“IT WAS IMPORTANT TO WAIT FOR THE RIGHT MOMENT, WITH NEITHER HASTE NOR DELAY”
Archpriest Andrei Sommer on the 15th anniversary of the reunification of the Russian Church
Archpriest Andrei Sommer, the Dean of the Synodal Cathedral of Our Lady “of the Sign” of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in New York, was born to Russian emigres in California. He was reared in the Russian spirit, and when he enrolled in Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, his contact with monastics helped him understand the importance of reconciliation within the Russian Church. During his first trip to the homeland of his ancestors, the Reverend Father sensed the holiness of his native land:
Russian emigres of the first wave, as soon as they were forced to flee Russia, hoped that somehow their country would end up free. They always hoped to return to their Homeland. But by the time I was alive, and even in my parents’ time, who had come to the USA from China in the 1950’s, people understood that they would live outside of the Fatherland on a permanent basis. It was the time of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, which divided the Church as well. No one thought that we would soon reconcile with the Moscow Patriarchate. We waited for Russia to be free.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, as I grew up in California, we had no sense that we would soon reconcile with Moscow. I don't remember anyone berating or condemning the Patriarchate: on the contrary, we all prayed for the emancipation of Russia from the Soviet yoke.
Personal relations played an important role, when people began to communicate with those who stayed in the Soviet Union. For example, my grandmother’s sister lived in Leningrad, we wrote to her and send her things. They didn’t always reach the addressees, but we tried to establish personal relationships. My grandmother always strove to help her relatives. Of course, it was infrequent, since the same possibilities didn’t exist in the 70’s and 80’s as now.
I had the clear impression at the time that Russia was unfree under the communists. As far as the Church is concerned, we simply knew that in the USSR it existed under the control of the state, and we didn’t have the slightest contact with the Moscow Patriarchate. That’s why you can’t say that we felt part of a united whole with them.
The sense of this unity only came later to me, when I attended Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY, and was ordained a reader. This occurred in 1988, when the 1000th anniversary of the Bapism of Rus’ was celebrated. This event actually gave me the desire to enroll.
My studies in Jordanville were a special time for me, giving me the opportunity to talk to the older generation of monks, and I’m very happy I did. It was then that I began to understand that we are a united whole with the Church in Russia, but that we are temporarily divided due to political reasons.
Among those I had the good fortune to spend my religious school days with was Fr Kiprian (Pyzhov), one of the pillars of the Church and the main icon-painter of the entire Russian diaspora. He abstained from commenting on events, but he was keenly interested in the state of affairs in Russia, how the people lived, how churches were being opened. I don’t know the details, but Fr Kiprian was personally interested in reestablishing contact with the Moscow Patriarchate.
So at the end of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, it was obvious that changes were taking place in Russia. The monks in Jordanville and we seminarians were happy on one hand, but on the other we were cautious. We all carefully followed how events unfolded, and continued our missionary work. For instance, I worked in the print shop where a great many books were published which were sent to Russia to reveal our Orthodox Christian faith to the Russian people.
Contacts between the diaspora and Russia were strengthening, but questions remained which divided us as before. One of the sharpest was the question of the Holy New Martyrs. Our Church Abroad canonized them in 1981, but the Moscow Patriarchate only did 19 years later. New churches were opening in Russia, people were given the opportunity to participate in divine services, we in Jordanville printed paper icons to send there, including images of the New Martyrs, but Moscow did not make a decision on their canonization. Doubtless this hindered any official contact between the branches of the Russian Church, and essentially caused a dead-end.
I think that many of us abroad still understood that this matter was not so simple. In fact, the process that led to our Church glorifying the New Martyrs also took many years. In Russia it took longer, the Moscow Patriarchate studied the matter for a very long time. In the end, the matter was resolved in 2000, which opened the doors to our reconciliation.
Helping this a great deal was that Russian people living abroad found it much easier to visit Russia. These trips by our clergymen and parishioners allowed us to get a certain picture of what was happening there, and supported our positive outlook.
I learned a great deal from Metropolitan Laurus. He approached all matters with caution and never strayed to extremes. I think that it is rare to meet a person with such a spirit of peace as he had. He never made any rash decisions, and this affected me. I learned from him that all problems must be resolved peacefully and spiritually.
Vladyka always tried to promote the process of reconciliation, but he did it calmly. He wanted peace to reign, that clergymen and archpastors would be of one spirit. Of course, not everyone agreed with reconciliation, but Vladyka did all he could for things to take place smoothly.
I never had the opportunity to accompany Metropolitan Laurus on his trips to Russia, but he was always interested in my impressions from my own visits there. The first time I went was in 2005. Of course, I could not yet serve in Church there or partake of Holy Communion in the churches of the Moscow Patriarchate, since the process of reunification still lay ahead. But most important was that I saw that Russia was experiencing a rebirth.
It was very important for Vladyka Laurus to learn how people reacted to the reestablishment of Church life, he wanted to sense this spirit, and so I told him what I saw, where I went, whom I met with.
My prime impression from my first trip was that Russia is a holy place, sanctified by the lives of many ascetics and drenched in the blood of the New Martyrs. I remember telling Vladyka that Russia is a country that lives in holiness.
During my conversations with Vladyka Laurus, I never heard him say a word against the Moscow Patriarchate or say that we must live separately. He always understood that we are two branches of a single Russian Church who are only temporarily divided.
