Before the Cross, All are Equal, Both Senators and Migrants

Part 1. Building a Community is an Amazing Experience

For some people, Fr. John’s journey from Moldova to France via Russia might seem like an odd turn of events, but the priest of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Paris and the head of the Adult Education Center under the Diocese of Chersonesus of the Western Exarchate, is confident that everything in his life is a result of Divine Providence. In this interview, we discussed academic theology, the role of good mentors, the history of a Russian convent in the French backcountry, the importance of uniting young believers, the lessons of priesthood and the times when people truly appreciate worship services.

Priest John Dimitrov. The evening service in the field. Congress of the French Orthodox Youth, September 20, 2020 Priest John Dimitrov. The evening service in the field. Congress of the French Orthodox Youth, September 20, 2020     

Good afternoon, Fr. John! Please tell us about yourself. You were born in Moldova, weren’t you? How did you end up in France?

—Yes, I was born and raised in a small multi-cultural town in Moldova. That was where I heard, “You’re a foreigner!” for the first time. More often than not, it was said to me jokingly. People often thought that I was Bulgarian because my father’s side of the family included Bulgarians who had immigrated to the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century. Later, my journey as a “foreigner” took me to Odessa, where I studied from 2004 to 2008.

The place where I felt the least like a foreigner was at the Moscow Theological Academy in the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, where I studied for three years (from 2009 to 2012). From 2011 to 2013, I studied in a seminary and university in France where I indeed was a foreigner. It’s like that song, “I am a foreigner everywhere, but it’s like I belong everywhere.”1

The decision to study in theological schools is not a random choice. It is usually preceded by one’s development as a Christian… How did you come to have faith?

—I didn’t come to have faith—I was born and raised in it. I don’t have any warm memories of my childhood faith and don’t feel nostalgic about that time. I went to church because “it was the right thing to do.” It was simply a matter of tradition passed on from my mother, as it happens in most of the families. On rare occasions I assisted as an altar server. There wasn’t anything systematic about my service, and I didn’t have a close connection with the priests or mentors. I didn’t attend Sunday School either.

This makes your motives for ordination even more interesting. What happened in your life that you decided to dedicate it to serving God?

—A non-believer would say that my journey to ordination was accidental. But with God, there are no accidents. There were three boys in our family and our mother always dreamed that at least one of us would become a priest. My two older brothers made a different choice, so I was our mother’s last hope. I was vehemently opposed to going to seminary. Like all the other teenagers in our town, I knew nothing about the Church. My perception of the Church was quite distorted and vague. I would even say that my knowledge about it was primitive. All my dreams and plans were about mathematics and chemistry—I got straight A’s and won first place in academic competitions.

But I followed my brothers’ advice. My father remained neutral. I had to mollify my mother, so I agreed to go to seminary on the condition that after graduation, I would be free to decide what I wanted to do, and they won’t stand in my way. I had my dreams, but God had a different plan for me… It happens quite often.

I entered the Odessa Seminary as it was the closest to my hometown. I was incredibly lucky. In addition to getting an excellent understanding of the Orthodox dogmatics (which I liked so much that I decided to base my academic career on it), I got acquainted with a wonderful person: Archimandrite Tikhon (Vasiliu). Though he wasn’t my confessor, he helped me to have a sober view of the Church, with all its flaws and splendors, and taught me to tell the primary from the secondary and the eternal from the transient. Without his help, I probably wouldn’t have continued my spiritual journey.

Archimandrite Tikhon (Vasiliu) Archimandrite Tikhon (Vasiliu) Can you share some of Fr. Tikhon’s advice? People always need good advice to sort themselves out, understand their priorities and, as you said, distinguish the eternal from the transient…

—It is difficult to describe his mentorship. Fr. Tikhon is not a rhetorician or an elder, nor is he a scholar or an outstanding administrator. But everything he did for the seminary and the Church—and he has done and continues to do a lot—he did with love and diligence, always smiling and carrying it through to completion. I am trying to understand—what was it that he taught me? I suppose it was love and a responsible attitude toward working for the Church as well as an understanding that the Church is the house of God, not of man. In this house, everybody is a guest, and there is only one Host. If you walk in, you come to Him, if you serve in this house, you serve HIM, if you leave it, you leave HIM. Fr. Tikhon never spoke about it, he simply did his part. And that was the best mentoring for me.

