Wednesday, May 29, 2024

    A sneak peek into the life of the Stauropegion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Kyiv: Coffee and talk with the exarch

    On the eve of the “main feast” of Andrew the First-Called (the Apostle Andrew is considered to be the founder of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Kyiv’s spiritual prophet, credited with saying that “grace will shine” on Kyiv hills), Ukrinform wanted to learn how the church and laity of Patriarchal Stauropegion (The Mission ‘Stauropegion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ukraine) that operates from St. Andrew’s Church.



    I haven’t come to St. Andrew’s Church since it was refurbished. So this time I arrived ahead of the service and saw the kids crawling around and having fun on the floor that has been crafted with love by the temple’s architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli. To be precise, the floor was later improved here. At the time of Empress Elizabeth’s rule (when the temple was built) children wouldn’t be allowed to boss around on the church floor, of course. But in Christianity, each era is getting more and more convenient to the faithful.

    This Sunday, the last before St. Andrew’s Day, a three-year-old toddler was to be baptized here. This was evidenced by the font and desk set up in the middle.

    I approached a mother who was holding him in her arms. I introduced myself and asked her why they chose this precise temple for the sacrament of baptism.

    – I’m Victoria. I was waiting for the refurbishing works to be over. I’ve been choosing between St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral and St. Andrew’s Church and I eventually decided that it’s going to be St.Andrew’s. After all, besides the beautiful exterior, this church boasts an amazing history.

    – What do you mean exactly?

    – Any period of life of St. Andrew’s Church is a symbol. Whether it is a period of the temple’s erection, or the recent past, or the present.

    UkrinformVictoria’s son Mark persistently pulled his mom toward the altar, with his baptism still being ahead….


    Victoria was right. Any period you take – it was truly significant. For me, a special period in St. Andrew’s Church history is the launch of autocephaly. Of this period little is known, but more than a hundred years ago, St. Andrew’s Church was run by autocephalous communities. From 1919, it was controlled by the autocephalous movement, which was very powerful in Ukraine. It was bright, naïve, and also tragic. It saw different formats, periods, personalities, it made mistakes, but certainly pursued the dream called “the Ukrainian Church.” Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox settled here in 1921-1924, there were even pastoral courses set up here before the government seized the church from the community in the 1930s, during the period of repression. Then, in 1942, during the occupation of Kyiv, when certain easing was seen toward the church, the autocephalous church started running the church again, but it was a branch, whose status was based on the Tomos of 1924, issued to the Orthodox Metropolis in Poland. Also, it had a certain canonical “connection” with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

    One way or another, for the last century, St. Andrew’s Church has never been run by the ROC. It might be a coincidence… But, as they say, coincidence is one of God’s names.

    A few minutes before the start of the sermon, I met an acquaintance, blogger and autocephalous church follower Larysa Vasilieva:

    – I haven’t met anyone who would not love St. Andrew’s Church. Due to its exterior, it’s always been Kyiv’hallmark. But for a long time, when entering it, I would feel pain and longing from the church’s introversion, abandonment, orphanhood, and deep despair over hopeless revival prospects, Larysa told me.

    Everything changed on December 13, 2018, on the day of St. Andrew the Apostle, the patron saint of our Mother Church in Constantinople. I was standing there, attending the liturgy of the Ecumenical Throne on the slopes of the Dnipro River banks. Did I perceive it as a miracle? Yes, I did. I had this deep feeling that, while we’re standing here on earth, Princess Olha, who was baptized in Constantinople, and Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv, whom the Byzantines baptized in Chersonesos (and he did this with us more than 1,000 years ago), the Venerable Kyiv -Pechersk saints who followed the path of Christ’s salvation under the omophorion of the Mother Church of Constantinople, and all the Ukrainian people who sacrificed their lives for Ukraine – all of them rejoiced with us, observing us from Heaven. Since then, what I feel in St. Andrew’s Church is that I’ve returned home after a time in captivity.

    … So the liturgy began. Byzantine chants are sung in Ukrainian here. And I suddenly recalled that at the time when there were the first communities in the church, there was a big wave of church music development. Mykola Leontovych, Kyrylo Stetsenko, many new choirs, multiple variations of different musical pieces. It is unlikely that we will find Leontovych’s scores in the church basements but his spirit is definitely here. It is known that the author of a globally acclaimed Shchedryk (known to around the world in its adapted version called “Carol of the Bells”) conducted in person at the first liturgy in Kyiv, celebrated in Ukrainian, so probably he would come to this church as well. Some fantastic acoustics here…

    – I came here from the Moscow Patriarchate. The last straw was when, after the OCU received the tomos of autocephaly, the ROC severed ties with the Ecumenical Throne, and when I traveled to Europe, I would always identify as an Orthodox with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, another believer, Vadym Kotenko, told me.

