In the following article, Archimandrite Pachomy (Belkoff) of St. Sabbas Monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in Harper Woods, Michigan, explains how the monastery was able to remain open throughout all of Great Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha, and what joy and grace was experienced by the hundreds who worshiped the Risen Lord there. This is post is not meant as a reproach to those who followed the blessing of their bishops and stayed at home, or those who closed their churches under threat of fines or arrest. But glory be to God that there was such a place where the faithful were able to partake of the Sacraments in spite of the surrounding atmosphere of fear.
When the coronavirus first started to be mentioned in the public news and the public hype began, I was very saddened and spiritually grieved that the bishops of all the multiple jurisdictions in America immediately decided to shut down the churches. I was startled at this because I thought it was a sell out without putting up a fight to defend the Sacraments of the Church. I resisted not because I wanted to go down as being a rebel but because it’s against everything that the Church has always taught.
The very first Sunday I preached a sermon with historical facts on all the epidemics that happened through the history of the Byzantine Empire: the plague of Justinian and so forth, when there is even a record of how many bodies were stacked in the church. This tells us that the churches were not closed and that even in the worst hour, with millions of people dying from plague, the Church was accessible for services and for prayers. The Sacraments are medicine for our souls.
As monastics we live for the Kingdom of Heaven and not for this earthly life or even for the health of this physical body. During the course of Lent, we were open for every service and the monastic daily rule, and we had hundreds of people coming. We were the only church in five states that was actually open without a person limit.
I can’t even believe that word was being spread that it was too dangerous to anoint people for Unction with a single brush because they could get sick. The whole point of Holy Unction is to heal people with sacred oil. As things started to become a panic and people started to get paranoid and worried, I decided to consult five prominent Orthodox doctors who regularly attend the monastery. They informed me from a proper medical stance what procedures to follow to ensure everyone’s health—not jeopardizing anyone’s health or salvation. We proceeded to order masks and latex gloves and sanitary wipes and insisted that everyone who comes use them for the sake of the elderly, the young, and the infirm.
As word started to spread, local Orthodox clergy became very upset, thinking that we were shaming them in remaining open. Some even said that I was defying the Patriarch and the Metropolitan by so doing, but I was not. In the state in which I live, Michigan, and many states in the United States, contrary to what the people were being told, it was not mandatory to shut down any religious institution because there is a separation of Church and state. In the state of Michigan, churches were never closed, and there was never a person distancing rule or a limit on the number of people ordered for churches. When I posted this on the monastery’s website and invited all Orthodox Christians to come to receive the Lenten and Pascha Sacraments, I was unfortunately labeled an instigator and a liar, even though I showed proof of the law right from the governor’s office. One bishop even informed his priests that the people were forbidden to come to the monastery—it was better off for them to watch the services livestreamed at home. But this is not an issue of state—this is an issue of the soul and the Sacraments and the Church’s uncompromised responsibility to minister under any circumstance.
Knowing that Pascha was soon approaching, I contacted the local police department in my city and arranged a conference. They have been great supporters of the monastery for many years and know us personally. I was assured by the police department and the city’s attorney that, in fact, I had not broken any laws. I would also like to add that on Holy Saturday afternoon, as we were frantically trying to set up for outdoor Liturgy, the police department showed up. At first, I thought there was a change of order, but the police said, “Stay calm, Father, we’re here to show our 100% support and discuss details of how we are to direct traffic and be of help.”
The state has never shut down any religious institutions. The religious authorities closed the churches in most states, not the government. This is very sad. The front page of the newspaper said that the Catholic Archbishop told the priests to empty their holy water buckets so that people would not be contaminated. I was mortified when I read this—on the front page of the paper. Then the Orthodox did basically the same thing by allowing the priest to serve with only a choir director and nearly no one in the church—maybe five people.
After I had confirmation from the mayor and the police department and the city attorney, I contacted His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion with the facts, and he sent a personal ukaz stating that the monastery is stavropegial under him and that we were blessed to stay open! He was overjoyed that I could continue to serve all the services for as many people as I could, to bring them the Sacraments.
