Fr. Mark Tyson served as the rector of Dormition of the Mother of God Orthodox Church in Bluefield, WV, a parish of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese (ACROD), a jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP), for nearly two decades. However, following his conscience, he recently moved to the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Outside of Russia (ROCOR), an autonomous body within the Moscow Patriarchate (MP). As has been reported by various English and Russian-language outlets, Fr. Mark made this move due to the EP’s actions in Ukraine as of late—revoking the document whereby it had transferred the Kiev Metropolia to the Moscow Patriarchate in 1686 and lifting the Moscow Patriarchate’s canonical sanctions against and receiving back into communion Philaret Denisenko, Makary Maletich, and their followers.
With the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion (Kapral), the First Hierarch of ROCOR, Fr. Mark offered us the following interview in which he speaks more in-depth about his time in ACROD, his reasons for transferring to ROCOR, and what the future holds for him.
—Father, before we jump into current events, first we would like to know—were you a convert or were you born into the Church? How did you become associated with ACROD?
—I’m a convert. I was baptized at St. Bede’s Roman Catholic Church in Williamsburg, Virginia (which will play a little bit of a role later on), but at around fifteen years of age I decided to turn my back on the whole religion thing and for about nine years I had nothing to do with prayer or Christ, unless my life was in danger, which during my unsettled teen years, happened a time or two.
I started studying at George Mason in Fairfax in 1988 where I got my bachelor’s in Russian and Latin American studies. After I finished there, I spent about six weeks in Moscow in the summer of 1990. I studied at the Institute of Steel and Alloys where they had a little language department on the top floor, so we spent our days up there with some great Russian teachers and we traveled around, going on tours and exhibitions, and one of the places we went to was Novodevichy Monastery—where I saw my first Orthodox Liturgy.
I was really entranced and touched by the service. One of the ladies selling candles could see that I wasn’t taking pictures and being a rude tourist. I was as reverent as I was able to be. Having grown up in the Roman Church and having played a number of instruments in folk groups, this just seemed such a beautiful Liturgy, so I was very moved by it even though I didn’t understand anything other than “Gospodi Pomilui” [“Lord have mercy”]. This older lady in the back gave me a candle and touched my cheek and told me to take it, and I lit it with a little prayer. Later, when my friends would go to a bar or wherever else, I would say I had to study; then as soon as they left I would get on the subway and go to Novodevichy. I would just sit on a bench and watch the people go by. I had no idea how to behave or what to do.
I got a letter from my fiancé in Williamsburg, Virginia who’d been wanting to go back to church and was waiting on me for a while, but with me out of the country she said she was going to St. Bede’s. I was so struck because that was the church I was baptized in. Back in America, I would visit that church a lot with her, and one of the first things I did was go to confession for the first time in nine years. I started regularly going to Mass and became a serious Catholic over time, but I was still interested in Orthodoxy. In fact, we even added some petitions from the Great Litany of Peace into our wedding Mass at St. Bede’s. I didn’t realize then that this was inappropriate, but those parts touched me and I feel that my heart was in the right place.
A couple of months after our wedding we moved out to a tiny town called Fisher, Illinois and we would go to the Roman Catholic church on Saturday nights and a Greek Orthodox church in Champaign-Urbana on Sunday mornings. My wife was a Catholic school teacher. They had Mass once a month, and one time we went together. They had girls in leotards waving flags, carrying pots of incense, and dancing around the altar, and when it was over, I told my wife, “We’re done, let’s just start going to the Greek church. I can’t take this anymore.” So we did and we had about a nine-month catechism there.
While we were in the Washington, DC area before we went out to the Midwest, we had bumped into an Orthodox monastery run by two former Uniates who had joined ACROD. They were very welcoming and helped us with a lot of our questions about the Faith that we were discovering. So through them, we went up to Johnstown, Pennsylvania where I met Metropolitan Nicholas and the chancellor, Fr. Frank. Later while I was in graduate school in Illinois I realized I really just wanted to go to seminary. We were received into the Church on Pentecost Sunday in June of 1992 and with the Chrism still wet on our foreheads, we jumped into the car and drove to seminary. I look back on that with a great deal of chagrin—I wish I had ripened maybe five years as a laymen, but it’s a typical convert thing—“I’m going to teach the world about Orthodoxy!”
—Of course, I know that well.
