Archpriest VICTOR POTAPOV:
“THE LORD HELPED US OBTAIN UNITY OF THE CHURCH”
On the 15th anniversary of the All-Diaspora Council
In the life of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 2021, more than one important date was marked. One of them was the 15th anniversary of the IV All-Diaspora Council, which became a key event in the process of reestablishing unity within the Russian Church, which was lost in the 1920s. Archpriest Victor Potapov, Rector of St John the Baptist Cathedral in Washington, DC, spoke about how the discussion of the coming unification took place, how harsh opposition arose within ROCOR itself and how it was overcome:
Without a doubt, the reestablishment of unity within the Russian Church, rent asunder after Metropolitan Sergy (Stragorodsky) signed a declaration of loyalty to the Soviet government, became the most important milestone in our history.
Bishops, priests and laity living in the West could not accept this declaration and were forced to cease all contact with the Moscow Patriarchate. This “temporary measure,” as it were, continued until the early 2000’s, when the first movement towards reconciliation took place in the two Churches.
In 2005, a committee on organizing a Council was established by Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which included Archpriest Peter Perekrestov of San Francisco, Archpriest Serafim Gan of New York, Reader Vladimir Krassovsky and me. We drafted all the preliminary documents, and by a decision of the bishops of our Church, the Council was scheduled a year later in San Francisco, a city sanctified by the efforts of Holy Patriarch Tikhon the Confessor, who served in the early 20th century as Bishop of Alaska and the Aleutians. Also, the relics of our St John of Shanghai and San Francisco are kept there.
After the first day, when all procedural issues were decided, the lectures began. Our Metropolitan Laurus (Skurla) told us why he felt it unavoidable to have rapprochement with Moscow. Vladyka Mark (Arndt), now Metropolitan of Berlin and Germany, also spoke. Metropolitan Amphilohije of the Serbian Church talked about how his Church overcame its own schism in the 20th century, and how they had supported the Russian Church Abroad, granting us the right to operate on her territory.
Discussion ensued, and I came to understand that I had no idea how many opponents of unification there would be. One after another spoke out, and my optimism was replaced with a sort of pessimism.
Several priests spoke out against reunification, in particular from South America, where they are poorly informed about Church life in Russia. In addition, they were supported by delegates from the Church Abroad from Russia, who followed Metropolitan Valentin of Suzdal. So a large and noisome group of people formed, who spoke with a good deal of abrasiveness.
Over the course of three days, it became difficult to hear the attacks during deliberation, which even touched upon Metropolitan Laurus, who was on the presidium the entire time and stoically listened to accusations aimed at him. He did not interrupt. Of course, this was correct on his part, because though he could have banged his fists on the table and demanded that it stop. But Vladyka gave the people a chance to express themselves and heard everyone’s words, though the discussions were very emotional.
By the way, it was actually Vladyka who was the person who insisted that everyone participate in the Council, including enemies of the rapprochement with Moscow. I remember how our pre-Council committee was invited to a meeting of the Synod of Bishops of ROCOR. We had to report on our ongoing work, the plan for the Council, and also a list of proposed delegates from various ecclesiastical and auxiliary organizations.
During that meeting it was Metropolitan Laurus himself who insisted that opponents of reconciliation be invited. He felt it important to hear all sides, so that no one could accuse us of barring those with other opinions from participating in the Council. I was a little surprised by this: I thought that problems would result. Still, the Metropolitan insisted. This demonstrates his openness and desire to be fully transparent, so that we could never be accused of obtaining unification through devious means.
Vladyka’s desire was fulfilled: the opponents of unification were invited, but in return, they insulted him.
The Metropolitan did not share with me his concerns on this matter, and I don’t know if he spoke of it to anyone. But it was apparent that he sat on the presidium an insulted man as utterly unexpected accusations were leveled at him.
I know that many delegates empathized with him. One delegate even stood up and reproached those who abused Vladyka. He said that one could express one’s opinion, but it must be done respectfully.
My wife, Maria Potapova, was also at Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral at the time. She asked for the names of all the delegates, and as we met, she prayed at the relics of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco. During lunch recess I would share my experiences with her, and it was obvious from my appearance what dismay I was enduring.
During one break, she said to me: “Maybe since everything is going so badly, the Editorial Committee should fervently pray at a moleben to Vladyka John?”
I relayed this idea, and the members of the Editorial Committee, of which I was not a member, did in fact go and pray to Vladyka. Before that they spent several hours deliberating on how to compose the resolution, how the voting “yea or nay” would go for reconciliation. It was difficult to find the right approach in composing it.
The Committee members decided to go pray not long before midnight, and when it was over, it was early the next morning. We very fervently asked for help, and after that everything went like butter: the resolution was quickly composed, without a hitch. It turned out that Vladyka John inspired them what to write. We all sensed his assistance. For a long time we had no idea how to write the resolution, so that it would be tactful, and the holy man helped.
Vladyka John was always upset that there was no unity within the Russian Church. I even wrote a speech once titled “St John the Uniter,” where I cited various expressions of his and his actions in earthly life on this matter.
The following day, the resolution was read during a session, and Metropolitan Laurus gave instructions that the voting would be on each point. And what do you know? They were all approved by a majority! In the end, most of the delegates supported reunification with the Mother Church.
