A week before the beginning of Great Lent, the honorable head of the great universal teacher and hierarch, St John Chrysostom, was brought to the Synodal Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign in New York. The desire to have this relic from the main Russian church, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, brought to New York was expressed by clergymen of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia during the visit of the Hodigitria of the Russian Diaspora, the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God, to Moscow last year.
His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia gave his blessing for this good work to His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Protopriest Mikhail Riazantsev, Senior Priest of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, accompanied the relic on its trip.
- Fr Mikhail, you just returned from Jordanville. Was this your first contact with the center of the Russian Diaspora?
- Yes, I have been in America four times, but in Jordanville for the first time. Snow had just fallen, and we felt like it was a real Russian winter there.
I remember when I studied at Moscow Seminary, we were brought recordings of the monastery choir of Jordanville, and we were stunned and gladdened when we heard genuine monastic church singing. Those memories remain with me to this day. When we arrived at the monastery and came to the crypt of Metropolitan Laurus, the seminarians gathered and sang a pannikhida, and I remembered the days when we heard the tapes of Holy Trinity Men’s Choir—the same manner of execution, the same melodies…
- Fr Mikhail, how long have you been Senior Priest at Christ the Savior Cathedral?
- After the Holy Martyr Protopresbyter Alexander Khotovitsky, who was the last kliuchar [Senior Priest] of the Cathedral, I was appointed as first kliuchar of the planned Cathedral with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II. I was appointed at a time when the Moskva Basin [swimming pool] was already dismantled, and the foundation laid for the main Cathedral of the country—the Patriarchal Cathedral. October 8 of last year was the 15th anniversary of my service as Senior Priest of the rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral.
Since 1982, I served at Novodevichy Convent in Moscow. Although there was no actual monastery there at the time: there was a museum and city parish church dedicated to the Dormition of the Most-Holy Mother of God. I served at that church for 14 years.
When I was blessed for the obedience of Senior Priest of the Christ the Savior Cathedral, I could both conduct services at Novodevichy Convent and fulfill my duties as kliuchar at the Cathedral, since the church was not built yet. When a wooden church was erected on the building site, I moved there and preparations for services at the new Cathedral began, first in the lower-level Transfiguration Church, which was consecrated on its feast day in 1996. Although construction continued, there were already Sunday services there. During the week, the builders worked, and on Saturdays we would clean up, serve all-night vigil, and Divine Liturgy on Sundays. On Mondays, the workers resumed their work. In 2000, on the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, the Cathedral underwent its great consecration. The event coincided with the Jubilee Sobor [Council] of Bishops and the ceremonious canonization of the Host of New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. We have had regular divine services since then, on Sundays, holidays and weekdays.
On weekdays, we serve in Transfiguration Church. That is where we perform services of need: molebens, pannikhidas, baptisms, funerals and, when permissible, weddings. So parish life for us is downstairs, in the lower church, while the upper Cathedral is His Holiness the Patriarch’s Cathedral. There we hold services on Sundays and holidays.
- Fr Mikhail, what is a unique about Christ the Savior Cathedral?
- What is unique is that we have almost no regular parishioners. The church is right in the middle of Moscow, and the center, within the confines of Sadovoy Ring, is not in fact a residential area. Still, the church is always full, especially on Saturdays and Sundays. The majority of worshipers are travelers, or Muscovites who have not yet attended services at our Cathedral. But there are about two hundred regular parishioners who love the Cathedral and its services. We are grateful to them for their devotion, for the fact that they do not just stop by but come to the Cathedral to pray.
I would like to note that the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was recreated on the same scale as before its destruction, and can accommodate up to ten thousand people. But even such a grandiose cathedral cannot fit in all those who wish to attend such great holiday services as Pascha and Nativity, so on these days we have to limit access and issue tickets. On all the other days, everyone can come and pray, venerate the relics at the Cathedral. These include a part of the Shroud of the Lord, the head of St John Chrysostom, a part of the relics of Apostle Andrew the First-called, the Honorable Prince St Alexander Nevsky, St Peter, Metropolitan of Moscow. Not long ago, the Kremlin museums gave us a portion of the Garment of the Most-Holy Mother of God, one of the nails used to crucify our Lord Jesus Christ, parts of the relics of St Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles, the right hand of St Euthemius, the head of St Gregory the Theologian and the finger of St Basil the Great. So all of the Universal Teachers and Hierarchs are in our Cathedral.
- What other holy items have come to Christ the Savior Cathedral for veneration by the faithful, and what others can we expect in the future?
- The most significant of these was the visit of the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God. This was truly an All-Russian celebration. When the icon of the Most-Holy Theotokos was in the Cathedral, people stood in line day and night, and when the time came to return the icon, the people formed a living stream under the icon as it was carried, trying to touch it, pass under it in prayer. When the icon was taken from the Cathedral to Red Square, the road along the Moskva River was a river of humanity escorting the icon.
