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Bishop John of Caracas and South America: “We Are Building a Diocese Brick by Brick”

In an interview with the St Gregory the Theologian Benevolent Fund, His Grace Bishop John of Caracas and South America talks about the present situation in the Russian Church Abroad in South America.

- Your Grace, what is the current situation with the diocese you head?

- My diocese includes the entire territory of South America. By size, it is one of the largest (maybe the largest) Orthodox diocese in the world. At one time, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia had four entire dioceses here: Caracas and Venezuela, Sao Paolo and Brazil, Santiago and Chile, Buenos Aires and Argentina and Paraguay and Uruguay.

But as the years passed, the bishops died one by one, the number of believers shrank, some died, others moved away, still others assimilated and broke from their Orthodox roots—as a result, all the ecclesiastical territories united into one, with its headquarters in Buenos Aires.

I must say that in this unified form, the diocese somehow became “forgotten.” My predecessor on this cathedra was Bishop Alexander (Mileant), known to many Russians as a talented missionary, was gravely ill for the last few years of his life and lived outside of his diocese, in the US. After his death in 2005, the ROCOR parishes in South America were left without a bishop of their own for some time, and this had sad consequences: a significant number of them went into schism.

- As far as I know, those who refused to accept the reestablishment of canonical unity between ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate left into schism. Are there many of them in South America? What jurisdiction do they find themselves in? Who heads their parishes? Is there any contact with the schismatics?

- As I said, the ROCOR communities in actuality lost touch with the hierarchy. Lacking adequate information on the process of the reestablishment of unity within our Church, a significant portion of them went into the schism of Agathangel (Pashkovsky), a former ROCOR bishop, who refused to accept the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion between the Church Abroad and the Moscow Patriarchate. Consequently, he was defrocked for his schismatic activities, which did not prevent him from declaring himself “metropolitan” and “first hierarch” of the Church Abroad. Although only a minority of ROCOR parishes throughout the world joined him, he was able to attain some level of success in South America, in particular, all of the Brazilian parishes, two large and a few small ones in Argentina, and in other countries. 

The direct head of the schismatics in South America is the suspended Protopriest George Petrenko. After his wife died, he became a monastic with the name of Gregory and now calls himself the “bishop of Sao Paolo and South America,” heading all of the “Agathangelite” parishes in South America.

We have no contact with schismatics at this time. This is not our fault, we are open to dialog, we are ready to explain why the Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, signed in May 2007, was neither “betrayal” nor a “deviation.” But the schismatics retreated into a blind defensiveness. It has become completely absurd. When I was preparing for an archpastoral visit to Uruguay, the rector of the local schismatic community instructed his parishioners to “prevent me from coming within 100 meters of the church.”

Despite such excesses, we must not view the people who went into schism as our enemies. We must remember that most of all they fear being left without a priest, and they don’t have a good grasp of canonical matters.

- How many parishes do you now have in your jurisdiction?

- Of the functioning parishes which accept me as their ruling bishop, three are in Argentina, three in Chile, one in Paraguay, six churches and parishes in Venezuela. But Venezuela only has two priests, Chile has one, Argentina, besides me, has only one priest. My cathedral and my residence are in Buenos Aires: from a geographical point of view, this is the most  convenient point from which to administer such a large diocese.

- Why does your title include the city of Caracas?

- As I said, earlier, in the 1950’s to the 1980’s, there was a separate ROCOR diocese based in Caracas. It was headed by Vladyka Seraphim (Svezhevsky, 1899-1996). When he retired of old age in 1983, that diocese was combined with that of Sao Paolo and Brazil.

My predecessor, Vladyka Alexander, had the title “of Buenos Aires and South America.” The decision to fill the vacant cathedra occurred after the reestablishment of unity with the Moscow Patriarchate, and it was decided to choose a title that would not replicate that of the title of the hierarch of the Moscow Patriarchate. Strictly speaking, Metropolitan Platon, who heads the parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate in South America, is not “of Buenos Aires,” but “of Argentina,” but still, it is the same country. Also, there are two Orthodox bishops who use the Argentinian capital’s name, the heads of the Constantinople and Antiochian Churches.

There was another reason. Not everyone will agree, but for me personally—and for others, too—the title “of Buenos Aires” is an awkward phonetical entry into Church Slavonic liturgical text.

In general, I have at least two important events that tie me to Venezuela. First of all, Vladyka Seraphim was consecrated to the episcopacy of Caracas on the very day I was born on God’s earth, March 16, 1957. I don’t have the tendency to seek out mystical meanings in things, yet this coincidence is elegant. Secondly, of the six churches we have in Venezuela today, five were built by my fellow countryman, Protopresbyter Ioann Baumanis (he did on Christmas Day 1984-1985).

- What nationalities comprise your parishes? Is there missionary work being done among those whose ancestors were not Orthodox Christians?

- Mostly, these are descendants of Russian emigres. The exception is Chile, where there are many believers who adopted Orthodox Christianity from other confessions. This is a great achievement by Fr Alexei Aedo, a Chilean national, who himself converted to Orthodoxy.

In some places, our parishioners include Serbs and Orthodox Arabs.

As far as the language in which divine services are performed, everywhere except Chile, where the services are held in Spanish, we use Church Slavonic. Personally I think that the move to Spanish is not only permissible, but necessary. Many descendants of Russian emigres have already forgotten the language of their ancestry. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet mastered this tongue, enough to participate actively in this work.

