Priest George Sungaila Priest George Sungaila, a cleric of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Pure Mother of God in Vilnius, runs a blog on Orthodoxy in Lithuanian. He is actively involved in the preparation and publication of prayer books for fellow Lithuanians and says that he doesn’t have enough people to help him preach Orthodoxy in his native land.
—Fr. George, how did you convert to Orthodoxy? Were you born into a religious family or did you make a conscious choice in adulthood?
—My father is a Roman Catholic and my mother is Orthodox. When I was a child, my mother attended a Ukrainian Greek Catholic (Uniate) church, so I was baptized at a Uniate parish. As a teenager I stopped attending church probably due to my transitional age. And I later discovered Orthodoxy as a student of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Vilnius. I started reading texts and comparing them with what I had been taught in childhood. Though I attended churches of various denominations, I chose Orthodoxy. Firstly, I converted to the faith through knowledge: as I read books and delved deeply into those materials I discovered Christ. As it turned out, that was in agreement with my convictions. And, secondly, during Orthodox services I felt I was participating in what was going on, although I didn’t understand Slavonic. That strong feeling of communion with God played a crucial role in my religious choice. I joined the Orthodox Church.
—Why did you decide to become a priest?
—I wanted to be a priest from childhood. As a teenager I drifted away from the Church and my cherished desire was temporarily forgotten. But as a child I admired priests. It happened that I would communicate with Roman Catholic, Uniate and Orthodox clergy at the same time. All of them were well educated and kind people who never turned down anyone seeking their help. I was impressed by that and wanted to be like those priests: well-educated and always willing to help others.
I got acquainted with Orthodox Christianity while studying history of religion at the Department of Philosophy. I read the New Testament and studied patristic works. Then I was received into the Orthodox Church, began to pray, and tried to abide by the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. And it was then that my forgotten childhood desire returned to me. I served as an acolyte, sang in the choir and studied at university simultaneously. And after obtaining a master’s degree I decided to pursue a doctorate. All the specialists in my field for various reasons couldn’t become my supervisors. So I had to wait for a year or two, but I didn’t want to. I turned to my spiritual father seeking his counsel: whether I should get a job or enter a seminary. Of course, he blessed me to study at the Warsaw seminary. And after graduating from the seminary I became a doctoral student. At the seminary I met my future wife and afterwards was ordained a priest.
Please tell us about your parish and its history.
—The Cathedral of the Theotokos is very ancient. It dates back to the fourteenth century. By the way, several churches of that period still stand in the old town in the center of Vilnius. The cathedral was built under Grand Duke Algirdas (ruled 1345—1377) of Lithuania. Algirdas’ wife was Orthodox. At her request a little church in honor of Great Nartyr Parasceva was erected. Soon Priest Nestor, a Slav, arrived to preach the Gospel to Lithuanians. Hearing the Good Tidings of Christ, some soldiers of Algirdas were baptized. However, they were later killed for embracing Orthodoxy. Their incorrupt relics still rest at the Holy Spirit Monastery in Vilnius.
The Martyrs of Vilnius. Photo: wikicommons. years after the martyrdom of those warriors dozens of Orthodox churches appeared across Lithuania and the Orthodox community grew rapidly. After St. Parasceva’s Church there appeared the Cathedral of the Most Pure Theotokos with the residence of the metropolitans of Kiev nearby, because the lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania belonged to the jurisdiction of the Russian Church. This church is connected with the names of holy Metropolitan Alexis of Moscow (who consecrated the Cathedral of the Theotokos), St. Cyprian of Moscow (who may have served here) and Hieromartyr Makary of Kiev (who served in our church). Two side-altars of our cathedral are dedicated to Sts. Alexis and Makary.
After the Union of Brest the cathedral was transferred to Uniates. At one time the cathedral accommodated some rooms of University of Vilnius. When the Uniates of the Diocese of Vilnius and Lithuania were reunited with the Orthodox Church under Metropolitan Joseph (Semashko; 1798/9–1868), the cathedral was returned to the Orthodox community. By the way, the sofa on which Metropolitan Joseph died is kept at the cathedral to this day. The church was visited by St. John of Kronstadt, who was even considered an honorary member of the parish! Fr. John’s portrait with his autograph, along with an icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderorker with scenes from his Life donated by him, can be seen at the cathedral as well.
The church wasn’t closed in the Soviet era and the faithful gathered in it for worship.
Today the community of the Cathedral of the Most Pure Theotokos is neither the largest nor the smallest in Vilnius. We have a Sunday school, a nurses’ association, youth and family clubs and arrange Bible readings for adults. We have a very vibrant community.
—What are the challenges you have to face regularly as a priest in your life?
—I think the major challenges have to do with everyday life. I have to combine my pastoral ministry with doctoral studies, which takes a lot of energy. My wife and I have a young child; so all parents of young children will understand me.
