“Sorrows bring joy and salvation to true Christians, for whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (Rom. 10:13).” These were Metropolitan Sergy’s words of consolation to his flock—parishioners of a church in the Kuty village of the Shumsk district of Ukraine’s Ternopil region in August this year, where he celebrated the Divine Liturgy in a tent. “If you endure your suffering patiently, then the Lord will grant you the joy which is to be found nowhere else. This is the bliss that nothing in the world can take away from us...” The ruling hierarch of the Diocese of Ternopil—one of the most revered and respected bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (the UOC-MP)—is constantly calling his much-suffering flock to patience, steadfast endurance of sorrows, love, forgiveness and the path of confessing the faith.
In the late eighties and early nineties
Metropolitan Sergy (Gensitsky) of Ternopil and Kremenets has headed this diocese of Western Ukraine already for twenty-six years. He took charge of this diocese immediately after his consecration as a bishop at the age of forty in 1991. Before then he had been a hieromonk at Pochaev Lavra. It was then that a wave of seizures of canonical churches by Uniates, “Autocephalists” and later by schismatics of pseudo-Patriarch Philaret (Denisenko) was sweeping Western Ukraine. Amazingly, the young bishop, together with two others—Bishops Onufry (the present head of the UOC-MP) and Alipy (now Archbishop of Lyman)—was not afraid to disown his signature under Philaret’s document that demanded the autocephalous status for the UOC, which would have inevitably led the Ukrainian Church to a schism. This is what actually happened a year later, when Philaret declared the establishment of the so-called “Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate”, creating the schism, for which he was defrocked and excommunicated by the Moscow Patriarchate. But back then, in late 1991, Philaret (still a legitimate metropolitan) flew into a fury and decreed to remove Bishops Onufry, Sergy and Alipy from their dioceses; but the pious flock stood up for their beloved archpastors.
The persecutions against the Orthodox faithful of the Ternopil region had begun even before the dissolution of the USSR. In 1989, following the meeting of M.S. Gorbachev with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church was revived in Ukraine, and with the connivance of the authorities mass seizures of Orthodox churches started. According to the decision of the regional council the Ternopil cathedral was transferred to the Uniates, thus Orthodox believers moved to the Church of the Nativity of Christ at 22 Russkaya Street. It was here that the newly appointed Bishop Sergy came in February of 1991. But “Autocephalists” from the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), who came from across the ocean in the wake of the perestroika, had an eye on this church. The takeovers with confiscation of church property were organized by the initiator of the National Rukh (meaning “movement”) parliament faction of Ukraine, a people’s deputy and active national patriot Vasily Chervony, whose political program included the idea of “the liquidation of the UOC-MP in Ukraine”. Incidentally, Chervony’s died a tragic death: he was struck by lightning while fishing in 2009.
The seized Church of the Nativity of Christ was transferred to the schismatics of the UAOC, so Bishop Sergy with his flock had to move and worship at the diocesan office on the territory of the church, which was repeatedly robbed and attacked. The bishop for a long time appealed to the regional administration requesting for a plot of land for building a new cathedral on it—but all in vain. The initiative of the faithful members of the canonical Church was wholeheartedly supported by His Beatitude Metropolitan Vladimir (Sabodan; 1935-2014), who arrived to Kiev in June of 1992 after the historic Kharkov Council of Bishops of the UOC, at which he had been elected its primate in place of the schismatic Philaret. In connection with the violation of Orthodox believers’ rights in Ukraine, appeals to the UN, the World Council of Churches and other international organizations were sent. At last the Orthodox faithful of Ternopil were given a parcel of land for the construction of a temple in the east housing area of the regional center. Thus, following the transfer of the diocesan office to the community of “Autocephalists”, Bishop Sergy and his parish began to gather for worship in the underground part of the cathedral, which was under construction.
It is noteworthy that during all the periods of political aggravation in the country, during both “Maidan revolutions” (those of 2004 and 2014), when radical nationalist forces became especially active, when attacks on the canonical Church with seizures of Orthodox temples became more frequent, Metropolitan Sergy did not call his flock to retaliatory actions with use of force for a single time; instead, he called the faithful to stand firm in faith, to faithfulness to Orthodoxy, prayer and humility. “The Lord came to earth in order to heal and unite all of us. If we are split, we already set ourselves in opposition to each other,” the archpastor used to say. “If we are split on ethnic or national basis, we therefore reject the Lord’s commandments and the words of Apostle Paul that there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free… for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). For if there is no peace among us here, how will we love God? How are we going to serve Him? What will we answer at the Last Judgment before Christ? That we went to the ‘Maidan’ and hated our brothers in the faith?”
The faith, hope and love of Metropolitan Sergy
The golden domes of the new, beautiful Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs Faith, Hope, Love and their mother Sophia rise to the skies. The new diocesan office accommodates a spiritual-educational center, Sunday schools for children and adults, and the diocesan media editorial office. On Sundays and major festivals the cathedral is packed with people; and on Pascha, the Nativity and the patronal feast, worshippers gather even on the adjacent territory. The flock, true to the canons and their beloved hierarch, listen to his instructions and remain faithful to Orthodoxy despite the hostile, tense atmosphere. “Today there are seventy churches belonging to various religious communities in the city of Ternopil, and only one of them—our newly-built cathedral—belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (the UOC-MP),” Metropolitan Sergy told journalists. “We requested plots of land for new UOC parishes, but there is no space for us. So we turned out to be strangers in our own land, in our native country. Of course, we thank God for what we have. In the Soviet era also there was only one church. It is not the number that matters; what really matters is living liturgical life. And our Lord always shows us that He is with us. But I worry about the Ukrainian nation in general— an historically Orthodox nation—which is now under delusion.”
