The COVID-19 epidemic is gaining force and spares nothing in its path. In Kiev, some of the brothers of the Kiev Caves Lavra fell sick, as did the vicar archbishop of Obukhov, Jonah [who is now recovered.—OC]. We talked with Archbishop Theodosy (Snigirev), a vicar of Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine, about the situation in Kiev, the future of the Orthodox Church, and its liturgical heritage.
—Vladyka, the situation with the pandemic is gaining force. Just recently [at the time of this interview, April 15, 2020.—OC] information came out about the monks of the Kiev Caves Lavra who fell sick. Your concelebrant, Archbishop Jonah (Cherepanov)1, underwent treatment in the Alexandrov Hospital in Kiev. There is unsettling news coming also from other dioceses of the Ukraine. How do the faithful take this sad news, and what do the Kiev clergy think of it?
—Perhaps I’ll surprise some of our readers, but the illness of Archbishop Jonah and the brothers of the Kiev Caves Lavra is a visitation from God for many of our faithful. It is a stern and timely divine visitation. We are all worried about our brothers’ health, we pray for them and wish them a speedy recovery. They were tested in time, and began treatment in time. But nevertheless, we can’t hide the great spiritual benefit that the Lord has given the faithful of Ukraine by allowing this misfortune to happen.
What has happened? The voices of the hyper-zealous and “saintly” preachers, who didn’t care about anything, who could be brought to reason neither by the Patriarch’s request, nor historical facts about the dying out of whole Orthodox monasteries during medieval epidemics, nor even the recent [at the time] death of the Serbian Orthodox bishop Milutin (Knezhevic). Now they have calmed down a little. I look even at clergymen I know who were also infected with these extreme ideas. Now they are saying, yes, Vladyka, now we are beginning to understand. But before that, they resented their hierarchy, and murmured about their bishops for their “lack of faith”. And God’s Providence chose for this mission of instilling wisdom the worthiest and most spiritually authoritative representatives of our clergy: Vladyka Jonah and the brothers of the Kiev Caves Monastery. May the Lord give them fortitude, strength, and a quick recovery!
—But is there a spiritual cause for this world pandemic, or is it all much more prosaic?
—Of course there is a spiritual cause for all that is happening. But this spiritual cause is multi-faceted it has its own facet for each strata of society. Without denying that the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences are useful to particular world powers (and that means that we can’t rule out that to some degree, these powers provoked it and are manipulating it), it has to be said that God would not have allowed this pandemic to develop so far if it did not at the same time have some punitive-instructive meaning. Who is this punishment and instruction for? In the general sense, for people throughout the world; both separately and specifically, for the Orthodox Church all over the world.
—Please explain that in more detail.
—The modern world arrived at the beginning of the twenty-first century with deep inner contradictions. The main contradiction is between God’s voice—man’s conscience—and the laws of humanism, which have reached the point of absurdity in the West. Often white is called black, and black is called white, and in general all the colors are mixed up. In medical science this illness is called daltonism [a form of color blindness]. Although at the same time, the older generation still remembers the correct name for colors. This is the deep inner spiritual fracture of modern society. We can imagine that mankind was in a similar spiritual-moral state before the deluge. The coronavirus pandemic is like a mini-deluge—it will kill some, save others, while shaking people’s faith in the inviolability of humanism; and that also means sin, which has been placed on a pedestal. In general, this could lead to a temporary reassessment by a multitude of ordinary people of those postulates of sinful life to which they’ve become accustomed and lived over recent decades.
—And for the Orthodox Church, what is the meaning of this event allowed by God?
—For world Orthodoxy, this question has to be divided into two components. The first component is the problem of Hellenism in its negative sense.
