Photo: pccs.ru —I read your biography on Wikipedia. Hopefully it’s accurate. But I read that when you were about fourteen and fifteen you attended a school run by the diocese and that you were tonsured as a reader at the age of fifteen, so I’m guessing you were raised in an Orthodox family? People don’t usually convert at such a young age.
—Not at all. Not at all. I come from a family with an Orthodox background on both sides, but both of my parents, having been baptized in their youths, never really practiced their faith. So I wasn’t even baptized. I got baptized at the age of eleven in 1991. I discovered the only Orthodox church in the city of Olomouc where I was living, and I entered once out of curiosity, as a boy of eleven. I loved all the smells and all the colors and all the singing and it was just beyond words. I knew I wanted to be Orthodox—so the first impression was aesthetic, I would say.
And then, thank God, I met some people who were good enough to take silly questions from a kid seriously, because one of my first questions to the local priest was, “Who is the Orthodox god? Do you have an Orthodox god?” They didn’t send me away but had a meaningful conversation with a kid. I still admire their patience and responses to all my silly questions. After one month of preparation I was baptized, without my parents knowing. When it leaked, there were little moments of hell at home because they felt I was too young and that they had a right to have a say in the whole procedure, which I guess they were right in a way. But my parents were good enough to get over it quite quickly and then I started attending regularly, serving as a reader from the very beginning, really because there weren’t many people then. It was a natural process of helping the priest during the services, doing the reading, and so on, and having him as a wonderful example of a dedicated priest that brought me to the idea of becoming a priest myself. I was blessed enough to meet nice people on my way.
—That’s wonderful. It’s pretty rare to hear about an eleven-year-old converting to the Orthodox faith!
—But that’s how it happened with me!
—Do you remember how old you were when you first started thinking about becoming a priest yourself?
—I think I was twelve.
—So rather quickly.
—Yes. My spiritual father took me into the altar immediately after my Baptism because Vespers was starting and he needed someone to give him the censer, so I was introduced immediately. That’s when I made my first mistake, because I went wonderfully out through the Royal Doors, and he just crossed himself and told me, “You have just been baptized and you already behave like a bishop.” Was it a prophecy? [laughs].
—It was foreshadowing at least.
—But of course, I was devastated because it was my first time and I did something wrong, you know? The aesthetic fascination with Orthodoxy has stayed, but very soon it was superseded by an interest in spiritual things, because my baptizing father, my first confessor, was a monk of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. He took me seriously even as a kid, and he started telling me stories about St. Sergius and St. Seraphim and other Russian saints and leading me slowly into the richness of Orthodox spirituality; and I think the fact that he was a monk has helped me also to discover my own personal vocation.
—What was his name?
—Fr. Cyril. In his later days he was tonsured into the great schema in the Lavra and changed his name from Cyril to Kirill. He was a very nice person. I was lucky to have had him in my life.
—Can you tell us about the preparation you went through for ordination then? I believe you studied in seminary in Ukraine?
—Well, it was quite a while before it came to that. I attended a bilingual high school in Olomouc, where we were taught all subjects in English, which was a good experience. Then I started at the Orthodox Faculty of Theology here in Prešov, in Slovakia. I didn’t stay there long though, because I had different ideas about Orthodox theology and what I expected from a school. So I took a break of one year during which I attended a global Christian youth project, where thirteen young people from seven different European countries traveled all over Europe for ten months trying to help out at churches there. When I came back to Prešov I was a completely different person and I realized I didn’t want to continue in that school, so I opted for a secular education and I went to Prague where I graduated from the Department of English and American Studies and Turkology.
There was a period of time in my life when the vocation to the priesthood seemed to disappear. When I left the Orthodox Theological Faculty, I had the impression that it was not my path, but it eventually turned out that the calling was stronger than me. I also studied modern Greek in Thessaloniki and I had the chance to meet many interesting Church people there. These people, including the recently-departed Metropolitan Ioannis of Langadas, played a major role in the discernment of my future vocation.
I had decided to leave and let things be, but I was called back again, and this time I didn’t refuse to follow the path. Let’s put it like that. Then it went quickly. I was ordained a deacon, tonsured a monk, and then ordained a priest in Thessaloniki, so I ended up serving in St. Demetrios’ Basilica there and elsewhere. I also served in Constantinople. My first Liturgy as a priest was celebrated in Constantinople, because at the same time I was still pursuing my Turkish studies and going there quite often to enhance my Turkish. I would even stay at the Patriarchate, and I was available for service in various parishes of either the Archdiocese of Constantinople or the neighboring Metropolises.