—Right, so I went to seminary and was utterly taken by Met. Nicholas, who was one of the most hospitable and kindest men I’ve ever known. He was the sort of person who would bring us food when we had no income and always had seminarians and other people from the Cathedral community over to his place to eat and visit. His last name was Smishko which is of course related to “smeshno”—“funny” in Russian, and he was a funny man; always joking and of course, very proud of his Carpatho-Russian heritage. I would tease him a lot. I remember one time I was cleaning his first-floor bathroom (another way he helped us to earn an income) and I started singing, “Remember Us, O Lord”—“Gospodi” in the Russian pronunciation, and he yelled out “It’s HOSPODI, you fool!”
My first assignment was in October 1995 in the Chicago area and together as a parish, we built a new church there together. We did have some hard times with the “old guard” of the parish there, and after five years I was sent to one of the biggest parishes in the diocese in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was in a rough area with a lot of crime. Raising three little kids in that neighborhood was a non-starter for me and my wife, so after nine months I requested to move to St Mary’s in Bluefield. We arrived in November 2001 and I was there for almost seventeen years.
—With that history, let’s jump to what’s going on now. You spent basically your entire Orthodox life in ACROD, except for the very beginning at the Greek parish…
—And even for that brief time that I was in the Greek Archdiocese, I was under the EP too, so every second of my Orthodox life has been under Patriarch Bartholomew. I’ve been Orthodox exactly half my life—twenty-six years.
—So you were under Pat. Bartholomew until about two weeks ago?
—Yes, October 15.
—Could you explain what brought about this move? Of course, we know it’s connected to Ukraine, but could you say more about that?
—Sure. I had followed a bit of the Ukrainian issue, on your website actually. I remember a video you posted a while back of a poor Ukrainian priest who was serving outside in red vestments and this angry guy came up and threw red paint all over him. It was supposed to symbolize all the Ukrainian blood spilled by the “Moskaly.” That really bothered me, but it was something low on my radar. I had no concept, no idea, never in my wildest dreams did I think that Pat. Bartholomew would recognize such absolute renegades like Philaret and those of his ilk. I was paying it the same kind of attention as I had to the Council of Crete: Friends would call me and ask what’s going on, and I would tell them not to worry, it’s just a legacy builder, and I never even really paid attention to it until I read Fr. Peter Alban Heers’ report to the Synod of Bishops on your website concerning what really went on there. I thought, “Man, what’s wrong with you, Mark? You have to start following these things a little more closely.”
Then on August 31, a priest friend called me and said, “Do you realize what’s happening?” That was the day, of course, that Patriarch Kirill visited Constantinople. I said “No, what’s going on?” We started talking about it and the seriousness of the issue started to dawn on me, and I spent the next six weeks ravenously reading everything I could from all sides. I was reading UNIAN, RISU, and any other Ukrainian sites that I could. I was reading whatever came out of the Patriarchate, which wasn’t much. Of course I was reading OrthoChristian.com, TASS, Interfax Religion, and the press office of the DECR. I actually completely dropped out of the secular political reading that I usually do, which is of course distracting and sinful, and started focusing less on Donald Trump and what was going on here, and more on what was going on over there. I learned more and more, especially about the history of the Patriarchate in the twentieth century, particularly after WW1, about what happened to the Churches that had been under the Russian Empire, as the fledgling Bolshevik government pursued a separate peace with Germany, and how the Ecumenical Patriarchate got into the Czech lands, Slovakia, Poland, Estonia, and Finland, and how the EP recognized and embraced the renovationist Living Church. When Pat. Kirill said this is a repetition of history, it really resonated with me. Especially as I learned more about Philaret, it all became clearer.
In the past I’d always been disturbed about some of the ecumenical excesses, the “Green Patriarch,” but it wasn’t enough for me to step away, because I figured he had to get his face out in the West and try to appeal to the smart set and all that other stuff—and I just let it go. I wasn’t one of those people that would say, “Oh my gosh, he touched the Pope’s hand. I’m out!” I just wasn’t that kind of person. But when this happened, I realized what was going on.
