His Grace Bishop John of Caracas and South America:
My Challenge is to Heal the Schism
and Return the Flock and Our Churches.
On February 11-22, 2016, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia will visit Latin America. His Grace Bishop John of Caracas and South America talked to the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate about how Orthodox Christians live in the region. It is well known that South America was the first to receive Orthodox faithful, including Greeks, Slavs and Serbs, in the second half of the 19th century. In the 20th century those who could not come to terms with Bolshevism in Russia found refuge here. These included officers of the White Army, the names of whom are even today remembered with gratitude. What did our ancestors do to deserve such reverence, how will parish life change in the next 20 years, what problems are being faced today by Orthodox Christians in Latin America? These were the topics discussed by Bishop John.
The Waves of the Russian Immigration.
Your Grace, over the 30 years that you have served the Russian Orthodox Church, many great events have taken place which we could not have imagined. How do you see Orthodoxy in Russia and in South America 20 years from now?
Twenty years is a very long time in my opinion. On the other hand if we look at some 20 years into the past, when we celebrated the thousandth anniversary of the baptism of Russia, no one thought that the Iron Curtain would collapse so suddenly, that communion would be restored between the two branches of the Russian Orthodox Church and that they would reconcile. That is why everything that is happening in Russia I look upon with great hope, in this respect I am an optimist. The rebirth of Orthodox Christianity in Russia today can be compared with the times of Holy Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles, since now what we are seeing is a second baptism of Rus. If we look at what happened after the first baptism, people simply followed their prince, without a full understanding, for people were generally illiterate, but they received Christianity with a pure heart, were baptized, thereby opening themselves to the grace of the Holy Spirit. And a few generations later, it already became known as Holy Russia.
The sons of Prince Vladimir, Boris and Gleb, also became saints. St Anthony of the Caves left for Mount Athos and returned, bringing with him the idea of monasticism. If that was possible then, when people were less literate, then today when we already remember Holy Russia, a great deal of literature literature is now readily available, then it is much easier than at that time for Orthodox Christianity to flourish. I hope this occurs in the next 20 years.
You had the opportunity to meet with various generations of Russian immigrants in South America, how are they different from each other?
The first wave were refugees of the White Army. The second wave included those who did not wish to return to the USSR after World War 2, refugees who lived on occupied territories and later fled to the West from the approaching front. For instance in Latvia, 10% of the population became refugees. These included Soviet prisoners of war, and those who were forcibly brought to the West to work for the Germans. They all understood quite clearly that all they can expect in their homeland was exile and prison camp. The third and fourth waves were those who left by their own volition. The third wave was mostly the Jewish immigration. This didn't mean that they were Jews themselves, but could be included among Jews through marriage or by one of their parents. And among them were many Orthodox Christians, and many actually became believers.
The first and second waves always struggled to preserve their Russianness, they always looked to Russia with hope, that even if they couldn’t, at least their children or grandchildren could return to the homeland. Today our churches are attended by the descendants of the first wave of emigrants. Among them is one venerable but very bold man who was born in Russia before the Revolution. His name is Valentin Vasilievich Khasapov, who is 96 years old, and lives in Buenos Aires.
Another interesting point is that the children of the first two waves of emigres preserved the Russian language, and speak Russian well. Compare them to those who arrived 10 years ago, who swallow their consonants, you hear Spanish words creeping into their sentences, it's remarkable. But they don't come to our churches in great numbers. I have not yet met members of the third wave in Argentina. It doesn't mean they don't exist, I simply haven't met any. There are many representatives of the fourth wave of immigrants who attend churches of the Moscow Patriarchate here.
I serve in the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Buenos Aires and also serve as a simple priest, taking confessions and administering communion, since we don't have enough priest; for this reason I have a greater opportunity to meet with my flock.
How large is your flock in numbers?
On a Sunday we have some 30 people, on Pascha, several hundred. There are few young people, the average age is 40 and older. In addition to Russians, Argentinians also come to church, one of them now studies in our Seminary in Jordanville. We conduct services on weekdays, the main 12 feast days, including all-night vigil. But if a holiday falls on a weekday, there are very few attendees because everyone has to work. That is why on a weekday I often serve in my home.
The low number of our parishioners can also be explained by the fact that a schism wrought great damage upon the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in Latin America. This is how it happened: in 2007, a group of Orthodox clergymen and laity in Latin America went to schism which was caused by an Agafangel, a former bishop of ROCOR. He refused to recognize the Act of Canonical Communion between the Church Abroad and the Moscow Patriarchate. Defrocked for his schismatic act, Agathangel declared himself “metropolitan” and “first hierarch” of the Church Abroad. Some of the parishes of South America joined him including those in Brazil, some in Argentina and other countries. All of these schismatics are led by so-called “Bishop” Grigory of South Paulo and South America. Having been formerly defrocked, Protopriest George Petrenko, who became a widower, was tonsured a monk with the name Grigory. I am studying this question now why this schism is finding support in Latin America specifically, but I still don't know the answer.
