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"HERE, IN RUSSIA,
WE FELT A SPIRITUAL BOND WITH OUR ROOTS…" 

Conversation with Protopriest Andrei Sommer

"The most impressive youth event of the past year," is how Protopriest Andrei Sommer, the deputy director of the Department of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Outside of Russia for Work with the Youth, describes the pilgrimage of young people from all the dioceses of the ROCOR to the holy places of Russia.  Father Andrei told the website Pravoslavie.ru how this interesting project was conceived and implemented under his direction and described his future plans. 

—In practical terms, this was the first full-scale acquaintance of representatives of the youth of the Russian Diaspora with our country, with their Russian peers.  If you please, tell us how it went. 

Of course, everyone prayed for its success, and I am happy that this pilgrimage will be remembered by us with a great spiritual joy that will remain in our hearts forever.  The main thing is that young people from every corner of the world—Europe, the United States, Canada, South America, Australia—and from all, even the most remote dioceses of ROCOR, felt, sensed within themselves this miracle of church unity, became conscious of themselves as children of the one Local Orthodox Church of Russia. 

The concept of organizing a youth pilgrimage to Russia became possible because of the epochal event that took place in May of 2007—the reunification of the Church Abroad with the Moscow Patriarchate, when, by the signing of the "Act of Canonical Communion", our separation, which had continued over the course of many decades, was brought to an end.  The way was then opened for joint plans and labors, which, we hope, will bear fruit and serve to strengthen the Holy Church.  We began to prepare for the planned pilgrimage, and in a year's time, on May 20, 2008, on the basis of a decision of the Council of Bishops of ROCOR, the blessing of Metropolitan Hilarion, the First Hierarch of ROCOR, was received. 

—Where did the pilgrimage begin? 

All the participants assembled in Moscow, several of whom arrived after thirty hours or air travel.  Then we all set out. 

With the blessing of Archbishop Eugene of Vereisk, rector of the Moscow Theological Academy, we were given lodging within its walls.  We arrived for the feast of St. Sergius of Radonezh and came to realize fully why this spiritual school is called "the great cell of St. Sergius".  During the vigil service we were in the church of the Moscow theological schools, and on the feast itself we prayed at the patriarchal liturgy in the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. 

After Communion, members of our delegation received the blessing of His Holiness, Patriarch Alexis, and presented him with an icon of St. Jonah of Hankow, who was canonized in 1996,  After kissing the icon, His Holiness said: "It is highly important during this time, which is so difficult for the youth of the Church, for them to have their own heavenly protector, to whom they can turn in prayer amid sorrows and joys." 

The same day, we venerated the relics of St. Sergius, and also toured the bell-tower of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, where we saw with our own eyes the "Tsar-Bell". 

Literally everything made an impression on the children: the solemnity of the patriarchal services, and at the same time the simplicity of His Holiness, the Patriarch in dealing with us; the participation of thirteen bishops and several thousand pilgrims in that spiritual event; the immensity of the "Tsar-bell".  Truly, everything was on a massive scale! 

And throughout our trip we were continually aware of this enormous scale, and this was brought home to us through small but characteristic details, which clearly bear witness to the fact that today in Russia, despite all the difficulties, a genuine spiritual rebirth is taking place.  Everywhere we went we saw new churches being built, young parishioners…  One day, when we were in a train station, a little boy approached me and asked for a blessing.  In America this simply doesn't happen. 

—Where did you stop in the course of your pilgrimage? 

When we left the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra we went to Moscow, where, in the Church of St. Maron the Hermit, we had an interesting meeting with representatives of Moscow youth organizations—"Maron's Youth", "Young Moscow", "Resurrection" and "Encounter".   

Then we traveled to Kursk, where we visited the Hermitage of the Root.  These holy sites were of great significance to us, for as is well known, the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign, which was brought out of Russia in 1920 and is now enshrined in our cathedral in New York, and is widely known as the Directress of the Russian Diaspora, was and still is a connecting link on the path to reunification. 

