Interview with Bishop George of Canberra
Vicar of the Diocese of Australia and New Zealand
Four years ago, in April 2015, Vladyka George came to Australia from America and became vicar Bishop of the Australian-New Zealand Diocese of the ROCOR, assistant to Metropolitan Hilarion, who noted that this "is really a joyful event, as the episcopal presence in the diocese is increasing." Vladyka Georgy received the title of Bishop of Canberra in Australia and settled under the diocesan administration in the Sydney district of Croydon.
The future Vladyka was born in the US state of Illinois in 1950 and bore the name of Paul Schaefer, in 1974 he converted to Orthodoxy.
We talked with Vladyka George in Strathfield after Sunday liturgy in the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral.
- Vladyka, how big is Australian diocese?
- We have in Australia around 27 parishes, 5 monasteries, (and 2 are represented by one monk) and about 40 clergymen. Also in our Diocese we have 5 clergymen in New Zealand and 3 parishes and 2 missions. We had the death of one clergyman recently Father Seraphim Slade from the indigenous mission in Goulburn. He would travel around and meet different people, and also he had a prison ministry where he met people in prison. We are very sorry about his loss.
- How often are the services in churches of the Diocese held?
- Some of the parishes, like Cabramatta and here in Strathfield, have services on Saturday and Sunday, and feast days. Most of the parishes have Saturday evening and Sunday services and on church feasts and great feasts there are additional services. Some of the priests are working during the week and not able to perform services as much as they would like, and it relates also to people in the church choir, who also work. And priests and parishioners often do not leave nearby the church and it sometimes takes an hour or so for them to get there.
Most of our priests and deacons have to have jobs outside the church life in order to provide material assistance to their families, because the small parishes are not able to support them.
- Some of the parishes in Sydney are reasonably big and some are small, with just several dozens of people. I asked some people from such parishes if they would like to merge with the large ones. They replied: “We are happy to be small, we feel like a family here.”
- Most of our parishes have a long history; 50-60 years ago parents and grandparents of today’s parishioners came from Russia, from China to a new country and together built churches, so for these decades they created family like connections. Some communities grew a lot, and some not, so some parishes remain small. Brisbane has several parishes quite close to one another. That happened because back in 1950 there were disagreements between some of the parishioners and one of the priests; and the people asked a new priest to help them start a new parish. Bishop Theodore gave his blessing, so a new parish was then created, which happens to be very close to the other. In recent years we received another nearby parish there in Brisbane from another jurisdiction, so we have three parishes very close to one another. Melbourne, however, has always had one big parish. The Cathedral has three priests and two deacons and a very big community. They have services in Slavonic and English, and a big church school. There are also parishes in Dandenong and Geelong and an English language parish in Victoria.
- You provide a big help to Vladyka Hilarion. When we will see him in the Diocese this year?
- It’s much easier for the Diocese when the bishop here, some questions from the clergy and parishioners need to be answered and decided regularly. I usually serve at the Sobor here in Strathfield, but I also serve in various parishes on their feast days. I also preside at diocesan council meetings every 2-3 months. And, if necessary on complicated issues, I can contact Vladyka Hilarion, by phone or by e-mail. He actually is coming back to Australia during the first week of Great Lent in March and returning to New York after Pascha. And he will be coming again later this year, when we have a Triennial Diocesan Assembly, scheduled to take place in November.
- Can you tell us about your road in Church?
- I became Orthodox when I was 24 and by the next year I was already living in Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville and had become a novice. I finished the seminary in 1980, when I was already a monk and subdeacon. My monastic name was Mitrofan at that time. In 1981 I received a blessing to go and live on Mt. Athos. There I was tonsured to the Great Schema in 1982 and my name was changed to George. After 5 years I returned to Jordanville, and I became a hierodeacon and later a hieromonk, in 1987. I had different obediences: working in the print shop, hearing confessions as a spiritual father, in charge of the kitchen (eikonom) and also occasionally going to serve in different parishes on weekends. I lived the monastery life up until the time Metropolitan Laurus passed away in 2008 and I was elected to become a bishop and later the abbot at the English speaking Holy Cross Monastery in West Virginia, where we have now 26 monks. I was there at Holy Cross Monastery from 2009 until 2015, when because of the need of bishop here in Australia, our Synod of bishops decided to send me here to become a vicar.
