Christmas interview by Archimandrite Parthenius
for the National Informations Agency MIA, given on January 5th, 2018
- At the threshold of Christmas Eve and the great holiday of the Nativity of Christ, how devoted are the faithful to the tradition and the rituals?
These last years in Macedonia one can see a very hopeful phenomenon – namely, during the great holidays the churches are overcrowded with people who truly and devotionally practice their faith. This proves that faith is essentially present in their lives. Al that is due to several factors, among which the revival and intensification of the coenobitic monasticism that undoubtedly contributed a great deal for the returning of sacramental and traditional life in the Church. A great help in this context is the presence of abundant Orthodox spiritual literature, also the modern methods of preaching the faith through the internet and media. But especially precious for the proper practicing of faith is the alive example of the monasteries, which are open to everybody who would like to learn more about the basics and the essence of his faith and about the ancient rituals that emerge from the Holy Bible and the Holy Tradition, and the good spiritual priests. And I can see that all this positively affects the people: there is an increase in the interest for spiritual life, the ecclesiastic sites are more frequently visited and people are entering the Church in greater numbers and returning to the essential Orthodox customs, which certainly reflect the proper worship of God. This is a very hopeful tendency.
- Because of the fast way of living the faithful are frequently visiting the churches seeking spiritual peace and tranquility. Do you have the impression that their number is increasing? And what does every faithful need in order to find his spiritual peace outside the church?
We are all aware that the quick way of life and the excessive, or rather unnecessary, use of technology, such as television, social networks, and internet in general, take people so much time and strength, preoccupy them so much that they can find no more strength or time for God, or themselves, much less for others. Holidays are neglected, family reunions are gone, friendship too. I sincerely hope that this is just a temporary trend and that technology would find its own proper please in the life of modern man, because its misuse leaves people empty and hungry for the so much needed peace. This is not just the case with our country. The whole world today is in a heavy spiritual existential crisis, but man as a being has been created in such way that he always looks for the exit, the solution – the inner fulfillment, joy and peace. We can only find these in the One Whose bright Nativity we celebrate today. He, Christ our Lord, is the only name under the Sun that can give us salvation, the greatest Benefactor and Peacemaker, Who inspires peace and all the virtues in man.
Therefore, only God can give us that peace which cannot be replaced with anything else. Seeking it, people come to churches and God, being merciful, gives peace even to the skeptic ones, who only came in for a while to light a candle, so they often, leaving the church, claim: “I feel so unusually peaceful, calm”. So, they feel good, taste the Divine grace. If this is how they feel, you can imagine what it would be like if they started attending the Sunday and festive Liturgies and feel deep inside the grace that emanates from it! Then this inexplicable peace and joy and love which come from the Eucharistic communion with God, will enter his soul and then slowly move into all the aspects of his life and ennoble it.
- What is your message to the faithful at the threshold of Christmas?
After 23 years of spiritual work with people of different categories, my experience shows me that the absence of God from the heart of man is a very dark state. Simply man, depriving himself from God, falls into a terrible spiritual abyss, lives spontaneously, and finally brings himself to the state of despair. But when he reunites with God, he becomes a new person, as St. Apostle Paul mentions in his writings. One of the Church fathers says that this active repentance has been given to us “only through the Gethsemane prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ, through His Cross and Resurrection”. So Christ has given us this possibility. For example, the villain on the cross who repented at the last moment, became a new person in Christ. That is why Christ came on Earth – to teach the man of the real Divine Revelation and knowledge, and in this way to unite him with Himself and make him holy. If we analyze the liturgical logics we will notice that the Nativity of Christ is not just a historical event, but rather an event which can be experienced over and over again, for every generation, for all the times. The God Made Man was born once in the humble Bethlehem cave, so that He could be born over and over again in every human being, of course if people want that, reviving and making a new person out of them. That is how we should understand the essence of Christmas – as the active union of heaven and Earth. Because the birth leads to the final goal of Christ’s Incarnation, which is the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension, or in other words, the complete salvation and deification of the human nature. I wish all the people could feel Christmas like that. Could feel Christ this close, because He came to us as a Man too. Let us seek Him with faith because He is truly our closest friend.
- The faithful react to the high prices of Ecclesiastic services for weddings, funerals, baptisms… which differ from the ones of the other religious communities in the Republic of Macedonia.