How is it possible to preserve inner peace against the background of this new outburst of aggression? How can we not become embittered and take revenge? How can we labor for our salvation in such an environment and find the strength to pray? We intended to ask Metropolitan Sergy these and other questions during our recent meeting in Ternopil on November 13 of this year.
The metropolitan was tired, yet our short conversation did take place.
Every working day for Metropolitan Sergy begins at 7.30 AM with prayer in the altar of the cathedral, when he takes out particles for his spiritual children, for the suffering, the sick, the persecuted, the departed and the living servants of the Church of Christ. After that he receives clergy and laypeople at the diocesan administration office for a long time. The metropolitan has no personal secretary who would schedule your meeting with him and ask you about the purpose of your visit. People (even from the street) come and wait in a special waiting room. The metropolitan goes out of his office and invites priests or laypeople according to rules known only to him.
When the last visitor left, our meeting with him started. The metropolitan spoke in a low voice.
—You ask how we should work for our salvation? By looking at the Chief Pastor, Christ. Throughout our lives we prepare ourselves for our meeting with Him in any circumstances. We are walking towards Him… The sea of life is raging, the enemy is seeking to swallow us up, while we try to forget earthly things and strive for the heavenly. These circumstances impel us (lazy as we are) to watch and be vigilant, to pray, to seek help from the Savior. Thus we grow in our faith as we turn to God, and we come to understand that the adversary is attacking us on our way to salvation. We often forget that, but the satan himself reminds us about it… And we, going through this troubled time, are working for our salvation.
By these trials and tribulations the Lord shows us that it is vain to put our trust in the world, in kings and princes, riches and other this-worldly values. And the world is constantly deceiving us, aiming to drag us into the abyss of hell. Therefore, we cry out: “Lord, save us! Lord, forgive and have mercy on us, sinners!” And He lends us a helping hand. For the Lord hears us not when we sit idle and feel comfortable; He hears us when we are really in trouble, when we are concerned about our churches and our personal salvation. Then it is truly a cry of the heart and of repentance. It is possible to overcome all the difficulties only with wholehearted repentance and hope for the mercy and help of God. The Lord hearkens unto our calls, aids and relieves us. And we see the miracle of the grace of God in this and we thank Him for that.
—Your Eminence, now people have become highly politicized. They are under a daily torrent of political news, which is often no more than aggressive and biased propaganda. And people believe the media. What should we do in order not to become hostage to the informational isolation?
—It is not the mass media that we ought to rely on. St. Anthony of Egypt heard a voice, saying, “Keep attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.”1 We try to justify ourselves and say that we are “so trusting and nice”! Who do we trust? Whose voice are we heeding? Are these the voices of the Church and the Holy Fathers? Or these are the voices of weak and deluded people?... So we need to answer this question seriously: To whom do we devote our attention, to whom do we listen, and on whom do we rely? Let us open the Holy Scriptures or, at least, the Psalter, and see what it says: Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no salvation. And what do our prayers read? “I place all my hope in Thee, O Mother of God, keep me under Thy protection.”
If we turn to the Lord, to His Most Pure Mother, to the Holy Church, we will find that every verse of the Church prayers and hymns contains everything necessary for our salvation. If we put our trust in the Lord, we are sure to become convinced that He won’t betray our trust; on the contrary, He will protect us from this world. He will help us not to hate or despise this world, but to sympathize with it and to have a compassionate attitude towards the people who don’t know God, understanding that they have lost their way. And let us thank the Lord for leading us out of the hell of this world and setting us on the path of salvation. We wish the same for other people living in the world, who are or are not seeking the Lord. We wish all to find the path to the Lord, the path to salvation, and to live in the fullness of life of the Holy Church. Then peace will reign in our country as well.
—In other words, if we wish to improve the world around us and reach mutual understanding and love, we ought to begin with ourselves, right?
—Definitely. If we live penitential lives, pray, have compassion on sinners, and repent, then divine grace will strengthen and help us and work in those who went astray. Figuratively speaking, the “spiritual climate” will change around us, within us, in the society and in the state. We know examples from history when the grace of God transformed the hearts of former persecutors of the Church. That is why it is imperative that we have patience, humility and prayer. Sometimes, on seeing the fortitude of the persecuted Christians, the most ferocious persecutors of the Church began deep in their hearts to respect and venerate them. And many of them eventually became martyrs themselves. Maybe our contemporaries who are doing harm to the Church are unable to change in this way, but they still at least have a “spark” of respect for us. They see that the Orthodox neither conform to the spirit of the age nor repeat political slogans; instead, they preach love, steadfastness and firmness in faith by their way of life. Deep down they [the powers that be] respect us too. So may God help us set a good example for both our neighbors and those who oppose us. And may it be an example of love for neighbor and foe alike. And may this love, inspired by the love of Christ, be for the salvation of their souls.