For instance, I can find a common language with Old-Rite Believers and I can agree with them on certain things, because their schism was ecclesiastical, all the points of contention are centered on church matters. The reasons for this schism here are political, psychological and socio-psychological. Plus there is a general mood of resistance which reigns in the minds and hearts of the people of Latin America. In particular, schismatics still insist that the Russia of today is the continuation of the Soviet Union, that the Russian Orthodox Church includes agents of the KGB, etc. We have no contact with these schismatics now, although we are open to dialogue and wish to explain to them why the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchate in May 2007 was the right thing to do, and is not a “betrayal” or a “apitulation.”
But they will hear none of that. As a Bishop, my main challenge now is to heal the schism, to return the flock and the churches themselves. For instance, Holy Trinity Cathedral in Buenos Aires is occupied by schismatics. I need to lift the level of ecclesial life of the flock, for they left the Church.
But all is not lost. This situation is in Chile gives me great hope. Most of the Orthodox Christians there are Chileans who converted to Orthodoxy from Catholicism.At first glance, this could seem strange, for the Catholic Church is very powerful in Chile, and they are serious about religious education. Still, former Catholics have told me that they converted to Orthodoxy in the search for true faith, and Orthodoxy answers their spiritual needs. But generally the people of South America have the reverse tendency: people leave the church, have mixed marriages, assimilate, and their children, as a rule, though they may be baptized into Orthodox Christianity, do not preserve their faith.
It is very important that in Chile, our priest, who is Chilean by birth, is an active missionary. In the churches of the Moscow Patriarchate, most of the parishioners are also Chilean. We don't have a church in Santiago, the schismatics have taken it. But we did set up a chapel in an apartment and conduct divine services there. The Orthodox community in Chile is more active than in Argentina. We are now building a church dedicated to St Silouan of Mt Athos in Concepcion, the second largest city in Chile, where our priest lives. Orthodox Arabs donated land for a church, and Russians, Chileans and several Serbs donate their money. This will be the only Orthodox Christian Church in the city. Its rector is Protopriest Alexei Aedo.
How many parishes does your dad sees in contain?
These are conditional figures. Some of our parishes, as I said, are in schism now. But we still consider them ours. We also have communities where services are held very rarely, once a month or even once a year. We have six parishes in Venezuela, but only two priests. In Chile we have three communities, one priest and one deacon, while in Argentina we have three active parishes, among them the cathedral. We have one parish in Paraguay. A priest from Russia was recently sent there. Brazil has five active parishes which went into schism, as did the sole Church in Uruguay.
Maybe turning to Spanish as the language of divine services will help you attract a larger flock from the local populations. You said in particular that in Chile they serve in Spanish.
Yes, in Chile they serve in Spanish. But when I serve there, the words I intone are in Church Slavonic, and the flock understands this, while the rest of the service is performed in Spanish. By the way, they use Russian and Greek musical chants as well there.
I would like to discuss one problem. This relates to the descendants of Russian immigrants who were born in Argentina and don't understand Church Slavonic. For this reason they don't want to go to church, where they serve in Spanish, because they think that as people of Russian stock, nothing really ties them to Russia. I think the question of converting to the Spanish language in divine services is only a matter of time. When you asked about the future of Orthodoxy in Latin America, it's possible that our existence here will include wall-to-wall services in Spanish.
Antiochian Orthodox Christians already switched to Spanish. They have four dioceses in South America. In Argentina and Chile, they switched to Spanish, in Brazil to Portuguese, but in Venezuela they still serve in Arabic. If our Spanish liturgical language will be adopted by the Russian, Greek and Serbian communities, they will likely united within one church, because the divisions by national nationalistic traits in this regard, I think, will be pointless. I think that we need to switch to Spanish, but I am not the person to do this, since I am not that proficient in Spanish.
In one interview you talked about the perspective of working with Old-Rite communities.
This is a matter worthy of study. In South America, especially in Brazil and Bolivia, there are many Old Rite faithful. Uruguay also has Old-Rite believers. In practice they do not have a priesthood, but they don't aver that the grace of priesthood has been removed from the world. I want to get to know them and I hope to draw them to join under my omophorion.
How is your spiritual authority organized?
