I had the good fortune this past Sunday of attending the enthronement Liturgy of the First-Hierarch of ROCOR, Metropolitan Hilarion. There is so much that I observed and wish to share, but I am going to confine these notes to the three things that stood out the most in my mind.
First, was my encounter with my dear friend Fr Vladimir Boikov from New Zealand. He is quite an interesting man and a good priest. Fr Vladimir – or “Fr Wally” as some call him (Walter is a form of Vladimir) – is half Chinese (Mongolian, I think), half Russian, and speaks English with an “Aussie” accent. If you were to hear him speak, you could easily mistake his voice for that of the “Crocodile Hunter,”Steve Irwin. Almost instantly upon greeting him, he took me into the altar to introduce me to the priests and bishops that he thought I didn’t know personally.
This meant speaking with mostly Russian and European clergy. With delight Fr Vladimir would explain to the priest or bishop we were speaking with that I was an American convert to the Church, spoke very little Russian, that our parish had many converts, and that our church was dedicated to St Elizabeth the New Martyr. Without exception, every priest and bishop listened attentively, seemed fascinated at our parish, asked many questions, and was enthralled with my Southern accent. It was interesting as this happened over and over again. As I approached the end of this series of meetings I realized that I wasn’t just Fr Vladimir’s “show and tell” prop, but was an example of the universality of the Church. The Orthodox Church is not just for Russians, but is for everyone. It is the mystical body of Christ to which all of us are called.
I thought immediately of Metropolitan Anastasy (Gribanovsky), the First-Hierarch of ROCOR from 1936-1964 who said that the ROCOR has two missions: 1) to preserve the Faith for the Fatherland (Russia) and 2) to bring the Faith to those in the lands of the Diaspora. So, the purpose of ROCOR was not only to preserve the Faith for Russia, but also to fulfill the words of the Lord “go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded…(Matt. 28:19-20).” In his own way and unique style, Fr Vladimir was showing me and the other clergy this reality: that the Church is indeed universal.
The second thing that stood out to me was my conversation with Metropolitan Hilarion. While the laity was communing and the clergy who were not involved in giving out Communion were together waiting in the altar, I approached the Metropolitan. He saw me coming and warmly greeted me in English, “Christ is risen!” He immediately asked me, “how are you, Fr Mark” (he remembered me). I saw great warmth in his eyes and during our conversation I perceived the love of Christ exuding from him. We spoke about the possibility of his visiting St Elizabeth’s in the near future and about a time before then that I could come to New York and have an audience with him. The Metropolitan rattled off his schedule from the next five minutes to the end of September telling me where he would be and when he would be there. It was an impressive schedule and I jokingly said to him, “apart from that, you’re really not busy at all!” I asked for his blessing and apologized for not being able to stay for the banquet, as we had to catch our flight back to South Carolina. He then encouraged coming and seeing him soon, before Pentecost if I could. My heart was filled with joy, as I knew that our new Metropolitan was not only a true monk, but also a true archpastor.
Although my encounter with Metropolitan Hilarion was so moving, I forever will remember my conversation with Metropolitan Onuphry of Chernovitsk and Bukovinsk (he’s a permanent member of The Holy Synod of The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate). I had seen pictures of him and had heard that he was a saintly man and how he immediately became friends with our recently reposed Metropolitan Laurus when Laurus traveled in the Ukraine last year. I saw Metropolitan Onuphry at Metropolitan Laurus’ funeral in March but didn’t get a chance to speak with him. This time I got the opportunity. Fr Vladimir introduced me to him before the Liturgy and we had a conversation in English, as the Metropolitan seemed delighted to be able to speak to me in my mother tongue. Everything about this bishop seemed so right: he at once comported himself in a very orderly way and seemed very neat of habit, but at the same time his eyes at once burned with the love of Christ while being very gentle. As we spoke, he asked me about how I became Orthodox and about our parish. When I told him that I thought that St Elizabeth was such a good patron for our parish since she too was a convert and we have so many converts in the parish, he said to me in a very compelling way, “not only that, Father, but she’s a saint!” He said that I should never myself forget that and never stop teaching it to the parish. The Metropolitan then spoke about our calling to sainthood and that is precisely what the Church is for: to lead us to sainthood. His words to me were simple and direct, but the manner in which he delivered them was almost indescribable; all I can say is that they were uttered from a saintly man.
As I reflected on my experience of the enthronement, I realized I got more than I had bargained for. I had every expectation that I would see my friends in the priesthood, be able to speak to a few of the bishops, hear a wonderful and incredibly skilled choir, and witness an historic event in the life of the Church. I indeed got those things along with reinforcement that the Church is truly universal, an example of a true and loving archpastor in Metropolitan Hilarion, and the essential teaching about our vocation to become one with Christ and be saints as St Elizabeth the New Martyr. Especially with these two Metropolitans (with special thanks to “Fr Wally”), I saw meekness, humility, and love, the virtues of St Elizabeth herself which we sing about so often, and how following her example, we are to be saints: “Wondrous is God in His saints” (Psalm 67:35 – Septuagint).
Fr Mark +