In a series of cases, Hellenism began malignantly reweaving the healthy fabric of church life in the Greek world. With the hands of its radical followers it placed world Orthodoxy on the verge of schism. Representatives of religious Hellenism—“Romeism”—as they call it, is without a doubt an incomparably small part of the Orthodox Church. But it is its historical part, just as Rome was in its time. And the possibility of it falling away would be no less a tragedy for world Orthodoxy than the events of 1054. As a consequence of this, we get the impression that the Lord is intervening in course of the Greek world that was progressively falling away from the purity of the faith of its fathers. The Lord has come to the aid of the Greeks to heal them of the new heresy of Eastern papism, to avoid a schism in Orthodoxy. This is a divine visitation, and divine salvation. That is why it is not at all surprising that the secular world, at God’s allowance, came down so hard on the Greek Church’s very right to serve Liturgy in their churches and celebrate Pascha. That very “world”—which the Phanar and its supporters only recently tried to please to the detriment of Orthodox unity—to the point where the very officials who just a half year ago twisted the Greek hierarchs’ hands into supporting the OCU scam and succeeded, are now showing the door to the same representatives of Greek clergy when they ask permission to serve the Liturgy somehow, somewhere. This is a good lesson. At the same time, we sympathize with those hierarchs who have always remained true to the patristic spirit of Orthodox canons. They probably understand quite well the spiritual causes for the current events and the possible consequences. May the Lord grant that this might be a good beginning for rethinking the causes that placed the world Orthodox Church on the verge of schism.
The second component of this matter has to do with the larger, main part of the Orthodox world. What is the significance of this trial; what conclusions should be drawn from what is happening; what does the Lord expect from us? Probably the main conclusion that we can draw already today is that we have shown ourselves to be completely unprepared for such contemporary challenges. We are acutely in need of rethinking the external forms of the life of the Orthodox Church in force majeure situations.
—That is, you consider that for the non-Greek part of Orthodoxy this is more likely a reminder of the shortness of time, a reason to prepare for the Apocalypse, rather than a punishment?
—I am not talking so much about punishment with regard to the Phanar as about bringing to them reason for correction. For the Phanariotes, this lesson is needed in order to become conscious of their destructive actions with respect to world Orthodoxy. But for the rest of the Orthodox world, and primarily for the Russian Orthodox Church, this period of trial is needed more for theological, canonical, and liturgical preparation to embark upon eschatological times. In this regard, the Russian Church [which includes the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.—Trans.] can and should become the flagman for world Orthodoxy. Not only because it is the largest and most populated, and only recently experienced an unprecedented rebirth after many decades of persecution against the faith, and in fact, possesses very great spiritual potential. But also because it is here that the stronger and healthier conservative forces in world Orthodoxy reside. Only by leaning on these forces can we safely discuss any new liturgical forms of Church life in extreme conditions.
—So, in your opinion we and the Phanariotes should draw different conclusions from what has happened. Meanwhile, the Russian Church is now under practically the same strict conditions due to the quarantine as the Greeks...
—Nevertheless, there is a difference. In the Constantinople Patriarchate, for example, from March 18 there was an order from the Patriarch to cease all divine services. Many dioceses of other Local Churches all over the world found themselves in the same situation.2 Meanwhile, on almost the entire territory of the Russian Orthodox Church, services are still being served, albeit not everywhere is there unlimited access for parishioners. In every church in Russia, Ukraine, Belorus, and Moldavia, there were services on Pascha. And that means tens of thousands of churches. And although not all of these tens of millions of believers can personally be at the services, people can arrange to receive the sacraments individually. Live streaming of services is happening everywhere. The situation is quite different from that what the majority of the faithful in the Greek tradition churches were in.
—And what do you think about live-streamed services? Considering everything that is happening, many are faced with the question: Can there be Orthodox spiritual life without churches?
—Active theological discussions have now ensued in the Church on this theme of whether or not we can live without churches. I will say right off that a time could come when whether we want it or not, we’ll have to live without churches, just as Christians lived without them in the first three centuries. May God preserve us from living to that time. But our task right now, for modern Orthodox Christians, is to think through and work out a form of life in the Church under any conditions, even when they take our churches away from us. After all, this could happen, sooner or later.
It is possible to live and be saved without magnificent churches. But it is not possible to live and be saved without the grace of the sacraments. The whole value of an Orthodox church is that here, the grace of the sacraments are poured into a person’s life. But the sacraments can also be served outside the church walls. A church can stand without the sacraments being served in them, bloodless, and deprived of their purpose and significance—like, for example, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. That is, man’s salvation is not in a church building, but in the sacraments of the Church. The time could come (let’s honestly and intelligently read the words of Revelation), when we will not have our churches. What then? Should spiritual life just stop? Should the sacraments cease to be served? Of course not. And our task is to think now about how we are going to live under such conditions. This world pandemic has pushed us into this.