This is very insightful. And everything falls into place right away.

—Yes. In the seminary, it became clear to me that I wanted to continue this journey. But it only happened at the end of my third year there. Before that, my studies had often seemed boring. If anything, I came to faith, or rather conscious faith came to me, in Odessa during my second or third year of studies. The saying that “an appetite comes when you are eating” perfectly describes my interest in the Church and theology. My life didn’t make a sharp turn, but the comprehensive lectures on dogmatics that clearly identified the Christian tenets made things that I had thought to be boring more interesting and meaningful.

Studying the fundamentals of the Christian teachings, I wanted to delve into them. I saw a whole new world of Christian tradition, which as I realized, I knew nothing about, and it was very interesting for me. On the one hand, I saw an example of the realistic perception of the Church by Fr. Tikhon, and on the other hand, I had good lessons on dogmatics and Christian doctrine from my seminary teachers. I’ll be honest: Neither monastery liturgies, nor wonderful choir singing, nor the monastic life of well-known elders inspired me as much as this gradually opening world of Christian teaching. As a young and inquisitive person, I wasn’t satisfied with superficial knowledge; I wanted to get to the bottom of it. And I did. I think all young people are like that; and if sometimes they might seem shallow, it is because nobody has gotten through to them yet.

You mentioned that your theological education in Odessa was only the beginning…

—After studying in Odessa, I went to Moscow, to the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, where I learned about academic theology. And that was where I met my future wife! Undoubtedly, the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra had an immense influence on me. I was engrossed in the world of academic theology. Seminary training cannot be compared with the academic experience—I felt the aura of theology and centuries-old traditions. Naturally, the great variety of ways to perceive the faith also enriched my experience. In a way, the Lavra is a spiritual megalopolis, with a rich history and traditions, a great number of pilgrims and tourists, and students from all over the world. This is the place to make new connections in the academic world. Surely, I will remember my time there for all my life. I would recommend everyone visit it. It is a truly unique place. Everyone who visits it feels and remembers it in his or her own way.

We’re getting to the part when you studied in France…

—Exactly. Again, I ended up in France seemingly by accident. In 2010, the then recently founded and totally unknown Russian Theological Seminary in France announced its second admission of students. I never thought about studying in any foreign country, be it in Europe or anywhere else, but I liked the idea of getting a secular education. Since my initial plans didn’t include becoming a priest and there were no abrupt changes in my life, I was still looking for a secular education. I went to the seminary and then to the academy, but I didn’t abandon the idea of getting a secular education, I simply postponed it. Probably, it was time. The Parisian seminary offered two types of education, and I was dreaming of a secular diploma!

Technically, after five out of eight years of studies, just like almost all seminary and academy students I did not have a generally accepted higher education. This was an opportunity to get both theological and secular education, without changing my career. I wanted to get a secular diploma. The committee chose three students from the Moscow Theological Academy: me and two other students from my class, one of whom, hieromonk Peter (Smirnov), is now the vice principal of this seminary. We studied together; we defended our graduate theses together, and we have done and continue to do various projects together. He always had a rare ability to combine administrative work and creative ideas, while maintaining friendship and humility.

The Holy Trinity Cathedral in Paris The Holy Trinity Cathedral in Paris     

After graduation, how was your life in your new country? You settled there, and the work you carried out, I would say, was extensive.

—Yes, presently I serve in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Paris. Before the cathedral was opened, I had been working in the Cathedral of the Three Holy Hierarchs in the French capital. This parish is also known as the Church on Rue Pétel. In the past, such well-known priests as Metropolitan Benjamin (Fedchenkov), Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh and Patriarch Kirill had served in this church.