I am grateful for this question, asked at the right time and in the right way. As a monastic community we have reacted several times through our official site, sending appeals and explanations on this topic. And I can’t help but wonder how could some people, or rather certain centers – I really wouldn’t like to think that there is a conspiracy against Orthodoxy – impose an opinion that allegedly the Orthodox faith is the most expensive. Objectively speaking, it’s the opposite. You yourself mentioned that our “pricelist” is different from the other religions. That’s exactly right – essentially different! Because while as the other religious organizations and institutions have a monthly or yearly tariff, which could be avoided by their members if they don’t want to be active members, in our Orthodox Church things are like this: usually once in a life time we marry, two or three times are godfathers, maybe would baptize two or three children and that’s it. Yes, maybe once a year the priest could come to our home and bless the water. If we calculate all this well, we would see how little we actually help our Church. And then some faithful would come to me and say: “father we keep seeing protestant literature being handed away in towns and cities, and they are such luxurious editions! Why can’t our Church fallow this example?” Well, how could it, when the money it gets should provide for the salary of the priests, its own administration needs, the upkeep of churches and ecclesiastical objects… and a large percent of these finances are spent for the needs of the Orthodox Theology University and the Seminary. It’s doubtful whether anything is left over for book publishing.
I regret the fact that when it comes to this issue, one can notice the liability of our nation to various prejudices and the listening of only to those things that intrigue our ears. We not only refuse to inform ourselves properly, but also when directed towards the truth, we don’t accept it, and remain stubbornly on our original misbelief. But we are now approaching the wonderful feast of Nativity and should be discussing only beautiful and positive things, the most beautiful being our Saviour Christ and His glorious Birth, which enlightens us with the lucent rays of Divine joy. So let us pray to the eternal Divine Child to enlighten all the people and make them truth-loving, so they could realize that the financial upkeep of our Church relies on their good will, i.e. gives them the freedom to decide to what extent they would like to help it.
- Is there any compliance among the old and the new bishops in the Holy Synod of MOC-OA?
Old age is usually considered as something negative, as an undesirable stage of human life, a period often disrespected and despised, because it is practically a synonym for the outdated, stale, useless and unproductive, and shows the gap between the younger and the aged ones. However in the tradition of the Church, old age is viewed completely differently. In it there is no generation gap, on the contrary the experience of those who have spent their entire life trying to get close to God, is highly estimated. These persons have enriched their spiritual life in the years past and have thus become a very pleasant company for the young ones, because with the years they have accumulated a lot of useful knowledge that they love to share with the younger and teach them. In our Orthodox culture it’s a custom for the younger to respect and listen to the advices of the wise old men in the family and wider, because the latter have reached a higher spiritual level, while struggling with their weaknesses and temptations, have attained a graceful state and managed to successfully walk along the path that still lies ahead the younger generations. This goes especially for the ecclesiastical clergy, namely – those who have struggled spiritually all their life, become spiritual Elders. Truly for us it is a great treasure to have the opportunity to listen to the wisdom and follow the example of, for instance, a Bishop who has given his entire life to God. The same thing goes for an Abbot of a monastery, and any other good monk or priest. The monks, actually, are called kalogeros, which means good elders, even when they are young, because as the wise King Solomon once said: For honourable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by number of years. But wisdom is the gray hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age. (Wisdom of Solomon 4, 8-9). That goes to show that wisdom and old age are companions, if and only if the old age is a result of a “spotless life”, i.e. of a struggle with one’s weaknesses and passions. Such person spiritually never grows old, his spirit is forever young. Consequently, although I am not a member of the Synod, I think that there shouldn’t be any generation gap there, nor disrespect of the younger bishops towards the older and vice versa.
- Is there a consensus in the attitudes of the Synod members regarding the request and the agreement of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to be a Mother-Church of MOC-OA?
