit back and wait when young people arrive—one needs to meet them halfway, use contemporary means and forms of socializing. That is what we need to learn more about from our youth…
- What sort of missionary work and projects in your opinion could help unite youth from various countries?
- I think that the most effective form of uniting them is in joint effort. This can be the rebuilding of churches and monasteries, work at orphanages, help with summer retreats for such children and those from large families, aiding at senior and disabled homes, help wherever natural disaster strikes. Let us remember the words of the Savior: “for I was ahungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me” (Matthew 25:35-36). Let us also remember the great ascetic and missionary, St Innocent of Moscow. How did he being his missionary work? Not by preaching the Gospel, but by studying the language and customs of the peoples of Alaska, by providing practical help, sympathy, respect and friendship. That became the investment in his success in dissemination Orthodoxy. But let us not forget relaxation together, either.
- Vladyka, what do you think is the source of your yearning to teach and minister to youth?
- It was probably inborn. Though when I was tonsured to monasticism, I didn’t think that I would end up working with the young generation…
- Were there other members of the clergy or teachers in your family?
- In the distant past, there were. I was born and raised in Kiev, and took my monastic vows in Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra. Even before I entered the monastery, my mother took monastic vows in one of the most ancient monasteries of Kiev—Florovsky Convent. It is remarkable—she was actually born in that convent. A part of it had been given to other state institutions even before the Revolution, and when her father, my grandfather, a professor, came to teach in the agricultural academy, he was given an apartment in one of the Florovsky buildings. So it turned out that my mother spent the first few years of her life in this convent, which she formally entered thirty years later. When she was little, the nuns would sit her on pillows and call her “our little abbess.” It was impossible to imagine then that although this little girl would go on to get married when she grew up, that in the end she would find herself back at the convent, where her life began. That she would sing on the kliros, work at the prosphora bakery and fulfill various other obediences. I am grateful and most of all beholden to my mother, who brought me to the faith, to God, and gave me my initial education in Orthodox Christianity.
My father, though he was born to an Orthodox family, was not baptized. Many years later, when the monks of the Lavra and I buried my grandmother, he asked if it was possible to give him the same kind of burial. I replied that it was, but only after being baptized into the Orthodox faith. A few days later I baptized him, and he expressed the desire to change his name, so as to start his life with a new one. My father’s name was Sergei, so his heavenly protector should properly have been St Sergius of Radonezh. The day of his baptism, however, was the feast day of St Savva the Illuminator, and so my father asked that he be named Savva. Interestingly, as a boy he was often called Savva! Only his closest friends and family knew that he was given a new name. My father had the gift of uniting people, gathering them, the gift of love for everyone. He was baptized in his later years, but this gift of love for his neighbor was evident throughout his life. About four years ago we buried my father in the renowned St Jonah Monastery in Kiev…
- Could you imagine that you would end up in America, and that you would work with children and teenagers on another continent?
- I had no such inclination, or desire. When I accepted the monastic tonsure in one of the ancient monasteries, I gave my genuine promise before God that I would be true to Him and to my obedience at the monastery until the end of my days. But as one of the saints of our Church said: “Man chooses his path, but the Lord guides his steps.” Even now I love my monastery and I feel at home there.
- Vladyka, for a long time you were the Vice Principal of SS Cyril and Methodius High School. What experiences have you garnered from this work?
- The culture, customs and relationships in the Russian diaspora are somewhat different from what I was used to in the homeland. For me, as a pastor of the Russian Church Abroad, it was important to learn and understand my students, their parents and colleagues, most of whom were born and raised in the Orthodox tradition of the emigration. So not only did I teach, but I learned. When I was tonsured, I did not prepare myself for such activity, but it is a form of missionary work, which I gained experience in at the school. And where better to learn of the problems today’s young people are faced with than in school?
- Do you need to teach in English, too?
- At St John’s, I taught the Law of God, the Old Testament and Lives of the Saints in English, because this school, which shares a building with the high school, the subjects are taught in English. It has the status of a public school, and graduates are able to attend colleges in the US.
- Did you speak English before you came to America?
- I had a very rudimentary knowledge, learning it took me five years, enough to understand it and speak it. But I am still learning.
- What would you like to learn about youth ministry in other countries?
- Religious-patriotic education, problems of preserving the language and culture in the countries of the diaspora, the preaching of Orthodox Christianity among young people. I would also like to learn about work with so-called “difficult” children, those who have had traumatic lives, or left the Church.
While still at Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra, my fellow monks and I would visit homes with such children, and my soul ached when I saw how these children are drawn to clergymen and to the holy things we would bring them. But we must probably begin with parents and teachers, because during these visits we would perform the Mysteries of baptism and confession upon the adults.
- Vladyka, how important is the unification of Orthodox youth from various countries?
- In our day, the young people of various countries are faced with many difficulties, they endure all sorts of temptations. One gets the impression that young people in the West move further away from Christ than youth in Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. This is connected with the yearning for material side of life, with its increasing speed of development. This tendency is even noticeable in Russia, and Ukraine…
In order to support each other, Orthodox youth must meet more often, spend prayerful hours together. This will unite them in the struggle against sin, to mature spiritually, to impart meaning to further Christian life, and to provide the possibility for establishing Orthodox families.
We now see examples of young people who marry, seemingly out of love, but not in accordance with the Christian viewpoint. These marriages are often difficult, because people with different desires and intentions have differing ideas about the meaning of life. When people of the same faith marry, then after the Mystery of matrimony, there will be unity in this “small church,” as the Apostles call the family.
Such conferences are beneficial also because youth can develop friendly, Christian relationships. Young people are sometimes too shy to ask questions of priests, and especially bishops. When they see people their age who had faith since their childhood and preserve a higher level in their spiritual life, it is easier to open up to them at first, and then to the clergy. They are able to get answers to problems that concern them, and turn away from actions which are not conducive to salvation.
- Vladyka, what would you like to say to those who will attend the Paris event?
Never despair, rely on the Lord in all things, and follow the words of our Savior Jesus Christ: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).
Interviewed by Tatiana Veselkina