During the plenum of the Inter-Council Presence of the Russian Orthodox Church, abbots and abbesses of monasteries from various countries come to Moscow to collectively discuss documents prepared by the relevant commissions of the Presence. By the grace of God, neither political differences between the states where the Russian Church is located nor the heat of the passions in the media prevent the sons and daughters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from participating in this forum, so important for Orthodox people. Taking advantage of the opportunity, we asked Abbess Seraphima (Shevchik), the abbess of the Convent of the Archangel Michael in Odessa and head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Synodal Department for Church and Culture, to answer questions from the website, Monastic Bulletin. And, of course, we began with the most important issue:
—Mother, we know how difficult life is for Orthodox people in Ukraine today. But we would like to hear from you how you live. Is it difficult to be an inhabitant of a monastery of the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate?
—We live in peace, thanking the Lord for His great mercies, because all of us monastics of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church know perfectly well that our foundation is unshakable. The Church was created By the Lord Himself. He is its Head and no one else! Not the Patriarch of Constantinople, as one of the Phanariots said—this statement can be found on the internet. We know precisely who our Head is, so nothing can threaten us.
—But, in the monasteries, besides the monastics, there are the parishioners of the monastery churches, and the monastics have relatives whose opinions about the events taking place in Ukraine sometimes do not coincide with their views, but, conversely, are diametrically opposed…
—We should note the fact that not a single monastery of the Ukrainian Church has transferred to the new structure—the OCU—and we have not even heard that any of the monastics have expressed such a desire. If in the parishes of Western Ukraine there were cases when some part of the parishioners expressed such a desire, then in the monasteries there was nothing like this, including in monasteries in Western Ukraine. In Volyn, Rivne, and the Lvov region, which are probably the most problematic areas, the inhabitants unanimously support His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and pray for their primate. This shows that the monastic community in Ukraine is determined to maintain unity with its Mother—the Russian Orthodox Church.
—The next question probably concerns everyone whose relatives are on different sides of the conflict in the countries whose political relations have deteriorated. Tell us, how and for whom do you pray?
—As befits Orthodox Christians, we pray for the authorities and the troops of our God-protected country of Ukraine every day in the Divine services. And, of course, we especially commemorate His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, our great master and father. This is the direct duty of all members of the Church—to commemorate our primate. I constantly commemorate His Holiness Patriarch Kirill both during the services and while reading my cell rule. My personal attitude towards him is filled with reverent love and esteem. I consider His Holiness one of the pillars of modern Orthodoxy. I also commemorate many other hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church whom I know personally, whom I met on my life’s path and who entreated holy prayers, and I do this with joy in my heart. I commemorate many of my friends who live in the Russian Federation. They are dear, kind people, whom I respect. From this, I remember that we are all, first of all, Christians. The sisters commemorate their relatives, near and far, who live in Russia—they are native people for them, for whom, of course, they pray. We always pray for peace in the whole world, and especially in Ukraine, as His Holiness the Patriarch commanded us. At every service, when we’re reading the prayer for peace in Ukraine, everyone prays on his knees. Even on great feasts, when kneeling is not called for, I see that parishioners pray on their knees. They do this, hoping that the Lord will see their zeal, hear their requests, and help. People want peace and are really suffering from the lack of it. They experience it as a personal grief.
—Mother, the 18th International Nativity Educational Readings, held at the end of January, were dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the Victory of the soviet people in the Second World War. Is Victory Day still a holiday for believers in Ukraine?
—The 75th anniversary of the Victory in WW2 is a great holiday for all of us; a holiday with tears in our eyes. When the question of whether to celebrate it today arises in Ukraine, neither I, nor the sisters, nor any of the Odessans I know have any opinion other than that we must celebrate it! Odessa greatly suffered during the war. Unique architectural monuments were barbarously destroyed, and several hundred thousand people were destroyed, including several tens of thousands of Jews. The fascists mocked us, then burned us alive, placing people in old barracks, and then dousing them with gasoline. There’s a Holocaust museum in Odessa, founded by the Jewish community. We recently met a ghetto prisoner there who is now ninety-two. He’s alive, healthy, alert; I was very glad to talk with a living witness of those terrible events, and I wished him healthy and long life, and shook his hand… He was one of the witnesses of the diabolical cruelty of fascism and can speak about the horrors created by the Nazi invaders, possessed by a misanthropic ideology. It was very instructive to meet him as a living embodiment of history. Odessa is a multinational city. There are 132 nationalities in the Odessa Province, and we all peacefully coexist with one another. Peace is a very important concept for Odessans, so it’s very important for us to remember WW2 and the Victory!