To summarize the history of this icon, which is one of the most ancient of Orthodox Russia: it appeared more than seven centuries ago near the River Tuskara, in the environs of Kursk, and immediately attracted veneration.  During one of the periodic Tartar invasions, infidels cut it into two pieces, which they cast in two different directions.  Later on, when a elder found these pieces and fitted them together, they miraculously adhered to one another.  And thus also, one might observe, the two estranged parts of the Russian Church have been miraculously rejoined into a single local Russian Orthodox Church. 

We made the acquaintance of residents of the Kursk-Root Hermitage, and attended divine services in Kursk's Cathedral of the Sign.  They showed us the place where the Kursk- 
Root Icon used to be enshrined, and also the elm-tree which, during the course of last year's pilgrimage through Russia and the Ukraine, the ever-memorable Metropolitan Laurus had planted with his own hands.  According to tradition, it was at the roots of an elm-tree that the icon was discovered.  And in the monastery itself they showed us a display of photographs illustrating its history: and there was Metropolitan Laurus planting the tree, there he was celebrating a service of supplication by the spring… 

For representatives of the youth of the Diaspora, many of whom were in Russia for the first time, these things made an unforgettable impression.  They had known of Russia only from the reminiscences of the older generation, the majority of whose members have already passed away, and from histories which are far from complete.  Of course, the young pilgrims had heard of the Kursk-Root Hermitage, but it had seemed to them that its tragic history had ended long, long ago and was not longer accessible.  But now the children saw the monastery where the miraculous Icon of the Sign had been preserved!  And finding joy in the encounter, they felt they were right at home. 

Let me repeat that when the representatives of Diaspora youth were in the Russian land, they could not fail to experience in full measure its spiritual rebirth, when ruined churches are restored and new churches built, monasteries and theological schools are being opened, and active missionary work is being undertaken.  The children saw multitudes of young people, their peers, in the churches.  For people who every day clash spiritually with Western rationalism, religious indifference and even so-called toleration, this was a real revelation. 

All the steps that are now being taken in Russia His Holiness, Patriarch Alexis, once called the miracle of the second baptism of Rus'.  That we were making our pilgrimage during the 1020th anniversary of the baptism of Rus' is also a miracle; and I can confirm that our pilgrims felt an unbreakable spiritual bond with their own roots, with Holy Russia. 

—What impressions did the participants in your delegation gain from their meetings with Russian Orthodox youth? 

—At the pilgrimage conference, "Confraternity of Orthodox Youth", we mingled with young delegates from Russian, the Ukraine and Belorussia. 

We were particularly gratified that this undertaking had the support of Russian government and social leaders: G. S. Poltavchenko, the plenipotentiary representative of the President of the Russian Federation in the Central Federal District; A. N. Mikhailov, governor of the Kursk District; and E. S. Savchenko, governor of the Belgorod District.  and the conference received the approval of the social committee of the Central Federal District.  It is also noteworthy that representatives from Little Russia and Belorussia participated in the encounter, for they also are branches of Holy Russia. 

No sooner did we begin to make the acquaintance of the conference participants than our youth were sadly a little "nonplused"—they were still in doubt as to what to talk about in the first place: would their peers understand them?  There is a definite difference in upbringing, worldview, etc.  But quickly, with God's help, these doubts were dispelled, a common language was found, we all felt ourselves to be Russian Orthodox people, and our fellowship became more informal. 

On the first day we shared our impressions of Orthodox ministry in the regions each of us was from.  One evening, our delegation prepared a presentation, including photo- and video-materials on all the dioceses of the Church Abroad, following it with a discussion of the everyday problems of missionary work and formation.  Of particular interest was the description by members of our group of the recent visitation of dioceses of the Church Abroad by a delegation from the Moscow Patriarchate accompanied by the choir of the Sretensky Monastery.  At that time, many of our parishioners said that our homeland had come to them, and wept tears of joy. 

We also told them of how work with children is organized in our Orthodox high schools, how diocesan and church-wide youth conferences are conducted, how instruction is carried out in our seminary.  The Pan-Diaspora Pilgrimage to the Holy Sites of the Holy Land and Egypt, which took place in 2007, occupied a particular spot in our narration.  More than a hundred people took part in it, from six countries.  The itinerary included churches, monasteries and holy sites connected with the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, the ministry of the Prophet Moses and other saints, including a three-day voyage up the Nile and a trip to Mt. Sinai.   