In general, as far as missionary work is concerned, unfortunately, I have to admit that besides Chile, there is hardly any of it happening. This is a problem facing the Russian emigration as a whole. Russian communities tend to be self-isolated, they don’t understand or accept outsiders.

- What kind of relationship do you have with other Orthodox bishops of South America?

- Of the representatives of other Local Churches, I have established especially good relations with two metropolitans of the Antiochian Patriarchate—Silouan of Argentina (Musi) and Damascene of Brazil (Mansur). Of course, I have a very gregarious relationship with the hierarch of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Platon (Udovenko) of Argentina and South America. Unfortunately, we rarely have an opportunity to concelebrate. For Vladyka Platon has three parishes in Buenos Aires, which besides him do not have single other clergyman. Still, we do sometimes get to serve together, either in my cathedral or in his, which may seem strange at first: two hierarchs serve without a single priest or deacon…

- What kind of relationship do you have with other Christian confessions, especially Catholics?

- I would characterize these relations as neighborly. I met the Catholic Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. This is a very humble, kind person. (During the most recent conclave, he was one of the legitimate candidates for the papal throne.) When we began to have problems with the schismatics, Cardinal Bergoglio, on his own initiative, wrote a letter in our support to the government.

- What was the problem? And how is your relationship with the civil authorities developing?

- Since I have lived in the US for many years, I have something with which to compare the relationship towards Orthodoxy in this South-American country. The comparison is not flattering for the northern nation, either. In the legal system of the USA, there is an utter absence of any concept of “the Church” and its rights. Any schismatics, then, have equal rights before the law as representatives of the canonical Church. In South America, it is completely different. For instance, according to Argentinian law, the only “Church” is the Roman Catholic one (other religious communities can have the status of “congregation” or “association”). But the canons and laws of each such “congregation” are accepted and respected by the authorities. When in 2007 we reestablished communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, the officers of the Department of Cults of the Argentinian Ministry of Justice, studying the relevant documentation, recognized as the lawful diocese that of the Church Abroad, not the schismatics.

- Are you building any new churches in your diocese?

- Yes, with God’s help, we are building new churches. One of these is in Uruguay. There was once a church belonging to ROCOR in that nation’s capital, Montevideo, but it is now in the hands of schismatics. A new church will be built in the resort city of Punta del Este, on a parcel of land belonging to a very pious parishioner. Punta del Este is a resort frequented in the summertime by many Argentinians and Uruguayans. The church will probably be consecrated in memory of the Epiphany, and it will be a Russian-style wooden church. The project we chose was prepared by the architect Andrei Obolensky. It appears that the church will be brought log by log from Russia and assembled on site. The St Gregory the Theologian Foundation is helping in this regard.

We are also building a church dedicated to St Silouan of Athos in the Chilean city of Concepcion—that was the epicenter of the recent destructive earthquake. In October I blessed the cornerstone of the church. One pious Orthodox Arab donated ten thousand bricks for the construction. I am no specialist, but they say that this is enough to build a small church. So we are building our diocese brick by brick.

We may have another new church, in Caracas. In any case, the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez promised this to His Holiness Patriarch Kirill.

- Vladyka, after the death of Bishop Daniel (Alexandrov) of Erie, you have headed the Old Rite churches of ROCOR. How did your love for this rite come about? Do you have adherents to the Old Rite in your diocese?

- My love for the Old Rite is natural, organic for me. I think that being an enthusiast of the Church Ustav (and I love the Ustav), means that one is sympathetic for the Old Rite. When the Pomorsky community of the Old Rite joined the Russian Church Abroad in the American city of Erie, I got to know these zealots of the Old Rite.

My roots also played a role. Latvia was one of the centers of the Old Rite. Before the Revolution, adherents of the Old Rite comprised more than half of the Russian population of that guberniya, which later became the Latvian Republic. When I was able to travel to the lands of my ancestors, I met not only Orthodox Christians, but members of the Pomorsky Old Rite community. I have known Fr Ioann Miroliub since 1992. Today, the feast day of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, I officiated at Divine Liturgy at Pokrov Church in Rubtsov, where Fr Ioann serves, where he is resurrecting the ancient Russian divine services.

In South America, especially in Uruguay, there are a good number of adherents of the Old Rite of the Chasovenny community. One can describe them as somewhere in between the Popovtsy and Bespopovtsy [those with priests and those without—transl.] That is, in practice, they don’t have clergymen, but they do not believe that the grace of the clergy has been completely removed from the world. They are fairly open to the New Rite, and I plan on contacting them.

- What do you think, has your background influenced your viewpoint and your relationship to others?

- Of course it has. Consider this: I was born in Australia, and my parents were Orthodox Latvians. The Russian Church was closest to them, they grew up in it, and in those times the only Russian parishes in Australia were those of ROCOR. This prevented anyone from having a purely nationalistic attitude. Our family lived in the mountains, far away from any Orthodox church, and the priest would visit our town once a month. Sometimes this was a Russian priest, sometimes Serbian. Had my parents waited until a Latvian priest came, I would have died un-baptized, and if the Russian clergymen had rejected non-Russians, South America would have remained without a bishop [laughing].

Even in Latvia itself, as far as I know, Orthodox Christians are a significant minority, and as a whole have always had a broader view of people of other faiths. For instance, living side-by-side with Catholics, we always knew that they didn’t grow horns… At the same time, being in the minority, we held onto our adherence to the Orthodox Church with special zeal.

Dmitry Vlasov interviewed Bishop John on the Meeting of Our Lord in the Temple exclusively for the official website of the St Gregory the Theologian Benevolent Fund.