And interestingly enough, I experienced a situation in April with a very nice, very calm young man from Ukraine, probably in his twenties, who came to our parish for Great and Holy Friday Vespers and Pascha. Then on Thomas Sunday we were in the hall after Liturgy and he came up to me and asked what to do to take Communion at our church. I said, “It’s pretty simple. You’re Orthodox, right?” He said, “I’m from Ukraine, yes, I’m Orthodox.” I asked if his bishop was Metropolitan Onuphry, and he said, “No, I’m under the KP; I’m with Philaret.” And I said to him, “I’m sorry, I can’t commune you. Your church is not a Church, it’s a corpse.” But I told him I’d call the bishop, because I didn’t want to leave him sad; I tried to be pastoral. I didn’t want to slap him down.
I called Metropolitan Gregory, and he gave me the strangest answer, which I only understood about ten days ago. Without getting into the details of a private, pastoral call, I can say that his answer to me was utterly ambiguous. Now, I think that he was just avoiding coming out “on the record” on this issue. I’m sure he knew that the Patriarchate was in the process of making a decision, and didn’t want to “paint himself into a corner.”
So I already had a taste of what it would be to have to commune people under Philaret, and when I saw that not only the top hierarchs of the Ukrainian schismatics but also all of their clergy had been reinstated, it began to become quite clear to me that some of these clergy might have joined Philaret out of nationalism, and some of them might have been defrocked by the canonical Ukrainian Church because of serious moral lapses, and not one case was investigated. A magic wand was waved over everybody and these people could show up at my parish at any time and say, “I’m EP, you’re EP, and I’m serving,” and I would have no grounds to refuse. If I did, the Metropolitan would drop an anvil on my head. And I realized I cannot be in communion with this Patriarch because he has brought these people into communion, and they have not in any way gone back to the Church that defrocked and anathematized them or offered any repentance whatsoever.
There’s a little parable I told the people from my former parish who agreed to meet with me after my resignation: Hypothetically, if I had committed a terrible sin and lost my priesthood from Met. Gregory, and I started a little church in the next county, not commemorating any hierarchs, completely “independent,” and a few years down the road, another canonical bishop needs a priest, so we sit down and have a meeting, and I say, “Well, the accusations against me were really just a bunch of half-truths and lies; my bishop never liked me anyway,” and this other bishop needs a priest so he takes me. What would Met. Gregory do? He’d flip out! He’d be furious! And he would make life as hard for me and for the other bishop as he could. And he’d be right to react that way! Everyone understands the point that in a case like this, the only path back to the Church would be through the one who originally made the judgment, but we’re supposed to accept this insanity in the Ukraine because … Bartholomew did it? Really? It makes no sense.
—It’s interesting that you mentioned receiving clergy with serious moral offenses. Pat. Bartholomew knows about Philaret’s immorality as the Russian Church informed him about it when these things happened in the 90s. He at least knows Philaret’s history.
—Right, and he wrote a letter back saying he accepted and agreed to the Russian Church’s decisions.
It’s been interesting reading about all the hierarchs that ended up dead around Philaret. He’s like the Bill Clinton of Orthodoxy. It’s very strange.
And I read that Pat. Bartholomew sent Bp. Vsevolod of Skopelos to Russia to learn about Philaret. I knew Bp. Vsevolod quite well. He was a Ukrainian with a very strange history. He used to practice some kind of psychiatric therapy in New York City for many years, then somehow became a Ukrainian priest and bishop. He was a very interesting character. When he was sent to Russia to look into the situation with Philaret, I don’t know how the Russians reacted, but Pat. Bartholomew wrote a letter that you reprinted in English, saying, “We’re so sorry that you misunderstood our intentions in sending these two bishops there.” I have a Greek parishioner in my former parish who told me a classic Greek phrase is “I’m sorry—you must have misunderstood” (Laughter).
—I was curious about that. I’m not sure what that’s referring to.
—I’m not sure either. My guess is Pat. Bartholomew sent those two hierarchs to nose around and dig up whatever intelligence they could about Philaret’s offenses and the Russians’ reaction to them. But we know on the record that Bartholomew officially accepted the defrocking and anathematization of Philaret. Bartholomew was in Ukraine two years ago and wouldn’t even recognize Philaret as any kind of bishop, let alone “Patriarch,” while turning only to Met. Onuphry as the canonical head of the Church. Now all of a sudden, a few years later there’s a 180 degree turnaround. Why?
—That’s a good question, and I think there are probably several reasons all at once.
Based on the personal history you gave of your time in ACROD and your personal history with Met. Nicholas, it sounds like you weren’t already leaning towards leaving ACROD and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but that this one issue was so huge for you that this pushed you out.
