Archpriest Vladimir Rinkevich, rector of the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Naujoji Vilnia, a neighborhood in eastern Vilnius, Chairman of the Social Department of the Diocese of Vilnius and Lithuania (the Russian Orthodox Church), comes from a long line of priests. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather served in the Lord’s altar first in Belarus and then in Lithuania. Fr. Vladimir was born in 1982 in Lithuania, which then was part of the Soviet Union. It was here that he received his education and was ordained a priest. Before he was assigned to Sts. Peter and Paul’s he had served at the Church of Sts. Constantine and Michael in the city of Vilnius.
His journey to the priesthood and ministry
Archpriest Vladimir Rinkevich —My great-grandfather, Fr. Zacharias (Zakhary), became a priest in Belarus during the German occupation. His daughter married my grandfather, Fr. Vasily. He was one of the first post-war graduates of the Minsk Theological Seminary. He went through the Khrushchev-era persecution [the so-called anti-religious campaign initiated by Nikita Khrushchev that lasted from 1958 till 1964.—Trans.]; now he is ninety-two and lives in Vilnius. My father and his brother became priests as well. However, my uncle had only one daughter, and my father had three daughters and me. Thus my mother told me: “You will become a priest! There is nobody else in our family to serve in the altar.”
—That is logical.
—It hurt me to hear that the others had made a decision about my future for me. It was most probably my teenage protest: I kept trying to prove to my close ones that I would never become a priest! I would choose any profession but not the priesthood because the ordained ministry was “not for me”; it was “not my calling”, it was “too hard”, I was “not good”, I was “very bad”, and so on. My dad supported me by saying that people should become priests at a mature age and after receiving a secular education. So I graduated from Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences (formerly the Vilnius Pedagogical Institute), in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. Concurrently, I attended evening psychology courses at Moscow Humanitarian-Technical Academy (former Moscow Economic and Linguistic Institute). And after marrying and obtaining two degrees I was offered ordination to the deaconate by Vladyka Chrysostom [Martishkin; b. 1934. Archbishop (1990—2000) and Metropolitan (2000-2010) of Vilnius and Lithuania in the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.—Trans.] even without studying at the seminary.
—And did you agree in spite of your earlier protest?
—Yes, I did. The metropolitan said: “We need deacons. You have been in the Church since infancy and know everything in church well. And a deacon is not a priest anyway.” I didn’t refuse, thinking: “After all, I go to church every week, I help at church all the time; so I will just have more responsibilities by becoming a cleric.” Accepting the hierarch’s offer, I realized that though the deaconate wouldn’t be my main activity I would be able to stand before the Lord’s altar. I was ordained a deacon, but soon Metropolitan Chrisostom offered me ordination to the priesthood.
And then I declined. I explained: “Your Eminence, I am unworthy. There are many other worthier candidates.” But the archpastor replied: “If you had said the opposite, I would have hesitated, uncertain about your ordination. No one is worthy, but there is obedience.” I wouldn’t say he pushed me; rather, he tried to persuade me, saying, “It’s up to you to decide. I call you to this ministry.” And at some point I quite unexpectedly surrendered and agreed to become a priest. Thus, something I had protested against as a child, as a teenager and as a young man took place.
—But you had a secular job at that time, didn’t you?
—You are right. I had started to work as a student—I taught programming. I also worked as a driver at an undertaker’s office to earn extra money. I still make some money on the side by teaching and driving—because the income at church (for the upkeep of the staff, communal utilities, repair, social activity, and the development of parish life) is insufficient. I am of the opinion that churches should have separate moneyboxes for priests to which people can donate for the support of the clergy. And then services of need (treby) will become free of charge, because it is wrong when people by donating in fact “buy” one or another service of need. Many even don’t understand the expression, “donation for a service of need”. A consumer mentality is growing in us. And no matter how you call it, people think that if they give money, they are buying.
—So you don’t have fixed prices for services of need in your church?
—Certainly not! Our ruling hierarch strictly forbids any fixed prices—only donations. My father, my grandfather and all the priests around me endorse the idea that no prices should be set. People should be allowed to donate as much as they like. And people often don’t donate for weddings, Baptisms and funeral services. They either don’t want to or can’t afford it.
—But this system is a blow to the clergy’s well being. Would it be wiser to look for alternatives? What about reintroducing tithe-paying, for instance?
—I don’t think that’s a good idea. In church the priest is for people and not people for the priest. We should explain to people what we priests live on. We should tell them that if from their offerings I can’t collect a sum sufficient to feed my family, cover my children’s studies, fuel for my car, and the maintenance of my apartment or house, I will have to get a secular job. So the time that I would otherwise devote to my parishioners’ needs (talks, lessons, blessing of apartments, etc.) will be given to my job. Perhaps I won’t even be able to perform a funeral service over one of their loved ones at the time convenient for them because I will be busy at work. But if people donate enough for the support of the priest and his family, I will devote most of my attention to the parishioners’ needs, while my secular job will recede into the background or I will give it up.
