An Interview with
His Eminence HILARION,
Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York,
First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia
Conducted by Sergei Jakubov
Today marks the ninth day since the repose of His Eminence Hilarion, Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York, First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, on May 3/16, 2022. In his honor and memory, we offer below the conclusion of an interview conducted in the spring of 2010 and first published in Russian in Троицкое НаследиеNo. 2 (28), Summer 2010. This English translation was first published in Orthodox LifeVol. 62, Number 2 • March – April 2011. The first part, in which His Eminence discussed his upbringing, seminary education, and monastic formation, is available here.
There have been significant changes in the world during the last several years. Russia is no longer what it was; it no longer has an atheistic government. We again have a united Russian Orthodox Church. What is the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in contemporary circumstances?
It seems to me that that which has occurred in the past twenty years has come about through the miraculous action of the hand of God. This reminds me of the events of the Old Testament, when Israel left the Egyptian captivity and traveled through the wilderness, in the end attaining the Promised Land. That which has happened in Russia has salvific importance for the whole world. We could have had no idea of such events during the period in which religion was persecuted in Russia. It seemed that it would continue forever. The Jews probably experienced such a feeling during the Babylonian captivity. And suddenly all this changed, just as when the Persian king gave the Jews the freedom to return to the Holy Land. And so, too, did the miracle of rebirth occur in Russia. It is hard even to conceive of how quickly the period of cruel persecution changed into a period of prosperity for the Church, to which people are returning en masse. Maybe not quite the entire population, but still inconceivably more as compared to what was before. This offers hope for greater things, because now the inner-Church mission is being strengthened for the entrance into the Church of those who have not yet attached themselves to it or to the Lord, and special attention is being shown to children and the younger generation.
The Church that found itself outside the boundaries of the Russian land all these years has also witnessed to the faith, preserving and passing on church traditions. Its mission has not lessened but has, to the contrary, increased, in connection with the flood of new people that, for a variety of reasons, has left the countries of the former Soviet Union. They join already existing Orthodox communities throughout the entire world and also, by necessity, found parishes in new places. Therefore the witness of Orthodoxy and spiritual-pastoral care continue on an even greater scale than before. Through this dispersal of the seeds of Christ’s faith, the heterodox become acquainted with Orthodoxy, and through this means many convert to Orthodoxy. Therefore there is another wave of the enlightenment of the world, of the evangelization of the oikoumene, in which not only the Russian Church participates, but also the Greek, Serbian, and other Local Churches that have churches and monasteries abroad.
In this way, the role of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia includes the enlightenment of the diaspora?
Yes, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia must do its part in this good and salvific deed. One of the goals of our activity, according to the words of St. John of Shanghai, is to plant Orthodoxy in various ends of the world. This goal has eternal significance. Among our clergy and our parishioners in various countries are already many local people who have converted to Orthodoxy. Representatives of the clergy from the local population, who have received their education in seminary or through some other means, have become authentic pastors of the Church. One may find among them many talented people with a deep knowledge of our faith and the ability to communicate it to their people. The fact that local people have already accepted our preaching – this is a very great achievement.
That is, one may divide the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia into two components: the pastoral care of the faithful from Russia – from early and later emigrations and likewise from the former Soviet Union – and the conversion of local people to Orthodoxy?
When the first émigrés left, their mission was, in the first place, to preserve the faith among the Russian people, among refuges. The second task was to plant Orthodoxy and convey our faith to all who thirst for it and are interested in it. The third kind of activity was to help the suffering people of Russia, in part through the publication of spiritual literature and its distribution in the territory of the former Soviet Union. And the fourth was the necessity of witnessing to the entire Western world of the persecution of the Orthodox Church that was then going on, of the people’s martyric struggle. The last two have lost their significance in our days: the persecution of the Church has ended, and religious literature is today being published in Russia in abundance. But the first and second tasks of our Church’s mission remain, and have even increased. Therefore mission as a whole has not only not decreased but, on the contrary, has increased in precisely these tasks.
Taking into consideration the Church’s mission, what tasks today stand before pastors of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia?
Pastors must have that which Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) especially indicated: the gift of compassionate love, that is, of having love for all those who come to church, and for those who do not come. The pastor must watch and care for people’s souls. Today local pastors must have a knowledge and understanding of the mentality of new emigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union. They must be sympathetic to those who lived in a different society, where there was no spirituality, no religious education. One must always remember this and always be long-suffering and compassionate, teaching such parishioners caringly and carefully, as one would act towards children. At times it happens that one has to start from the very beginning: the rules of behavior in church, how to approach the Mysteries. One should not be critical of their ignorance, but must approach them tactfully, teaching them to pray and lead a church life.