    Whether on Mount Athos, or in Greece, or across Europe… I’ve been coming here since the day the Stauropegion opened. And I should confess, I followed the Stauropegion’s pages on social media. In the Moscow Patriarchate, they would often tell us that there’s “no spirit” in the West, but I see that the temples are full of people there. Whether it’s Italy – not only Rome, but also towns popular among tourists – the temples are full of people. Or take Paris, Montmartre – full… And when he came here, I sensed the heart of Constantinople.



    “Don’t rub this on me!” whined Mark, 3, turning his little head away as the priest tried to mark a cross on his forehead and hands. Throughout the baptism ceremony he was rather calm (this time it was part of the liturgy, not a separate rite), but the last stage, the anointing, seemed to be too much for him. However, as is often the case after people get “sealed” by the Holy Spirit, he again calmed down, offered a cute smile to those in attendance, and walked contentedly into the arms of the exarch, the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bishop Michael, who carried him at the altar around the throne. This is a tradition when it’s boys that are being baptized.

    The liturgy was coming to a close and, according to another tradition, after the service, people gathered for coffee in the temple’s stylobate part.

    – Bishop, the holidays are coming, so there’ll be plenty of talk on church topics, and I can already imagine how often I will be asked why the Orthodox are a minority worldwide, – that’s what I ask before hearing Vadym joining the conversation and jokingly asking me, how many people I think would be okay…

    – I have no answer to this question. It’s not about numbers because the Church is not a statistical database. Numbers do not negate one simple truth. The church is one and only. Unfortunately, certain historical realities have led to divisions and there are people now who are not in the Eucharistic communion for various reasons. But the presence of those who are out of communication with the Orthodox Church is always taken into account. Whether in the West or in the East, on any continent, Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants – People who believe in Christ – they are Christians. That is why there is inter-Christian dialogue. Protestants like to make fun of us, saying that our people, to the question “Are you a believer?” answer: “I am Orthodox.” Our late rector Father Petro Wlodek from Volyn where I began my religious studies, when asking us to stay for the evening songs, would often joke: “Seminarians stay, while believers may go.” In this way, he jokingly tried to protect us from formalism and realization of our own exclusivity.


    – There was also another joke… When the apostle was touring someone across paradise, he said, “It’s so quiet here… That’s because the Orthodox are here and they think they’re here alone.

    – In my opinion, the very fact that such sad jokes are out there means people long for lost unity. If you ask the question seriously, restoring unity is the goal. It is clear that the tragic split happened long before our days, so we are now experiencing the consequences of events that took place many centuries ago. But at the same time, we can make efforts at all levels of the church community to bring this unity closer to be restored, with God’s help. To this end, there is dialogue and conciliar governance of the Church. Previously, there was no division, there was a single Christian Church. For example, we take into account the fact that there is currently no Eucharistic communion with the Western Church. At the same time, let’s read the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (which no one has ever revoked), and we’ll see that the system of the administrative organization of the Christian Church is clearly explained there, including the place of the chair of Ancient Rome. So the current division is a sad reality, but we are all also called to make efforts to fix things as much as we can. As for Orthodoxy… In 2016, the Great All-Orthodox Council was held. It wasn’t an Ecumenical Council. Preparations for this council had lasted more than 50 years so it addressed issues that needed to be settled for all local Orthodox churches.

    – Will Orthodoxy survive and develop without all-Orthodox councils?

    – Councils are not some scheduled events to be held just for the sake of it, like, “Hey, let’s convene a Council.” Cathedrals are held if necessary. Is it necessary? Then we’re holding a Council. When there were no dogmatic upheavals for the Church, the councils never convened. But if there were no important issues, they might not have been gathering. When did the Councils emerge? When heresies, Nestorian heresies, and the like arose, bishops gathered and said: “The Church is having some problems, the body of the Church is suffering, people are suffering, so we need to assess the situation and address the challenge. This happened when there was a need to express dogmatic truths. But at the same time, there were administrative, disciplinary issues that were decided at the councils. In fact, many issues can be resolved by a regular council, but the council is called Ecumenical because it is accepted by the whole Church. Ecumenical councils did not have such a status at the time of their holding, they acquired this status later in history, given their importance for the wholesomeness of Christ’s Church. The councils also heard administrative and disciplinary issues of certain dioceses in certain countries. After all, if we have all gathered, let’s decide this and that… And these aspects of the lower tier, submitted to the Ecumenical Councils, had no dogmatic significance. If they are technical in nature, they may change over time if the Church needs so. For example, are regards liturgy, it’s the same situation. There are many rites of the Divine Liturgy that have been used in different countries at different times. And now for the Orthodox Church it has historically developed that we use the following rites: John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, the Apostle James (very rarely and not everywhere), and the liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. There are technically no obstacles to celebrating others. But for common use, the Church has adopted precisely these ones. So what I’m saying is that even outwardly, liturgies may change but one thing remains stable, which is content and result, which in this case is the Body and Blood of Christ. But all this is done in concert, and only if there is a need and benefit for the Church.


