In the post-Maidan period, the Ternopil deputies of the Provincial Council have repeatedly initiated the transfer of the Pochaev Lavra with all of the surrounding territories of the regional historical reserve, arguing that the Lavra is a “national treasure,” and therefore the Greek Catholics, the schismatics of the false patriarch Philaret, and the non-canonical “autocephalites” (Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church) have the right to worship in it. In essence, this means depriving the canonical Church of a great Orthodox holy site. Thankfully, the head of state has not yet responded to the requests of the Ternopil deputies. Although a wave of takeovers of parish churches has swept throughout the province and other regions of Western Ukraine with the allowance and support of the local authorities. Over the last several years, more than forty churches have been seized, mainly in the Western regions of Ukraine. But there’s a striking fact: The captured churches are practically empty, and many “activists” of the raids have suffered all sorts of misfortunes, as the faithful of these villages testify.
We spoke with Metropolitan Vladimir (Moroz), the abbot of Pochaev Lavra, about all of this.
—Vladyka, an historical parallel involuntarily arises, given that after the 1917 revolution the Bolsheviks supported the self-proclaimed “Living Church,” transferring Orthodox monasteries and churches to it. Likewise, there is an obvious political component now in the activities of the Ukrainian schismatics—capitalizing on the national idea. Moreover, the surge of aggression from raiders has fallen during the peak of political aggravation and crises in the country. How dangerous are these initiatives of the followers of the so-called “Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate” today?
—You know, history is the best teacher. All these “initiatives” from politicians bring their people nothing but harm. How can we preserve unity and peace in our country when schisms in religious life are being supported? What does it mean to take a church from one confession and transfer it to another? It’s a crime. But the initiators of such methods should also remember that they are taking churches not just from the people, but from God, for it says in Scripture: My house shall be called the house of prayer (Mt. 21:13).
You see, in Soviet times there was such a powerful atheistic machine at work, and yet it couldn’t manage to close the Pochaev Lavra. Remember the 1960s, when in the period of the Khrushchev persecutions local authorities declared a real war against our Lavra—the monks were forcefully driven into the forest and fields, deprived of their residency permits, thrown in jail and psychiatric hospitals, and their cells were flooded by hoses. But the Mother of God did not allow a closure; the Lavra endured.
—After all, the Turks, Tatars, and Uniates have wanted to close the Pochaev Lavra many times.
—There’s an historical episode depicted on the walls of the Dormition Cathedral: a blockade of the Lavra, with Tatars releasing hundreds of arrows. But above the monastery is the Most Holy Theotokos, and the arrows are being turned back, striking the invaders. They are put to flight; and this is not a fairytale—it’s a real testimony to God’s intercession. This event is preserved in the chronicles and other documents. That’s how it was. In August 1675, Mehmed IV, the Turkish sultan, was determined to take revenge on Poland for violating the Buchak Accords, and for the defeat at Khotyn. He sent 50,000 Turkish-Tatar troops with horses under the command of Nureddin, the Tatar sultan, to attack the king. As usual, the Tatars left a scorched earth in their wake. And lo and behold, on the path of this bloody army was the small and unprotected Orthodox monastery of Pochaev. Approaching it, the Turks had already burned the neighboring buildings; they killed two of the brethren and began to prepare for an assault. From the army’s point of view, the siege of the monastery was not a major operation: At that time, the monastery had neither fortress walls nor watchtowers, as is depicted in later engravings, and behind its wooden fence hid many civilian refugees. They expected no help from anywhere. The abbot of the monastery Fr. Joseph (Dobromirsky) blessed the brothers to appeal to their sole protectress—the Mother of God—and to the blessed God-pleaser, St. Job of Pochaev.
Early in the morning of August 5, the Turks stormed. The monks responded by serving an Akathist before the miraculous Pochaev Icon of the Mother of God. They had only just begun to sing the first kontakion, “To Thee the Champion Leader,” when the Queen of Heaven herself appeared above the Holy Trinity Church with an outstretched omophorion in her hands, and with the Heavenly angels and St. Job. The Turks saw them and began to release arrows at these Heavenly protectors, but the arrows returned and struck the bowmen themselves. The attackers were terrified and bewildered, panic seized them, and they took off running. According to the Lavra’s chronicles, several of the captives remained in the monastery after that, adopted the Christian faith, and remained there until the end of their days in monastic obedience. This event is forever imprinted in the memory of Pochaev and of the whole Church. Thanksgiving to the Heavenly Queen for this miraculous salvation is offered daily before the miraculous Pochaev Icon and before the reliquary of St. Job.