I was also trying to finish my theological education, which finally happened in Ukraine. Then all of a sudden, from out of the blue came an offer from the Diocese of Michalovce to become the diocesan bishop. I was a student in Prague at this point but serving in a parish there as an assistant priest. There was a Church event attended by representatives of all the dioceses of our Local Church at which I served as an interpreter and had my share of other responsibilities to offer. All of a sudden two priests came up to me and told me they represented the Diocese of Mikhalovce, which had no bishop then, and said they’d like to offer me the possibility of being a candidate for the episcopacy.
I was only twenty-seven then, and my first reaction was to laugh! It seemed like a joke. But they were serious and they kept on insisting. So I had some coffee with them and they explained it all to me. They’re my closest co-workers now—one was the locum tenens and the other, the chancellor. And they were so serious with their offer that I just said, “Let’s go with it and see what happens.” And it happened. I was actually elected and consecrated at twenty-eight years of age. There was a period of time when I was the youngest bishop in the Orthodox Church.
—That’s certainly the youngest I’ve heard of!
—Of course, this isn’t the case any longer. I've been serving as a bishop for almost fourteen years. It’s funny to me when I’ve attended concelebrations to find myself in the middle, and many hierarchs with long white beards, looking very venerable being at the end because they were my minors in the episcopacy. It’s quite a strange feeling, I must say.
—I can imagine. Well, actually, I can’t imagine! I knew that you were fairly young, but I didn’t realize you were that young. Did you have specific people you turned to for support—to other bishops in your own Church, or maybe your Greek connections? How did you manage those first few years of the episcopacy?
—That’s a very good question. I had to learn everything on the fly. I had some experience as the pastor of a parish, but let’s be frank, how much experience can you gain in two years as a priest? So I had to learn it all on the fly, but I was lucky to have people, especially in Greece, who helped me and gave me very valuable pieces of advice. I must mention another person who has helped me a lot with his inner wisdom, and that is the former Metropolitan Ambrose of Helsinki, of the Finnish Church, who was very protective and very helpful in keeping my life together in difficult moments and giving me valuable advice. Even though he is many, many years my senior, he took me seriously, even at that age, and that’s very much appreciated. I also had two bishop friends in Greece—the Metropolitan of Langadas and Metropolitan Paul of Servia and Kozani—who helped me a lot in the beginning of my ministry.
And then one learns. You make mistakes and you try to learn. Or sometimes you don’t learn, but you try and you go on, and you grow and the diocese grows along with you. What was helpful was trying to listen to the priests. At the beginning, when you’re a just a twenty-eight-year-old brat and you’ve become a bishop, you have moments where you think you are omnipotent and all the world should dance around you, but I had wonderful people around me who led me out of this prelest very fast and very urgently; so this period of time didn’t last long, thank God.
—Can you recall any specific pieces of advice or wisdom from Metropolitan Ambrose?
—He gave me very practical pieces of support and advice about how to deal with everyday pastoral matters, coping with my priests and approaching them, and also about how to help solve administrative issues. The late Metropolitan Ioannis of Langadas helped me make important decisions of a purely spiritual nature when there was some trouble in the diocese. He offered some very valuable comments from his vast experience.
—Could you share any of these stories of how he helped with spiritual matters?
—It was about how to treat priests, how to try to solve conflicts and problems that naturally appear among the clergy. There were also some more administrative things. I found some gaps in diocesan finances that needed immediate oversight, and at that point I was helped greatly by the Church of Cyprus, by the current Archbishop and the Metropolitan of Kykkos, who is my abbot, because I was tonsured as a monk in the Kykkos Monastery.
—So you’re considered a member of the brotherhood there?
—If I want I could use the surname Kykkotis. I’m a member of the brotherhood. I was tonsured there, my hair is kept there, and I’m kept in the list of monks of the monastery.
—I read that it was Metropolitan Neophytos of Morphou who tonsured you?
—Is he a member of the brotherhood there too, or how was it chosen that he would tonsure you?
—My tonsure was agreed upon during an official visit of our former Metropolitan Christopher to the Church of Cyprus, and I think Metropolitan Neophytos was given the task by the Archbishop of Cyprus with the agreement of the Metropolitan of Kykkos. It was an internal matter that I had no idea about.
—Have you maintained contact with Metropolitan Neophtyos? He’s becoming well-known in the English-speaking world, especially with his videos where he talks about saints he knew.
—He has known many holy people in his life. We have kept some minor epistolary communication, but not on a regular basis.