Information came [at the time of this interview] that in connection with coronavirus all Orthodox churches in Australia will be closed for a half a year. A half a year! This should stimulate us to immediately and systematically begin developing alternative methods for the faithful to participate in the grace-filled sacraments of the Church.
—Do you think that the Orthodox Church will eventually allow confession through modern means of communication? Many are now arguing about this.
—I suppose that this is entirely possible. Moreover, under the current circumstances during the pandemic, these means of confession could even become the main means. But this or any other change in the form of administering a sacrament should undoubtedly be reviewed and blessed by our conciliar mind. This should not be a priest’s or bishop’s personal decision. In general, sacraments or rites that require personal contact or participation in something material cannot be administered from a distance. But confession is an exception to this. And this exception has come up a number of times in the spiritual life of Orthodox Christians in the twentieth century.
—And what about communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ?
—In cases of disconnection between Christians and inaccessibility of churches, the faithful from the earliest centuries have practiced Communion of the reserved Gifts, which were reverently preserved in their homes. “In Alexandria and Egypt, almost every layman preserves Communion in their own homes and receives it when he wants,” writes St. Basil the Great in the fourth century (letter 93). If serious times come (eschatological persecutions, pandemics, widespread high radiation levels), our Church will be forced to return to this practice; but the reserved Gifts can only be given to those of the faithful whose church life is beyond all doubt. Every spiritual father in such times should have his own list of Church members, and the “walk-ins” will not be in that list.
The Liturgical Commission will also probably be assigned to work out a form of transfer and preservation of the Holy Gifts by laypeople, just as forms are now being worked through and proposed of transferring the Gifts to those Orthodox Christians dying in infection wards of hospitals, where priests are not allowed to go. Dried particles of the Holy Gifts wrapped in paper is an objectionable option. From the practical point of view, this is not very convenient and it is dangerous; any parish priest with experience of communing the sick at home will tell you that. With sadness I recently watched a video recording of how under conditions of the pandemic people are given Communion “with a napkin” in one church. Such liturgical self-will can of course lead to more practical and less dangerous forms. But it is better to think through these things thoroughly before the need arises, taking the experience of older generation pastors into consideration, than to start experimenting with Communion. If we do come to the point were we have to revive the practice of keeping the Gifts in the homes of laypeople, or administering the Body and Blood of Christ through lay medical personnel to those dying in infection wards, then the particles of the Holy Gifts will most likely be reverently encapsulated by the clergy in a soluble medical capsule (like powdered medicines). This could probably become the most usable form of transfer, preservation, and individual Communion of laypeople. Although, a priest sent the Holy Gifts to St. John the Russian in an apple...3
—Vladyka, what do you have to say about participation in divine services online?
—This is a temporary practice. This is of course not complete participation in the services, but it is nevertheless better than nothing. It is possible that now millions of Orthodox all over the world are thanking God for this opportunity—to see and hear the services and pray with the clergy. Through the internet and other means of modern communication we can not only participate in the services.
Here we can find sermons by the clergy, edifying spiritual literature, church music, Orthodox films, and much else. But if they start to “round us up” in earnest, then this will be one of the first things they’ll cut off. Then we will remember how dissatisfied we were with online services... If someday we have to depart into the catacombs, as has happened before in history, then we will remember the internet with feelings of nostalgia. We have to appreciate what we have.
Doctors during the cholera epidemic in the 1970s.
We have already talked with Orthodox journalists about how over the past thirty years many of our parishioners have become spiritually spoiled and relaxed. They are now used to having everything in abundance—churches on every corner, Communion at every service, and monasteries, spiritual fathers, just take your pick, and pilgrimages, sermons, cross processions, and anything your soul desires... A whole generation of spiritually spoiled, adult-aged “children” has grown up with a feeling of its own importance, around whom the whole world is supposed to revolve, including the spiritual world... But now that the Church has been pressed just a little, instead of manfully taking themselves in hand the young generation of believers has begun to judge its priests, murmur against the church hierarchy, accuse them of aping the authorities, and practically betraying the faith. But let’s recall how everything was about thirty years ago. Everything was completely different. Every service, every participation in the sacraments was a whole event that the faithful cherished in their hearts for a long time. Just tell me, will we find very many elderly believers who are panicking and murmuring over what’s happening? We will hardly find them. Because the Soviet generation of faithful know very well the price of spiritual goods; they do not permit themselves to judge their pastors, but to the contrary try to support them. Today, we just have to be patient. We have to accept it all as from the hands of God, endure, draw conclusions, and prepare for future trials in the Church. And those trials could be even harder.