- Was it difficult for you to accept the change coming from USA to Australia?
- It was difficult, because all my monastic life I had lived in a monastery, and here it was obviously different, more than the difference between America and Australia. As for the climate, Australia a little bit warm for me, but fortunately there are air conditioners.
- How do you communicate with the priests in different parishes, since Australia is pretty big?
- By telephone, by texting, as well as emails. Every week I receive questions from priests of our Diocese, where they ask something about pastoral work or they invite me to come to their churches to serve. I know, more or less, what’s going on in our parishes.
- What important things apart from regular services happen in Diocese?
- Each December we have the Orthodox Youth Syezd. Last year it took place in Melbourne, and this coming year, I think, it will be in Brisbane. The Teen Retreat, for those that are younger, 13 to 18 years, we have for the last few years. The past two years it was in Sydney and next year it will be in Melbourne. The youth really like it. It gives them a chance to get together and clergy are able to help them and participate in their activities. They are the future of our Church and it is important for us to try to help them as much as we can. In the past the Geelong parish was a source of clergy in Australia and now Melbourne is nurturing young people and hopefully they will start helping in other parishes as well. Here in Strathfield we are encouraging some young men towards the deaconate. It’s not a simple decision. Apart from studying theology, young people should think about where they are going to live, and how they will support their families. Currently two young men are studying in the seminary in Jordanville, NY. One is John Strelkov from Brisbane, and the second one is Anania, with Macedonian background, from our Melbourne parish. We are looking forward to when they finish their studies and come back to Australia.
- What I found very optimistic – the big involvement of young people in church choirs.
- Yes, that is true, and they have great variety of music under the different choir directors, like in Strathfield and Cabramatta. Also Nektary Kotliaroff has organized a youth male choir, with 14 people, here in Strathfield and they are planning to go to America this December to give some concerts while there. Before that they will perform in parishes here and do fundraising for their trip.
- What are the consequences for the breaking of ties of the Moscow Patriarchate with the Constantinople Patriarchate because of events in Ukraine?
- It has made things complicated more for the Russian Church Abroad, then for the Church in Russia. We have a lot of contacts with Greeks and our parishioners are connected by marriage and through attending each others parishes. We have completely cut off communion with their clergy, but not for the laity. I was at a Synod meeting in New York in December, and there our bishops decided to allow people to receive communion in Greek churches and for Greek people to receive communion in our churches. That is different from the Moscow Patriarchate decision. A lot of politics affect life of Church. More and more anti-christian laws have been being passed in different countries that are not good for the general morality of the people. Hopefully Christians throughout the world will stand up for their faith and stand up for the truth.
- What should we expect in the future in our Diocese?
- We are looking forward to the Metropolitan’s arrival on March 15; it’s always exciting for everyone when Metropolitan Hilarion returns to Australia. We will be serving together several times in Sydney during Great Lent and for Pascha. He also will be going to different parishes. We also have a clergy conference scheduled for March 26-27th. Later we will have a Diocesan assembly in November. This will require a lot of preparation.
One more thing: we have begun an online theological school, The Sts. Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Institute. We are now beginning the second semester and we currently have about 10 students. Hopefully the enrolment will grow as more and more people learn of this school and the courses that it offers.
Also, the wonderworking Kursk Icon is now in Australia. It has been here since December 14 and will be traveling throughout our diocese, visiting all of our parishes and a few Serbian parishes, until March 8, when Bishop Nicholas will fly to Auckland, NZ to get the icon and take it back to NY. It has been 4 years since the icon has visited our diocese.
I pray that everyone has a chance to see and venerate the icon while it is here, and that everyone has a spiritually beneficial Great Lent, and a Blessed Pascha.