There was another peculiarity of our work, which we should not fail to mention.  A close bond exists between the youth and our bishops, and this is probably one of the reasons why all fundamental events in the lives of our young people are bound up with the Church.   

Our presentation evoked a great many penetrating questions: Russian youth of both genders were clearly interested in the variety of methods employed in working with youth and expressed the desire to imitate our experience. 

An indelible impression was made on our youth by the concert prepared by the Belorussian Orthodox youth: they sang with spirit, clad in old fashioned costumes, and gave voice to melodies from ages past. 

A few words about my own impressions about our meetings with the youth of Russia.  I was pleased that all of the children seemed to be purposeful: they wanted to play a role in the rebirth of their country.  At the same time it was obvious that for them the norm of faith is the norm of life.  They are aware that it is up to them that all the social groupings of Russian society accept Orthodox values. 

—Father Andrei, you have devoted a great deal of attention to the inculcation of missionary work among the youth.  Do you consider this a strategic objective? 

Without qualification, this is no simple task.  It requires considerable means and effort.  Today, this is a high necessity, both in the Church Abroad and in Russia.  We cannot permit the modern generation of young people to remain outside the fold of the Church.  By the decision of the First Hierarch of ROCOR, Metropolitan Hilarion, we have instituted a Day of the Youth, which will fall on the first Sunday after Pentecost, the feast of All Saints.   

Already this year, Metropolitan Hilarion sent out a letter, addressed to the youth, in which he invoked the help of God upon the young, noting that the Church is always waiting for them, that their talents and abilities are always needed.  On that day, various undertakings were initiated, coinciding with the Day of the Youth.  One may say that Vladyka Hilarion considers mission to the youth to be one of the most important goals of the Church's ministry. 

I wish to direct your attention to the fact that our pilgrimage took place shortly after the Council of Bishops, in which, for the first time in many decades, bishops of ROCOR took part.  At this time it is extremely important that these ties be developed, not only on the highest level, but also on the level of the simple faithful, and of the youth in particular.  I propose that fellowship between the youth of the ROCOR and their Russian peers holds a powerful missionary potential.  Such pilgrimages, gatherings, joint processions, and other shared undertakings permit the young to sense that they are not alone, that there are in the world many who are of one mind with them. 

As concerns the mission among the youth in Russia, it is essential, as we understand it, to make every effort (and this is already being done) to teach "Basics of Orthodox Culture" in every school; the state should be appealed to for help in establishing in each major institution of higher learning a house chapel.  Opportunely, the Russian authorities are supporting programs of the religious-moral education of the youth, and there is also cooperation with the Church in this area, which for us in quite remarkable.  In America it is impossible for us even to imagine that we might, for example, turn to the well-known Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger of California and ask for support for our youth programs.  I think that in Russian such cooperation will be further developed. 

With this I cannot fail to note that I consider the remarks of various writers to the effect that it is not necessary to work with the youth, that "let he who wants to come, come", to be not only counterproductive, but deleterious to the work of the Russian Orthodox Church with the youth.  Today, I believe our fundamental objective should be to draw young people of various views into the bosom of the Church, using the accumulated arsenal of means and methods of missionary work. 

—Share with us, Father Andrei, your plans for the immediate future. 

At present, we are preparing for a conference of the youth of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which will take place in late December.  And we hope that Orthodox youth groups from Russia will also participate in it.  Future contact will be extended, in view of our return visit for the Nativity Readings in Moscow, in January of next year.  Further international youth conferences, at which we might openly discuss everyday problems, are certainly necessary. 

There is another important trend that we should develop—the conducting of joint pilgrimages, for they have a beneficial affect upon the transformation of the souls of young people.  The circle of those who participate in them will doubtless expand. This is an excellent opportunity for young people to share experience, to realize joint projects, and ultimately to pray at the great holy places, to acquire new spiritual baggage. 

I can say that each person who participated in our delegation, on leaving hospitable Russia this past summer, took away a part of Holy Russia with himself. 

Interviewer: Vasily Pisarevsky