That was where I started serving as a priest in 2014, and I still serve there on weekdays. At the same time, I started to participate actively in youth ministry—as a young person, not as a spiritual adviser or leader. These are different positions and different points of view. From the day of my ordination, my job was to manage the theological courses for the laity in our seminary that was located in the outskirts of Paris. At this seminary, we are trying to train laypeople who wish to work actively in their parishes. We have students from France, Italy and Spain. Also, many students come from Germany. We offer nine 8-hour sessions over the course of three years. Our goal is to teach them the main tenets and provide the required books for the main subjects of Church teaching, such as Church History, Doctrine (Dogmatics, Patrology, the Holy Scripture) and Church Practices (the Sacraments, Liturgics, the Basis of the Social Conception) and other similar documents.

After our students receive the basic knowledge in these areas, it becomes easier for them to study independently and play a more active role in their parishes, while remaining faithful to the Church’s teaching and taking advantage of the Church’s experience. These courses are designed for Sunday school teachers in particular. After learning the fundamentals of Orthodox theology at our courses, some of our students continue their studies in other colleges or seminaries or get ordained. Some of our graduates serve as priests in Spain, France and Italy.

The monthly evening service with the Orthodox youth of France (the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Paris) The monthly evening service with the Orthodox youth of France (the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Paris)     

In early 2017, immediately after the opening of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, I was appointed Head of the Education Department in the Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center in Paris. Following our meetings with the youth there, we founded the Adult Education Center, which I currently manage. Together with Deacon Anthony Sidenko, the Head of the Diocesan Youth Department, we are responsible for all the administrative and legal work in the center. Over a three-year period, we managed to get licensed to teach modern and ancient languages as well as history, ethics and philosophy. Then we received a certification that allowed us to work throughout the country and cooperate with French government agencies and higher educational establishments. We have accomplished a lot, but we still have our work cut out for us.

It is known that in addition to serving in the Church, priests in the West often have secular jobs. I was recently elected the secretary of Religious Sciences at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. The graduates of this school include bishop Theodorite (Tikhonov), the current principal of the Moscow Theological Academy, archimandrite Filaret (Voloshin), vice principal of Kiev theological schools, hieromonk Alexander (Sinaykov), principal of the Paris seminary and many young instructors of theological schools in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. Vladimir Lossky delivered his dogmatic theology lectures at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in 1944 and 1946. These lectures are now known as “Dogmatic Theology”—a go-to book for dogmatics teachers in seminaries.

In 2019, Vassa Kontouma, a Greek Orthodox woman, was appointed dean of the Religious Sciences Sector that includes more than eighty professors of all world religions. Later, an Orthodox priest was appointed the secretary of the sector. As you see, the largest establishment of religious studies in France has an Orthodox administration.

This is a part of my working environment.

This is very interesting! Do you only serve in the cathedral, or do you serve in other remote parishes too? Please tell us about those communities.

—Naturally, the Holy Trinity Cathedral is where I serve the most. Here in the West, the clergy serve somewhat differently from in Russia. In most cases, the priests of large parishes also regularly serve in small and remote parishes and communities. Such practices have been adopted not only by the Orthodox, but by the Catholics as well. In line with these practices, in early 2015, I was asked to help with developing a community in Clermont-Ferrand and providing it with spiritual guidance.

To be honest, I didn’t even know in what part of the county this town was. Clermont-Ferrand is the capital of Auvergne, a region located in the very center of France. A relatively big student town, it is famous for its cheeses, one of the strongest rugby teams, and the fact that Michelin’s headquarters are located there. But first and foremost, Clermont is famous for its rich Christian history. In 1095, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II called for and blessed the First Crusade. At that time, there were thousands of monks in the town and in the mountainous areas around it. Nowadays, it is a relatively poor town with a large number of migrants and weakening Christianity. There are many Russian speakers, including Chechens, Georgians and Armenians, with Russians and Ukrainians forming the core of the parish.