—It’s also important because, whatever our differences, it’s necessary to join forces in defending Orthodoxy and our paternal faith. If it doesn’t happen, the consequences will be tragic…
—Yes, you’re right. By the way, during WW2, the schisms and Church disorder worsened in Ukraine, because the occupying Nazi authorities strongly supported them. The so-called Autocephalous Church was created, headed by Polycarp Sikorsky, who not only separated from the Moscow Patriarchate, but also called for hostility towards everything connected with the Russian Orthodox Church, inciting enmity between Christians. At about the same time, the autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church was created, which was in unity with the Moscow Patriarchate but was persecuted by the Nazi authorities. Bishops and clergy were arrested. The Gestapo arrested Metropolitan Alexei (Gromadsky), the head of the autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and in 1944, he was killed by followers of Stepan Bandera. The armed formations of the Ukrainian insurgent army, which were fighting with the soviet army then and, as their followers now claim, with the German fascist invaders, dealt harshly with members of the autonomous Orthodox Church who supported the Moscow Patriarchate. They killed more than forty priests, and clergymen were tortured and abused. Some of them were drowned alive in wells and others were shot. Bishop Manuel (Tarnavsky) was kidnapped by Banderites and hanged in the forest just for being in canonical unity with the Moscow Patriarchate. Few know about it, but it’s a bitter page in the history of Ukraine.
—The plenum of the Inter-Council Presence gathers representatives of the episcopate, clergy, monastics, and laity of the Russian Orthodox Church to discuss documents prepared by the relevant commissions. Why do you think it’s so important today to take the situation in Ukraine into account when preparing these texts? Isn’t the need to preserve Church unity obvious to everyone?
—The unity of the Church is the fulfillment of the prayer of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to His Heavenly Father before His sufferings and death on the Cross, when He said in prayer: That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us (Jn. 17:21).
The unity of the Church is a commandment given by God. The Lord Himself blesses us to preserve this unity, and whoever breaks it, who calls for extremism, taking actions aimed at inciting hostility between Christians, goes against the will of God, against Christ and His commandments of love and unity. What’s happening during the meeting of the Inter-Council Presence is extremely important. The plenum is examining the text of a document that reflects the pressing problems of modern Church life. I thank the Lord that I am among those who are now gathered under the arches of the hall of Church Councils of the Christ the Savior Cathedral. There are famous theologians, respected experts on various Church issues, people with vast experience and deep, versatile knowledge—the real elite of the Church. Such cooperation enriches a Church person, expanding his spiritual horizon. I am grateful to the hierarchy that the sons and daughters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church have the opportunity to be in this family, to be involved in making crucial decisions that affect, as I think, the life of the universal Church. At this plenum, we spoke about the consequences of schisms and heresies, about the schism in Ukraine, and about the position of the Local Churches, several of which, unfortunately, blasphemously violate the Christian principles of fraternal communion and unity in Christ to please the interests of world elites.
I would also like to say that during the working days of the plenum of the Inter-Council Presence, we have the happy opportunity to communicate more closely with His Holiness the Patriarch. Personally, it is extremely valuable for me to observe how our primate works, to listen to his speeches, to watch how he communicates with the audience, how tactfully he expresses his observations and comments on the issues being discussed. He is a man of great wisdom, encyclopedic knowledge, and priceless spiritual experience. Communicating with our primate spiritually enriches and delights. We love our patriarch, we pray for him, and we empathize with him. His cross is very heavy! At a time when there are tectonic faults, dangerous for the whole of world Orthodoxy, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill courageously stands for God’s truth, opposing the heresy of Phanariot papism and the unacceptable interference of Constantinople in the life of the Local Churches. He firmly defends the foundations of the Orthodox faith, and we are called to support him in this.
—Matushka, when you return home, do you tell the sisters about what happens during your trips? Do you discuss the issues that you participate in resolving out of obedience to the Church?
—Of course. Moreover, not only the sisters, but the parishioners of the monastery, and even completely secular people with whom I have good, friendly relations, and my friends on social networks are all interested in what is happening in the Church. I have more than 5,000 friends on Facebook, and it’s clear from their comments that even those who are far from the Church are interested in the work of the plenum of the Inter-Council Presence, the Nativity readings, and other Church forums and events. Social networks are one of the most successful missionary platforms at the moment. People are concerned with what’s being discussed in the Church; they begin to get involved in Church topics, to talk about issues of the spiritual life, to think about what’s happening in the Church realm, and to discuss these truly important matters with one another.
—But surely there are those who disagree with your position? Do you have time for online discussions?
—Many of the sisters of our monastery used to have the view that being on social networks doesn’t bring a Church person anything but unnecessary fuss. I had to explain that in our present times, when anti-Church forces are interfering in the life of Orthodoxy in the most unacceptable and aggressive way, it’s not only useful, but also extremely necessary to expand the influence of the Church to various communities of people, including the secular. For example, under the former president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, a whole campaign to discredit our holy canonical Church descended upon the citizens of Ukraine, affecting the entire nation and all circles of the population! The situation has changed for the better now. Nevertheless, when such things happen, we can’t just hole up in our cell, close the door tightly and not notice what’s going on. We can’t, unfortunately. Monasteries are called to conduct educational work and engage in missionary activities, and they should elucidate the position of the Church.
