Priest Hildo Bos He had a brush with death in the Alps, fell in love with Russia when he was in university, and converted to Orthodoxy in a village near Novgorod in the waning days of the Soviet era. Hildo Bos is the priest of St. Nicholas Church in Amsterdam, part of the Hague Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. He also serves as Secretary of the Diocesan Administration and works as a part-time simultaneous interpreter. In this interview, we will discuss Tarkovsky’s secret language, talk about buying a church with a mortgage, and touch upon such issues as the straightforwardness of Russians, de-Christianization of the Netherlands, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh’s principles of parish life, euthanasia in the Netherlands, the Night of Churches and Russian émigrés.
—How active is your church’s congregation outside of church? Another important question is whether the parishioners are actively involved in the parish life, new projects or in making key decisions. You’ve mentioned the importance of volunteering… Please tell us more.
—I’ve mentioned that we strive to be a community. Our parishioners get together not only for the worship services. There are many other activities in the parish, and they can attend meetings of various clubs, make candles, listen to lectures, participate in discussions, etc. It is noteworthy that the number of our parishioners has increased in recent years. We used to have Sunday school lessons after the service, but it has become problematic as we have so many children that we need to break them into three groups. (We need to find competent and punctual volunteer teachers.) The same goes for other activities—making candles and prosphora for so many people is a major undertaking. But we’re handling it. For example, Fr. Meletius organizes a monthly “retreat”—a meeting dedicated to spirituality. The participants engage in silent prayers and share the meals prepared in accordance with the monastery typicon. Such retreats are attended by a great number of people. We also hold various discussions in the library’s reading room.
As far as the parishioners’ involvement in decision-making is concerned, I can say that the Parish Charter approved by the Moscow Council of 1918 is very helpful in that respect. It says that “The parish church is sacred, so taking care of the church is the sacred responsibility of the clergy and parishioners”. We don’t have any external sources of income, so we are supported by membership fees and candle and prosphora sales. We report on how we spend these proceeds at the General Meeting of the Parish. We also adopt major decisions during this meeting. This was especially important when we decided to buy a building for our church. We had to take out a mortgage, and the decision to take that risk was made collectively.
We had to take out a mortgage, and the decision to take that risk was made collectively.
It is due to this collegiality that our parish can continue to develop and make important decisions. The decisions are not made by the clergy or the Parish Council alone, ultimately everybody participates in the decision-making process.
—As for the “dechristianization of the Netherlands”—is this a myth or reality?
—I think that this is definitely a reality, but it is not happening the way it is often described. Sometimes I feel sad when I read the Russian mass media, as it appears that the journalists lack real knowledge. Why? Because the process of dechristianization in Holland is different from the similar processes in other countries. Christianity still has very deep roots here. Before 1950-1960, both the religious and social influence of the Church was very strong in this country. For example, in the 1950s Catholic bishops could easily advise their congregations on who they should vote for.
The entire political structure of the country is based on religious denomination. All schools, political parties and sports clubs used to be denominational. Two-thirds of all schools in Holland are still, albeit nominally, denominational (Christian). The Christian “leaven” is very strong. You can still feel it in the language and in the ethics. One can’t understand the Dutch culture without understanding Calvinism, as like it is difficult to read Dostoyevsky without understanding Orthodoxy. When people from other countries visit Holland, they might overlook it because the Christian bedrock is not on the surface, and a cursory glance wouldn’t allow you to notice it. At the same time, some things are noticeable even by the naked eye. A significant part of the population of the country, including the king and the Prime Minister, consider themselves Christians. We still have the so-called “Bible Belt” that stretches throughout the entire country and includes communities, cities and villages inhabited by Protestants and Calvinists with very traditional values. Speaking of values, another evidence of our Christian roots is the fact that the Dutch are very generous with their charity donations.