This issue has stirred a great commotion. As soon as the possibility appeared for the Bulgarian Church to be a Mother–Church of today’s revived Ohrid Archbishopric in the image of MOC, a great storm of negative propaganda rose. All of a sudden people seemed to forget that for fifty years after we proclaimed our autocephaly, and twenty years of struggle of our clergy before that – all together seventy years we have been negotiating in vain about this with the Serbian Church, which the negative historical circumstances imposed on us as a Mother-Church. So it is in no way a classical Mother-Church, becoming such with the natural cause of things, but rather imposed on us politically and by force in the course of some extremely difficult circumstances for our Church, such as the period between the two World Wars and after. For that reason, not only our issue isn’t solved yet, but also we experienced a tragic schism, among other things, because the SOC envisioned the creation of a parallel ecclesiastic hierarchy named Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric, as the means for realization of their own goals. Recently we heard the statement by the Bishop of Bachka Irenaeus (Bulovich) that in the more recent years the Ohrid Archbishopric had allegedly been a Serbian property. We should once and for all tell the Macedonian public that not only this isn’t so, but it’s rather the opposite – The SOC itself segregated from the Ohrid Archbishopric, i.e. the latter was the Mother-Church of the first one, since the diocese of the OA in the time of St. Sava covered its entire territory all the way to Dalmatia. Namely, in 1219 St. Sava visited the then banished to Nicaea Patriarch of Constantinople, because at that time Constantinople was under Latin rule. With the money he got from his father Simeon, St. Sava practically bought the Tomos of Autocephaly and then willfully appropriated several dioceses from the Ohrid Archbishopric, proclaiming them as a Patriarchy of Pech. The Ohrid Archbishop Homatian even placed this newly formed Church under a prohibition, there was no communion between them for around 10 years. Still the motherly feelings of the Ohrid Archbishopric prevailed and in just ten years the schism was lifted. Furthermore, the OA never demanded that the Patriarchy of Pech should be degraded to an autonomy status, but actually recognized its autocephaly and communed with it. Now please make a comparison between this act of brotherly love of the Ohrid Archbishopric and the violent arrival of SOC to Macedonia in 1918! How aggressively they imposed their jurisdiction on the territory of present Republic of Macedonia, and how unchristian were all their further acts – the deserting in 1941, then the obstructions they created in the process of the revival of Ohrid Archbishopric in the image of MOC, the conditions they imposed on our cooperation that we were forced to accept due to the political circumstances of that time, the negation of our identity etc. Historically speaking, the complete attitude of SOC towards us is unprecedented Golgotha, a horrible intolerance and disregard for our issue, extreme unpastoral behavior, with the exception of certain bishops and spiritual Elders. These past 70 years SOC imposed a terrible isolation upon us, such as no other Church in the history has undergone. The Bulgarian Church for instance has also been in schism for 70 years, but wasn’t deprived of communion with the Russian Church etc. Another example today is the Orthodox Church of America – although still not recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it communes with all the Churches, except the Greek ones, and there are even cases when Greek bishops serve together with the American. So you can see that we have been condemned to a terrible isolation.
The Serbian nationalistic Hierarchs don’t want to accept the fact that the revival of OA was above all due to the efforts of the priesthood and the monastics and a will of the Orthodox faithful. It’s the same today. And it’s this exact struggle for the revival of OA which maybe played a crucial part in the creation of the modern independent Macedonian state. Maybe because of these words someone could blame us for ethnophiletism, but on the contrary – the resistance of our spiritual fathers was the only way to save us from the Serbian nationalism, which could be noticed even today. Because imagine what would have happened if by the 90 – ties in our country there had been some autonomous Church under the jurisdiction of the Serbian – our monasteries, having in mind the past politics and activity of SOC, would probably have been occupied by the politically instructed monastics which unfortunately would have become a center of Serbian influence and a tool for pro-Serbian propaganda. I wonder if then we could have had any will at all or the strength needed for a creation of independent state. Therefore we must not degrade ourselves into accepting autonomy under the jurisdiction of SOC. Also it would be an ultimate injustice if we accept the request of SOC and return under its jurisdiction, apologizing for something our God – loving and truthful ancestors did on the Ecclesiastic – national Committee in 1967 under the guidance of Archbishop Dositheus. This Archpastor of ours had accomplished a truly sacred and blessed ecclesiastic and national deed. Therefor his name remains carved with golden letters in our collective memory as an Orthodox all-national pastor and a spiritual giant. God rest his soul!
