Protopriest Serafim Gan:
“We United in the Glorification of the New Martyrs”
As the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion between the two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church approaches, Protopriest Serafim Gan, secretary of two First Hierarches, Metropolitan Laurus and Metropolitan Hilarion, talks about little-known details in the preparation for the ecclesial reconciliation.
— Fr Serafim, can you recall when the need for and possibility of the reestablishment of Eucharistic union between the Church in the Fatherland and Church Abroad began to be discussed openly?
- Discussions on the reestablishment of unity within the Russian Orthodox Church began when the division itself began. On both sides, Orthodox Christians yearned for this, we strove for this, but serious discussions on unity only began in the mid-1990’s, when those of us in the diaspora began to notice positive changes in the Church in Russia. We began then to travel to our historic homeland.
Metropolitan Laurus had made several pilgrimages to Russia, Ukraine, visiting holy sites, meeting with clergymen and monastics. He also had meetings—discreet, of course—with bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular with his spiritual friend Metropolitan Onufry of Chernovitsa and Bukovino. And when they would meet, they did not discuss the situation in Russia, or the division, but talked about prayer, monasteries, holy sites, all the things that they held dear.
At the beginning of the new century, church-historical conferences began on an official level with the participation of clergymen and scholars both from the Russian Church Abroad and the Moscow Patriarchate. In 2003, President Vladimir Putin offered to meet with Metropolitan Laurus in New York, at which he passed on an invitation to the First Hierarch from His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II to visit Russia.
So Metropolitan Laurus made his first official visit to Russia together with a large delegation from the Russian diaspora, during which, besides visiting Moscow and St Petersburg, we went to important holy sites in Ekaterinburg and Kursk. It was during this visit that the bilateral discussions began.
- Tell us about the preparations for the first meeting between the two Primates.
- The meeting was postponed several times. At first it was proposed for January, 2004, but both hierarchs had other commitments. Then they considered March. But Vladyka Laurus, for whom Great Lent was especially important, did not wish to travel then, deciding it would be better to fast properly, greet Pascha and only then, with renewed strength, make this important visit.
In December, 2003, after a regular session of the Council of Bishops, we began to prepare for the trip. I remember a meeting with Metropolitan Laurus not in the Synod but in a midtown Manhattan cafe, when Vladyka asked me to draft a list of possible delegates.
At the outset he recommended Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Germany and Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco and Western America, who participated in a small delegation which had met with the late Patriarch in November, 2003, and asked that representatives from every diocese of the Russian Church Abroad be included, and not only proponents of the reestablishment of Eucharistic communion but even those who were doubtful of, or even opposed to, unity.
In early 2004, Vladyka Laurus approved the list and asked me to draft invitations, some of which were mailed, while others were given to priests in person by the Metropolitan.
Some were grateful for the invitation, though one clergyman called me and in an elevated tone declared “under no circumstances will I go and kiss the hand of a chekist!” Only one priest declined to go due to his health, others for ideological reasons. One pastor was very interested in this trip, but feared that his parishioners would not understand and would condemn him for going.
- How many people participated in the first official delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia?
- The official delegation, which was to participate in all discussions, included ten persons, while another fifteen clergymen were in the pilgrimage group which had a different schedule.
May 12th arrived, and most of the trip’s US participants gathered in New York. After taking care of matters at the Synod at around 11 pm, I went home, and Synod staff members Eugene Grigoriak and Deacon Eugene Kallaur began packing icons with parts of the relics of St John (Maximovich) of Shanghai, and other gifts.
I remembered a story told to me by Protopriest Stefan Pavlenko of California about a conversation which took place long ago, in Belgrade. Fr Stefan’s mother often helped at the bishops’ refectory at the Russian Holy Trinity Church in that city, where hierarchs and clergymen often met and ate together.
Once, as she was setting the table, the late mother of Fr Stefan spoke to a clergyman who was considered by the local Russians to be prescient (whose name Fr Stefan couldn’t recall). He pointed a finger at Hiermonk John (Maximovich) and told her: “With his relics, the Russian people will begin to return to Russia.”