—Yes, for the time being, because I often can’t cover everyday expenses from donations. And we have to explain all of this. Is it possible that parishioners will stop donating for the priest’s needs whatsoever? Yes, that is possible. In this case I will be left no alternative but to say: “Since you have stopped making donations to me, I can no longer devote sufficient time to you because I will be working almost full-time.” I don’t rule out that at some point people will leave the church and say, “Father, we don’t need you anymore.” I don’t think the priest should run after them, offer his services and seek money. We clergy serve God and people as long as people need us. If the day comes when the people don’t need me anymore, I will remain faithful to Christ and continue to serve Him, albeit in some other form; as for earning my living, I will be able to do it elsewhere, at a secular job.
—Fr. Vladimir, since you come from a long line of priests, you must have understood what the priestly ministry was like from childhood. What did you find most difficult and unexpected in this ministry?
—In my view, the most difficult thing is to be a priest in essence and not just in name. What is the concept of the priesthood in the Gospel and Church teaching? Above all else, it’s a great degree of self-sacrifice. Are you ready to give away all your clothes, including your shoes and shirt, while walking along the street? Or to pray for a dying person day and night? Or to tear yourself away from whatever you’re doing when you are very exhausted and hurry to console a sick person when he is weeping and feeling bad? If you feel unready, worn out, if you find it hard, or pity yourself, justify yourself, avoid difficulties, and seek comfort, then you have a gut feeling that you are not a real priest. You feel weak and half-baked. It is similar to the words of some people who say: “You see, I only seldom go to church now. But later, when I grow old, I will give much attention to spiritual life.” If you are self-indulgent (though, of course, sometimes we do need to allow ourselves some respite or spare time), you will inevitably have pricks of conscience. Do I really have integrity? What if I act as a priest in church and am an ordinary guy in the world? Am I losing my spiritual integrity? Sometimes I feel as if laziness or sinfulness are hidden behind the words, “We priests, are also human beings.” This is what I find the most difficult in our ministry: to have complete sincerity and commitment…
Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Orthodoxy
—Fr. Vladimir, do you have any actual Lithuanians among your parishioners? I mean, Lithuanians born and bred, and not Poles, Belarusians or Russians who were born in Lithuania.
—To begin with, I should answer the question, “Who are the parishioners?” In Naujoji Vilnia, the neighborhood I serve in, there are several thousand Orthodox residents, and all of them could be considered as parishioners of my church. But in reality about eighty (maximum 100) people come to pray at our services. Where are the others? They either go to other churches or don’t attend any churches. There are not many actual Lithuanians in this neighborhood, but they can be found here. Though most Lithuanians by blood are more drawn to churches that hold services in Lithuanian.
—Do you serve only in Church Slavonic?
—Yes, we do. Sometimes we may read some individual prayer in Russian, though. During services of need we often use the language that is understandable to those who come to church (usually Lithuanian). For example, I serve half of the wedding, or Baptism, or funeral services in Lithuanian quite often. I have also served in Polish on some occasions. No one has ever asked us to celebrate in Belarusian, though; but the truth is if someone knows Belarusian, he is very likely to know both Russian and Church Slavonic very well. After all, these are kindred languages (as opposed to Polish or Lithuanian). A Lithuanian, for example, won’t understand anything in Russian or Church Slavonic.
—Fr. Vladimir, are there any local residents, any Lithuanians, who regard Orthodoxy as a “foreign faith”? Maybe someone says that the Orthodox Church is a purely “Russian”, “Moscow” Church, if not the “aggressor state”’s Church?
—As I see it, the situation of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania is certainly better than in the other Baltic States. Perhaps you know that in Estonia in addition to the Moscow Patriarchate churches there are churches of the Ecumenical Patriarchate; and in October 2019, the Ministry of Justice of Latvia officially registered the “Latvian Autonomous Orthodox Church” of the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s jurisdiction on its territory. You won’t find anything of this kind in Lithuania. Perhaps it is largely explained by the position of Vladyka Chrysostom, who as far back as in the late Soviet era publicly spoke for Lithuania’s independence. He was almost persecuted for these words. But the independent Republic of Lithuania has been very grateful to the Orthodox Church for that move. True, many years have passed, those events have become a thing of the past, but a positive attitude towards Orthodoxy has remained. Meanwhile, I make no secret of the fact that at times some speak of Orthodox badly and negatively. But don’t we Orthodox provoke such responses ourselves? In any case, we should take into account that we are a small minority in Lithuania: Orthodox Christians make up about four percent. And the situation is very different in Latvia, isn’t it?
—Yes, In Latvia and Estonia local Russian-speaking and Orthodox residents are also a minority, but a considerable minority: over a third of those countries’ populations.