And regarding the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, unfortunately the years-long propaganda and provoking hatred towards our eastern neighbor, the brotherly Bulgarian nation, contributed for the present false and malicious claims that we are allegedly making a terrible sin and treason by asking for another Mother-Church instead of the Serbian. And here we have to say that BOC has much bigger ecclesiastic and historical right to be a Mother-Church of MOC-OA, because there is a long mutual history that connects us, starting with the Ohrid Archbishopric, and then there is the Exarchate too. Even the very Constitution of the present BOC-BP creates sufficient ground for BOC to be Mother-Church of OA and to request its recognition from the Constantinople Patriarchy. Don’t forget that the Constantinople Patriarchy is the Mother-Church of almost all Orthodox Churches and in the end the Tomos should always come from this Church. I would also like to use the opportunity to reply to all those who unreasonably fear that MOC-OA would be a subordinate Church. On the contrary, by attaining the autocephalous status, that we require, we become two equal sister-Churches. We shouldn’t disregard at all the brotherly reply of the Bulgarian Church: it immediately responded to our request and created a commission which already met on two occasions with the commission of our Church. This gives us great hope that finally our ecclesiastic issue would be solved. Naturally, this shouldn’t exempt the Serbs from participation in the solving of our status, since they are our Orthodox brothers and our neighbors and now is the moment for them to come out with some constructive ideas, instead of the detrimental statements like the one we heard from Mr. Irinej Bulovich, that what is happening with MOC-OA is an act of destruction of the Orthodoxy. Such anachronous approach is really ridiculous. We should preach and defend Orthodoxy the way Christ teaches us, with His love, and not by spreading hatred and discord, by applying some medieval inquisitorial methods, such as for example the separation of an entire nation from the Communion etc. Consequently, the bishops of SOC should ask themselves if the punishment of isolation which they have imposed on the Macedonian Orthodox nation and all their historical injustice towards our Church, are really beneficial to Orthodoxy, or rather to its enemies…
Finally I would like to stress that MOC i.e. the Ohrid Archbishopric has always be and still is a Church of many Orthodox nationalities. As such it’s supported and accepted by all Orthodox faithful in our country, no matter whether they are Vlach, Romani, Serbs, Greeks, etc. – they all freely fulfill their ecclesiastic needs in it and have shown their loyalty in every aspect.
- Do you think that the Serbian and the Greek Church could block this essentially important and exquisite act of the BOC which is to inform the Constantinople Patriarchy, and lead to the recognition of the autocephaly of MOC?
I have already mentioned about this constant obstruction by SOC which brought us only humiliation, terrible isolation and unsolved ecclesiastic issue. You can see our personal contacts with the Greek Orthodox Church are very intensive, we have cooperation with Mount Athos too, but it hurts that we cannot serve together publicly, cannot take communion, just because of this intolerance of SOC, which reacts to just about any contact with some other Church. We are eternally grateful to the GOC, which allowed our students to study theology at the Orthodox Theology Faculty in Thessaloniki and to the Holy Mount Athos, the monastic republic that opened its gates to us thirty years ago and gave us the opportunity to regain the Athonite monastic tradition which had been lost. Without it the coenobitic monasticism couldn’t have been revived in our country.
There will certainly be future attempts to block this process, but we sincerely hope for the Divine mercy and enlightenment of the bishops of the fore- mentioned Churches, so that the truth and love could prevail. I also think that the God-wise Patriarch Bartholomew would act like as a true shepherd of the great Ecumenical Mother-Church and make the right step towards the solution of this problem – the way he should in order to heal this huge and serious wound of Orthodoxy. All his previous statements imply this. He even mentioned once, when it wasn’t the moment to speak about it because it was the funeral of the blessedly reposed Serbian Patriarch Paul, to the next Serbian Patriarch that the problem with our Church should be solved as soon as possible. But the SOC did not obey.
Certainly an additional problem to the already complicated Macedonian ecclesiastic issue is the creation of the parallel hierarchy of the autonomous Serbian Church headed by the former Metropolitan of Povardarie, Mr. John Vranishkovski, and the public should know that this Church does not exist in the diptych of the Orthodox Churches and is not recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch as separate, but rather as part of the Serbian. Unfortunately, it’s clear now that they have become victims of the false Serbian ecclesiastic-national hegemonic politics. This is so because they are a fictional Church in Macedonia which doesn’t have the support of the people although they keep bragging about their presence in the Orthodox world. So far this act of creating a parallel hierarchy of the Serbian Church has only caused pain and great damage to the Orthodox Church in Macedonia, because many people in our country lost their faith in the Orthodoxy in general.
However we still hope that in the end the fraternal love would prevail, because we are all disciples of Christ, Who is Love and Who told us: By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (John, 13, 35). Let us pray humbly and with love, not just us the monks, but also all the Orthodox Christians in Macedonia and everywhere in the world, so that love at the bishops should prevail and this painful wound of Orthodoxy is finally healed.