However, living abroad, one must not restrict oneself to the Russian flock. A priest must carry out apostolic service and be ready to witness to Orthodoxy before the external, heterodox world. This especially concerns the USA, where people are very religious and have a keen sense of spiritual obligations, are interested in other religions, and where Orthodoxy has become well known today. Many Americans recognize an Orthodox priest, especially Russian ones, and say: “I just knew you were a Russian Orthodox priest!” It is important to speak with such people and to offer them the riches of our faith in an understandable language. Clergy laboring in the field abroad must know the local language and be able to communicate with locals in their native language. It is specifically the missionary capacity of a pastor that is especially valuable abroad.
Based on your experience teaching Comparative Theology in Holy Trinity Seminary, what in Orthodoxy is especially unique in comparison with other religious doctrines?
The uniqueness is above all the purity of the Orthodox faith, given us by God through the Apostles without any admixture of falsity and human conjecture. From the very beginning of its history, the Christian Church has fought with false teachings, the so-called heresies, which have arisen on account of human pride and self-importance. The Apostle Paul already specially warned against accepting that which was not preached, preserving strictly the purity of faith (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20–21). Orthodoxy is truth, which is preserved and passed on to every generation, enriched along the way by the struggles of spiritual teachers, the Holy Fathers. By their spiritual struggles they attained holiness, drew near to God, and already lived a heavenly life. In holy Orthodoxy we have great riches and treasures. Our responsibility is to continue the work of the Holy Fathers, to preserve the Orthodox Faith in holiness and purity, and to witness to it before the entire world not only in words, but also through our deeds and our very lives. People coming from other religious currents find in Orthodoxy that pure grace-filled water that they may have been searching for their entire lives, not having found in their own religious confessions the full, spiritual, grace-filled, exalted faith that Christ gave.
In what way does Orthodoxy, in comparison with other religions, define the character of the relationship between man and God?
Inasmuch as God is love, the relationship of God towards man is a relationship of love, and man must in turn render to God the same; he must reply with the same love. God became man, abasing and humbling Himself, in order to elevate man. Man is no longer a degraded slave, but has become a child of God, as the Holy Fathers teach, and, as the Apostle says, a partaker of the divine nature (cf. 2 Peter 1:4). This is closely related to the doctrine of the deification of man. No one from the created world can apprehend God’s essence, but God, through the means of His divine energies – in other words through His grace – enters into communion with His creation. Through His grace, He grants us love and care. If man replies with an open heart and soul, and cleanses himself through prayer and struggle, God’s grace takes up abode in him and makes him a divine communicant.
Man then has God in his heart and soul, becoming a co-worker with the Lord God in the deed of his salvation. The Lord called His creation to salvation, which is the freeing from the bondage of sin. In this way, another inseparable part of Orthodox doctrine is the necessity of labor and effort for the attainment of salvation. Faith alone is insufficient in relationship to God. In the words of the Apostle, faith without works is dead (James 2:26). The coöperation of man and God is required for salvation.
In no other religion does God so exalt man as in Orthodoxy. Having taken on human nature, and having been seated at the right hand of the Father, Christ has elevated our nature to the level of divinity. In all this, man remains man and God remains God; there is no admixture of the divine and man, as in Eastern doctrines, which is the cause of pernicious pride. Communion always takes place in love and by the free choice of man, who with great gratitude and humility recognizes the priceless gift of God to him, the unworthy one. No other religion teaches such an awe-inspiring relationship of God towards the human person; his freedom and right of choice remains inviolable to God. In the process of coöperation with God – in other words, in divine communion – an unbounded expanse opens to man for spiritual growth and the perfection of self in God.
We all observe the corruption of culture. A great deal of immorality has appeared in the surrounding world. What work must the Church undertake to guard children and young people from this? Along with this, what can young people themselves do to attract their contemporaries to the Church?
In order to preserve the youth, one has to start at an early age, with childhood. Parents must always take their children to Communion, raising them in such a spirit that they, from their youngest years, thirst after church fellowship, and feel the Church’s influence on them. A child must grow up in uninterrupted communion with the Church, and for that reason one must go to church with one’s children often, and teach them to pray at home. To do this, parents must first guide by their own example. If children see that their parents pray together, they will follow their example. But if children see that their parents do not pray or go to church, they themselves will consider this unimportant. Those people are fortunate whose parents raised them in the spirit of the Church. They will preserve this gift all their lives.
It is more difficult for someone who does not have such an example. He must have a strong will and a deep conviction in order to follow the Christian path. It is wonderful to see that today many parishes invite our youth to various gatherings; at our Synod there is a committee for work with youth. Many un-churched children participate in our scout camps, and there they become acquainted with church life for the first time and, in such a way, they bring their parents to the Church. Today our youth have the opportunity to visit Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union. These trips always leave a deep and pleasant impression about church life. Young pilgrims return renewed and inspired. Their lives are changed as a result of these trips, as is their approach to life; this can be compared only with the effect of visiting the Holy Land. In this way, pilgrimages to Holy Russia can even have a salvific influence. Meetings with local youth are arranged on such trips.