But overall, dechristianization is indeed happening. People have gradually moved away from Christianity, worship services and sacraments. Many people believe that children must choose their faith themselves. With this approach, children do not receive any religious guidance, and as such they end up not choosing any faith at all. Currently, when a believing child goes to school, the chances are high that he or she would be the only believer in the class. Other believers are most likely to be Moslems, Hindus or representatives of other religious denominations.
Dechristianization is happening, but the process is gradual. To a certain extent, it also happens within various denominations. When we see the liberalism of some denominations, we can say that this is a sign of secularization within Christianity. We Christians are faced with the challenge of living in a society that could be classified as post-Christian. I see both advantages and disadvantages in that. When we are like islands of conscious Christian life in a sea of indifference, we can be more active Christians than we were before. Again, the legacy of Vladyka Anthony is very helpful in this respect. This is what he wanted us to do. We shouldn’t be an overpowering, pompous, and self-righteous Church. We must be a community of Christians amidst the multitude of people who do not know Christ or have forgotten Him.
—Legalizing euthanasia in Holland is another issue. The Orthodox Church’s position on this matter is clear. But what do regular people think about it?
—There are different opinions. Some people are quite amenable to it, as they think that comfort is the most important thing in life. The say, “I don’t want to die suffering”, or “I don’t want to take care of my ailing grandmother”—so they justify euthanasia. Others—and this includes non-believers—are strongly opposed to it. Of course, it is important to remember that euthanasia is strictly regulated. A physician cannot simply decide to euthanize a patient. The patient must be terminal and in excruciating pain, and the consent of two physicians is required to perform euthanasia. Nevertheless, we see that even with these precautions, legalizing euthanasia is a step down the slippery slope. The number of such deaths is increasing, because the criteria for those who can resort to euthanasia are gradually expanding. It may come to the point where psychological suffering would also be considered valid grounds for euthanasia. There are heated debates about it in society. Euthanasia is far from being a generally accepted practice, and every person makes his or her own choice. People can prepare a document stating whether they want to be euthanized or not; but even if they choose euthanasia, this process still must be regulated.
Naturally, it is not an issue for us Christians. Euthanasia is unacceptable to us. Doubtlessly, people should not die in agony, and modern medicine, palliative treatment in particular, can offer dignity to terminally ill patients. When relatives of the afflicted ask us we tell them that euthanasia doesn’t lead to God; but we also tell them that we are willing to be with them in their suffering. Very often people resort to euthanasia because they are afraid of sufferings and loneliness. However, if a person is surrounded by love and care, and also receives spiritual support, he would be willing to endure suffering and die in a natural way. That is why we shouldn’t simply judge people; we must ask ourselves: Are we willing to share this person’s sufferings? I think that this will solve many euthanasia-related problems.
—What is the Russian Church’s relationship with the state, other Local Churches, non-Orthodox Christians and other confessions in Holland?
—First of all, in Holland, the Church is not strictly separated from the state, as it is in France. On the contrary, in Belgium religious organizations are recognized by the state and receive subsidies. There’s nothing like that in Holland. Since the establishment of Holland as a state after gaining independence from Spain, religion has been an absolute right. We see the effects of it now during the coronavirus pandemic: The churches could stay open even during the strictest lockdown. The authorities encouraged their closure but left the decision up to the clergy. The relationship between the church and the state is usually based on cooperation. For example, the Dutch authorities have no problem implementing their social policies through religious organizations. There are many religious charity organizations that receive subsidies from the state for carrying out various social projects, and it is fine. As I’ve mentioned already, two-thirds of our schools are denominational, yet they are still financed by the Ministry of Education. These are public, rather than private schools. According to the Constitution, any community has the right to open a school, and it will be financed by the state.
Liturgy at the church of the Russian Student Christian Movement’s camp Provision of religious services to inmates and the military is organized in a unique way. Within the institution of chaplaincy, which has existed for 200 years, priests of various denominations report to the Ministry of Justice (or Ministry of Defense) in the matters related to work and administration, and to their church superiors in the religious matters. The system establishes a unique status for chaplains, and the Orthodox priests can also work within this system.
