On December 24, 2003, one of the eldest clergymen of the Western European Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Protopriest Michel Artzimovich, departed to the Lord. He was the Rector of Resurrection Church in Meudon, near Paris, France. At the end of 2001, the editorial staff of Russky Pastyr interviewed Fr Michel, who was devoted to the Russian Church Abroad for his entire life and often concelebrated with hierarchs, including St John of Shanghai and San Francisco the Miracle-Worker. Following are excerpts from the interview:
-Fr Michel, tell us a little about yourself.
- I was born in Berlin in 1922. When I turned four, our family moved to Paris. I was first educated at home by various tutors, and then I enrolled in the fourth grade of the Russian School in Paris. I graduated high school in 1940, but because of the war, I couldn’t get a higher education and had to work.
My grandfather was a governor in many guberniyas of Russia, and became a senator and Stablemaster of the High Imperial Court. My father graduated the Page Corps in 1917, but only became a soldier because of the war—he joined His Highness LG Ulansky Regiment. By the time of the Revolution, by father found himself in Kiev and was evacuated by the Germans to Berlin for reassignment to the White Army in South Russia. But the Germans did not release the Russians from Berlin, so my father found work with the Russian Red Cross, and then became a cab driver.
He met his future wife in Berlin. She was a widow with three children, aged 10-15. Her husband had been executed by the Bolsheviks in Kiev in 1919, and she was also evacuated by the Germans. My parents were married in Berlin, and I was the only child of the couple.
Later, my father became the warden of a Russian church, and my stepbrothers were acolytes under Bishop Tikhon of Berlin. Our family attended church regularly and was profoundly principled. Our family followed Blessed Metropolitan Anastassy’s attitude towards Metropolitan Evlogy, for which we were called “fierce Anthonyites.” After our move to France, we continued to adhere to the conciliar Church (followers of Metropolitans Anthony and Anastassy). We remained adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia our whole lives.
-When did you consciously turn to the religious, spiritual life?
- As I said, my older brothers were subdeacons in church. After my first confession at the age of seven, I also began to serve in the altar. It was accepted at the time that one could not serve as an acolyte before the age of seven. I gradually rose through the “stages” of altar service, first lighting the censer, then carrying the candle, then holding the bishop’s staff, then the ripida (ceremonial fan—transl.) the service books, and finally was ordained a subdeacon. My service as an acolyte actually lasted until I became a priest 52 years late. I was not a “holy person,” serving in church was a natural part of my life. It did not impede me from my daily responsibilities, working with youth in the National Vityaz Organization, my civil work, my political interests, participating in the theater and social life. This was natural to me, my daily life did not hinder my spiritual life. I always loved to socialize, talk to and learn from them. By God’s mercy I met with eminent archpastors and theologians, who taught me a great deal. Thank God I was able to remember their words in my heart, their teachings, their spirit. I kept this all under wraps, and it all later came to the forefront during my pastoral service.
-What are your most memorable moments in church and adult life?
- I particularly remember Paschal night with Metropolitan Anastassy (Gribanovsky) in the city of Fussen, Germany, in 1945. Also unforgettable were the two times I served under St John (Maximovich), and participating in the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Russia in Paris with Archbishop Anthony of Geneva and Western Europe.
- As a subdeacon for many years, which bishops did you serve under and what were they like?
- In my childhood I was envious of my older brothers and wanted to be just like them. As I matured, I became fascinated with the ideal of “Holy Russia,” the symphony of the Church and State. I continue to believe that this idea is correct and most perfect.
As far as bishops I have served under, they number about 40. Some I served under regularly, Metropolitan Seraphim (Lukianov), Metropolitan Anastassy, Archbishop Panteleimon, Archbishop Ioasaf, Archbishop Afanassy, Archbishop Filofei, Archbishop Pavel and Archbishop Anthony. Other bishops I only served under a few times.
Each bishop had his own characteristics, habits, demands, and his own “style.” They were all still Princes of the Church by God’s mercy, the successors of the Apostles. One of the main duties of a subdeacon is to assure that the bishop think only about the divine service, that peace reign in the altar. An experienced subdeacon should have a sense of what the bishop needs, and if possible unnoticeably fulfill his needs. An acolyte is not a lackey or servant, but must be like an angel who helps the archpastor celebrate the great service at hand without unnecessary bother and distraction.
-When and how did you decide to become a priest? What inspired your decision to serve?
- My decision to become a priest was based on several things. Firstly, I had always served as an acolyte in the altar and I wanted more and more to fully devote myself to serving God and the Church.
Secondly, I had been the bench-mate in high school with Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann. We served as altar boys in different jurisdictions, but tried to be close. We became best friends—I was never closer to any other friend. The future Fr Alexander, a very talented man, had a good influence on me. By the way, he never tried to convince me to join the “Evlogians.” So at the age of 16 or 17, we decided that we would eventually become priests. I learned a great deal from Fr Alexander, and made the acquaintance of many theologians.