—That’s exactly right. I have a farm thirty minutes away from my former church that I’ve had for thirteen years. My wife and I purchased burial plots at Holy Cross Monastery up in Wayne, WV. My wife has a steady job at the local library with great health insurance for the whole family. I never had the slightest desire—there’s no way I would have left here voluntarily. I never ever wanted to leave my diocese or my parish.
Met. Gregory put out a letter about me a few days ago saying I left the diocese that nurtured and formed me all these years. They see it as a betrayal of the diocese, but it’s nothing of the sort. We were all betrayed by Pat. Bartholomew’s unprecedented, uncanonical and really dangerous actions in Ukraine; and because of this, I felt that I had to get out from under his omophorion.
—You’ve touched upon Met. Gregory’s response after the fact, so I want to ask about how you moved to ROCOR. Were you canonically released?
—I wrote a letter to Met. Hilarion in mid-September. I had served with him a few times and I was always impressed by his prayerfulness, his quietude, his seriousness. It started to dawn on me about ten or twelve days after I first heard the news that this autocephaly thing was probably going to go ahead, so I wrote to him and asked that if this disaster occurs, could I be received? And he understood that once communion is broken, there’s no need for a canonical release. So I sent my letter of resignation to Met. Gregory after speaking with Met. Hilarion on the evening when Eucharistic relations were completely broken between the two Patriarchates.
The next morning, Met. Gregory called me and we spoke for two hours. He was very conciliatory and very nice. He offered me a number of different options in order to stay. He offered to let me serve the Liturgy without commemorating Pat. Bartholomew, because that’s how the Greek Archdiocese does it, but I told him he was forgetting the charter of our diocese from 1938 from Patriarch Benjamin from Constantinople that says we could come into Orthodoxy under two conditions: that we drop the Filioque, since we were Uniates, and that we would commemorate the Patriarch at all the services. Thus, since the end of 1993 as a deacon and all the way through the years of my priesthood, I commemorated the Patriarch multiple times at every service. I felt that he was offering me a legal fig leaf to salve my conscience and although I appreciated his trying to accommodate my concerns, my mind was made up. He did offer me a canonical release to ROCOR, but wanted Met. Hilarion to contact him. I informed the Metropolitan of Met. Gregory’s thoughts.
—Despite this phone call, you did then ask for a general release, correct?
—Yes, I spoke to a few people who know a lot more than I do about this and they said a general release would be the best thing, because releasing me officially to ROCOR would have brought the Patriarchate’s wrath down upon Met. Gregory’s head—it’s like saying to a soldier in the army, “Sure, go to the other side and fight for them.” It doesn’t make any sense. But he could have given me a general release, which Met. Nicholas had done with people on a number of occasions; and then if Constantinople mentioned it, he could say, “Well, he was dissatisfied and he wanted to go so I let him go.”
I wrote him a very cordial email suggesting that instead of Met. Hilarion asking for my release, I would like to request a general release, which his ever-memorable predecessor had done. It’s been two solid weeks since I sent that email and I have received no response.
—So you tried to do it the best way you could for everybody involved.
—Why go to ROCOR rather than another jurisdiction that isn’t immediately involved in the present controversy? Why not go to the Serbian Church, for instance?
—I already had ties with Holy Cross Hermitage, where I’ve been going to confession with my family for ten years; my Kum,1 Fr. Matthew, is a ROCOR priest, and we have often concelebrated at his church and mine; and a former parishioner became a ROCOR priest, so we also had a relationship. I also didn’t want to have to worry about the situation if this continues further, and I can’t see it not continuing, especially given Pat. Bartholomew’s very “conciliatory” statement that “Our Russian brothers will have to accept our decision because they have no other choice” (laughter).
—He is so certain that only he is reading the canons rightly and everyone will eventually come around and fall into place.
—Right, including the other Patriarchates. But let’s just say there was another non-EP church nearby I was tempted to serve in—who’s to say that in six months or a year, or two or three, that if lines are drawn between the Patriarchates, the one I join won’t end up with the EP? I really feel that the very safest bet was with ROCOR. I was very glad to be received there.
—Of course this has been in the news and people are talking about it. I’ve seen, and perhaps you’ve heard the criticism that you made this decision too quickly. What if this gets fixed soon?