Fr Stefan’s mother told her son about this not long before her death in the 1980’s as they stood in the hierarch’s tomb under the Cathedral in San Francisco. This story by the priest from California warmed my heart; it was a good and reassuring thing to know that this great holy hierarch of the Russian diaspora was accompanying us and aiding the work of our Church.
We visited the holy sites relating to the Holy New Martyrs of Russia and clearly saw that their podvig was in fact the seed of the renaissance of church life in Russia today; we were moved by the warmth of His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II towards Metropolitan Laurus and to all of the members of the delegation.
The Patriarch shared his experiences, and told us about what he had to endure during the years of Soviet rule. Many truths were spoken during these meetings, and some of those who participated in this trip were ready to resume prayerful communion right away. But we left this matter for future discussion, for finalization, and to make sense of the period in the life of the Church when we were divided.
- Who on the part of the Church Abroad contributed most to the rapprochement and reunification of the two parts of the Russian Church?
- That would be Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Germany, President of the Commission on Discussions with the Moscow Patriarchate, who in fact led the negotiation process and manifested the instructions of Metropolitan Laurus; Protopriest Alexander Lebedeff, Rector of Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Los Angeles; Protopriest Nikolai Artemoff, Senior Priest of the Munich Cathedral, and others.
During the work of the commissions, we many times turned to our history, to the works and the positions of the founders of the Russian Church Abroad, its hierarchs, and the works of the New Martyrs. They all helped us find the correct ecclesiological path towards unity.
I remember how Vladyka Laurus often said that he wished that the reestablishment of unity would happen as King David the Psalmist wrote: “Lovingkindness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” These words became the guiding star in our discussions.
- Fr Serafim, if we talk about the roles played by Patriarch Alexy II and Metropolitan Laurus, would it be appropriate in your opinion to use the expression that “their personalities coincided in history” in the context of the reunification of the Russian Church?
- My first meeting with His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II took place in 2000. I traveled to Moscow from Australia as a clergyman of that diocese. My friend, Fr Joseph Shaposhnikov, was then the Dean and Sacristan of the Patriarchal Cathedrals in the Kremlin and oversaw the Patriarchal services held there.
He introduced me to His Holiness and we were able to discuss a great deal during that meeting. The Patriarch told me that he hoped that the next First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia would be Vladyka Laurus: “He knows Russia, it will be easy to work with him.”
I also remember the first meeting between His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II and Metropolitan Laurus in 2004, in Butovo Square. That day, they jointly blessed the site for the future Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. They met before Liturgy, and I heard the Patriarch tell one of the clergymen there “You can sense the old monastic school abiding in this man.”
This was true: the “old school” was palpable in both church leaders. Of course, I was close to Metropolitan Laurus and knew that he sensed the weight of responsibility of his duties.
Both hierarchs had endured the sorrows of division and both understood that it was necessary to quickly heal these ecclesial wounds, and both yearned for the wholeness of the Church. Therefore, in my opinion, by Divine Will, these personalities coincided.
Over a period of three years, three rounds of discussions were held, and the rite of the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion was prepared. In December, 2006, the date of the signing was scheduled for the Paschal period—May, 2007.
- I recall the fresh May morning with the droplets of rain before Christ the Savior Cathedral, and the blinding, bright morning on the Sunday after the Ascension in front of the church in Butovo. Long before Liturgy began, priests from Russia and abroad were already hearing confessions at analogia placed on the street. And the inexpressibly huge number of clergymen and pilgrims present from a great variety of countries, wherever there were Russian parishes.
Fr Serafim, how many people from the Church Abroad participated in the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion? How was the delegation assembled?
- We decided to use the same method employed in 2004, inviting representatives from each diocese. The official delegation included ten people, and twenty clerical pilgrims. There were about five hundred pilgrims from the laity! We also invited a choir assembled from fifty singers from various dioceses.
My matushka and I assumed the administrative duties for the trip: we had to obtain visas for everyone, and order tickets. We contacted Aeroflot and chartered a plane for two hundred people from New York to Moscow. Large groups of pilgrims also came from Australia and Europe, and all of them needed transportation in Moscow, tickets to services and other events.
