MOSCOW : August 29, 2005

"In Russia , We Felt at Home"

(Interview with Archbishop Hilarion
of Sydney and the Australian-New Zealand Diocese)

From the Editors: From July 22-August 16, a large group of the devoted children of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia from the USA and Australia, led by His Eminence Archbishop Hilaroin of Sydney, Australia and New Zealand made a pilgrimage to Russia. During the trip, Archbishop Hilarion visited Sretensky Monastery, where he agreed to grant an interview to and talk about his impressions.  

Your Eminence, can you tell us about your path to monasticism and archpastoral service? Who influenced your decision ?

My parents were émigrés from Ukraine . They were not particularly religious, although they attended church. Already from my childhood I felt the grace of divine services and the beauty of church; the desire to serve the Church was born in me, and I carried this desire in my soul, trying to read all about the Church, collecting magazines and books. Gradually I developed the hope of entering seminary and becoming a monk. The example of St John (Maximovich) had a particular effect on me. I never saw Vladyka John myself, but Bishop Savva of Edmonton , who was his close friend, told me all about him. Vladyka Savva, a Serb, was a man of lofty spirituality. He loved patristic books, took them everywhere he went, requesting that they be read during meals. He always quoted the Holy Fathers. Vladyka gave me a blessing to go to seminary. In 1967, I enrolled in Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville. The Rector at the time was Archbishop Averky. He had a strict demeanor, and the seminarians were afraid of him, but they respected him for his profound faith. Yet he was very kind. I got to know Vladyka better when he fell ill. For two years some other monks and I took care of him, I was his cell-attendant. I got the opportunity then to get to know him better. He had a phenomenal memory. He never talked about himself, but always repeated what the Holy Fathers taught. Vladyka Averky was an enemy of the ecumenical movement, he grieved for Russia , for the believers who were persecuted. He was concerned with the decrease in piety among Orthodox Christians in the emigration.

The atmosphere in Holy Trinity monastery was placid. All the monks were simple and humble, serving as examples to others with their personal spiritual lives. I met Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) twice in my life. The first time was when I visited his monastery in California . Our second meeting was when he visited Holy Trinity Seminary to participate in a youth conference. Then we began to correspond. Fr Seraphim was remarkable in his great humility, his wisdom; he could explain the truths of Orthodoxy to the American youth of his day in their own language.

After graduating seminary, I became a novice at Holy Trinity Monastery, then a hieromonk. I spent a total of 17 years in Jordanville. My main obedience was typesetting for the press. I participated in editing periodicals. In 1984, the Council of Bishops decided to consecrate me as Bishop of Manhattan, the Vicar of the Metropolitan of New York. I spent 12 years in this position, visiting parishes throughout the Eastern American Diocese, and also visiting other countries. I had to travel to South America as well. In 1991, I happened to make a visit to Australia . I never thought that I would end up serving there, but in 1996, it was decided to send me there, because there had been no bishop there for several years. I am very grateful to God for giving me the opportunity to serve in that country.

It is known that you are active in missionary work in Australia . Do Australians often convert to Orthodoxy?

Having had experience in Orthodox life in America and Orthodox life in Australia , I can say that Australians are slower to convert to Orthodoxy. Of course, among Australians there are Orthodox clergymen and parishioners, who actually possess profound faith. But their numbers are not as great as in America . This is probably because the way of life and environment in Australia tend to lull people to complacency. Our life is very comfortable. The climate is warm throughout the year, everything comes easily for us, daily life does not present a struggle, lacking are the difficulties that are important in spiritual life. The variety of religions is also an obstacle, and the various temptations within the heterodox surroundings. In our parishes, we see how this hinders spiritual growth. That is why Australians are not given to strive for something higher.  

Yet one hears that there are many converts to Islam in Australia …

There is a large Muslim community in Australia . In recent years we have seen a large influx of immigrants from Muslim countries. Muslims are tight-knit and active, they build mosques in every city. If in America most converts to Islam come from the black community, in Australia it is Europeans who convert to Islam. However, I know of only one Russian man in Australia who became Muslim.

The Australian government has recently expressed concern over the activities of some Muslim groups, especially since some of them are connected with terrorist organizations. It is possible that in Australia there will soon be a problem with extremists from these groups.

What can you say about the progress of Orthodox missionary work in countries such as Indonesia and China ?

In recent times we tried to help Indonesions with their missionary work under the direction of Archimandrite Daniel. Some success has been seen in this regard. Archimandrite Daniel is the first to establish Orthodoxy in this country. Indonesia is a Muslim country, but there are many Protestants there. In Fr Daniel's opinion, it is easier to convert a Muslim to Orthodoxy than a Charismatic. But generally speaking, this is an unpredictable region, and Orthodox Christians must be very careful. Fr Daniel's approach is to coexist peacefully with Muslims. For this reason, he does not build grand churches, but tries to establish more house churches so as not to irritate the Muslim population. Fr Daniel acquired a great deal of experience in preparing clergymen and spreading Orthodoxy with the help of new Indonesian priests. Over the course of several years, thanks to his work, hundreds of people have converted to Orthodoxy. Fr Daniel founded several parishes. Even though some of them are now in the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, all these parishes are the fruits of Archimandrite Daniel's labors. But we do not seek competition with the Local Orthodox Churches—our only goal is to spread Orthodoxy.