—That’s a valid criticism, I think. I certainly understand why people would say that. Maybe it’s my personality, but my own heart and conscience told me that I didn’t want to commemorate the Patriarch of Constantinople and be “de facto” in communion with people like Philaret and his group even once. I felt that if I did that I would have to confess it with great regret, and I thought, “If this happens, I am not going to serve one Liturgy and commemorate the Patriarch.” And thank God, I didn’t. Patriarch Bartholomew put out his five-point plan on October 11; I had gall bladder surgery on the 8th, and on the 14th I was still not well, so I didn’t serve Vespers or Liturgy that weekend. On October 15 I resigned. So I never had to even once bother my conscience by commemorating him after this act. Before the act, it was no problem. I was aware for six weeks that this was coming on; I still did all the services I ordinarily do and I had no problem with it. But once that line was crossed, it was a step too far for me.
I’m not boasting about my sensitivity of conscience and I’m not judging anybody that stays with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. I love many people and priests in the EP, some of whom are my God relatives, who baptized my children, or I baptized theirs, so that’s not the issue. I didn’t step away so I could look down my nose at those who remained with Constantinople. It was my particular decision and it was a line that I couldn’t cross.
I thought about this—if I stayed, how long would I stay? Maybe when blood flows between the buildings of the Kiev Caves Lavra or Pochaev? Maybe when somebody shoots Met. Onuphry during a cross procession?2 What is the actual line that I would have drawn had I not stepped over this particular line? I wanted to get off the elevator at the ground floor before it went up or I might have to say, “Well, forty-seven people have been killed, but I’m going to wait until there’s fifty.” Really—where’s the line if you don’t step away immediately? I personally don’t know. I don’t know what other people’s hearts tell them and I don’t judge them, but I know what my heart told me.
—That makes a lot of sense. Another criticism that we’ve both seen is that you just gave into Russian propaganda, or Russian pressure, or you’re some kind of Russophile.
—Yes, I’ve heard that. I’ve been to Russia five times: when I studied there, and then with the blessing of Met. Nicholas in 1997 and 1998, and with the blessing of Met. Gregory in 2017 and 2018. My seminary classmates and friends in the diocese know I have a great affection and love for the Russian Church. I’ve seen Russia greatly develop. I lived in Peru for a while and I’ve traveled through Bolivia—I’ve seen nicer towns in the Andean Mountains than I did in Russia in 1990, which was a very shabby place at that time. Now, everywhere you look, and not just in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in Kaluga, Pskov, Pechory, you see new businesses, you see construction, and so on.
When I hear the words “Russian propaganda” it sets my teeth on edge, because as someone who follows the American media pretty closely, it’s frightening to read the lies and purposeful twisting of the truth here in America, certainly about Russia, and especially about anything that smacks of traditional Christianity. The reality is that if people think that the American press is giving them the whole truth they’re sadly deluded. So the fact is that Philaret was defrocked and anathematized, as was Makary, as were the others around them, and they showed no repentance—they did not go back to the Mother Church that originally levied this sentence upon them, which is 100 percent the way it’s supposed to be done—that’s how the Church has always done things. And Pat. Bartholomew received them into the bosom of the canonical Church in an unheard-of manner. This is reality, not propaganda.
If I have fallen prey to pro-Russian lies, then what about the other Patriarchates that have written stern letters to Pat. Bartholomew decrying his actions as uncanonical? Are they also victims of propaganda? Throwing out phrases like “Russophile” and “Russian propaganda” is just muddying the waters. Unfortunately, relativism has penetrated our entire Western society—“Fr. Mark, your truth is what you believe, but Pat. Bartholomew has a different truth, and it’s just as valid.” That’s the kind of reasoning that we hear from people in the West all the time. Their patron saint is Pilate who famously asked: “What is truth?”
—It’s very sad. We see it with comments, especially on our Facebook page. If we post an article about schismatics trying to take over a church, and our source is a Ukrainian priest, people immediately respond that it’s just Moscow propaganda. People are suffering and they don’t care because they have this paradigm of Moscow vs. Constantinople or Russia vs. Ukraine rather than truth vs. falsehood.