—Do you think that they will happen soon?
—I want very much to think that they won’t happen soon. I want to believe that our generation will not live to eschatological trials. Although only God knows.
In prophecies that have been orally passed down from our national saints of the twentieth century, such as St. Lavrenty of Chernigov, Kuksha of Odessa, and Amphilochy of Pochaev, we sometimes come across words about times to come when churches will be reborn and restored, the cupolas gilded, but we won’t be able to enter them.
We have to save up prosphora and holy water for some time, said St. Kuksha, perhaps a half a year. We are used to having such prophecies quickly accreting with additions and supplements from not very wise “zealots”. They make up whatever comes into their heads. They shamelessly create and add to the saints’ words their own phantasies about the “apostasy of the hierarchy”, the “crowning of the antichrist by an Orthodox patriarch”, and so on. And their fantasies get into brochures on twentieth century ascetics of piety along with real prophecies. And it begins to seem to many that the saints did in fact say such things. But that’s not so.
Here is an example. I personally conversed many times with the now reposed Schemanun Vera (Chmikhova), a close spiritual daughter of St. Kuksha of Odessa, who grew up at his feet.
She would always tell us and show us in books what the saint really said in his lifetime, what was later ascribed to him by the “eschatologists”, and what he could not have said in principle—and what has already been printed in millions of copies. Believe me, there is a substantial difference. And that is how it is with many ascetics of piety of the twentieth century.
Schemanun Vera (Chmikhova; 1934–2016). —Could you tell us more specifically what the saints said and what they didn’t?
—I will tell you more specifically what St. Kuksha of Odessa said. But what he didn’t say and was only ascribed to him is broad and rather sensitive theme about which I think we can speak in more detail with time, when the time comes. We can suppose the same thing about St. Lavrenty of Chernigov. Indirect evidence of this is that in different literary sources, one and the same predictions of St. Lavrenty are sometimes cited with absolutely different details.
So. If we sift out of the prophecies of the twentieth century saints all anti-church inventions, then what remains is the reminder of the time when God’s churches will have gilded cupolas but with the impossibility of entering them, as St. Lavrenty said. And St. Kuksha forewarned that the time will come when we will need to stock up on enough Artos, antidoron, prosphora, and holy water for a half a year. The churches will be active, but we won’t be able to receive Communion in them. A half a year. Doesn’t this bring up some analogies?
—It seems to be directly applicable to today.
—Yes. For the Orthodox in Australia, America, and Europe, this is the reality of today. For us, perhaps it’s the reality of tomorrow. And there’s more. We have one parishioner who in the 1990s worked as a nurse in the Kiev military hospital. Kievans, and not only them, well remember Schema-Archimandrite Theophil (Rossokha), an ascetic of piety of the twentieth century.
Schema-Archimandrite Theophil (Rossokha; †1996).
Not long before his death, sometime in 1995 or 1996, he was being treated in the hospital. And our parishioner the nurse was very amazed at his words then: “When there will be an epidemic, do everything as you did it during cholera.” And he gave her a little icon of the Mother of God “Of the Sign”. All these years she couldn’t understand what sort of epidemic there would be. To whom should she pass this on? And so she forgot it. But now Fr. Theophil’s words have struck her memory like lightening. And everything fell into place. The epidemic has begun. But why did Fr. Theophil say, “as during cholera”? What does cholera have to do with this? Just recall the cholera epidemic of 1970—this was right at the time of the pastoral labors of Igumen Paphnuty (the future Schema-Archimandrite Theophil). The elderly clergy still remember that time. They recall what unprecedented measures for epidemic safety were taken in all the churches of that time! And no one complained or accused the church authorities of “apostasy from the faith”.
—Very interesting, but sad. Could it really be that we can’t hope for the best in the future?
—Why not? Absolutely to the contrary. According to the prophecies of the same twentieth century saints and ascetics of piety, we, the Orthodox, are yet to experience no small blossoming of our Church and our people. But for this, the world must “reboot”, “reset”—the witnesses of which, possibly, we now are.