At the same time, the Government of Holland requires certain unified structures to ensure effective communication with religious organizations. Rather than speaking to each religious organization separately, the authorities prefer to deal with a unified forum of representatives of all branches of this religion. As a rule, such private forums bring together various religious organizations for a joint dialogue with the authorities. For example, there is a forum for all Moslems, both Sunni and Shia. We were told that if we want our own Orthodox chaplaincy, we need to establish a unified body that would represent the interests of all Orthodox and Ancient Eastern Churches. The state won’t be communicating with the Russian, Serbian or Greek Churches separately. That was why the Bishops’ Conference of Benelux was formed in 2010 to ensure cooperation of all Orthodox denominations. All Ancient Eastern Churches (Copts and Syrians) agreed to cooperate in the area of chaplaincy on the condition that religious services to inmates would be provided in accordance with their canonic Church practices. As you can see, our relationship with the state brings us together. Holland offers tremendous freedom, but as far as working with the state is concerned, it provides an incentive to cooperate.
The relationship between the Orthodox Churches may be described as excellent. Although, the conflict between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Constantinople Patriarchate has dealt us a heavy blow, as we maintained friendly relationship with their parishes and clergy. We still communicate on a personal level, solving many problems together, sharing our ministerial experiences and exchanging books. For example, we have an adult-sized baptismal font in Amsterdam, and if a Serb wants to be baptized, we gladly accept him or her. If I need to baptize a Romanian, I call the Romanian priest and ask for his advice. Recently, I administered the last rites to a person who was dying of coronavirus, and a Serbian priest was assisting me. This kind of cooperation is quite common.
Everybody still believes that we are one Church that has various forms and aspects.
I’ve already mentioned the Bishop’s conference that serves as a platform for cooperation. Although the Resolution of the Holy Synod suspended our participation in it, we still keep in touch. Everybody still believes that we are one Church that has various forms and aspects. The Institute of Orthodox Theology under the Free University of Amsterdam plays an important role here. Fr. John Behr, former dean of the St. Vladimir Seminary in New York, is currently a visiting professor in the institute. The Institute works closely with the General Church Post-Graduate Studies of the Moscow Patriarchate. It is a joint initiative put forward by the communities of various jurisdictions. It is attended by students not only from Dutch communities but from the entire Orthodox world.
—Does the Church carry out any missionary work in the Netherlands?
—We do not actively participate in missionary work in Holland, although there are exceptions. There was a bookstore in Amsterdam that was financed by followers of Fr. Seraphim (Rose). It carried on for some time, but it wasn’t very successful. There was also a missionary parish in the south of Holland. But in general, the classical nineteenth-century-type missionary work, especially in traditionally Christian countries, is not something that we do. First and foremost, our mission is to be here, to keep our doors open and welcome guests in our churches. We have open days. In concert with other Churches, we participate in the Night of Churches. During this event, all churches in the city are open and people can go from church to church and talk to our volunteers. We see that there aren’t that many holy places in the cities anymore. The churches are often closed. When people go to the market in downtown Amsterdam on Saturday, they see that the doors of the church are open. So they walk in and meet the parishioners, and this yields some results.
Nowadays there are many God-seekers. As a result, many people come to us, but we must do some serious screening. This is what one Belgian priest I know said to a Belgian who wanted to convert to Orthodoxy: “Come to our church for a year, so that your initial infatuation wears off; and if a year later, after you’ve seen all our faults you still want to convert to Orthodoxy, we’ll talk.” Among those God-seekers there are some unbalanced people and people with a sectarian mentality. It is very important for us to understand whether the person is seeking Christ or something else, like exoticism or extremism. In some countries there’s a problem when people convert to Orthodoxy, thinking that they will find the most conservative things there. For them the word “orthodox” means ultra-right conservatism, and they are surprised to find quite tolerant and clear-headed people here. So, our mission is to exist as a place of God’s presence in Dutch society and let people know about ourselves.
