On October 25-26, 2008, with the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, the Synodal Youth Department held a symposium on the 100th anniversary of the death of St John of Kronstadt.
Students from Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville were in attendance, as were young people from New York and other US cities. Each one of them, as a rule, is an active participant in parish life, fulfilling one obligation or another to help their parish.
Priests from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate, Fr Joakim Provatakis and Protopriest Alexander Abramov, gave lectures on the life, podvigi and spiritual labors of the saint.
Fr Alexander spoke of the life lessons of the “All-Russian Batiushka” and the meaning of his podvig in contemporary church life. Fr Joakim told of the theological significance of one of the main works of St John, My Life in Christ. The speakers noted that the life and work of St John are infused with striving towards God, genuine sympathy for the suffering, true earnestness, and attention to seemingly insignificant aspect of the spiritual life. It is the fervor of his faith, the lack of indifference, the burning prayerful attitude towards the Creator that brought Fr John the fame as a great man of prayer even during his lifetime, and after his death placed him as one of the most revered of Russian saints.
The young participants visited the Russian Consulate in New York and spoke with Consul General Sergei Viktorovich Garmonin. The Russian diplomat told them about the role of consulates, referring to the preservation of culture and the protection of the rights of citizens. SV Garmonin pointed out the fruits brought by the cooperation of diplomatic missions of Russia and the Church now that the unity of Orthodoxy has become a fact. The Ambassador then answered questions.
That evening the youth prayed at all-night vigil at St Nicholas Cathedral of the Moscow Patriarchate. Officiating at the service was His Grace Bishop Merkury of Zaraisk, Administrator of the Patriarchal Parishes in the US. The choir consisted of an assemblage of young singers.
An icon of St John was specially brought from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign at the Synod of Bishops, along with the saint’s cassock, as well as his kamilavka, which was brought from St Seraphim Church in Sea Cliff, NY, by Protodeacon Paul Wolkow.
At the end of the service, the participants were offered a trapeza, during which Bishop Merkury and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergei Ivanovich Kisliak warmly addressed the youth.
The next day, for the first time since the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion in May of last year, with the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, Bishop Merkury of Zaraisk officiated at Liturgy at the Synodal Cathedral.
A prayerful mood was created by the wonderful singing of the youth, most of whom have been singing in the kliros for some years. The choir was directed by Peter A Fekula.
At the end of Divine Liturgy, Vladyka Merkury delivered a sermon, reminding the faithful of the purpose and aim of the holy life is. He noted that “Fr John’s entire life was devoted to one goal—to serve the Word of God, and the Word of God is the Gospel, which is the ‘good news’ of the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us by the Lord Himself. Fr John took upon himself the great labor of preaching, of bringing the Divine words to mankind.” Bishop Merkury emphasized that “the all-Russian pastor’s mission is especially clear now, when the Word of God is proclaimed with great difficulty, even though there are no more persecutions of Orthodox Christians. Now the enemy of mankind is wielding new weapons to prevent the Divine Word from permeating our hearts, tempting people with so-called freedom, with satiation, wealth, dissolution. Now we must struggle with ourselves, and sometimes this is more difficult than resisting open persecution.”
In conclusion, Vladyka called upon the participants of the symposium and the parishioners gathered for Divine Liturgy to keep from letting the flame within us extinguish, which warms us ever since the Mystery of our Baptism occurred, not to lose focus, but to piously stoke love for God in our hearts, and prepare ourselves to meet God.
Vladyka Merkury’s sermon was heartfelt, for the Pastor of Kronstadt was one of the saints through whom the Savior brought the future bishop to Orthodox Christianity.
Vladyka recounted how once he saw in the icon corner of his grandmother—at one time the only believing member of his family—a portrait of a priest in a cassock and wearing medals right next to the icons. This was in the 1970’s, when Fr John had not yet been glorified in Russia [The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia canonized St John in 1964—Ed.] As a non-churchly person, the future bishop naturally wondered who this priest was that his portrait was together with the icons of saints? He even offered to hang it apart from the icons.
His wise grandmother replied that the portrait should remain where it was, and gave him a book titled Two Days in Kronstadt. When the future bishop read the worn volume, the image of this pastor took form in his mind: how zealously he performed divine services, with what trepidation he stood at the Altar of God, the way he intoned the priestly exclamations. This was not simply the utterance of words: one felt the meaning of each word, one sensed the priest’s own profound experiencing of them. And the young man then understood who Fr John of Kronstadt really was.
Later, he went to St Petersburg, found the grave of the batiushka in Karpovka’s St John Monastery. This was in the 1980’s, the church was being used as a workshop, and in the convent residences were a pantomime theater and other lay organizations. At the time, the saint had not yet been canonized, but the people of God had long been visiting his place of rest, looking into the little window of the small church. The window of the crypt where Fr John’s body lay looked out into the sidewalk, and someone had carved a cross with a knife so that everyone would know that a man of God reposed there, a priest by God’s mercy, Batiushka John of Kronstadt.
On his feast day, in the freezing weather, hundreds would gather at the window. The police would often drive away the people of God, but through all the brutal years of suffering, the All-Russian Pastor was visited by laity and clergy. But on the whole, alas, Russia remained godless.
“The Russian people forgot what Russia was,” grieved Fr John at the beginning of the last century, “For Russia is the floor underneath the Throne of God.”
Vladyka Merkury pointed out that “Fr John’s entire life was bound to the life of the Fatherland. He did not set out to be an All-Russian beacon of light, but was always obedient to his Fatherland and Church. Most dear to Fr John were our Lord Jesus Christ and the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the most cherished after that was the soul of man, which was his foremost focus of care and support.” His Grace expressed the hope that everyone, whether they serve as pastors of the Church or serve God and man as a layperson, would have St John’s book My Life In Christ on their table, and called upon the young people to study the saint’s works and pray to him.
After divine services, Protopriest Andrei Sommer read an epistle of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion addressed to the participants of the symposium. Fr Andrei gave Bishop Merkury an icon of St John in memory of the occasion, saying that the members of the gathering are mostly now the third generation of Russians, who try to preserve the language, culture and faith of their ancestors far from the borders of their historic Homeland, and they live in the Russian spirit. And whoever they are to become in life—pastors, diplomats, businessmen, some would spiritually nurture Orthodox Christians outside of Russia, others would serve the Fatherland and people in their lay lives, preserving and strengthening the bonds between Russia and Russians abroad.