—In addition to the hierarchs who have helped you, are there any specific saints that you personally look to in your general Christian life and in your episcopal ministry?
New Martyr George of Ioannina —At my tonsure I was given the name of the Greek New Martyr George of Ioannina. Perhaps you know him. He’s the early nineteenth-century saint with the red hat and white skirt worn by the Greek presidential army nowadays, which was the normal dress of that period and time and region—in northwestern Greece. I have to say, I’m not fond of making great comments about big spiritual experiences and so on, but I do feel his prayer and his protective prayer in my life a lot. So he’s a saint that I relate to on an everyday basis. Prayers for his intercession are part of my morning and evening prayers.
There is a plethora of saints that I find very inspirational in my life, such as St. Joseph the Hesychast, recently canonized. In a way, I could be considered his spiritual great-grandson, because the Metropolitan of Morphou is his spiritual grandson, having been tonsured by someone who was tonsured by St. Joseph. So there’s a spiritual line of tonsures, and I keep an icon of him with a scroll in his hand with one of his sayings: “If you want to be my children, imitate my way of life.” This is something I can’t attain to, but I keep it as a reminder.
I have a very strong connection to St. Demetrios of Thessaloniki because I used to serve as priest in his church, where I had very many wonderful moments and situations and where I came to meet many interesting people. I also feel very close to St. John the Merciful, the Patriarch of Alexandria, the patron saint of the cathedral, who is very much present in the life of the cathedral and in my own life.
—You mention St. Joseph the Hesychast. Of course, in America we had the blessing of Elder Ephraim for so many years and the continuing blessing of his monasteries. I was able to visit some of his monasteries several times.
—They are authentic, and that’s very important nowadays—living authentically.
—The icon with the saying about imitating my life made me think of the passage in the biography of St. Joseph written by Elder Ephraim, where St. Ephraim of Katounakia says he had very exalted spiritual experiences, much higher than those of St. Silouan. The thought of that is incomprehensible.
—Thank God that some things are hidden from us, because when these elders who are authentic (there are many false elders—another plague of Orthodoxy nowadays) talk like that it means they really know what they are talking about, but they’re either not allowed or unable to express it in words, and perhaps it’s better for us simple sinners not to know some states of rapture of being close with the Lord. Thank God some things are hidden from eyes and hearts that are unprepared.
—Fr. Seraphim (Rose) would say we need to be more grounded, not running around talking about exalted states all the time.
—Definitely, because a small virus comes and then all of a sudden you’re concerned about your own life, your own pain, the pain of those around you, and there’s no time for exaltation—just running around keeping things going.
—That leads me to the next question I had, which we spoke a bit about the other day before the interview. Even something like being infected with COVID can be for your salvation if you receive it with a spiritual mindset. Especially in this Lenten period, I think this would be an important idea to unpack a little. Could you say a little more about this concept of experiencing suffering for our salvation? How do we foster and maintain the spiritual mindset that allows us to do this?
—This is a very difficult question. One can say so many nice words about it, but when the time of trial comes, let’s see what we manage to do ourselves. That’s another question. It’s easy to pontificate on such things, but to live it on your own body, to bear the infirmity, the pain, is something completely different. What can I say? I’ve seen people around me suffering and dying lately, or struggling for life, and I just want to say that it’s not fun, right? These are the moments when your faith is really tested to the very roots. Because if you feel your life slipping out of your hands, you realize that there aren’t that many things you can hold onto, and the only thing that remains is you as a living entity, as a living human being, whose only reason for living is God’s mercy and His will. And realizing this, you have to put aside all the masks, all the false walking sticks that help you get through life, all the pretensions, all the unnecessary relations; and you just have to realize that the only thing you truly have in your life is the Lord, because you realize you don’t even own your own life.
And this is something so deeply shattering, yet liberating at the same time, that if any of us manages to walk through this with the help of God’s grace, I think he has already won over death in any of its forms. It’s something that is given with the help of God’s grace alone, and it’s so shattering because you have to let go of everything you consider certain in your life. I have spoken with spiritual people who have gotten infected, and they have their moment when they realize they’re sick and that the outcome can be either good or bad—it depends on how much you try and call on the Lord for understanding and help. On the other hand, I’m sure everybody has to go through it sooner or later. It’s unavoidable for us, but it’s been sped up somehow by this general situation of fear and insecurity around us.