We try to do some work in China , but I would not say that we have had much success there. Many of our believers in Australia are émigrés from China . They communicate with their relatives in that country. So our role lies in supporting contact with Orthodox Christians who remained in China , visiting and supporting them. We send them literature , crosses, icons.

A Russian-Chinese Orthodox Missionary Society was established in Sydney , headed by Sophia Mikhailovna Boikova. This is a very energetic woman, the mother of two priests. She and her assistants do a great deal of work, gather funds and literature for Chinese Orthodox communities. We must send priests there, but we cannot do this ourselves, because the Chinese government demands that priests be citizens of China . I think that great results in this regard can be achieved by the Moscow Patriarchate. Our aim is to jointly establish Orthodoxy in China , to ordain Chinese pastors who could perform the Sacraments and tend to the spiritual needs of the faithful.

While we are on the subject, what can you say about the documents adopted by the Commissions of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Church Abroad. How do you evaluate the Commissions' work?

I am happy that the Commissions are reaching an understanding, and that the Synods of both sides have approved a series of documents. Personally I am satisfied that many questions are being clarified, and that differences are dissolving. The work is not proceeding too hastily. This shows that the members of the Commissions are taking their work very seriously and are making great efforts in preparing their documents.

Until recently it was felt that the main differences between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia are the relationship with the civil authorities and the heterodox. How acute, in your opinion, are these questions now?

The position of the Moscow Patriarchate on relations with the state was made clear back in 2000. This was reflected in "The Basic Social Concept." Patriarch Alexy II spoke out decisively on the "Declaration" of Metropolitan Sergius, too. Now the Church in Russia does not live by the principles of this document. Of course, it may be that consequences of the "Declaration" can be seen in church life, but this was a result of the persecutions which the Church endured here, and we must approach this with understanding.  

As far as the ecumenical movement is concerned, it must be determined whether the structures of the World Council of Churches will change in the near future. Many of us are troubled by the participation of the Russian Orthodox Church in this organization. It would be better if the Russian Church and other Orthodox Churches leave this organization and continued their dialog in another way. Everyone already sees that the ecumenical movement has not resulted in any good.  

Tell us about your recent pilgrimage to Russia .

We traveled through almost half of Russia . We visited places such as Ekaterinburg and Alapaevsk, where the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia spilt their blood, led by Tsar-Martyr Nicholas and His Most August Family. We went to those places where St Simeon Verkhotursky labored spiritually. The holy sites of Tobolsk, Ryazan , Elets, Zadonsk and Voronezh left indelible impressions on us. We were able to see Kulikovo Field. For five days we traveled the Volga River on a ship, stopping at cities such as Yaroslavl , Myshkin, Uglich, Kostroma , Ples. After seeing the holy places of Nizhny Novgorod , we headed for Diveevo. The most memorable thing was walking along a canal one evening with the monastics and pilgrims, reading "Virgin Mother of God, rejoice," as instructed by St Seraphim of Sarov. We also visited Sanakarsk Monastery .

The high point of our pilgrimage was the visit to Kursk-Root Hermitage. The solemn procession to the wellspring where the hunter found the holy icon was particularly memorable; this icon has been with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia for 85 years now, and we call it our Hodigitria [Protectress]. The Kursk-Root Icon is our main holy icon, and it binds the Church in Russia with the Church abroad.

What impressions were you left with after this trip?

The Russian land, probably more than any country in the history of the Christian Church, was illuminated by the great podvigi [spiritual struggles] of God's saints and by the blood of martyrs. And for this reason, our trip made us spiritually wealthier. I harbor a great deal of love for Russia and all her holiness. We quickly traveled now throughout Russia , but upon our return to our countries, we will remember these places and return to Russia in our minds. We will read the books we bought, we will look at the photographs, and everything will come back into our hearts.

We did not expect to see such greatness here. One can see what efforts were dedicated to restore everything that had been destroyed. Everything has the same grandiosity, the same quality and fineness. The iconography is in fact better than it had been before in some places.

We were greeted warmly everywhere. We are very much obliged to those archpastors, priests, monastics and simple Orthodox people who showed us such Christian hospitality everywhere we went, opened the doors to their monasteries and churches. In Russia , we felt at home. We were able to serve molebens everywhere. I did not object if some of the pilgrims wished to partake of Communion . Many pilgrims left donations for needy children .

It was sad that the percentage of un-churched people in Russia is so great. Many are still live in spiritual ignorance. That is why we hope and pray that all Russian people would come to know that salvation and the betterment of life lie only in the Church. May they come to the faith in Christ and adhere to that grace which the Holy Church gives us through its Sacraments. Then we will see the rebirth of the family and of the country itself, when Russians return to faith in God, to Christian life and piety.

I hope for this because even if a given Russian does not know the church, faith still lives in his soul. Russians sense the spiritual more profoundly, they have the desire to consciously come to God and commune with Him. The Church now has a wonderful opportunity to improve the country's situation. Many churches have been rebuilt, as have monasteries, which can play a leading role and attract people to Orthodoxy.