Thirdly, after high school I joined a youth group. It included people of like mind in religious and political matters. Our circle was not an official organization, we were all bound by friendship and a common ideal, which was the restoration of Holy Russia. We believed that the reestablishment of Holy Russia is only possible through the reestablishment of the symphony of Church and State. This symphony was clearly lost under Peter I and it was this that caused the Revolution in our Homeland. We all agreed to devote our lives to reestablishing this symphony through Church service. This could take two forms: lay, political activity (we called those who chose this path “jackets”), or spiritual service as clergymen. And so within the confines of the Church we promoted the idea of true symphony. We paid no dues, had no elected leaders of presidents. Everything was on a personal level, friendly, oneness of mind. Only two of our groups have survived, one “jacket” in Argentina and one priest, me. Of the clergymen who were part of our group were Archbishop Anthony (Bartoshevich) and Archbishop Nafanail (Lvov), Protopriest Georgy Romanov, Protopriest Sergy Romanov, Archbishop Serge Tchertkoff, Protopriest Igor Troyanov and Protopriest Alexander Trubnikov. All of them without exception belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia as a matter of principle.
So you became a priest at a mature age. What was most difficult at the beginning?
- I became a priest at the age of 60. I admit that is late. I didn’t want to be ordained earlier for a variety of reasons. One of the main ones was that I had to raise three children. I had to work, and parishes in Europe and South America, as a rule, could not support their priests. I feel that a priest must devote his life fully to the Church and his parish. Priests who also have civil jobs should be the exception, not the rule. A parish really should pay its priest so that he could be free to devote himself to serving God and man. Money can always be found if there is the need and desire.
What challenges did I face at the start? There were all sorts of problems, but I understood that a priest must have tact and patience. You cannot change everything to suit you right away. Any changes in parish life should be gradual, taking into consideration the parishioners’ customs (even ones that aren’t the best), they should be changed unnoticeably. A priest should not only make decisions on spiritual matters but administrative ones in concord with the warden and parish council.
When I had problems of a spiritual nature, I was aided by experience fellow clergymen. It was personally very difficult for me to hear peoples’ confessions. I was very fearful of pushing anyone away from the Church or bar them from taking Communion. If someone is barred from the Chalice and then something terrible happens, and he could not have partaken of the Holy Gifts, it tormented me, and continues to.
It is hard for a clergyman to always live by example, to be an ideal pastor, but this is what gives the priest authority. One shouldn’t try to grab authority—a priest must act very carefully, and authority is earned by love.
- What has helped you from daily life, in the church and in the world?
- I was helped a great deal by having served under many hierarchs and priests. I saw a variety of habits, traditions, beauty, and heard a great many sermons and teachings. Thanks to the fact that I heeded them, I knew what the external part of parish life consists of: the adornment of the church, singing, order and cleanliness in the altar… I think that it is good for a priest to serve often, but one cannot alienate parishioners who have to work or travel far to church—one must try to schedule divine services wisely. The timing and length of divine services should also be arranged in consideration of what the parishioners are able to do. Our dear Vladyka Anthony of Geneva would say that you can shorten the length of a service, but do so wisely. The parish is not a monastery.
The parishioners should feel like they are a single family, and the father is the one who answers for the parish, the rector. Love is the main thing that a parish needs. Love for God, for Church and for each other. Parishioners help the rector lead the parish in love and peace. That is the symphony that a rector and parishioners must accomplish. Unfortunately, not every priest can do this.
-Can you envision serving the Church without serving Russia?
- For me, and for every priest, I think, of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, serving in church without serving Russia is impossible. Of course, in the Church Abroad we have many converts from other faiths, and maybe they would give different answers. Patriarch Tikhon’s Ukase 362 of November 20, 1920, regarding self-government, may not be understood by some of them.
In Meudon’s parish life we try to walk the middle path—on one hand we serve Russian immigrants, we pray for Russia, try to help her, but on the other, we do missionary work, we take into consideration the fact that for many parishioners, France has become their homeland, and French has become their primary language. At all our services, the Epistle and Gospel are read in two languages, Church Slavonic and French, and one litany, and once a month we conduct all-night vigil and Liturgy entirely in French. It is difficult to say what awaits us in the future. Young people are forgetting the Russian language, meanwhile, new people from Russia are filling the ranks of our parishioners, but also new French converts.
- What brings you special joy and consolation in parish life?
- The children. Children always bring me joy and consolation. We have many children in our parish, and in fact, I baptized almost all of them. It is my greatest joy. The love and good relations my parishioners have for me is endearing, especially since because of my age it is more and more difficult to fulfill my duties. I hope and pray that the Lord sends me a helper who could eventually replace me. I am even willing to become second priest.
- Observing your life’s path, what gives you hope and strength to continue your service and not lose inspiration?
- Hope and strength in continuing my pastoral duties is provided mostly by faith: faith in God, and that He knows what we require and what must follow His own will. Secondly, hope and strength is provided by the joy—joy that we are Orthodox, joy and gratitude for God, that we have the opportunity to praise Him properly and believe in Him properly. Thirdly, hope and strength are provided by the knowledge that I belong to the great Russian people, that I am Russian.
Besides, in our priestly service, we simply have no time to fall in spirit.
- Finally, what words of advice do you have for our readers?
- We pastors must always sense closeness and fraternity with each other. We cannot isolate ourselves only within our parish or diocese. We are one Church, one Body, and we must know each other and bear each other’s burdens.
- May the Lord save you!
Russky Pastyr, No 41, 2002