Fr. George with his family. for the priestly ministry and preaching of God’s Word, there are very favorable circumstances for that in Lithuania. Sometimes we find ourselves short-handed. The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few (Mt. 9:37). It seems we could do many things, but we are short on help. According to statistical data, 125,000 Lithuanians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. However, if all of them lived a spiritual life, our churches would be packed. But, alas, the reality is different and indeed some of our churches stand empty. Although people call themselves Orthodox, they don’t live the life of the Church. Our task is to bring them to church.
—Perhaps the harvest is even more plenteous, since there are very many Old Believers in Lithuania who could be brought into communion with the Orthodox Church through the Edinoverie. What can you say about missionary work among these “zealots of ancient piety” in Lithuania?
—Yes, there are a considerable number of them, mostly the Pomortsy (representatives of a Bespopovtsy, i.e. “priestless”, denomination of Old Believers). By the way, many priests are on friendly terms with them and maintain contacts with representatives of these communities (and I am one of them). Old Believers even attend our events and we are in touch. However, they have quite strict rules concerning outsiders, including us. Not everybody is allowed to be present at their services. Even if you get their permission, you will only be allowed to stand in a certain place and observe the course of the service, but you will be forbidden to pray.
In practice, I once had the following situation. Some Old Believers came and asked me to give Communion to their dying father. But I had to refuse. If I had given him Communion, there would have been problems with their community. The Old Believers would have refused to bury him! I explained to them that after receiving Communion their father would have been regarded by their community as a member of our Church. Frankly, I don’t know the inner life of Old Believer communities well, but I am aware that such problems do arise. All of them are priestless, while we have the Sacraments. Meanwhile, Old Believers often think about confession and Holy Communion on their deathbed and invite Orthodox priests to administer these sacraments at their bedside. Alas, we have no Edinoverie communities. There are a few priests in our diocese who came from the Old Believer environment, though.
The Cathedral of the Most Pure Theotokos, Vilnius. When it comes to communities of various denominations in Lithuania, all of them try to keep peace and not to proselytize. People themselves decide whether they wish to convert to another faith or not. We just witness to our faith. It’s up to people to choose.
As for the Edinoverie, the absence of such parishes can really be called a problem. For Old Believers our services are a specific kind of challenge. Our icons, hymns and liturgical texts are different. The nearest Edinoverie parishes are in Latvia, so some Lithuanians travel there.
—What do you do as an obedience outside the services?
—I am a member of the missionary and education departments of our diocese and run our parish Sunday school. I am currently writing a doctoral thesis on philosophy for my postgraduate program at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas.
The Holy Spirit Monastery in Vilnius. In the center is the reliquary with the relics of the Holy Martyrs of Vilnius. Photo: wikicommons. Many know me by my secular name, Gintaras, because I have been running a blog about Orthodoxy in Lithuanian for years. For some time I worked on the Catholic Radio Maria (Marijos Radijas) where I hosted a show about Christian philosophy. Together with another priest we have opened a YouTube channel in Lithuanian on the Orthodox faith, though we haven’t promoted it yet. I also contribute articles on Orthodoxy in Lithuanian to various periodicals. That makes up my missionary activity.
I write about things that make my soul rejoice. Since the day I found Christ I’ve been trying to share this joy with others. So I’m sharing it with my fellow countrymen in my blog and articles.
—The majority of Lithuanians are Catholics, while Orthodoxy is mainly represented by Russian-speaking residents of Lithuania, true?
—Yes, most Lithuanians are Catholics. But historically Orthodox Lithuanians made up a much larger proportion of the population. In the period between the two world wars, ethnic Lithuanians made up eight percent of the country’s Orthodox community. Now they make up around one percent—that is, a tiny minority. One can easily guess that the decrease was linked to the Soviet era and the Communist Party’s general policy. According to researchers, Archbishop Cornelius (Popov; 1874–1966) of Vilnius and Lithuania (1945–1948) appealed to the Council for the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USSR with a request to consider the possibility of celebrating in Lithuanian. His appeal was rejected. Nobody provided spiritual care to Lithuanians anymore.
Moreover, Soviet anti-religious propaganda was doing its work, portraying Orthodoxy as an outdated, dying Russian religion. Nikita Khrushchev promised to show the last “pop” (a derogatory term for a priest) on TV. With the atheization of Lithuanian society the preaching of the Gospel ceased. Priests were forbidden to do anything outside churches and sermons in Lithuanian were prohibited.
—Are services celebrated in Lithuanian today? What’s the role of this language in the life of the country’s Orthodox community?
—The number of services in Lithuanian keeps increasing. It is done both for ethnic Lithuanians and those born to mixed marriages—those who were born and grew up in Lithuania and have little or no knowledge of Russian. Services are held completely in Lithuanian at St. Parasceva’s Church in Vilnius and at St. Eleutherius’ Chapel in Kretinga. There are churches (in Kaunas etc.) where services are completely in Church Slavonic, but on designated days they are held in Lithuanian. Though small, a community of Orthodox Lithuanians exists. We have prepared new editions of prayer-books in Lithuanian and made educational resources especially for Lithuanians.
