On his appointment to the Russian representation church in Sofia
—Of course, the events that have taken place here are very, very sad. One thing must be understood: a priest is a person who is unknown to most of society. I remember once meeting with an ambassador. As we were sitting at a table, he said, “Father Vladimir, I was in your church. It struck me that your service was entirely in German...” Actually, we hold a service in German once a month. That is, he came to our church once, and this formed his impression. “I saw you at the church. You were standing somewhere on the left side, and a long line of people, mostly women, were queueing to see you. Can you tell me what they want from you?” That is, he looked at it with the eyes of a man, in his own way. That’s how he saw this situation. At that moment I was hearing confessions—there were people waiting for confession, and there were more women than men. And it took much effort to explain to him what it was. It is the same here.
The actions of any priest may be hard to understand or explain to someone. But when I am asked if a priest can combine his ministry with some other activity for which he may later be accused, I answer that it is virtually impossible. Why? At one time Patriarch Alexei II was asked why some priests are mentally ill. He answered very simply: It happens when a person preaches one thing and lives another, and his soul just breaks down. Therefore, when I heard about what had happened here, it was clear to me why it had happened.
I came here with inner fear and worried, because when something extraordinary happens, it is not a reason for joy. It was very difficult for me to part with the parishioners in Vienna, because I love that parish very much. I believe that most of them, God willing, will come to visit these parts. I will write regularly about what is going on here so that they don’t worry about me and know that I have no secrets, that there are wonderful people here who go to church, love God and services, that there is nothing terrible here.
Sometimes clouds gather; sometimes the sun shines. In Sofia, too, the weather is very changeable. Let’s hope that there will be more sun in our lives.
—Did you manage to meet with His Holiness [Patriarch Neofit] or with our bishops on the feast of the holy Right-Believing Prince Alexander Nevsky, which is celebrated in Bulgaria according to the New Julian calendar (November 23)? What are your impressions of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church?
—First of all, the Right-Believing Prince Alexander Nevsky is very dear to me. My brother’s name is Alexander, and so is my son’s, so for me this day never goes by unnoticed. On November 23, my first service in the Bulgarian Church took place. Before that, I had just dropped in at the church twice to see what it looked like. But the first experience was apprehension, because initially I thought that there were some features of services that I did not know. I also was not sure how the clergy of the Bulgarian Church would accept me in connection with all the recent events at the church entrusted to me. And I can assure you that I saw nothing but kindness. It was a very, very peaceful service in a very prayerful atmosphere.
Then, at lunch, we immersed ourselves in this peaceful, friendly, normal atmosphere, where people did not interrupt anyone, did not ask any unnecessary questions and were not curious. It was clear from their reactions that they love and respect the Russian Church, and it will be easy for us to pray and serve together.
That’s my impression, and life will show whether I was right or not.
Unfortunately, I did not see His Holiness. It seems that he could not serve for health reasons, but there were several bishops.
—You find yourself in a difficult situation: Due to the current geopolitical situation and the wave of Russophobia, the ROC is being persecuted again. The Bulgarian State also raised the issue of the ownership of the church. Please comment on this state of affairs.
—Any property disputes are unprecedented for a church person, because this land belongs to God. All these conventions matter to us humans, but it makes no difference to the Lord —it all belongs to Him.
It is another thing that the land on which the church stands was bought with the price of blood.1 And when it comes to blood, you must be very cautious, because the blood of murdered people usually cries out to Heaven. And therefore, when looking for a solution to this issue, it must be taken into account first of all.
The relics of Vladyka Seraphim (Sobolev) are kept at St. Nicholas Church. He lived in a much more difficult time than we do, but he endured all the trials and bore his cross to the end, transferring this church to the community that now prays to him and honors his holy memory. I hope that St. Nicholas and St. Seraphim will not allow evil to triumph in this world, whether at the geopolitical or local level. Because saints always defend the truth. I am certain that the truth will prevail.