    – As it was done today, when you baptized a child as part of the service?

    – Baptism can take place the way you saw today, as part of the liturgy.

    So are weddings. This is a symbolic chalice of wine given to the couple. Why so? That’s because, in ancient times, the newlyweds during a communion would use a single Chalice. And this emphasized that all the Sacraments of the Church are Eucharistic-centric – they’re all around the Eucharist. The Church exists around and on the basis of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the center. Without it, there is no Church as such. Everything is nourished by our Lord Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is not celebrated by the priest himself. He presides over the Eucharistic assembly. The liturgy is celebrated by the whole community and led by the priest. Let us open the prayers of the Liturgy and read them. It’s “we ask you,” “we praise you,” “we bring you.” That is, all prayers are addressed to God by the community. The priest offers prayers only so that the Lord will not shame him in his service for his unworthiness and sins. That is why I personally support the idea that all people who pray at the Divine Liturgy prepare and take communion. What usually happens is they come, gather, and ask God to give them the Body and Blood of Christ – and the Lord gives it to them. You asked? Here you go!

    In our services, most believers take communion, consciously preparing. But here another question arises – the question of the conscious Christian life of a Christian believer.


    – You do not have confession during a liturgy.

    – Confession takes place prior, on another day. This is part of the liturgical life of our church. And it is dictated by personal experience. When I started serving in Volyn, I remember that during Lent, when hundreds of people come in, confession turns into a conveyor belt. When there were up to 2,000 people in the church, the liturgy was limited in time, it all came down to the priest reading the prayer of permission. I don’t know what benefit it brings the people, but the priest himself is thus getting used to formalism. Confession in this version is perceived as a ticket to Communion. In our case, people can come to us and confess a week or month prior, when they feel the need. In Greece, a priest sits down with the person and they talk. They look each other in the eyes because emotional contact is very important. And it helps a person a lot. In Notre Dame de Paris, I saw a practice of confession that I really enjoyed. There were improvised confessionals shaped as glass cubes, blurred at face level. It is clear that two people are sitting there. They are sitting at the table, but you can’t see their faces, no emotions are visible, but it’s clear that confession is taking place. A modern confessional – this may seem strange to some. But as a concept, it’s very interesting. This is personal communication. Nobody is pushing you: “Come on, let’s go!” By the way, in ancient times, there was a practice –in Greece it has survived to this day – where a priest has the right to hear confessions only after a few years of service, with the permission of his bishop, when he has already gained experience. And this does make sense. This is so relatable to me. I became a priest at the age of 22 – at this age, we are still young guys playing football or whatever. What advise can we give? What can we teach people? That is, it’s technically clear that a priest can hear out a confession at any age, but this is about the deep senses and quality of confession…



    – But I constantly emphasize the personal responsibility of the faithful. Man bears responsibility, he must look at his own soul. And this is an opportunity for them to grow as a person. We should not be afraid to take responsibility before God. The Lord has given us free will, free mind, so we must decide for ourselves. I will take communion. I will warn, recommend, and ask if the person has prepared. But if a person is baptized, has no obstacles, and insists, I will take communion. Does a person want this? Are they aware of their responsibility? They say, “Yes, I want it.” Then I will say, “Alright then, please.”

    By the way, in ancient times there was a practice where people who do not take communion at the Liturgy where they prayed, were criticized. That’s as if in this way they claimed that the Eucharist is void. And the bishops who came to the service but had not prepared for Communion left after the reading of the Gospel. They left the community before the Eucharistic canon so that the faithful would not think that they did not recognize this Eucharist as valid. It is a misconception that the priest mediates between man and God. The only mediator between God and man is the Lord Jesus Christ. The priest is the leader of the Eucharistic community, which, in fact, was entrusted to him by the church. And he can exercise his gracious powers, authority only in the Church and for the Church, for its benefit. There is no one and nothing in the Church but Christ. And it “gives him out” to the faithful at every Divine Liturgy. Everything is very simple. And then the priest understands that he’s not some church nobleman, that he only carries obedience in this Church, this is something that the Church has entrusted to him…

    – “But there is a prayer of deterrence, which is often practiced by the Orthodox,” some girl asks the bishop.