—Do you keep in touch with believers in Russia through parishes or diocesan departments? Is there any cultural exchange?
—Yes, there are many contacts, both through our parish and through the diocese. Our ruling archpriest often visits Russia and tells the people he meets about our diocese. He mastered Dutch pronunciation surprisingly quickly, and now he can perform worship services in both languages. Many of our parishioners frequently go to Russia, and we have a constant inflow of tourists, students and guests from Russia. We have tea parties after the worship services, and our guests can quickly get to know us.
Sometimes, when we have a shortage of clergy during the summer vacation season, we invite priests from Russia. We are always happy to do this. So, we always keep in touch. We exchange books, invite lecturers and choirmasters, etc. With God’s help, we hope to organize a pilgrimage to Russia. It won’t simply be a visit to holy sites —we also plan to visit various communities. It is interesting for us to exchange experiences, and we believe that maintaining such communication is very important.
I can give you another example. Before Lent we regularly collect additional charity donations. Often these funds are used to finance charity projects in various Orthodox communities in Russia. In most of our parishes, such contacts are thriving. After all, Holland is a country with a large seaport and airport, and there are many various companies and organizations, so the cultural exchange is ongoing.
—Would you say that the number of people emigrating from Russia to the Netherlands has increased? Why do they leave their homeland for lengthy and indefinite periods of time?
—It is difficult to say. It is easy to notice that our parishioners include believers from the entire former Soviet Union, and not only Russia. The percentage of people from Russia is not that high. We also have many Ukrainians, Moldovans, Belarusians, and Georgians. Even in the churches where the services are performed in Church Slavonic, the communities have parishioners of various ethnic backgrounds.
Besides, we notice different characteristics in successive waves of immigrants. After the fall of Communism, after the Perestroyka, the people who came here weren’t the most educated and usually they were not religious. Many of them weren’t even Christian. They either received refugee status in Holland because of their ethnicity or came here looking for a better life. There were few representatives of the intelligentsia among them, and they weren’t religious. Most of the people who immigrated at that time and now attend church had become practicing Christians here.
If you compare the Netherland Statistics Agency data regarding immigration from the East European countries to the number of visitors of our churches, you will see that the churches are attended by no more than five percent of the Russian population of Holland. In reality, the percentage is probably even lower. We have a spacious church in Amsterdam; on the average our worship services are attended by 200-300 people, and it is wonderful. At the same time, there are five or ten thousand Russian speakers in Amsterdam, and they do not come to us. I regularly meet Russian speaking people who have been living here for twenty years and have no idea that there is a Russian church here.
Recently we’ve seen a noticeable difference in the backgrounds of the immigrants from Russia and other countries of the former USSR. What is very appealing for us priests is that among them there are religious people who grew up in religious families after Perestroika. They had been going to Church all their lives and want to continue to do so. For us, it is an important factor that enhances the religious experience of the entire community. There is a great number of intellectual workers among the immigrants, including post-graduates, international company employees, IT specialists, etc. Those of them who come to church are consciously searching for God. They are not looking for a social club. There are other Russian speaking organizations, and they could have gone there. People come to us for a religious experience. These people know foreign languages, so worship services in Dutch or English are not confusing for them. Naturally, we’re trying to strike a good balance between the languages, but this is a ministry-related rather than existential issue.
We have noticed that in the past, people used to leave their homeland permanently, while nowadays many of them come here for a couple of years only, to study, for example, and then return to Russia or move to other countries. This has its advantages and disadvantages for the community. Of course, it is sad when parishioners leave, but in my experience, this is also a part of normal life of the parish. Any parish may have a stagnation phase, and this is always bad. However, because some of our parishioners have left, we have “friends of the parish” all over the world now. They were so happy when we started broadcasting our worship services because of the coronavirus!