Our first worship service was held on May 15, 2015 in the church of the Romanian Patriarchate in honor of St. Anthony and Theodosius of the Caves. The second service was performed in the Maison des associations, with about forty people in attendance. Many of them had tears in their eyes, as some of them had not attended a service for twenty years, ever since they had left their homeland. No service in Slavonic had been held in Clermont since WWII. The worship services had been performed in the region in the past—there was a community in Vichy one hour away from Clermont and a nursing home managed by the Russian Red Cross (it is still functioning and is managed by the same organization), also one hour away from the town. But no services had been performed in Clermont.

At first, the parishioners and myself were elated, we were making big plans… but we found out that many people came simply to have a look and to speak Russian. Later some of the people moved to another town. At present, there are still forty people in the community, but only half of them attended that first service. Since 2018, we’ve been holding services in a small chapel belonging to the Catholic Church. I can say that this community and myself were very lucky to find a permanent place of worship in the town within such a short period of time. We also have everything that is required for arranging meetings after the liturgy: a canteen, a restroom, and even a large parking lot, which is fairly important as most of the parishioners drive from the surrounding areas. Before that, I had to carry a large suitcase with all that was required for the service, including the books, censer, Chalice, antimens and prosphora.

Now it is easier, as the community has everything necessary for the worship service. On Saturday night we serve the Vigil, in the morning we have the Confession, the Hours and the Divine Liturgy. The service is performed once a month, ten times a year (there are no services in July and August). My wife helps me a lot with organizing the choir and the Sunday school. Alexandra, the daughter of archpriest Valentin Asmus, a well-known Moscow professor and priest, takes care of the liturgical books. The church warden John (Jacques) is a native Frenchman who converted to Orthodoxy about fifteen years ago and became more devout than many of those who were born in Orthodox families. Our community includes very different people, and this is what makes it so vibrant.

Building a community is an amazing process. I was asked to form a community only a few months after my ordination. I was a young and inexperienced priest, while most people in the community did not know anything about Orthodoxy. We made one mistake after another. Some people felt hurt, some were frustrated. But we learned to forgive each other. Many times, I had felt that there was no point in going there and that it wouldn’t work. But God has plans for everything. I continued holding the worship services—sometimes out of necessity, sometimes because I felt inspired. It is difficult to explain how inspirational such an experience is and how it makes the priesthood especially meaningful. For if the priest doesn’t come to the worship service, there won’t be a service, there won’t be Communion, and these thirty or forty people won’t have their meeting with God. And the priest would be responsible for that. Incidentally, that is when you start to appreciate having your house close to the church or half an hour or an hour away by public transit, to say nothing about a church that is open every day. Such small towns don’t have such luxuries. If a parishioner gets sick, he or she misses services for a month; but if the priest gets sick, then all parishioners miss the services for a month.

In the vicinity of Znamenie Skete In the vicinity of Znamenie Skete     

In 2016, when the Holy Trinity Cathedral was opened in Paris, I met the now reposed Archimandrite Barsanuphius (Ferrier; 1935-2018), the confessor of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. At that time, Fr. Barsanuphius had been a monk for more than half a century. In the 1960s, he was taking care of the ailing iconographer monk Grigory (Krug), then, at the blessing of Metropolitan Anthony, he founded a convent eighty kilometers from Clermont-Ferrand, and then another convent. He lived in the Holy Spirit Skete in a suburb of Paris. When he learned that I go to Clermont-Ferrand every month, he suggested that the nuns from the convent attend our services and sing in our choir. The nuns also had services only once a month and sometimes even less frequently, as archimandrite Barsanuphius was providing ministerial services to three convents, right up to his death on October 20, 2018.

Znamenie Skete, Marcenat Znamenie Skete, Marcenat     

That was how I got acquainted with the nuns from the skete dedicated to the Znamenie icon of the Mother of God in the French village of Marcenat. Now there are only four nuns left, headed by Abbess Anastasia. All of them are native-born Frenchwomen who have been interested in Russian culture since their youth. After converting to Orthodoxy, they became nuns and now they maintain the spirit of Russian Orthodoxy in the French countryside, providing support to many generations of Orthodox people who live in that area. They are incredibly kind and well-organized.

Vladimir Basenkov
spoke with Priest John Dimitrov
Translation by Talyb Samedov


1 Reference to a song by Valery Meladze

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