—A couple of weeks ago in the Ivano-Frankovsk Region, people from the radical Right Sector group took over a church, broke a number of arms and legs, beat a man’s skull, causing a concussion and threw the priest bodily into the street. They changed the locks and said this is now a KP church. Is that Russian propaganda? That was witnessed by dozens of people who all reported about it. There was a video posted. It didn’t really happen? And I love when the Ukrainians say the provocateurs are FSB agents. So capture a few of them and interrogate them and find out who they are and where they’re from. Give me a break. It’s a joke.
This is just part of asymmetrical warfare, with governments and think tanks using the Orthodox Church, which they do not give a fig about, as a tool.
Otto von Bismarck said if you want to kill Russia, strike her through Ukraine. And that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing from the West-inspired 2014 Maidan Revolution on.
Did I tell you last time we talked what one of my Ukrainian parishioners told me at Pascha?
—I don’t think so.
—She came up to kiss the cross and I said, “Christos Voskres,” [“Christ is Risen”] to her and she said, “Як наш Патриарх Филарет сказал, Украина воскреснет, як Христос воскресил [“As our Patriarch Philaret said, Ukraine will rise as Christ arose”]. I had no words. I just stood there with my mouth open. Even then I knew who Patriarch Philaret was, and I thought to myself, “This woman is putting Ukraine before Christ.” That was sort of a prefiguration of what was to come.
I take no pleasure from any of this. People might think I’m enjoying the attention and notoriety—or the biggest joke of all is they think I’m being paid for this. I’ve lost 75% of my income. The ROCOR parish of St. Tikhon’s gave me a very generous gift that will allow me to cover this month’s bills, which was most of what they had in their fund for the poor. I’m not asking for a dime from the parish except maybe for some gas money because I’m driving 1.5 hours each way a few times a week. I’ve told Fr. Matthew already that I don’t want anything from his salary. It’s a small parish and I’m not going to say, “Dig deep everyone, I need some money!” I don’t want any gifts and no one is paying me anything. I’m not getting a cent from Moscow, and even if I was offered something from the MP, I would want it to be because I would work for the Church. I would want to do something that benefited the Church there—not because I have my hand out begging. One kind man who runs a popular Orthodox blog wondered about whether I had started a crowd funding site, and when I found out I said, “Are you kidding?” That would only lend credence to the cynicism of those who have said I’m doing this for the money. I would never even consider doing something like that. It’s wrong; it would be like saying, “Yes, I have moral principles and I sure want to cash in on them.”
—So in material terms, you stand to gain absolutely nothing from this…
—Not a red cent. I am looking for work. I’m hoping to possibly teach, telecommute, maybe edit, maybe translate, maybe teach English on Skype to overseas students. There are various possibilities but all of them are really nebulous at this point. I’ll ride on the back of a garbage truck, I’ll work at Walmart—as long as I can keep the mortgage paid and food on the table, I’ll be satisfied.
—You mentioned that you and your family went to your former parish to have some supper and say good bye to your parishioners.
—Right, we did. We took a roast and some other dishes and some people brought desserts. There were about fourteen people I would say, which isn’t bad considering our ordinary parish Sunday attendance is about twenty-five. After we ate, I stood up and answered questions. I told them basically what I’m telling you. We hugged everyone, we told them we loved them and that we hated to hurt them this way. We are deeply grieved over what’s happening to the parish, though I do think Met. Gregory will take care of it, because it’s a beautiful newer church, and it wouldn’t be good for him or the people if they weren’t given a chance to keep it alive and well.
I talked to one of the men on the Bluefield Parish Board last night, and he said, “I can’t go anywhere, Father. I was born and raised in this parish and I’ve been with everyone every step of the way. The older generation has passed and it’s on my shoulders to keep this place together.” I said, “I completely respect your decision.” I would never want to twist their arms and try to get them to come where I’m serving now, although there are a handful who are doing just that without any encouragement on my part. I want everyone to be free to follow his conscience. I want the best for all of them. I truly hope those who stay will have healing. Another thing this board member said: “I think a lot of us just took this for granted, and I don’t think we ever will again.” I really appreciated that, and I feel the same way. I also took it for granted. I worked hard and I loved being a priest and I tried to be the best priest I could be. But you know, you go along on auto pilot, and you never think something like this could happen.
—Could you say overall that there’s no ill will towards you there in the parish?