People leave Russia for various reasons. Sometimes the reason is marriage. Sometimes people marry because they fall in love, and sometimes they do it because their lives are unbearable. Sometimes people are attracted by job opportunities, as there are many international companies here (including Russian companies) that employ Russian speakers. Some people are simply looking for different horizons. I can say that many of these people were pleasantly surprised by the nature of our community. They were looking not only for worship services or certain rituals—they were also looking for something bigger—and were very happy with what they found here. They like the way we live and make decisions. These new waves of Russian immigrants are very important for us; and at the same time, we stay in touch with our former parishioners who have returned to Russia or moved to other countries.
—Of course, compared to France or England, the number of holy places in Holland is modest. We don’t have the Crown of Thorns, but we do have our holy places, too. First of all, I’d mention the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in the Hague. It is the oldest church of our diocese. It was founded by Anna Pavlovna. So many prayers have been raised there! There are many items that belonged to the Queen herself, including her embroideries and icons. This place has a rich spiritual history.
Another place of interest is the Chapel of Theophano. Theophano was a Byzantine princess who married the Frankish Emperor Otto. Shortly before the schism, she built a Byzantine chapel in the city of Nijmegen near the German border. This beautiful little church is still standing, and occasionally Orthodox worship services are performed there.
Many churches of our diocese have relics. For example, a convent of the Greek Metropolia see has a large collection of relics. To some extent, this became possible because Catholic churches are losing their interest in relics. Sometimes they offer them to us, and we gladly accept them. Our church has the relics of John the Baptist, St. Willibrord, the martyrs St. Christina and St. Innocentia, and St. Adalbert.
I can also mention the John the Baptist Convent in the Hague. It was founded by those two Dutch monks who became the originators of Orthodoxy in Dutch in the 1940s. They received much support from St. John of Shanghai. He championed the idea of translating religious texts into local languages and venerating pre-schism saints. Vladyka John bequeathed his vestments and prayer rope to the John the Baptist Convent, and they are still kept there as relics. Obviously, any believer who visits Holland should visit the convent to venerate these relics.
There are various sacred springs associated with the local saints. In the eighth century St. Adalbert, a father of monasticism, lived not far from Amsterdam. The abbey where he served is still functional. It was this abbey that donated his relics to us. Not far away from that abbey there is a sacred spring. We made a pilgrimage to this spring with our parishioners. So, we do have holy places in Holland, albeit not as great as in other Western countries.
—Last question, Fr. Hildo: What words from the Holy Scripture inspire and support you in difficult times?
—I first read the Holy Scripture when I was in the lyceum, and it happened under rather unusual circumstances. I had a friend who was an anarchist. Even though he wasn’t Christian, we were close friends, so once he gave me a cassette tape with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It was an eye-opener for me. I listened to the tape and then read the libretto (which is based on the description of the Passions in the Gospel). That was how I got to read the Gospel. Interestingly, the first person I baptized after becoming a priest was my former classmate, the anarchist. He came to God and the Orthodox Church. Later on, I studied the Gospel with Fr. Alexis Voogd, when he was preparing me for Chrismation. He was using the textbook that Vladyka Anthony recommended to him.
Later, when I was studying at the St. Sergius University, I got to know the Holy Scripture that was used during the worship services. I was in the kliros every day, where I got to hear the psalms—which was very important. What comes to my mind now are the verses of psalm 130: Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child. Let Israel hope in the Lord from henceforth and for ever. (Ps. 130, 1–3)
These words remind me that you can study theology and philosophy and indulge in proudful contemplation for hours on end, but unless your soul finds peace in God, all will be in vain. This image of a child that is used to describe our relationship with God is very dear to me, and I repeat these words to myself and other people. These are the words that came to my mind when I had children and saw how a child can find peace in the arms of his mother or father.