We have so few clergymen, and they live so far apart from each other, that we have few options. In Moscow you will find several churches being built on a single street. The distances do not give us the opportunity for our clergyman to get together, to discuss common spiritual matters. Internet conferences are difficult to convene, since many of our priests are of an older generation and they are unaccustomed to the technology. But of course if a priest has some questions on the spiritual ministry of his flock, we resolve them directly by telephone. Often these are matters pertaining to family life, where spouses belong to different churches, Catholic and Orthodox.
Your grace, do you feel the presence of God in your own life?
I feel that the natural state of mind is that when God is present within us, we don't pay attention to this, but we suddenly realize when He departs. But I wish to say another thing. In South America I often sense that people feel that they are on the outskirts of civilization. Not only because they do not live well, but because they are geographically removed from the rest of the world. I observed that in Argentina one does not sense the religious nature of people, while in Chile, it is the opposite, they are very persistent in their search for the true faith. Although Argentina has mostly Catholic, among the same Catholics is the idea of “liberation theology.” This is a South American phenomenon, when politics begins to replace faith.
I think that plays a large role in our schism, but among Catholics this is a leftist viewpoint, and with our people it's a right-wing attitude. They consider themselves to be monarchists, but with a sort of fascist tendency. For instance they always support military dictatorships, they are hostile towards Russia, which in their point of view still is run by communists.
Russian Names in the Pantheon of Heroes.
How big is the influence of Russian culture in Latin America, considering that in the 1920’s, many Russians emigrated there?
I would not say that it is felt in every place where Russian communities were formed, but it exists. In some places there is a Russian influence. In particular, in Paraguay, where White Russian officers fought. The most famous of these struggles was Major General Ivan Belyaev, who headed the General Staff of the Paraguay Army during the Chaco War against Bolivia in 1932 - 1935. He proved himself not only a worthy soldier, but a scholar, an expert in geography, ethnography, anthropology, he was a linguist who first described the way of life and culture of the Indians of Paraguay.
Fighting Belyaev and the other Russians on the Bolivian side were German officers headed by General Hans Kundt. The Bolivian army was numerically superior to the Paraguay army, but they lost. The names of the Russian officers who died in those battles are engraved in plaques in the National Pantheon of Heroes. Last September in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, in the cemetery, a special Russian section was established where the remains of the Russian officers were reinterred who fought for the country, including officer Vasily Orefiev-Serebryakov. He died exactly 80 years ago, one year before victory, leading the storm of Boqueron Fortress, which the had been Bolivians occupying.
I was instructed to lead the process of reinterment together with representatives of the Paraguayan government and military. The Russian ambassador to Paraguay, Grigory Mashkov, spoke at the event. It was a solemn ceremony: a military band played, an official salute by Paraguayan soldiers wearing the uniforms of the Chaco War. General Elvio Flores spoke on behalf of the Paraguay Army, who stressed that the White Russian officers always served as first class warriors. This is true for the Russian soldiers who fought for Paraguay, their second homeland, which adopted them, and gave them haven and employment.
What would you like to wish for the Orthodox Christians of Russia?
I hope that they strengthen in their Orthodoxy, become the salt of the earth, to drive to obtain the Spirit of peace. If even a few people stand firm in their faith, this cannot but influence all those around them. If a person confesses Christianity, but does not live as a Christian, he turns others away from the faith.
Each one of us must preach the Gospel through our actions. Not everyone is called to preach with the word, but each one must serve as an example in life, to live by the gospel. It is said “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
The South American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia by territory is one of the largest Orthodox dioceses in the world, enveloping all of South America. At one time, the Russian Church Abroad had several dioceses here: Argentina-Paraguay, Brazil, Chile-Peru and Venezuela. But as the years went by, the flock diminished, and all of these ecclesiastical territories were united with its center in Buenos Aires.
The first Orthodox Christians arrived on the continent in the 1860’s and settled in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. These were mostly Syrians and Lebanese Christians, who came from the Ottoman Empire. In the 1880’s, Greeks began to arrive in Argentina, as well as Serbs, Romanians and Bulgarians. In 1887, the Orthodox Christians of Argentina appealed to Russian Emperor Alexander III to open an Orthodox Church in Buenos Aires. With the participation of the Russian ambassador to Argentina and Uberprocurator Pobedonostsev, a church was opened in 1888, and Priest Mikhail Ivanov was appointed its Rector.
At first it was located in a private house, and a portable iconostasis was brought from Madrid. In 1889, the first Orthodox Liturgy was celebrated here. The first Orthodox Church on the continent was built in Buenos Aires in 1898-99, and in 1901 it was consecrated in honor of the Holy Trinity. Funds for the construction were donated by Empress Maria Feodorovna, Father John of Kronstadt, Sergei Botkin, Ivan Samarin, and believers from many other countries. Today there are Orthodox churches on the continent belonging to the Antiochian, Serbian, Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches.