His Grace Bishop John (Berzins) of Caracas and South America rules the most restive diocese, that of South America, of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. A significant number of parishes in Latin America, once part of the Church Abroad, left into schism upon the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion between the ROCOR and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate on May 17, 2007. His Grace spoke to a correspondent from the website Neskuchniy sad about why there should be no fear of socialists, and how the Old Believers in America came to speak English.
Caracas is the capital of Venezuela, a major nation on the South American continent. The Russian Church Abroad was founded here by White emigres who fled Russia after the October Revolution. Today, the countries of “Latin American socialism”—Bolivia and Venezuela—are ministered to by several Orthodox jurisdictions at once. Bishop John of Caracas and South America also ministers to Old Believer communities which joined ROCOR in the 1980’s.
-- The emigres who established the Church Abroad early in the last century fled Soviet Russia, saving themselves from socialists. The ROCOR seriously reproached the Moscow Patriarchate for cooperating with the communists. Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, is a socialist, who several years ago nationalized the mining industry. How are your relations developing today?
-- Russian emigres who established our Church fled not socialism but godlessness, militant atheism and persecution. The people who run Venezuela today are not the Soviet state. President Chavez may be a socialist, yes. But he is not an atheist. Moreover, he openly calls himself a believer, does not persecute the Church and does not propagandize atheism. Venezuela today finds itself in a profound social crisis, and something must be done, so I lean towards sympathizing with him. It is not the Church’s lot to involve itself in politics or decide which is better, socialism or capitalism. The Savior commanded us to tend to our neighbor, to help the poor and orphaned. Christianity is not alien to the concept of social justice—unless it is harnessed to godlessness. At the same time, many of our parishioners have a justifiable mistrust of socialists, which is characteristic for ROCOR. Orthodox Christians in Latin America are very politicized, and that’s the way it always was. For instance, during Allende’s time, they fled Chile en masse.
-- There are now some parishioners of the Church Abroad who are in schism, having spoken out against unification…
-- I must correct you. To consider the reconciliation between the Church Abroad and the Church in Russia as a “unification” is inaccurate. Maybe some consider this a question of semantics, but what happened four years ago should more properly be referred to as “reconciliation” and not “unification.” I insist on this term. We never considered ourselves schismatics, we never severed ourselves from the Russian Church. Because it was impossible to maintain contact with the Church in the Homeland after the ukase of Patriarch Tikhon, we created the Provisional Ecclesiastical Administration to minister to parishes abroad, and after the declaration of Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky), we were forced to live autonomously. Very recently we renewed our Eucharistic communion with the “mother” Church. But we always considered ourselves a part of the Russian Church, and the forced autonomy was never an end in and of itself for us. On the contrary, in all our documents we stressed that this is a temporary situation. When matters changed and the Church in Russia became free, we reestablished communion.
The clergymen who today reject reconciliation do not follow the historic path of the Church Abroad, as some of them now aver, they did not “stay” in schism, they departed into schism, opposing the conciliar decision of the Church Abroad and rending Eucharistic communion with world Orthodoxy.
For me, this is not simply a theoretical theological question, but a living wound, for we are talking about the Church of Christ! I cannot understand the thinking of these people. You ask why they left into schism? I cannot answer you because I don’t understand myself. Sometimes it is easier for me to find a common tongue with the Old Believers, because they think ecclesiastically. These schismatics think differently. Personal ambition, politics, property-ownership questions—probably all of these together are the reason. In addition, the parishes of ROCOR in South America were always known for their insubordination. They were unhappy with the first South-American hierarch, Bishop Panteleimon (Rudyk), who was ordained by bishops of the Polish Church during the War, they didn’t like him. They fought with Bishop Afanasy (Martos), who ruled the diocese between 1955 and 1983. Then they held a long grudge against Vladyka Alexander (Mileant), who because of his serious illness did not live in South America. All this contributed to the specific mentality of the parishes of ROCOR in South America. At Holy Trinity Cathedral in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, the parishioners are proud of the fact that they moved the altar table eastward, so that there is no room for the traditional place for the bishop to preside in during services.
Since the time that Holy Trinity Cathedral and other parishes have departed into schism, the flock of the Church Abroad in South America has diminished, but in some regard it is easier for to minister to than for my predecessors, because those who had the spirit of rebellion in them left.
- Did ROCOR in South America remain a “Russian” Church? Do local populations convert to Orthodoxy?
-- Most of our parishes were established by Russian emigres, and that is why we mostly unite people who left Russia. The most successful country in terms of missionary work is Chile, we have a very active priest serving there, a Chilean by nationality, and many people in that country are becoming Orthodox Christian, but this is the exception. In general, in South America, the opposite trend dominates—mixed marriages occur and they assimilate.
-- Do the traditions of divine services of the Church Abroad differ from those in Russia?
-- Forming the Church Abroad were refugees from all corners of the former Russian Empire. At first each group maintained its local traditions, but with time this initial diversity faded, all the young clergymen studied in the Jordanville seminary. The monastery where our only seminary is found was established in the early 20th century by those who fled Pochaev Lavra. In some sense, its pre-Revolutionary traditions disseminated throughout the Church Abroad. There was also something of the sort in the Soviet Union, where the traditions of Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra were absorbed by Moscow Theological Seminary.
-- You also administer the Old Believer parishes. How did that happen?
-- In essence, every person who loves and is fascinated by the rule of divine services is already leaning towards the Old Rite. The 20th century became an epoch of the rebirth in the Old Rite church of many ancient traditions. The canonical icon took the place of the portrait-like [religious] painting. Changing from a cappella singing to znamenny chant is more difficult, but this tradition is even making a comeback in parishes abroad and in some Russian churches. At one time, I was the secretary of Bishop Daniel (Alexandrov) of Erie, the Vicar to the President of the Synod of Bishops to the Old Believer Community. After his death, by decision of the ROCOR Synod, I was appointed to minister to the Old-Believer parishes of our jurisdiction. Moreover, I am the only canonical bishop today who was ordained in the Old Rite. In the North American city of Erie, starting with the early 20th century, there was a community of Primorsky Bespopovty [Baltic priestless Old Believers] and in 1983 they accepted the priesthood within the bosom of the Church Abroad. Most of our Old Believers already don’t speak Russian, and although their services are held in the ancient rite, they are performed in English. The Erie community included exiles from Suvalki, a city in today’s Poland. The older generation of parishioners used the similar plural form as they did in Suvalki, saying u nas v Iryakh [“here in our Eries”]. Now, it is true, you don’t hear that anymore. One can hardly talk about applying Old Rite traditions to the other parishes of the Church Abroad. Our South American parishes have trouble adhering to the Typikon as it is.
-- How many parishes does the ROCOR have in South America now?
-- Any number is conditional because it isn’t ultimately clear whom to consider schismatics. Otherwise, in Argentina we have the cathedral and two parishes, three in Chile, one in Paraguay, and Venezuela has six. Unfortunately, all the parishes in Brazil went into schism, as did our sole Uruguayan parish. But in addition to the Church Abroad, many other Orthodox parishes exist in South America belonging to the Antiochian Patriarchate. These are Christians who immigrated to South America from the Arab lands: in Argentina there are Syrians and Lebanese, and Palestinians in Chile. There are Greeks and some Serbs. The Moscow Patriarchate has churches here, Vladyka Platon administers them, he is my good neighbor, and sometimes we serve together. Unfortunately, this opportunity doesn’t come around often: there aren’t enough priests, and even in the Cathedral a bishop may have to serve alone, without deacons. The older priests are dying, and there are no young priests. Our only seminary is in the US. Its graduates don’t exactly burn with the desire to go to South America: there they speak a foreign tongue and there are lower living standards. I remember how we once served with Vladyka Platon completely alone. This was a very unusual scene: a metropolitan and a bishop take turns with the litanies and intonations. But when we are together, Christ is among us, so whom else do we need?