Today is St. Seraphim’s birthday [December 1]. Saints are born twice: first, on this earth, and second, when they die and pass into eternity. The second birth is far more important than the first one. Anyway, today the man who upholds this church was born. He loved it so much that I am convinced that Vladyka protects his church and will continue to do so regardless of circumstances and someone’s decisions.
—Right. Bulgarians (and not only Bulgarians) love St. Seraphim very much, and numerous miracles occur through his intercessions…
—When I came here and the church was still closed, I was amazed at the number of people I met around the church. They kept coming up and asking me, “When will the church open?” When people ask me in Austria and elsewhere where I serve and how they can find this church, I answer: “It’s very simple. Google ‘Russian church in Sofia’ and you will immediately find where you need to go, because this is the only place that the internet will point you to.”
—Vigils were held in front of the locked church for over fifty days, with people from all over Bulgaria and from abroad sending flowers and letters, which demonstrates their love for our holy archpastor. Could you explain what the role of church in the spiritual life of a believer is?
—I learned about the holy hierarch while still in Austria. The day after I had been appointed rector, I celebrated a prayer service to St. Nicholas in Vienna. After the prayer service people came up to be anointed with holy oil and kiss the icon. A young man came up last and asked me, “Are you Fr. Vladimir?” I replied, “Yes, I am.” He went on, “You’ve been appointed the new rector in Sofia, and I am from Sofia, from this parish. I read about it online and I wanted to see you with my own eyes.”
Later we talked with him in my office, and he told me that earlier he hadn’t really believed in God. But his mother-in-law was healed by St. Seraphim. She had cancer, and through the holy hierarch’s intercession she was completely healed; this brought him to the Church. Now he is a permanent parishioner of this church and says that the saint performs thousands of healings.
I believe that this first step into the church, which gives you the opportunity to have contact with God and His Love, is very important. Because then, when you make a choice and acknowledge that the Love looking at you really exists, acts in this world, and can change your life; the long path of an earthly person’s transformation into a citizen of Heaven begins. This path starts here. It’s very long and very difficult, not without mistakes, not without falls; but if a person follows this path and does not leave the Church, I think that he is guaranteed to swim safely across this ocean of life. Besides, he will swim across this ocean holding on not just to the board of his doubts, but to the Ship of the Church. The life of a person who is in the Church changes: he becomes calmer, more confident, and able to endure all the turbulence of this life. Sometimes he is transformed before your very eyes.
The feast of the Entrance of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple is coming soon [the interview was conducted on December 1, shortly before this feast.—Trans.]—a feast for both children and parents. It shows that the path I have just described can be started in childhood. It is very important when parents find the strength to bring their child to church and then make sure that he remains in it consciously. It is a guarantee that he will most likely be able to cope with the challenges the younger generation faces in these modern times. In my ministry I have come across various problems: drug addiction, gambling addiction, and other problems that, unfortunately, young people are now exposed to. I will say that it is impossible to overcome them without the Church.
—We are very glad that the Lord has sent us a man, thanks to whom our church has been reopened. Our people prayed for this on their knees to Sts. Nicholas the Wonderworker, Seraphim (Sobolev) and Metrophanes of Voronezh, a particle of whose relics was presented to this church by Bishop Gabriel of Lovech several years ago.
—In connection with the Nativity Fast and the upcoming festive season, we ask you to say a few words to our viewers.
—Thank you all for your kind words. Of course, I feel inwardly the enormous responsibility that lies with me, and to the best of my ability I will try to come up to your expectations. But I can say right off that I cannot cope without the parishioners of this church, so everyone is asked to participate in the life of the Church. No one should stay away. If we can resist the spirit of division that now dominates the world, we will win. And then we will not be ashamed to look into each other’s eyes and the eyes of and the whole world, because we will bear witness to the power that the Lord has given us.
The festive season is upon us. The fast is a special time when we put aside everything that distracts us from our spiritual life and try to take another step in order to overcome the sins that live in each of our souls. This is a grace-filled and difficult task. But, above all, you awaken from sleep, from laziness, from unnecessary activities that often fill your life. You often put aside the cellphone and other mass media to think about the soul and read the Holy Fathers who once walked this path. I wish everyone to use this time for their benefit.