—What’s more, it is precisely the monasteries that enjoy a special trust not only among the faithful, but also secular people…
—You’re absolutely correct. Thank God that our monasteries in Ukraine, wherever they are, truly enjoy great trust among the people. We have here now in the hall of Church Councils of Christ the Savior Cathedral a member of the Inter-Council Presence Abbess Raphaela of the Korets stavropegial Monastery in the Rivne region, which was nearly stormed by radicals. After the provocative rumor that the Moscow Patriarchate hides weapons for pro-Russian citizens and Cossacks in the Korets Monastery, extremists began to break into the monastery, demanding that the nuns give them the hidden arsenal. But, contrary to their expectations that the monastery had barricaded itself and was preparing for resistance, the abbess flung open the doors of the monastery and invited the stormers to find everything themselves that they thought was hidden in the monastery. Of course, nothing was found and the deception was revealed in all its disgusting essence. Mother Raphaela extinguished this hostile wave with love and humility, thereby preventing a conflict that could probably have had tragic consequences.
In Western Ukraine, every monastery is a martyr. The abbess Stephana of the Zimnee Monastery and the sisters, in the most difficult years—2014-2016—endured the burden of misunderstanding, aggression, and enmity from the local population, including former parishioners, because a climate of intolerance towards the Moscow Patriarchate reigned all around. The malice reached the point of readiness to kill and expel dissenters. After all, nearly the entire media in Ukraine was talking about how the faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate were a “fifth column;” that they must be pursued, isolated, and evicted from the country. Petro Poroshenko himself spoke about it many times, and many other politicians. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of hatred affected many hearts and souls at the time. The abbesses of the monasteries of the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in the western provinces of Ukraine have told me many times that they are waiting for an assault and bloodshed any day. It was restless in the Pochaev Lavra too. The life of the monastics is accompanied by constant provocations.
Now, thank God, everything has changed. The people have begun to see the light. The tension has eased. I bow before the bravery of the inhabitants of these holy habitations, who patiently and humbly endured ridicule, humiliation, insults, and threats against their communities. They endured everything, conquering evil with their love and again turned the hearts of the people to God, to His truth. This is truly a great podvig of the monasteries and monastics in western Ukraine.
—Do you think that the current situation in Ukraine will prevent a new generation of monastics from coming to the monasteries of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church?
—On the contrary, paradoxically enough, the number of parishioners in the churches has grown. When the Church faced persecution, people began to more actively express their position, defending the faith and the Church. You see how our all-Ukrainian cross processions only grow in number. In 2018, 250,000 people participated in the cross procession of the canonical Orthodox Church in Kiev, and in 2019, more than 300,000. People rallied, as in Montenegro, to protect their holy sites.
—Today, His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine has become an example of strength of faith and standing in the truth and in confessing Christ for Orthodox Christians throughout the world. Probably it wouldn’t be a transgression against the truth if we were to say that it’s largely thanks to his personal holiness and his readiness to bear a martyric witness to his faith that the people of Ukraine united and proved able to withstand this crucible.
—Without a doubt it’s thanks to the personal example, courage, Christlike love, and wisdom of His Beatitude Onuphry. The Lord said to the apostles: Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matt. 10: 16). Metropolitan Onuphry is a man of extraordinary fortitude, which is combined in him with purity and simplicity. He does not like the sophisticated weaving of words, and it seems he even organically does not tolerate it. The words of Metropolitan Onuphry are always very simple, but permeated with the light of Christ-like faith. His Beatitude always reminds his flock that the main thing in our life should be Christ. He reminds us of this all the time. And, you know, I’ve noticed that people need this simplicity. The secular audience is huge, and many people are thirsty for this simplicity and purity from the Church. They are repelled by long scholastic speeches and generally anything that makes it difficult to understand the meaning. Modern man does not accept long texts and complex reasoning. This is probably why His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry’s manner of communicating with his flock is so effective. Christ’s and the apostles’ evangelical preaching was devoid of rigor, but was characterized by capacity, spiritual strength, and simplicity. Their speech was understood by fishermen, shepherds, and farmers, taking into their hearts the truths presented in an accessible and loving way. His Beatitude Onuphry also follows these principles in his apostolic ministry. This is what especially attracts the hearts of millions of Ukrainian citizens who feel that this is a man of God. There is nothing superficial, not vainglorious in him—it’s a rare phenomenon today. People feel it in their hearts. I didn’t want to use the word “holiness,” but you yourself said it. You probably used this word correctly… Yes, it is the example of the life of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry and the holiness of his profession of faith that helps the children of the Church preserve unity in peace and love.