On Saturday, February 2, 2019, a delegation from the Orthodox Church in America headed by His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon visisted Sretensky Monastery in Moscow and celebrated the All-night Vigil. Afterward, the brothers of the monastery talked with His Beatitude, and this interview was recorded for the new Sretensky Monastery website.
—Once our Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov) was asked about the prospects of establishing an independent, possibly autocephalous French Orthodox Church. He said that that would probably not be possible. When he was asked why not, he answered, “Because you have no monasticism.”1 In order to have a Church, you have to have monasticism. We would like to ask you how the situation is in the OCA with monasticism? How many monasteries are there, who joins them, and in general are they filling up?
—Well, I would say that the monastic life is very diverse in the United States, Canada and Mexico. We have of course our diocese in Mexico. But in the Orthodox Church in America we have twenty-nine monasteries right now. Some are very small, but a few are larger, and I think that at least expresses the diversity that we have of monasticism already in the United States, Canada and Mexico after only a few hundred years. Of course, the Orthodox Church in America was planted by St. Herman and monastics, so there is that seed of the monastic life already in the soul of America, even if they don’t know it. So I think it’s the monastic life that reflects the realities of the local circumstances. As here, there are some monasteries that are focused on hesychastic prayer, but also others who have various missions in the world—for example my own monastery of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk is connected to the seminary, and that is part of the obedience of the monastics: to work and serve at the monastery. So I would say there’s a good combination of the hesychastic life with the life of service in many of our monasteries in North America.
—Concerning theological education. How is the situation in the OCA with theological education? Where is the emphasis placed in preparing priest? And in general, how many people are preparing themselves for seminary, and how many are currently studying, if there are such statistics? But mainly, what is stressed in preparing them to become pastors?
—That’s a good question. A book could be written about this. Well, let me start with the last part of the question. A difficult part of theological education is the preparation for theological education. In the North American context there is not much preparation, because the culture is such that it argues against theological education or religious life in general; and so many times young men and young women come to study at the seminaries with less preparation than they may have had in the past. So that’s one of the challenges, especially in North America, because we don’t have a centuries-old tradition of preparation for theological education, and much of the preparation has to take place within the seminaries themselves. So that puts more pressure on the seminaries to do that preparation before they even get to the actual theological education. That’s the first part…
We have three seminaries: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, St. Tikhon’s and St. Herman’s in Alaska for the OCA; there are several other seminaries as well. But there are certainly the traditional disciplines that are offered: patristics, history, Old Testament, New Testament, liturgical theology, liturgics, canon law. Fr. Alexander is our professor of canon law, so he has the most important course, of course! But as we offer those courses, there’s also the need to fill in all those other needs that haven’t been truly met. And there is the need to face the contemporary difficulties that priests especially have with administrative, legal, financial and pastoral questions, which are becoming much more difficult in our modern day. So, that adds another level of challenge. But our theological education tries to address those by incorporating classes, or portions of classes, that would address those needs. I could go on with this subject, but perhaps you have other questions as well?
—Please go on.
I will add just a little bit. More recently in the last ten years our seminaries have taken practical steps to address some of these issues, particularly with training our seminarians for pastoral work and more specifically clinical-pastoral education, where they actually receive concrete and practical skills that they can use in their pastoral work. And there’s a lot of attention in all of our seminaries given to that aspect. We also try to make sure that their education is not simply classroom-based, but is extended into the parishes, the hospitals, or the prisons, to get training in those ministries. Prison ministry is very central, as well as hospital ministry, and working with youth—all of these need to be incorporated into our theological education. It makes it difficult, because the each professor in his own discipline wants to preserve enough time, credit hours for that discipline—but there are many other needs for pastoral life in the modern world.
—Am I right that the practical orientation of the education is an organic, natural part of the whole process of the education?
—Your Beatitude, you have just spoken of the complexity of American society. It's true, we look at American society as being very progressive, very modern, and probably very secular. How does the American Church manage to raise its voice, and and do the Orthodox people in America heed that voice? Is it possible to preach the Gospel in your society?
—I would say it is possible, of course, because the Gospel can be preached in all generations. But it certainly is difficult in the North American context. However, especially because in North America perhaps more than any place in the world, the polarization of society is very evident, it therefore much more difficult to present the path of the Fathers of the Church and the Councils, which is the path of moderation. But I think precisely because we have that path, we have a unique contribution as the Church to that polarized world.
I have actually written a short book to present a path for the Church in North America that takes that approach, an approach very much initiated by some of the builders and founders of the Church in North America: Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Fr. John Meyendorff, but even before that to Metropolitan Leonty (Turkevich), Vladimir Lossky and so forth, who always presented Orthodoxy as in a sense both traditional and progressive at the same time. The world only sees one or the other, but in the Church we have to have both: a progressiveness that’s not innovation, and a traditionalism that’s not fossilization of things in the past, but a living tradition. But that’s a very difficult path to walk, especially in a world that prefers one or the other; it’s easier to be a progressive that… Well, here’s my book. You can read about it.
But it seems to me that that is the way that the Church, at least in North America, and perhaps in the rest of the world, can present the eternal truths of the Gospel in a genuine and authentic way and not in the way which often happens in progressive Christian denominations where there’s a sense that leaves everything that’s unnecessary behind, in the Protestant sense. However, at the same time there’s also the Protestant approach of being rigidly conservative, but without the fullness of the faith. And so I think the Orthodox Church has both the ability to preserve tradition, but to share it in a way that will inspire people to come to Christ.
—Your Beatitude, we have two more questions. Very interesting by itself is the experience of the American Church, because as I'll say again, for us American society is cleary more progressive, and we understand that we can expect approximately the same thing in the not so distant future. In connection with this is the question: What are the main problems that your flock brings to you, what is most essential for them, and what spiritual illnesses do they have?
I would say, broadly speaking, that the biggest issue revolves around the human person: “What is a human person?” The question of progressive ideas today is usually framed in the context of issues like sexuality, gender and all those things, which are issues that come up in our parishes. But I think they come up because there is confusion before those questions about what is a real human person. So, I see especially with the youth those questions, not simply about sexuality, but more broadly: “What is my existence about?”å and, “What is the purpose of having religion?” That’s a big general question that many people struggle with. They reject not just Christ, but organized religion or any kind of existence outside of themselves. So the spiritual problems are from that isolation that people bring upon themselves by rejecting Christ or organized religion or even rejecting a sense of community, which you see reflected in divorce and people not getting married to begin with. But I think all of those questions come down to confusion about what it means to be a human person in the image and likeness of Christ, and despair about being in a broken state without knowing how to get out of it. Therefore some turn to false solutions: drugs, pornography and all these other things that promise some kind of answer to life’s questions, but really alienate the person more from true life.
—Thank you Your Beatitude, for speaking with us today.