I believe that what’s good about this pandemic is that we’re called by the Lord to deal with ourselves and our very existence, to come to its very core and finally start living instead of surviving. In order to live, one must understand and name his priorities and the sources of his own life and existence. It’s a very painful process though. I don’t know if I was able to answer your question.
—That’s a good, sobering message for us to focus on in this Lenten period.
—Thank you very much for the encouragement, but I admit and confess that as a normal human being with my own personal fears, with things that I cling to unnecessarily in my life, as every other human being, that the process is really very difficult; but I know we shouldn’t be afraid of going through it. We will have to do it anyway at some point in our lives, but doing it now is perhaps the best gift of God’s mercy: to identify the important things in life and the sources of our own life and existence and stick to it. And this source is always God’s mercy and God Himself. This is very liberating actually, because when you realize the sources, you understand that you don’t have to be perfect all the time in all situations; you don’t have to be liked by everyone or appreciated by everyone. Even those closest to you may have their moments of weakness, and the only friend Who will never turn away, Who will never leave you alone is the Lord Himself.
In order for this to stop being just words one has to go through a catharsis, through difficult moments or situations in life—otherwise it will be just a theory. But we have to put it into practice. And this is something that all of us, apart from the great saints, have to work on. And even they say they’re still in the very beginning. So no visions but just the existential nakedness of one’s own existence before the Lord, with the totality of our being—body, soul, and spirit. I think that’s what’s important.
—I certainly couldn’t add anything to do that, and don’t have personal experience of that, but I guess that’s why we have the period of Lent—to refocus on that.
—Neither do I. I don’t have much experience with this because there are so many nice fluffy things that make my life easy; so many nice little deceits and walking sticks that one uses. Then when you’re faced with pain and illness, you’ll realize they won’t stand, they’ll disappear into thin air again, and you have to start answering questions the Lord Himself is asking deep in the core of your being: Who are you? What do you expect? What comes next? And you know you have the answer, you just have to dig for it, and it hurts a lot. It’s also terrifying. It causes pain. It brings fear. But He Who won over death and Who is full of light and love is still there even in the moments of absolute darkness to firmly grab you by the hand. That’s the hope of Lent, very wonderfully described as happy mourning by Fr. Schmemann in his book on Lent, which is something one could read every Lent to find some inspiration and encouragement.
—I reread that book for several years during Lent. One more question about you personally, turning gears again: Obviously you speak English, and you’ve mentioned learning Greek and Turkish, and I believe you know Russian. How many languages do you know altogether?
—Well, it’s not about knowledge. I can understand quite a few. I can speak some, but I have never mastered any. I would add Serbian and Italian to the list.
—Was learning languages to whatever extent inspired by your ministry, or was it more of a personal interest that’s also useful for ministry?
—I think it was inspired by different situations in my life and by people that I met. I have to admit, I have some gift for learning languages easily. For example, I learned Serbian just by being there and listening to the language and trying to interact with people, and I have achieved a level where I can read books without any problem and have a conversation, with mistakes—but I understand ninety-nine percent of it. I’m getting to that level with Italian, but I’ve been too lazy to put a system into my knowledge. It’s something I need to work on, and perhaps I should whip myself for that [laughs]. The languages where I studied grammar, syntax, orthography, and phonetics are English, Turkish, and Greek. The rest is a matter of experiencing the language and living it—but it works out for me.
—One last question: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you would like people to know about the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia?
—Yes. I would like to ask the readers to pray for us, to pray for our primate Metropolitan Rastislav, who is also young—forty-three. He’s the youngest among the Orthodox primates but he’s an authentic person, full of inner wisdom. I say this not because he’s the head of the Church but because I appreciate him as a person very much. I would like to say that whoever comes to these two countries of the Orthodox world is always welcome here with his or her own traditions. I would like to ask that they pray that we survive in a world with many tensions, with Church politics; and that, notwithstanding the many tensions around us, we continue to be authentic witnesses of the Gospel in this part of the world where God has sent us. That’s it.
And also a small prayer for the rebirth of monasticism and the opening up of the monastery, because we really need to survive; we really need to go on. The recent crisis that our Church experienced has damaged us terribly, it has drained us of power and energy, and has disgusted many people.1 We just need to go on. We don’t have many resources; we are few. We just want to live and serve and enjoy our Orthodoxy. That’s it. We don’t want anything else, so may the readers all pray for us that the Lord grant us this blessing—to be a small stone in the mosaic of Orthodoxy, but a stone which, if it falls out, will leave a gaping hole.
—We’d be glad to convey those prayer requests to our readers.
—Thank you very much and thank you for your time.
—And thank you, Vladyka!