There are innumerable examples of the intercession and help of the Theotokos, and every pilgrim and parishioner of the Lavra still experiences this aid. The Mother of God also appeared here in 1240 in a pillar of fire and left her footprint on a rock. She, like the burning bush, bore witnesses that this place is holy. She is the abbess here and the patroness of this land…
—Vladyka, tell us about the tragedies that befell those who carried out the Khrushchev persecutions here, in Pochaev.
—It’s a tragic story. There was a first secretary of the district committee in Kremenets named Andrei Ichansky who had the goal of closing the Lavra by any means. He gathered information on the monks and reported it to the KGB. When they closed the monastery’s Holy Trinity Skete, he was personally present for the dismantling of the antique iconostasis and nearly spit on the icons, blaspheming the saints. One of the women said to him, “Do you not fear God and His punishment?” “Who is He? Let Him punish me!”—he laughed and left. And that same day, his daughter who was studying chemistry in Lvov University was doing some experiments in the laboratory when a flask with acid exploded in her hands and burned her face and eyes; she was blinded, and then died… She was buried in the village cemetery not far from the Lavra. Then this communist wept bitterly and kept saying, “O God, O God, why have you punished me so harshly…?” They say he then repented and believed in God.
—I wonder, do today’s persecutors know about these events you have mentioned?
—They’re hardly interested. We can only pity these people: They consciously commit these crimes, attacking the holy places, and that never goes unpunished. The question is—what is their purpose? What do they want? To fill up the measure of iniquity, to repeat the path of their predecessors, the persecutors of Christ? If they are believers (and they present themselves as defenders of the faith), then the Lord does not teach us to act this way. Moreover, they think that monks are weak-willed people. But monks are not at all weak-willed: They are confessors and are ready to lay down their lives for Christ at any moment.
Therefore, I pity our countrymen, our contemporaries who dare to assault the Church of Christ, interfering in the realm of the spiritual life, being completely ignorant of it, and thereby drawing upon themselves nothing but the punishment of God. We must perceive the spiritual reason in all of these anti-Church phenomena and various political initiatives. In the words of Dostoyevsky, Satan fights with God, and the field of battle is the heart of man…
—However, a new wave of seizures of Orthodox churches has swept through in recent years…
—Clergy from neighboring districts where there were church seizures come to see me. What is the result? People don’t go to these churches; they are empty. Let’s take, for example, the famous Katerinovka, where a real massacre was committed near the church. The supporters of the “Kiev Patriarchate,” having secured the support of “The Right Sector,” forcefully seized the Church of St. George on September 15, 2015. The invaders used force—batons and tear gas, and twenty people were injured, including defenseless women. Now the faithful of Katerinovka Village are building a new church and praying in it. If you go there and speak with the priest, he will tell you what consequences befell the raiders, what happened over the course of these three years with these aggressors. Some have died, others have seriously hurt themselves in various situations, one has gotten sick with tuberculosis, another with jaundice, another was injured by a horse while plowing, another got into an accident…
—What must be done so that peace could reign not just in the religious life, but in Ukraine as a whole?
—The Lord has said, By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (Jn. 13:35). This is the main condition for any peace—in families, in society, in government—the fulfillment of this commandment of Christ. Why is there not mutual understanding between people? It is because the desire to understand, respect, love, and rejoice in one another has disappeared; and as a consequence—the growth of lawlessness. St. Seraphim of Vyritsa said that in our times, people will perish from envy, thirst for profit, and love of money. For the sake of money, they will sell their family values, their conscience, their morality, and all that is truly valuable for the sake of greed. Comfort is advertised as the ideal of human perfection, in which we all desire to live, and modern man dies spiritually in pursuit of this comfort. Man walks into such a jungle in the spiritual plane that he is unable to leave on his own, he is already bound hand and foot to the forces of evil, and Satan will not let go of his sacrifice. Man thinks: Just one more step, just one more deal, then I’ll think about my soul… And so on until old age, and then there is neither time nor energy for it.
—I would like, Vladyka, to finish our conversation on an optimistic note. How should believers behave in these conditions?
—We must remember that the Lord is with us, and that the thorny and narrow path leads to the Kingdom of Heaven. We are given freedom, therefore we must use it more on prayer, and protect ourselves with the Sign of the Cross more often, that the Lord would not deprive us of His mercy, and that the Spirit of God would instruct us and inspire us that we would remember that the path of patience, humility, and love leads to the Heavenly Kingdom. It’s very difficult for Christians now, but the Lord sees and knows our needs, and will never leave us without His protection and help. It was no accident that He said, Fear not, little flock! (Lk. 12:32). We must have the faith of the saints as an example—to, figuratively speaking, be deaf and dumb to the temptations of this world.