—No, I couldn’t say that. There are a number of people in the parish who are definitely angry: “How could he do this to us?” I understand their feelings completely. I’m totally saddened by that. I wish I could change their minds. There are a number of people on the opposite side of that opinion who are very respectful and have even told me that they admire the step we took, and there’re probably people in between. A deacon is coming down to the parish soon and then a priest to serve Liturgy on a Sunday, so Met. Gregory is taking care of the parish. I’m grateful to him for that.
—Did any of those who are furious at you come to this gathering with the parishioners? If so, how did that go?
—No, everyone at the supper was supportive.
—Had you ever met Pat. Bartholomew?
—As a matter of fact, I did, a few times, but only briefly and formally. One meeting really does stand out in my mind.
In the late 90’s, some of us rented a bus to go to Navy Pier in Chicago because the Patriarch was going to be there. We went down there expecting a Paraklesis maybe and a short sermon and then to go up and get his blessing and maybe a little icon or medallion and say, “Wow, I got to hear the Patriarch preach and get his blessing.” It was the exact opposite of that. There was a rock n roll band blaring, singing “Under the Banner of Christ.” I can still hear the chorus in my mind. Then the Patriarch appeared on stage like Donald Trump, waving his arms palms up, in the European fashion, and everybody started screaming and cheering like he was big celebrity. He gave a speech, the details of which I hardly remember, and then when we went up to get his blessing, he gave us all a pine seedling to plant! We rode back in silence with the Patriarch’s little trees. We were stunned. That was one experience I had that has never left me.
I also saw him a couple of other times—he blessed the diocesan chancery building in Johnstown, and that was much more normal, much more ecclesiastical. I’ve served with Met. Hilarion, I’ve watched Pat. Kirill serve many times on video, I’ve served with other Russian clergy and bishops in Russia, but I never saw anything like what I saw at Navy Pier. I wouldn’t cross the street to see that again. It was appalling. I’m sure there were plenty of people who were there that thought it was pretty cool. I didn’t, and my clergy friends didn’t either. And it’s not like we’re some weird fringe group muttering curses under our breath. We went there because he’s our Patriarch and we wanted to see him, and we had no idea what we were going to experience.
This thing with Ukraine is the first step. I think that we are going to see this Patriarchate become the banner bearer for Western values and ideals. The environmentalism of the Patriarchate is already just one example of that. So is the new exclusively EP rule on priests being able to divorce and remarry ... while remaining priests! Who knows where it will go? Let’s put it this way— we could very well see the Patriarchate aligned with many of the things we have seen in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches, and that will be very acceptable to the Western elites in a way that the traditional Orthodox mindset just isn’t.
—Pat. Kirill just spoke about this—how what’s going on is an attack on Orthodoxy and its traditional morality.
—Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with him more, and that’s another reason why I’m very glad to be in ROCOR and commemorating Pat. Kirill. I’ve followed various events in Russia as closely as I can, such as the expulsion of foreign Jehovah’s Witnesses and the arrest of domestic ones.3 In America this horrifies people, but I think it’s a good thing. I understand why they’re tolerated here, but in an Orthodox country, these people should be seen as stealing people’s souls, leading them into the potential of eternal damnation, and this is something that the Church as a loving mother can’t tolerate. Would a mother in a home allow a poisonous snake to come in the door and just slither up to her children’s feet? Never. That woman would grab whatever she’s got to destroy that snake and get it out of the house.
—The Carpatho-Russian people tend to consider themselves part of greater Rus’, and not Ukrainians. From your time in ACROD, could you say this feeling has persisted, or has that changed by being under the EP all this time? Is there any thought of or desire to unite with one of the Russian jurisdictions in America?
—Well, the Carpatho Russian founders of ACROD actually had some problems with Russian priests when they wanted to leave the Unia and enter the Orthodox Church. I heard a lot of stories from older priests who said that the Russian clergy of that time really looked down upon their people and wanted to take away many of the traditions which they really held dear. At the top of the list was the unique and wonderful “prostipinie,” or plain chant, that is the crown jewel of my former diocese. As you know, the Russian Church overwhelmingly uses choral music, and I guess it just annoyed the heck out of the Russian priests that their new converts didn’t want a choir—they wanted the whole congregation to sing.