—Exactly! And even those who are negatively disposed towards us in Lithuania realize that a handful of Orthodox believers who gather mainly in Vilnius, Klaipeda, and Visaginas have almost no influence on the situation in the country. It would be strange to worry about that. We, Orthodox, are very few and far between, though the Church is currently growing thanks to emigrants from Ukraine. Ukrainian-Lithuanian friendly relations have their effect. Many Lithuanians have gone to the West seeking job opportunities, while many Ukrainians and Belarusians have emigrated to Lithuania and taken their work places. As a rule, these are Orthodox Christians who drop in at churches for a quick prayer and may eventually become permanent parishioners. At the same time, the Orthodox Church’s policy of non-interference and its non-political attitude have a positive effect. That’s precisely the position that Metropolitan Chrysostom held. Our current ruling hierarch, Vladyka Innocent [Vasiliev; Archbishop (2010—2016) and Metropolitan (since 2016) of Vilnius and Lithuania of the Moscow Patriarchate’s jurisdiction.—Trans.], a very experienced archpastor who served in Western Europe for many years. He is tactful, never touches politically sensitive subjects, never annoys people, and promotes good Christian relations with everybody. I have never seen a negative attitude towards the Russian Orthodox Church in my Lithuanian friends. However, for a mean person anything will serve as an excuse for a quarrel (it is not a matter of religion): your trade, your origin, your hair color, and what not.
—Fr. Vladimir, have you seen anti-Russian sentiment in Ukrainians coming to live in Lithuania?
—I haven’t encountered anything of the kind yet. People come to church, rejoice at seeing an Orthodox priest and their opportunity to pray. And the sensitive subject of the Patriarchate is avoided by everybody. Perhaps it is explained by the fact that Lithuania is an independent state and it is felt very keenly here; or because of the language…
—But, as opposed to Latvia and Estonia, the Russian Orthodox Church in Lithuania has no autonomous status.
—You are right, we are just a diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. But our relations with the State are such that we need no autonomy: we are absolutely free to confess our faith and serve God here. It should be noted that the composition of our clergy is gradually changing. If earlier most of our priests were Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian, now more and more of our priests have Lithuanian roots: they were born and have lived their lives in Lithuania, received their education in Lithuania, and speak Lithuanian fluently.
—That is, no attempts have been made to entice the Orthodox Church in Lithuania to Constantinople, especially after the events in Ukraine?
—I’ve never heard of anything of the kind. Thank God, we live peacefully in Lithuania and pray for the unity of Orthodoxy worldwide.
The Church and the State in Lithuania
Special relations between the State and one or another denomination are not officially declared in Lithuania; but, on the whole, the authorities are loyal to the needs of religious groups, including Orthodox. Perhaps in practice the situation of Orthodox in Lithuania is even better than in neighboring Belarus (a predominantly Orthodox country), where the author of these lines currently resides.
—The relations between Orthodox Christians and the State in Belarus are reputedly fine. But I ask Belarusian priests: “Do you come to schools?” And they reply: “No, it’s forbidden.” Why so? If the relations are so good, why are religious lessons not allowed? Here, in Lithuania, I freely come to school, teach religion there, and I am paid by the State for this. Though no one declares that we have special relations; on the contrary, the State emphasizes that it is secular and it treats all traditional religions equally. Seven traditional faiths are represented here, and the percentage determines public holidays. Catholics are predominant in Lithuania, so we celebrate their festivals as public holidays. There is a high level of State support of the Orthodox Church in Russia and Belarus; however, I know that all the monuments to Lenin are still there, and many streets still bear the names of many revolutionary, Socialist and Communist figures.
—Volodarsky, Uritsky, Voikov, and a host of others…
—Your streets are still lined with the names of those murderers… Our authorities were quick to announce wisely that Communism with all its repressions was bad. So in Lithuania the historical names of streets were restored, which is conducive to studying the country’s history: you can hear the names of figures of various historical eras.
—So even despite the separation of Church and State in Lithuania the latter supports the former?
—There is, for example, the following nuance: our priests don’t pay taxes because we live on donations. Nevertheless, clerics of all traditional religions have medical and retirement insurance. According to State structure representatives, it is done so that clerics can devote some time to voluntary service in social establishments. Though the State doesn’t pay us for visiting prisons and hospitals, by exempting us from taxes it provides us with social insurance.
—Fr. Vladimir, how is State help to the restoration of churches arranged?
—The situation is the following here. For example, there is an old church which is over 100 years old. This church may or may not be recognized as a cultural monument (it depends on a number of factors). And if it becomes a scheduled monument, the State will probably provide funds for its repair or restoration.
There is the following graphic example: there is an enormous church in Švenčionys which has few parishioners. Its roof was in a terrible condition, even the cross on its dome tilts to one side. For the diocese renovating the church was extremely burdensome; but once it had become a scheduled monument, repair works commenced there with State support. Though they are slow and will take a lot of time, it’s better than nothing, isn’t it? But the inclusion of a church on the list of scheduled monuments entails some difficulties. For example, in my Church of Sts. Peter and Paul two steps outside have been broken, so people can’t step on them safely. But I have no right to replace or mend them without a plan and agreement with the authorities because it’s a scheduled monument. So I had to put a temporary wooden ramp over the old steps… As it is everywhere, there are advantages and disadvantages here.