We appealed for help to the parishioners of the Church Abroad who worked in Moscow. They helped provide cell phones and transportation. The Department of External Church Relations and Sretensky Monastery helped with hotel accommodations and luncheons. Rostislav Orlovsky-Tanaevsky-Blanco, who hailed from Venezuela and lives in Moscow, who owns a chain of restaurants there, hosted a large reception in honor of all the visiting parishioners of the Church Abroad and representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate after divine services in the Kremlin’s Uspensky Cathedral on May 20.
One of our parishioners hosted a reception for the joint choir after they sang at a Patriarchal all-night vigil in Bolshoye Vozneseniye Church. Fr Tikhon, Prior of Sretensky Monastery, organized a huge reception on the monastery grounds. Their hospitality was astounding. During those days, serving together and communing of a single Chalice made us forget the years of separation…
- But there were losses which are still felt today by us all…
- There were people who loved Metropolitan Laurus and had received a great deal of help from him in their clerical careers, and it was painful to see them turn away from him, some even going into schism. Many of them were worthy pastors, and we lost a lot of good people of the Church, who were deceived, or whose personal gain prompted them to leave, or those who were simply afraid.
Over the last five years, some of them have repented. We still have some contact with those who left us, on a personal level, in hopes that they will return to the Mother Church.
The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia did not lose its independence with the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion: we decide our own internal matters, including management of church property, and we appoint our own hierarchs and clergymen.
Maybe there are still things that confuse and alienate people from the Church, but it is only in the Kingdom of Heaven where everything will be perfect, meanwhile, the Church is a divine and a human organism: in the Church, one meets with God and one also sees many human failings. But that fact shouldn’t drive us away.
Let us remember what the Gospel says: it was neither Jews nor Romans but human passions that crucified Christ, but the Crucifixion leads eternally towards resurrection. So one must see Divine allowance in these passions, which leads us also to renewal.
- We are talking today on the eve of the departure of the delegation of the Russian Church Abroad to Moscow to participate in the anniversary celebrations. There will also be celebrations held abroad…
- This time there will be a more modestly-sized delegation: Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Germany, Archbishop Michael of Geneva and Western Europe; Protopriest Alexander Lebedeff from the US and Protopriest Andrew Phillips of England, and I will go as Secretary to the First Hierarch, Metropolitan Hilarion, who will head our delegation.
We are all members of the working group that continues to discuss matters relating to strengthening our ecclesial unity. One of the items on our agenda this time will be the question of ROCOR parishes in Russia. Now there are no more than ten of them. In accordance with the Act of Canonical Communion, the time has come for these parishes to merge with the local dioceses where they are located.
The part of the Church Abroad which is outside of Russia is preparing a large hierarchal conference to mark the 5th-anniversary, with the participation of all the bishops of the united Russian Orthodox Church who serve in the diaspora, and also hierarchs from Russia. This conference will be held in London in October.
- Fr Serafim,what does the unity of the Russian Church mean for you personally, and for your family?
- I have awaited this since childhood. When I was growing up, I saw that Papa subscribed to periodicals published both in the diaspora and in Moscow. And I always wondered: why aren’t we together? I learned from my father that our family yearned for unity and never condemned those who were on the “other side of the curtain.”
My great-grand-uncle, Archbishop Yuvenaly (Kilin) began his hierarchal service in China, and in 1947 found himself in Russia and was later buried in Izhevsk, at the altar of the local cathedral. My grandfather, meanwhile, emigrated to Australia and served as a clergyman there, building a big church dedicated to the Protection of the Most-Holy Mother of God, and a Russian school and old-age home.
New Hieromartyr Andronik of Perm ordained my great-grandfather to the priesthood—Fr Konstantin Yumin. Archbishop Andronik was killed in 1918, and Fr Konstantin also died in a concentration camp.
All of our ancestors desired reunification. And we always strove towards this.
When in 2000, I prayed during one of the Patriarchal services in Arkhangelsky Cathedral in Moscow’s Kremlin, I asked the Lord to grant me the opportunity to make some small contribution in the work of reestablishing unity within the Russian Church. After I returned to Australia, Vladyka Laurus soon became the Metropolitan and suggested that I move to America. I saw this as an answer to my prayers.
For me, the unity of the Church is the living bond with Russia, her holy sites and New Martyrs. We always strove to this living bond, and now all we must do is make use of what God has granted us in response to our prayers.