Besides the above, it is very important to preserve annual and local youth conferences, to which well-known clergy that are competent in responding to questions that worry youth are invited as speakers. Various problems of the younger generation are discussed during these conferences. Such gatherings should bear significant spiritual fruits in the upbringing of the rising generation, and also make it more united among a disunited world, subject as it is to many dangerous temptations.
What spiritual-historical experiences of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia will be especially useful for the united Russian Church?
The Russian Orthodox Church is today founding many communities throughout the entire world. Our experience of parish and monastery life in the difficult conditions of exile, and the experience of surviving in foreign lands, will be useful for new communities arising abroad. Also valuable is our inner-parish experience of fellowship, which in large Russian cities with overfilled churches is practically impossible. I have now learned that in many parishes throughout Russia meals or teas are being organized after divine services, so that the priest and flock can grow more closely acquainted and talk together. This is a very important part of parish life. Fellowship with pastors and hierarchs is much easier abroad than in Russia, where an immense number of people visit a church, and the bishop does not have the opportunity to get to know everyone. Simply walking by a church where everyone is packed in and strives to receive a blessing is itself an ordeal. Fellowship with the flock is probably possible first of all through sermons; a personal conversation with a Vladyka about one’s needs is rarely possible. Abroad, in parishes of not only the Church Abroad but also of the Moscow Patriarchate, much closer fellowship with one’s hierarchy and clergy is possible. Such experience arose above all from the different circumstances in Russia and abroad.
While your memories and impressions of your recent visit to Ukraine are still fresh, I would like to ask you to share your opinion about the changes that have occurred in the life of society and the Church in Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union in recent years.
I first visited Russia and Ukraine in 1990. These were the years immediately following the fall of the Communist régime in these countries. The rebirth of the Church began during the years of perestroika. Of course, the rebirth began already after the celebration of the millennium of the Baptism of Russia. Even then there were significant changes in people’s relationship to religion: they had become more sympathetic. The restoration of churches was noticeable. But then everything was still in its first stages. There was still a shortage of foodstuffs in stores, and some stores had nearly nothing. Once in St. Petersburg I went to buy something, but there turned out to be nothing in the store. Already by the next time I noticed how remarkably fast old churches and monasteries were being restored and new ones were being constructed. The number of monasteries approached the pre-revolutionary number, when there were nearly 1,000 in the Russian Empire. Today the Moscow Patriarchate has more than 800 monasteries, and that is wonderful. My last visit to Kiev was altogether impressive. The city has undergone a remarkable change towards the better. Visiting this city, the cradle of our Orthodoxy, always fills my heart with a certain awe. During my last visit I visited, besides Kiev, the land of Volhynia. This is where my roots have their beginning. There I celebrated the 850-year jubilee of the city of Vladimir-Volhynia. It is quite near – a twenty-minute trip – to where my parents were born. This event was very moving for me.
Are you able to visit your parents’ homeland often?
After the official part of my visit, I visited the village my parents are from, Obenizhe, which is located between Kovel and Vladimir-Volhynia. This was my fifth trip to this location. The first time was remarkable in that my female cousin, whom I came to visit, gave birth to a son whom she named, in my honor, Igor – my name before monasticism. Now he is twenty, exactly how many years ago it was that I first had the opportunity to visit the homeland of my ancestors. It was very important to me to find my roots, my relatives. Living abroad, we felt very isolated. Relatives who remained in the homeland did not feel the same need for family connections as we did, living far from everything. As they themselves admitted to me, it was thanks to me that they grew closer, that they could finally gather together and get to know their kindred ties better.
Thanks to these trips I was able to establish my family tree ten generations back on the sides of both my father and mother. In this village there is a church dedicated to the Exaltation of the Cross that is at least 200 years old. In it my parents were baptized and married, and all my relatives were buried near this church. In Soviet times the cemetery around the church was leveled and a school playground was built there. Now there is a new cemetery, where many other of my relatives are buried: my grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts. Every time I go, my family and I go to the cemetery and look for the graves of our ancestors. During the Soviet period our church was never closed. In recent times the restoration of the church has been undertaken continually.
The church is supported by the donations of the villagers. They are poor themselves, but they give to the church. Twenty years after my first visit I celebrated the Divine Liturgy there for the first time. This was an outstanding event for my relatives, for the inhabitants of this village and the neighboring villages, and for me. Priests and parishioners from neighboring parishes also came to the divine service. After the service we held a festive trapeza. The villagers and clergy spent the time in a remarkable manner. Taken as a whole, this trip left in me a feeling of joy and special compunction from the miracle of the rebirth of Orthodoxy in the land where it has prospered for more than a millennium, but which for a short time found itself harshly persecuted; nevertheless, people are again returning to church.