It is possible that if the matter was a simple one, for or against unification, the opponents of reconciliation would have gathered forces and rejected the resolution. But Vladyka Laurus proposed voting on each point of the resolution separately, and in the end, the result was positive.
This was absolutely a miracle, that people changed their opinions so drastically. I remember after the vote that we headed for our hotel, and one of the delegates who had earlier spoken out against reconciliation entered the elevator with us. I said, “You know, brother, a miracle just took place!” He answered: "Yes, an act of the Holy Spirit.” This man not only changed his position, but understood that one cannot fight the will of God.
True, the more adamant enemies of reconciliation continued to push their position. Soon after the Council they caused a schism within ROCOR, several priests and parishes-just a few-left, but later many of them returned. For instance, a few months ago Dormition Church not far from Washington DC returned, and they are happy about it. But it took a few years for them to see the error of their ways.
Some of my parishioners had also left, but then they all came back when they saw that schism is a road to nowhere. For as it so often happens, schismatics quarrel among themselves, striving to show each other who is more tough and principled.
Of course, I tried as I could to reason with my parishioners, but it didn’t help right away. We prayed and hoped that the Lord would grant them wisdom. In the end, they gradually came back to us. We didn’t make a fuss, just received them with open arms.
The tragedy of schism did not only strike at the heart of Church jurisdictions but families, too. Our family was not spared: the uncle of my wife left, and we grieved terribly about it.
Of course, one always hopes that everyone can pray together “with one mouth and one heart.” When this is lost, it’s very painful.
But we also have the opposite in our family-Bishop Basil (Rodzianko), an uncle of my wife. He did not live to see the reunification, but always prayed for it. He was ordained to the priesthood in the Serbian Church, but with the blessing of Vladyka John of Shanghai, whom he knew in Yugoslavia.
Vladyka Basil loved the Russian Church Abroad. Having become a bishop, he served in the Orthodox Church in America, and always said that the Eucharist is the most important thing: we must commune together, and the Lord will help us overcome all Church problems. He was right: indeed, one must strive for unity around the Chalice of Christ, and the Lord would help us with the rest.
Unfortunately, Vladyka Basil did not live to see the reconciliation, but I am certain that in the other world, he is rejoicing that it took place. He did actually participate in the overcoming of another division, which happened in the early 1930'’ between our Church, with its center in Belgrade, and the Church of the Russian Tradition in Paris.
At the time the future Vladyka Basil, then Vladimir Rodzianko, a theology student at Belgrade University, was instructed to travel to Paris and present a letter of reconciliation from the Primate of our Church at the time, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) to Metropolitan Evlogy (Georgievsky). He fulfilled his mission, reconciliation took place, but soon afterwards, sadly, the Paris Church went its own way. Still, as we know, a few years ago they united with the Moscow Patriarchate.
The final days of the IV All-Diaspora Council in San Francisco were peaceful. Upon returning to Washington, I celebrated the first Liturgy after the Council, which fell on a Saturday of the Souls. I served without a deacon, and I had to intone the litany myself and mention the Patriarch for the first time. I remember uttering the words “…and for our Master His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia and his entire flock,” and felt that a great burden was dropped from my shoulders. Then I sensed that we are now truly one Church. It was a remarkable feeling which hasn’t left me since.
I can’t shake the feeling I had during the signing of the Act in Moscow. We had a very large contingent from the Church Abroad, and we were very warmly greeted. This was an epic event, which was very positively reported on in the Russian media. Some even posited that the Civil War came to an end with the reunification of the two branches of the Church in Russia.
When the President of Russia received us, there was a magnificent banquet in the Faceted Chamber in the Kremlin, we were greeted everywhere, in the streets, in parish churches, and everyone rejoiced. A festive service was scheduled for Butovo Square, where many Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church are buried. Before that, someone had suggested that I be invited to a television broadcast, and together with Metropolitan Kirill, the present Patriarch, we were interviewed. I asked him if he remembered me from a visit to Boston, in 1979 or 1980, when there was an international conference on science and religion. There was a delegation of the Moscow Patriarchate in attendance, and I went as a journalist for Voice of America, and met the future Patriarch Kirill, at the time the newly-consecrated Bishop of Vyborg. He granted me an interview on the topic of how science and the Church can collaborate in resolving a series of contemporary problems, for instance, in the fields of ecology and medicine. Surprisingly, many years later Vladyka Kirill remembered our meeting.
Now, 15 years later, I understand that the reestablishment of unity of the Church was a blessing. The opponents of reconciliation tried to convince people that Moscow will begin sending agents, seizing the Church Abroad, and that we would lose our freedom. All this ended up exactly the opposite. We were able to reach agreement that the Church Abroad, as part of the one Mother Church, would remain independent. We decide our own matters, and for 15 years there hasn’t been a single instance when Moscow tried to meddle in our internal affairs.
Thank God, we have the opportunity to travel to Russia and freely serve there, their priests often visit us, we serve together here, too. We have normal, gregarious relations with everyone in the Russian Church, and as the years go by, they become stronger, because we sense that the Lord helped us achieve unity.
Archpriest Victor Potapov
Recorded by Dmitry Zlodorev,
21 December 2021.