Other things criticized by the Russian clergy were obvious latinizations, like types of vestments or certain liturgical rubrics, but I have heard that some of the Russian clergy were so fiercely critical that entire parishes returned to the Unia rather than be mocked by their new priests. One of the earliest rallying cries of the diocesan founders was: “Ani do Rima, ani do Moskvy!” (“We will neither go to Rome, nor to Moscow!”) This is why, for that generation, their obvious choice of jurisdiction was the EP. Although I have heard that the older generation of ACROD people were definitely anti-Ukrainian politically, I don’t remember anyone, clergy or laity, who identified as Russian. This is much more common in the first mass conversion of Uniates to Orthodoxy back in the nineteenth century—the people who would become the backbone of the OCA.
In my former diocese, there was always a distinction made in language, chant, and ethnicity between the Carpatho Russians and the Great Russians. As small as ACROD is, I was never aware of any desire on anyone’s part to unite in the past or now, with any Russian jurisdiction in America. The only exception that I’m aware of happened right after World War II, when Fr. Stephen Varzaly, who served in the Pittsburgh area, took several parishes to the Metropolia. His point of view was that we should unite with our Slavic brethren and depart from the foreign Greeks, but the Communist taint upon the Russian Church at that time, and the general satisfaction of the diocese with the EP along with the preferences of the highly respected first bishop of the diocese, Metropolitan Orestes (Chornock), prevented his views from gaining much traction. Those parishes which followed his lead later returned to ACROD.
When Met. Nicholas fell asleep in the Lord, I heard a lot of clergy and people who were against uniting with any other jurisdiction, including the Ukrainians and the Greeks! Obviously, all three of these dioceses are under the EP’s jurisdiction in America, but ACROD has always been fiercely proud of its autonomous status as a “little Switzerland” under Constantinople. It was Met. Nicholas’ predecessor, Bishop John (Martin), who coined that phrase.
—Although you might not know of any other priests who are making the same move as you, do you have a sense of how far at least the same sentiment goes in ACROD? Could there be some discontent, or is the diocese fairly compliant with whatever the EP does and says?
—Honestly, I really don’t know how the other priests in the diocese feel about the situation in Ukraine. I have served for almost twenty years on what I jokingly call, “The dark side of the diocesan moon.” This is not meant as a jab at my parish or location, it just reflects the reality of being far away from areas where diocesan churches are “thicker on the ground.” My former dean, in Barton, Ohio, serves a parish which is a six hour drive from Bluefield! The closest diocesan parish to Bluefield is either in Morgantown, WV or Candler, NC. Each one is about a three hour drive away.
So, I used to hear many gentle jokes at priests’ synods or other gatherings: “What? You’re still in the diocese? Where do you serve again?” I never minded that, because I knew what kind of a hidden gem my church was; and frankly, it can be nice to have a little privacy in your family life and to serve as a priest without other “experts” criticizing you or indulging in gossip.
Although I count many diocesan clergy as friends, I just couldn’t have taken the risk of “sounding them out” on the problems in Ukraine, how they feel about Met. Gregory’s leadership or their feelings on the Phanar. This shouldn’t reflect poorly on my former clergy brothers—it’s just a sound policy to follow in any profession.
However, now all of a sudden Fr. Matthew is my rector and he bends over backwards to say, “We’re brothers, we’re equals,” and I say, “Nope, you’re the rector—you tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” Every time somebody from the press gets ahold of me, I immediately email Met. Hilarion to ask if it’s blessed or not. I’ll do whatever he says. I did that with you. It’s sort of an interesting obedience to be under. I’m not really used to it—not that I was disobedient before, but I just had no reason to be constantly seeking blessings. So I’m trying to do that as much as I can because I know enough not to trust myself and my own reasoning.
—As we discussed often in seminary, when you put yourself on the path of humility, you put yourself on the path of Christ and you meet Him there.
—As Fr. Jonah Campbell told me at the general assembly in New Jersey, obedience always bears good fruit. I’ve tattooed that behind my eyes so I can remember it, and I’m glad to think of that beautiful phrase as often as I can.
I would like to close by saying that I remember all of my former diocesan brothers with respect and many with genuine affection. They are solid, dedicated clergy in an excellent diocese. I hope that time and good sense will heal the wounds which the Patriarchate has caused. Although I may never have occasion to speak again with some, I hope that others will try to be understanding. I also want to thank the ROCOR clergy who have so warmly welcomed me into their diocese. I look forward to getting to know them better and to building strong relationships with them.
—We’re very grateful for your time and to Met. Hilarion for giving you the blessing to speak with us.
—I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to talk to me. It’s been a pleasure!