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"We find ourselves in a critical position" A Conversation with Bishop John (Berzin) of Caracas, Administrator of the Parishes of the Russian Church Abroad in South America 


Bishop John of Caracas (Peter Berzin before monasticism) was born on 16 March 1957, in the city of Cooma, Australia, to the family of Latvians who were forced to leave their homeland during World War II.  He completed the course of study of the Department of Philology at the Australian National University, where he majored in ancient Greek and Latin. 

In 1982, he traveled to the USA and enrolled in Holy Trinity Seminary, in Jordanville, graduating in 1985.  In March of that year, he was tonsured to the mantia by Vladyka Lavr (Shkurla), the Archbishop of Syracuse and Trinity, with the name John, in honor of St. John, the Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord.  In April of 1987, he was ordained a hierodeacon, and on 4 November of that year, a hieromonk.  In 1994, he was awarded the gold pectoral cross.  In September of 2005, he was raised to the rank of hegumen. 

He served as spiritual father for the Holy Ascension and Gethsemane Convents in the Holy Land, and directed the missionary community of Sts. Sergius and Herman of Valaam, in the Russian Church Abroad's Diocese of Chicago and the Midwest. 

In May of 2008, the Council of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad consecrated Hegumen John as Bishop of Caracas, entrusting to him the administration of the parishes in South America.  He became the first bishop of the Church Abroad whose election, in accordance with the Act of Canonical Communion, was confirmed by the Sacred Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The consecration of the newly designated bishop took place on 22 June 2008, during a Liturgy served in the Old Ritual, at the Old Rite parish of the Nativity of Christ, in Erie, Pennsylvania (USA). 

The Diocese of Caracas and Venezuela had been widowed since the retirement, in 1984, of its first head, Archbishop Seraphim (Svezhevsky, 1899-1996).  The last bishop of the Russian Church Abroad assigned to South America was Bishop Alexander of Buenos Aires and South America (Mileant, 1938-2005), a prominent theologian and educator, who published the "Missionary Leaflets" and maintained a theology site in Russian, English, Spanish and Portuguese.  Vladyka Alexander visited his diocese infrequently.  In his latter years, he contracted cancer and lived in California. 

Bishop John arrived in Buenos Aires, where he took up residence at a time fraught with difficulties.  Some eight years before, the chief clergyman and monastic in Chile both entered into the schism which arose within the Church Abroad and centered around its former First Hierarch, Metropolitan Vitaly (Ustinov, 1910-2006).  He had retired in June of 2001, but soon tool part in the formation of the founding of the uncanonical Russian Orthodox Church in Exile.  Vladyka Vitaly's actions were prompted by his desire not to draw closer to the Moscow Patriarchate.

In 2007, after the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church Abroad, a number of parishes in Argentina and Brazil abandoned the Church Abroad for the so-called Provisional Central Administration of the Russian Church Abroad, headed by Bishop Agafangel (Pashkovsky) of Odessa and Taurides, who refused to recognize the unity of the Church of Russia.

Another perennial problem of the Diocese of South America is the shortage of clergy.  Many parishes have gone for decades without a resident priest, which separates the flock from the life of the Church, and weakens the position of the Russian Church in the region.

Now, Bishop John is preparing for the 50th anniversary of the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Buenos Aires, which will take place in July of 2010.  The Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad has planned solemn divine services, as well as an exhibition of icons of the Mother of God from Russia, and other events to coincide with this occasion.

—Vladyka John, you are one of two Old Rite hierarchs in the Russian Church Abroad.  How did you become acquainted with the Old Rite?  Who attracted you to this ancient Orthodox tradition?

—One of my Latvian friends, who had studied the language of the gypsies, said: "If you learn the gypsy language, you will turn into a gypsy."  When I entered Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, I came into contact with Old Ritualists and quickly became one of them.

In Latvia, the homeland of my parents, before it was occupied by the Soviet Union, about half the Russian population were Old Believers.  The Russian author Nikolai Semenovich Leskov, who visited Riga in the 1860s to study the state of popular education among the Old Ritualist community, wrote that the Rigan Old Ritualists were the most educated and cultured in the Russian Empire.  The theme of Old Ritualism was reflected in Leskov's tale "The Sealed Angel".

From the early 1980s, I was a friend of Bishop Daniel (Aleksandrov) of Erie, vicar of the First Hierarch of the Synod of Bishops of the Church Abroad for the oversight of the Old Ritualists.  Vladyka Daniel is a very interesting and talented man.  He is a poet, an architect, an iconographer, and an expert in Znamenny chant. 

—How do you find Buenos Aires?

—Before I was appointed administrator of the parishes in South America, I had never been on that continent.  Nevertheless, I feel comfortable there and am growing accustomed to my new home.  I live in the bishop's residence attached to Holy Resurrection Cathedral, which was built in the late 1950s-early 1960s for Archbishop Afanasy (Martos, 1904-1983), one of the first of our bishops in South America.  Unfortunately, I do not know the Spanish language; but I am studying it intensively.  My instructor is teaching me "Argentine Spanish", which differs greatly from the classic Spanish language.

—What landmarks in the history of the Russian Church Abroad's  Diocese of South America do you consider most significant?