What were your impressions from visiting the Kiev Theological Academy and Seminary?
I have the warmest and brightest impressions from my visit to the Kiev Theological Academy and Seminary. I visited this school on exam day. We had the opportunity to visit exams in both the academy and the seminary. It was interesting for me to compare the experience of the Kiev theological schools with how examinations were conducted at our seminary. Today in Western universities and seminaries the practice of written examinations is more prevelant. I was surprised to see that exams in the Kiev school are conducted orally, as they were during the years I studied in Jordanville. While one student is being examined, another is preparing his response to the ticket he has received. All this was familiar to me.
Above all, in the Kiev Theological Academy and Seminary I was amazed by the great size of the academic institution itself, as well as of the faculty and student bodies. Entry into the seminary takes place by competition: there are four people for every academic place, as Archbishop Anthony, the rector of the Kiev theological schools, told me. Active work on the restoration of the schools has gone on from the moment of the rebirth of the schools, and the museum and library have already been reestablished. Their fundamental merit, however, is their immediate proximity to that great holy place, the Kiev-Caves Lavra with its churches, the relics of the holy monastic fathers, and the icons inviting one to prayer – from which students can constantly draw living Orthodox faith. I liked all the students: they have sincere and luminous faces and they are polite and kind.
I would like to say the same thing in general about the faithful in Ukraine. I also liked the clergy for their soft and kind character. Students have the opportunity to find a spiritual father for themselves from the brotherhood of the monastery and, at any moment, to go to him for confession or for advice in case of difficult spiritual problems. In visiting the Kiev Theological Academy and Seminary, I was all the more convinced that the luminous work of educating future clergy for Christ’s Holy Church is being undertaken in our theological schools.
What part of theological education in our times do you consider to be the most important and necessary for seminarians?
I consider it foremost to know Holy Scripture, because the entire teaching of our Savior is based on this foundation. It is essential to know one’s faith on the basis of Holy Scripture, to be able to respond to the questions of people who would like to learn about Orthodoxy. It is very important that we ourselves know our faith and can easily and accessibly explain Orthodox doctrine. Many ask what the difference is between Orthodoxy and other Christian confessions. In our circumstances it is particularly important to have the ability to explain to Protestants why icons are allowed, why we make the Sign of the Cross, why – unlike Protestants – we cannot say that we are already saved.
It seems to the outside observer that we pay too much attention to outward rites. But if we know Holy Scripture, the history of the Church, and apologetics (and knowing it is very important), then we can explain why we act as we do, and not otherwise. This is extraordinarily necessary for contemporary pastors. At the same time, theory alone is insufficient; inseparably connected with theological education is spiritual practice. Living in a monastery, the students’ greatest advantage is that they have the opportunity for spiritual formation, for constant contact with the spiritual life, and to have nearby a spiritual instructor to whom they can turn at any time. This is also very valuable for the education of future servants of the Church.
What advice would you give to the contemporary seminarian?
I think that a seminarian, like any young person, needs direction. Therefore, first and foremost, it is essential to have a spiritual father who can help in the spiritual life. This is an age at which one has contradictory inner experiences, when one is overcome by various passions, and it is essential for spiritual formation to have close contact with a spiritual father and instructor. One should occupy oneself with spiritual reading, and not be lazy. We, who have already been through theological school, often regret that when we were young we were too lazy to read more and study more zealously, not taking full advantage of our time by studying something valuable. With the passing of years one recognizes the value of neglected time, especially at moments when one feels the lack of essential knowledge. Therefore one must use this precious time, as long as it is in one’s power.
Returning to a theme from the beginning of our conversation about your seminary and monastery years, I would like to sum up with this question: what to you is the heritage of Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary?
The heritage of our monastery has become for me the most precious discovery in my life. It became its foundation. In the beginning, within the walls of the monastery, we learned how to walk, as in childhood. Under the influence of the brethren and the teachers we grew up, frequently making mistakes and falling, but getting back up. The monastery and seminary gave us a very rich and multifaceted preparation, both theoretical and practical. The acquisition of book learning in theology and liturgics was accompanied by spiritual experience and practice in the divine services. We had the opportunity to study following the example of the pious brethren and fathers of the monastery. Such a rich source for spiritual experience as Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary is difficult to find, especially in our conditions abroad. Our task is to preserve this source and to attract the new generation to it so that, like previous generations, it can grow spiritually and prepare for service to the Church within the walls of the monastery. This is indeed a unique opportunity.
At the time this interview was conducted, Sergei Jakubov taught Apologetics and Comparative Theology at Holy Trinity Seminary.
Photographs graciously provided by the Holy Trinity Seminary Archives.