The main linguistic issue that arose is that Lithuanian isn’t a Slavic language. It is hard for people to participate in Slavonic services. If we compare it with Russian, Ukrainian or Belarusian, we will find that they have common roots and many similar words. And today few young Lithuanians are good at Slavic languages.
In 1887, the Holy Synod published the Liturgy in Lithuanian for the first time and the celebration of Lithuanian services commenced. In the USSR, the Council for Religious Affairs prohibited services in Lithuanian in 1946. It was only in 2005, with the blessing of Metropolitan Chrysostom (Martishkin) of Vilnius and Lithuania, that this forgotten practice was revived.
—Is the Russian-speaking population discriminated against on the grounds of language and ethnicity? If so, then how does it affect Lithuanians who are parishioners of the Russian Church, which is inevitably associated with Russia?
—As I see it, the Orthodox Church in Lithuania has the best circumstances for life and activity as compared to the other Baltic States. We have neither schisms, nor “alternative church gatherings”. Lessons about faiths or religions are included in the curricula of all Lithuanian high schools and taught to students from religious families (for example, Orthodox students learn the basics of Orthodoxy—the Law of God). Our graduation certificates (that are handed to high school graduates) have a special record of attendance at these lessons. We also have Russian schools where most students learn the Orthodox faith. Even if the majority of students in a school are Catholics, a separate course is arranged for their Orthodox counterparts. In Lithuania there is a special training system for teachers of this subject. It is offered by the Institute for Orthodox Training and Education in Vilnius.
By the way, in Lithuania the process of transfer of property confiscated in the Soviet era back to the Church is nearly completed. So the Orthodox Church has reclaimed its land, premises, and all that was seized in the USSR.
It should be stressed that the positive attitude of the State towards us became possible thanks to Metropolitan Chrysostom’s activity. He took active part in the improvement of the situation of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania and ably established a good rapport with the State. He and Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), who then served as a priest in our diocese, were awarded medals in commemoration of January 13, “for personal courage and selflessness shown in defense of the freedom and independence of Lithuania”. In 1991, Soviet tanks rolled into Vilnius. Vladyka Chrysostom and Fr. Hilarion spoke up for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. They called on the military not to spill human blood and addressed the Russian soldiers: “If there are Orthodox among you, please don’t open fire on the defenders of Lithuanian independence.” For their peace-making efforts, both of them have been highly esteemed in the country ever since.
Today Metropolitan Innocent (Vasiliev), Vladyka Chrysostom’s successor, is carrying on his work of maintaining good relations with the State. In Lithuania there are no conflicts between the Church and the authorities, no national collisions or Church splits. Divisions that can be seen in the neighboring countries were caused by interethnic tensions and contradictions. We have managed to avoid this largely because of the wise policies of Metropolitans Chrysostom and Innocent.
Vladyka Chrysostom ruled the Diocese of Vilnius and Lithuania between 1990 and 2010 and then was succeeded by Vladyka Innocent. Ordinary parishioners remember Metropolitan Chrysostom for his straightforwardness. He would always say what was on his mind. In an interview from the 1990s he answered the President of Lithuania, who offered government funding for religious organizations: “The Church doesn’t need your money. The Church will sustain Herself.”
His appointment to the Diocese of Vilnius and Lithuania coincided with a time of acute crisis: There was a conflict between Lithuanians and Russians here related to the impending collapse of the USSR. In 1990, he addressed the Lithuanian Communists protesting against the country’s independence with these memorable words: “You will leave now, while we, Russians, are to live here.” He exerted so much effort to ensure that Russians and all Orthodox living in Lithuania were very well taken care of. And he succeeded. The hierarch succumbed to no provocation, though many tried to get him involved in them—something he openly spoke about in the media.
Metropolitan Chrysostom was the first hierarch to publicly acknowledge that in the past he had collaborated with the KGB (the State Security Committee in the USSR). He explained that he had done his best to advance the interests of the Church. When Lithuania’s independence was declared, the archpastor frankly and openly expressed his position in order to prevent all sorts of speculation. He would always speak straightforwardly, honestly and plainly—that was the secret of his success.
And Metropolitan Innocent continued Vladyka Chrysostom’s work. With him we also have had no conflicts with the authorities.
—These are the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, where the relics of the holy Martyrs of Vilnius are kept; the chapel at the “Gate of Dawn”, or the “Sharp Gate” [“Aušros Vartai“ in Lithuanian: the only surviving medieval city gate of Vilnius.—Trans.], where the wonderworking icon of the Mother of God is kept; the Annunciation Cathedral in Kaunas, which houses the miraculous “Surdeg“ icon of the Theotokos; St. Parasceva’s Church in Vilnius, where the Martyrs of Vilnius were baptized; and, of course, our ancient Cathedral of the Most Pure Virgin.
—What‘s your favorite verse from the Gospel?
—In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (Jn. 1:1). That’s my favorite verse. These words often lift up my spirits. It is through them that I found Christ.