“WE MUST SENSE THAT WE ARE ONE CHURCH”
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. His Grace Bishop John (Berzins) of Caracas and South America recalls the events, why the opponents of reconciliation tried to kidnap a bishop from Erie, PA, and what the spiritual meaning of this historic event is for our entire nation.
– Vladyka, turning to those important and epochal events, I ask you first of all: where were you when you heard that the Act was signed? What was your reaction? What was happening at that time?
– I use the word “reconciliation.” This process lasted several years, so it was not a surprise for me. Great shifts occurred in the early 2000’s, when I served in Jerusalem. Metropolitan Vitaly (Ustinov) was already retired, and he was a staunch opponent of discussions with Moscow. After his departure, a schism began. But the work of rapprochement had already begun, discussions commenced, so reconciliation was fated to take place. For me it was a joyful thing. No one was in any hurry, it was important that our “sectarian” mind-set would pass away, the mentality that “we alone stand in Truth, and uniting with Moscow is impossible.”
At first it seemed to me that we were too hasty in making this decision. But after reconciliation, our relationship was normalized, and I thought that we should have done this sooner, the process should have begun in 1991! But at the moment of the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion I was not very concerned, because this was the culmination of a process that started long before.
– It is notable that your candidacy for the episcopacy was confirmed by Patriarch Alexey II.
– Yes, I was the first bishop of the Church Abroad who was consecrated with the blessing of the Moscow Patriarchate. But that’s just a coincidence. There were hopes that Vladyka Mark of Egorievsk would attend my consecration, but Moscow unexpectedly convened a Council of Bishops, and so he didn’t come.
– As far as I know, not everyone was enthusiastic about the reunification of ROCOR with the Moscow Patriarchate. I think even Bishop Daniel of Erie was skeptical.
– First of all, the attitude of Vladyka Daniel (Alexandrov) was more complicated than was reported. Bishop Daniel, long before the signing of the Act was a proponent of reconciliation, but against unification. Back in 1998, he wrote a letter about this to the Council of Bishops of the Church Abroad (he couldn’t participate due to illness), at the same time condemning the sectarian mentality. During his illness, Vladyka had a cell-attendant who lived with him. Bishop Daniel was already very sick at this time. Sadly, the cell-attendant influenced Vladyka, since he was his sole source of information (and disinformation). Bishop Daniel was worried that unification would occur in the form of the dissolution of the Church Abroad, that it would cease to exist. If what was happening were properly explained to him, he would not have objected.
Vladyka Daniel participated in my consecration. Out of respect for him, we asked whether the Patriarch should be commemorated (in Erie we could not commemorate him over the course of 5 years, we had to acclimatize towards it gradually). Vladyka Daniel then responded: “Of course we must commemorate him!”
The schismatics even tried to use trickery to kidnap Vladyka Daniel! This would have killed him, of course. They didn't know what his medical needs were. He would have died in their hands.
Those who opposed reconciliation left into schism. For decades they had been poisoning our church life. Reasonable people were afraid that a schism would happen… And they did in fact leave. Now we can breathe easier.
– So it happened that more than a few opponents were found in the diocese entrusted to you, the South American Diocese. Is there a trend to heal this schism? Can one say that the parishes of un-canonical groups are diminishing and will eventually disappear completely?
– Yes, most of South America in fact. In other places the numbers are insignificant. Here most of the clergy and laity departed into schism. I came to the conclusion that the reasons they left were not ecclesiastical. That is why finding a common language with them is impossible. Church schism is division on the basis of Church matters. Those who left the Church Abroad had non-church reasons. There are political, psychological, sociological and economic reasons…
The people of South America are special. I lived among emigres in Australia and the USA, but I never saw anything like this. There is a sense of hurt among them: “Everyone forgot about us, no one needs us, and we don’t need anyone, either.” This is the mentality here, including among the Orthodox. In other Churches it’s the same. When I arrived in South America, I served with the Serbs whenever I could, because they didn’t even have a priest. They barely survived…they also have a schism. I thought that if a community is barely surviving, then the opposite is true—this is a reason to unite. But no, they have a “Montenegrin schism.” There is a false hierarchy in Montenegro, and now in Argentina! I don’t think this was accidental.
The same applies to the Catholics. There is a national Argentinian Catholic Church. For what reason? Why did they separate from regular Catholics? It isn’t clear. This spirit reigns here, the spirit of resistance, of separation…
As far as healing the schism is concerned… I can’t find a common language with them. As an archpastor, how can I receive them under such circumstances? On the other hand, it is peaceful to live without them. How they terrorized my predecessors and poisoned Church life throughout the Church Abroad for so many years! We are few in number, but our life is much calmer this way.
The schismatics have no future. They have more clergymen in South America than we do, but they are dying off. Two of them in Argentina died, only one remains. The priest in Chile is over 90 years old… this is a dead end.
– In your view, what is the spiritual significance of the reunification of the two parts of the Russian Church?
– Unity in the Russian Church is its natural state. For so many years, obstacles lay in the way… This was all the work of our enemies. Now, thank God, we have normal ecclesiastical relations and the Church is one. I think that our influence on the Moscow Patriarchate is not particularly sensed in Russia, but it is abroad.
Because of our separation from Moscow, we could not have normal relations with other Local Churches (except with the Serbs). In Russia there is no special sense of communion with other Orthodox Churches, because there is one Local Orthodox Church in Russia. But abroad, all Churches are in the diaspora, representing a religious minority, that is why we need interrelations. We must always sense that we are one Church.
28 March 2022
Interviewed by Vladimir Basenkov: monastery.ru