One of the main problems was that each state had different laws and it was very difficult for the Synod of Bishops to deal individually with each priest and monastery in each state in a quick manner, with such vast complexity. According to the constitution of the United States, it is forbidden to forbid religious assemblies of any sort, so ultimately no state had the right to shut down a religious institution.
His Eminence wished me a very blessed Pascha, stating that we would be celebrating for everyone this year!
I wish to add that while Michigan and the Detroit area were hit bad—among the worst with this virus—no one from the monastery community ever got sick or died or showed any symptoms.
Here it is still early spring and the weather is all confused. One day it’s warm and sunny, and the next freezing and snow... almost apocalyptic. The monastery church holds about 230 people, but with so many people coming because all the other churches were closed, it was packed during Holy Week, so I decided to celebrate Pascha outside.
Last year, one of our dear benefactors passed away and left a donation to build a memorial at the monastery in his honor. His name was Steven Stolaruk. I very much wanted to build a cloister for outdoor services to be used at some point. All the subdeacons and adult altar servers and the deacon and myself began to build this large edifice. I kept pushing to get the roof erected before the end of last year because it kept coming up in a dream. Then this pandemic hit and everything came full circle, and we used it, not quite finished, to celebrate the Paschal Liturgy outside for hundreds of people.
We had Palestinian Christians that came and brought their chanters and sang in Arabic; we had Romanians who came and sang in Romanian; we had Russians and Ukrainians and Macedonians and Serbians and Greeks all celebrating Pascha together like in Jerusalem.
It was one of the most memorable and emotional Paschas any of us have ever experienced, including, for myself, in over thirty years of priesthood. During the nine weeks of Lent, not one person got sick, everyone prepared and was fervent to receive the holy Sacraments. We were blessed to see such faith, and willingness to support the Church to the very end.
I spoke with Metropolitan Jonah on the telephone yesterday and he had pretty much the same story to tell, as did all those of us who stayed the course and followed what we were taught in seminary—to never deny the people the Sacraments under any circumstance, and we were blessed with great grace this Pascha.
When the pandemic began, the Sunday Gospel was the paralytic who is lowered through the roof of the hut to be healed by Jesus because there were so many people. He was not cast away because other people were afraid of getting sick—neither the leper nor any other story in Holy Scripture of people coming to Christ for healing. The Lord says, Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. He doesn’t say, “Get away from me and stay far from the church because you will contaminate everyone.”
We have the example of the Three Holy Youths who defied the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar, and for their faith in the Holy Trinity, a great antiphon is sung every Holy Saturday morning. We have the blessing of wheat for St. Theodore, recalling when the food in the marketplace was poisoned and the Christians were notified by word of the angel through the Patriarch to eat boiled wheat.
I am proud of all the Orthodox people of all ethnic backgrounds that processed from their homes to the monastery with their baskets and candles and with their masks and their gloves to greet the Lord in His holy house, open to all, filled with light and life.
It was an exhausting week because I was the only priest to give Communion to all those people. On Pascha afternoon, after the Vespers, I went to my room to lay down and I slept until midday the next day. when I woke up there was a message on my telephone which brought a huge smile to my face and an extra grace. It was a personal Paschal greeting from His Beatitude the Patriarch of Jerusalem, sending his blessing of the Holy Fire to my monastery—spiritually—and to carry on saving the people’s souls. My monastery has very close ties with the Jerusalem Patriarchate and the monasteries in the Holy Land.
May we all learn from this that there is no medicine higher than the Sacraments; that it is more important to be able to go to church then to the local grocery store; that God does not distance Himself from us, and we should not distance ourselves from Him and each other; that prayer and the Gospel message are more important than the hype presented by news and social media.
This is the day of Resurrection; this is the saving Passover of the Lord; this is the beginning wrought by the right hand of God. Christ is Risen!