Another event was the visit to the Cathedral of the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God, from the Russian diaspora, in September of last year. We also welcomed the head of the Great Martyr and Healer Panteleimon, the relics of Apostle Andrew the First-Called from Holy Mount Athos, the right hand of Holy Grand Duchess Elizabeth from the Synodal Cathedral in New York, the right hand of John the Baptist from Montenegro. One feels a special grace whenever such relics are here.
It is too early to say what other holy items will visit us in the future, since the process always begins with preliminary talks. But we would like to see the desire of His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II fulfilled: to bring both our own Russian relics, many of which, unfortunately, have been forgotten, which the faithful know little about, or if they do, are too remote to visit.
- Fr Mikhail, the arrival of holy relics here is always accompanied by a huge wave of people. How difficult is it to maintain order in the Cathedral?
- As far as divine services are concerned, there is a schedule of clergymen according to deanery. Batiushki come with their choirs, their own parishioners, and over the course of two hours read akathists before the visiting item. There are also clergymen serving in shifts, who secure order in the Cathedral itself, and answer questions.
Security is the responsibility of the Christ the Savior Cathedral Fund. Usually, before the arrival of a holy relic, there is a meeting with the municipal establishments, security services and social services. Arrangement must be made for trash collection, water supply and food, because people come here from different cities, crossing great distances. We try to maintain cleanliness and order around the Cathedral, too.
- The magnificent Christ the Savior Cathedral occupies an enormous parcel of land. What about the upkeep of such a huge edifice, who cares for its splendor—the ecclesial and ancillary structures, who cleans and keeps order in the Cathedral?
- Four priests and four deacons tend to the church. Christ the Savior Cathedral is where once His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II, and today, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, send young priests for practice immediately after their ordination, and they perform the forty-day services at the Cathedral under the direction and guidance of our priests. A young priest will remember how he embarked upon his service in Christ the Savior Cathedral throughout his whole life, while at the same time, it helps the clergyman of the Cathedral.
As far as maintenance is concerned, our Cathedral is not the property of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is another unique thing about it. It was built on funds from the government of Moscow, and on private donations. Moscow Mayor Yuri Mikhailovich Luzhkov proposed to His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II to include the management of the Cathedral in the Moscow budget. But since we have a lay government and the Moscow municipality does not have the right to provide support to the Church, it was decided to leave ownership of the Cathedral to the city. So the Christ the Savior Cathedral complex is city property, which is operated by, and whose technical aspects are run by the Christ the Savior Cathedral Fund, which consists of 300 persons.
About 120 of these are church workers under the authority of the Senior Priest: the janitorial staff, singers, and bookkeepers.
A great many people have come and gone through the Cathedral. Only those who remain dedicated to the Cathedral and their work, because our work is not easy, especially for those who stand by the candle holders or work in the icon shop. People come to the Cathedral not only to pray, but to provoke others, there are disgruntled people, too. One needs to possess tact, patience, Christian love, knowledge. As I said, a lot of people have come through these doors, those who enter a church for the first time, and sometimes the simplest things have to be explained to them, and more than once.
- Fr Mikhail, your father was also a priest. But on the pastoral path, your fate has brought you to cross paths with other pastors and archpastors of our time…
- I was born to the family of a priest. My father first served in a small church in the Sokolniki region, then served for 19 years in the church of the Icon of the Mother of God “of the Sign” at Riga Train Station, then Protection Church in Taganka.
I had little choice but to serve the Church, too. Having completed my stint in the Army, I enrolled in Moscow Theological Seminary, and then the Academy.
I served as subdeacon under His Holiness Patriarch Pimen for eleven years. Those years gave me a priceless education in serving the Church. Patriarch Pimen’s services were filled with special meaning and spiritual fervor. For me they remain an example to this day.
- For decades, until the celebration of the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia, when the word “church” could not yet be spoken loudly, but no longer in only a whisper, a person such as Patriarch Pimen was absolutely isolated from the overwhelming majority of believers all over Russia…
- Having watched him during divine services, as His Holiness Patriarch Pimen performed them, I can confidently state that he was a true man of prayer, who had endured all the difficulties and sufferings—he was in exile, he fought on the front, he was wounded several times. Upon returning from exile, he, along with many of those who were exiled or imprisoned, were forbidden to live in the larger cities in the center of Russia, so he was forced to go to Murom, and that is where he served.
And how he read the Canon of St Andrew of Crete! With such penetration into the meaning of this canon, what a prayerful mood, so rare! Each word he read reached a person’s consciousness. Today, a recording of this Canon read by Patriarch Pimen has surfaced and is available on cassette and CD.
- Has anyone else in your family chosen the spiritual path?
- My uncle was a priest, but my son chose a different path—he is a banker. But he attends church regularly, and helps churches as much as he can. My daughter recently made me happy. She married a graduate of Kiev Theological Academy. He is now studying in Athens in the Theological Department, and has already become a priest. So through my daughter, our family continues to serve the Church.
-Interviewed by Tatiana Veselkina