You could say that the process of reconciliation began the moment that Vladyka Laurus was elected First Hierarch of ROCOR. His predecessor, Metropolitan Vitaly, was very much against rapprochement with Moscow, and didn’t even want to discuss it. This was understandable, for he was born in Russia and personally endured much persecution from the Soviets. One could say that he and Vladyka Laurus were two opposites in character: Vladyka Laurus was always reserved, Vladyka Vitaly spoke with great emotion, and this was especially expressed with regard to contact with the Patriarchate.
Alas, after the retirement of Vladyka Vitaly, schismatics who left the Church took him away, and, being advanced in age, he succumbed to them. Unfortunately, our Synod no longer had contact with him, and could not explain our position and help him understand the situation.
One important step in the reconciliation process was the return of the remains of General Denikin to Russia in 2005. His coffin was first brought to the Synod, where we served a pannikhida. Representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, of course, could not concelebrate with us, but they prayed with us. Without a doubt our good personal relations supported the process.
I took part in that service at the Synod. A small coffin was brought in, many Russian officials were present who participated in the reconciliation process along with reporters. After the pannikhida the remains were taken to the airport and flown to Moscow.
I don’t know what motivated the return of Denikin to his homeland, but the Russian government and the Moscow Patriarchate were very helpful. Our clerics also participated.
I think such cooperation provided further opportunities to get to know each other even on higher levels. For this all happened with the blessing of the Patriarch and our First Hierarch. This helped foster better relations.
About a year later, the 4th All-Diaspora Council took place in San Francisco, in 2006, where the matter of reconciliation with the Moscow Patriarchate was finally decided. Things did not go very easily, since many of its participants held conservative viewpoints and felt that we needed to wait a few more years. Yes, the New Martyrs were already canonized in Russia, but many other questions remained, including the Church’s past relationship with the Soviet state, the declaration of Metropolitan Sergius, ecumenism. Many priests, especially the senior ones, did not understand contemporary life in Russia, they only remembered the difficult times that the Church endured.
We discussed all this at the Council, and this helped us understand the situation, how the bishops who were not tortured and killed continued their work under conditions of the godless Soviet regime. Many couldn’t grasp such things. Sometimes people see things in black and white and nothing else. In our case it was red and white, and this remained the most difficult problem.
Everything that caused anxiety was deliberated on, sometimes fairly heatedly. Some approached these matters with great zeal, others simply didn’t know the facts of the matter. The Council gave us the opportunity to hear all sorts of opinions, which helped our clergymen and parishioners understand what was happening.
I did not attend the ceremony of the signing of the Act that restored the unity of the Church, since I served in the Synod in New York. I saw how our archpastors felt about this, and, observing them, I also took everything to heart. Besides, I had the opportunity to spend time with members of the Inter-Church Commission on Unification, which was a special experience because we did not know each other well before that.
Metropolitan Laurus celebrated the final Liturgy before the delegation departed to Moscow. As the Cathedral Dean, I welcomed him after the service and wished him a successful trip. I remember saying the following to him: “All these years, Vladyka, we prayed for reconciliation, and now it is being manifested.” I asked for his prayers in Moscow, and said that we in America would be praying for him. Vladyka thanked me.
Divine services in Moscow for the execution of the Act was held on the feast of the Ascension of the Lord, but in the USA, due to the time difference, this happened on the eve of the holiday, so I was able to watch the Liturgy on line. I didn’t sleep all night, but it seemed like a moment’s time. About five o’clock in the morning, I headed for the Synodal Cathedral to begin the proskomedia.
Also serving then were Vladyka Gabriel (Chemodakov) who was then Bishop of Manhattan, and also Protodeacon Nicolas Mokhoff. Vladyka said that we would perform everything as usual, so we had a regular festive service at the Synod.
I had not experienced concelebration yet with our fellow clerics of the Moscow Patriarchate, but I wished to do so and commune of one Chalice. As it happened, our delegation returned from Moscow on the eve of the feast of St Nicholas the Miracle-worker, and Archbishop Merkury (Ivanov), who served at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St Nicholas in New York invited us to their minor patron’s day celebration. I had the first opportunity to serve and commune with our brethren from Moscow, which was a great joy.
Fifteen years have passed since then, but over this time not once did I doubt the correctness of the decision. Of course, there have been temptations, there is no avoiding them, but everything took place properly and in its time. It was important to wait for the right moment, with neither haste nor delay. Now I often visit Russia, and even there some people say that the Church Abroad “conceded” too soon. But I am convinced that everything was done as it should be, and it happened by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
It was then that we established the Synodal Youth Department, where I now work. Our very first challenge was to tell the kids about Church life in Russia. Many of them are third or fourth generation emigres, who grew up outside their historic Homeland, and it is important for us to expose them to Church life in Russia and her holy sites.
I was also born in America but I was reared in the Russian spirit, and like many of my friends I yearned to see these holy places, since that spirit, talk to Russian people who live there, but most of all to partake of the Holy Gifts from a single Chalice. We try to reveal all this to our contemporary youth. We had many pilgrimages to Russia, we collaborated with the Synodal Youth Department of the Moscow Patriarchate, organized joint conferences. Hundreds of our kids participated, but the main thing is that a new generation is now growing up after reconciliation, so all this seems normal to them.
The reconciliation of the two branches of the Russian Church also allowed people to witness a completely new spiritual world, to find out about our faith in Russia. It is very important for me to show this to our youth, and also show the young people in Russia how we strive to preserve our Orthodox faith, traditions and Russian roots even as we live in non-Orthodox countries. This contact is important for us all.
Interviewed by Dmitry Zlodorev
16 May, 2022