—Without doubt, the most significant event has been the rapprochement between the Russian Church Abroad and the Moscow Patriarchate.  It would seem that one can only rejoice over the unity of the Church of Christ, to observe the spiritual fruits produced by the normal state (unity) of the Church.  Yet this joyous event has served as the reason for the departure of a significant, perhaps even a major part of the clergy and faithful of South America, into the "Odessan Schism".  Nowhere else in the Church Abroad is this felt so acutely as in South America.

—Protopresbyter Konstantin Izraztsov, one of the most controversial figures in the Russian diaspora, is often called the "apostle" of Orthodoxy in South America.  How do you assess the activity of this priest?

—First of all, I must say that I do not possess information about Fr Konstantin to such an extent that my opinion would carry weight.  Nonetheless, I have to speak negatively about the late clergyman.

To call him an "apostle" is not quite accurate, since he did not convert unbelievers, but ministered spiritually to those who were already believers.  Actually, Fr Konstantin was active in building churches and the organization of church communities; yet it is my impression that he viewed the fruits of his labors as his personal property.  He dared to deny entry to bishops into the Holy Trinity Cathedral he had built, and, when it pleased him, to go over to the American Metropolia, cutting himself off from the Church Abroad in 1947.  Such attitudes may be observed even today.  This same Holy Trinity Cathedral\, with its priests, has joined the Odessan schismatics.  The by-laws introduced by Fr Konstantin permit this.

I have heard a great deal that is negative about his social activity.  For example, they say that after the Revolution of 1917, Fr Konstantin asked the Argentine authorities not to accept the Cossack refugees.  After World War II, he helped the so-called displaced persons to receive permission to come to Argentina, yet when they arrived, he treated them coldly.

—How do you assess the state of Orthodoxy in South America?

—Metropolitan Silouan (Musi) of Buenos Aires and Argentina (Patriarchate of Antioch) has said that the Orthodox Churches have forgotten South America, though he qualified this by saying that this does not apply to the Church of Russia.  I have to agree with him.  Once, the Church Abroad had four dioceses and as many as seven bishops in South America; yet for the past more than two decades there has been no resident bishop.  Is it any wonder that we find ourselves in such a critical situation?

The flock has changed greatly.  The process of assimilation is preceding at a far more rapid pace that, let us say, in the USA or Australia.  There are many mixed marriages.  In such families, it is rare for the children to remain Orthodox.

—How many parishes are there at present in your diocese?

—Officially, there are more than thirty parishes in our diocese; however, most of them are inactive or have gone into schism.  In Venezuela, there are six churches and two priests, one of whom is 87 years old.  Thanks be to God, there is no schism.  In Brazil, there are seven churches and four priests.  They have all gone into schism.  In Argentina, there are thirteen church served by two priests and a deacon who have remained faithful to the Church, and four schismatic priests.  In Chile, there are three communities, with a priest and a deacon, and also a church and a convent whose superiors went into schism under Metropolitan Vitaly (Ustinov).  In Paraguay, there are two churches which have long been without a priest.  In Uruguay, there is one church, also without a priest.

—Which South American countries have you managed to visit?

—Last year, I took part in the program Russian Days in Latin America, and was able to travel around the diocese' but since I have moved here, I have not made pastoral trips, since, because of the illness of the rector of our cathedral, Protopriest Vladimir Skalon, I to all intents and purposes am acting as a parish priest.

To a lesser extent, I have to visit Caracas, spend several months there, and become better acquainted with the flock in Caracas, my cathedral city.  I seems to be symbolic that I was born on the very day when the first bishop of the Diocese of Caracas, Vladyka Seraphim (Svezhevsky) was consecrated a bishop—16 March 1957.

I would like to gather together materials on Protopresbyter Ioann Baumanis (1908-1988), a Lett by nationality, who was an active clergyman in Venezuela.  In his youth he served in Latvia, but in 1944 he left that country and, in the late 1940s, immigrated to Venezuela.  By his efforts, Russian Orthodox parishes in Caracas, Valencia and other cities were founded.  At various times, Fr Ioann was rector of St. Nicholas Cathedral in Caracas, dean of the Russian parishes in Venezuela, and president of the diocesan council of the Russian Church Abroad's Diocese of Caracas and Venezuela.

—How are the mutual relations between you and the Moscow Patriarchate's Diocese of South America and its ruling bishop, Metropolitan Platon (Udovenko) developing?

—Glory to God, the warmest relations—both ecclesiastical and personal—have been established between us.  When I was compelled to be absent, Vladyka Platon sent a priest, so that our cathedral might not be without services.  Unfortunately, due to lack of clergy, both among us and among the Moscow Patriarchate, concelebration takes place only on church patronal feasts.

—What perspectives for Russian Orthodoxy in South America present themselves to you in the light of the reunification with the Church in Russia?

—As you see, we need clergymen.  I hope that the mighty Church of Russia will be able to help us.  If candidates for seminary study appear, I intend to send them to Russia, because the likelihood of their returning to South America is greater.  The majority of those who attended Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville have opted to stay in America.

Interview conducted by Miguel Palacio