    – Well, “deterrence” means that we keep it (evil) off, not cancel it. Like, “perhaps, you come at another time? – the exarch jokes. – There are plenty of different prayers. Prayers are written in poetic language, penned as a model. Why are there many prayers of the holy fathers in the prayer book? That’s not because the holy fathers stood and prayed using all these texts. Maybe they had one prayer. And this is a proposal of how to talk to God. You can pray in your own words, no one forbids it. But when we pray only in our own words, prayer is often reduced to some mediocre requests. Following the example of the holy fathers, prayer teaches us to pay attention to our spiritual condition, to our correction. It’s also about “give” and “help,” but the main emphasis is on own correction.

    – I often hear people say that three years ago, Ukraine made a “European ecclesiastical choice…”

    – “European ecclesiastical…” – I’ve got no idea what it’s about. The choice is either ecclesiastical or not. That’s it.

    – Is there a chance for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine to survive despite so many attacks and the lack of resources as its opponent’s, the tradition of modern theology?

    – The Orthodox Church of Ukraine is developing, its autocephaly has already been recognized by four local Churches, other local Churches (except for one) have not severed communication with those who have already recognized it. So anyone can continue the logical chain on their own. The Ukrainian Church is not a separate structure, it’s the same Church of Christ in Ukraine. It’s just administratively, it is a separate unit. I wouldn’t use the word “survive”: the Church of Christ is over 2,000 years old – it will live through anything. I would also very carefully use the term “modern theology.” The fact is that in the Church, theology doesn’t change, and neither do dogmas. It’s the form and shape of presentation that may change, but its essence never does. I would rather talk about the development and implementation of the latest form of conveying things. Of course, when the younger generation has the capacity to study abroad, when scholars have the capacity to release books, this makes the journey easier.


    – You recently published a book about the figure and ministry of Patriarch Bartholomew for Ukraine and Ukrainians. Will there be more work done in this regard?

    – We are preparing for the release a catechism compiled by Bishop Sotirios, Metropolitan of Pisidia. The book was published in Greek, Turkish, Russian, and will be in Ukrainian. It is being translated and will be published in Kyiv. It has a different presentation. In an easy and wide form, it offers the main answers to many questions. And most importantly, we will distribute it free of charge, including in e-format, as long as we have resources. This is such an offering to Ukrainian society that we’re planning. And it is suggested that the catechism will be published under a Creative Commons license, that is, anyone will be able to take it, supplement it, improve it, and republish it, but terms of distribution must remain the same.

    – How can Scriptures be integrated into the modern world?

    – There’s no need for that. The Holy Scriptures are not part of this world. Therefore, they will never be able to fit in, while remaining what they are. They enable those who live according to them to become “leaven” for change. No need to change the world. It will partially and slowly change anyway. Under no circumstances should you impose anything on anyone. Christianity is a minority. In my opinion, the idyllic symphony (the principle of the conscious accord, cooperation, and harmony of government and church – ed.), firstly, cannot be realized in practice, and secondly, in my opinion, there is no need for it, because then there will always be risk and the temptation to interfere in each other’s affairs. When did the greatest miracles happen? When the church was persecuted. When the church was oppressed. Then people pray more sincerely. We must be a light to this world. And then, whoever wants, let them come, and whoever doesn’t – we can’t force them, we can’t save everyone. We can affirm Christ with our lives, our faith, and our help, but there is also people’s personal choice.

    – What can you say about Ukrainian believers in general?

    – I personally have some subjective issues about them.

    – How can they impove?

    – Leave formalism behind. Gain greater awareness in church life and don’t forget that in addition to being Orthodox, we are first and foremost Christians.

    Bishop, some of my friends will celebrate Christmas twice. Once – in the new style, another – in the old. A little deviation from discipline, but I think that on the way to the transition to a new style it is justified. Especially since the state on December 25 declared a day off with a clear hint at the New Julian style. They started fasting earlier. Will Christmas be celebrated in the Stauropegion on December 25?

    – Oh, here comes the calendar topic, again. (Smiles). Well, in our upper main temple it is celebrated by the old calendar, and in the lower temple, it’s the new one. So yes, there will be a Christmas service by the new calendar.

    In general, calendar is only a tool for measuring time, so it has no dogmatic significance. Any church lives in line with the calendar which is more convenient for it.

    – Also, Bishop, sober faith always teaches us to understand where in the church tradition the holy truth is and where is the holy myth. Did the Apostle Andrew really stand on the Hills of Kyiv and foretell that Grace would shine here?

    – I think this is a topic for extensive historical research and which can’t fit into the format of a short talk over coffee. (Laughs). During his visit to Ukraine in August this year, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presented us with a share of the relics of the Apostle Andrew, which will be permanently stored in the Stauropegion. We will soon present them to the public. I can’t say if the Apostle Andrew had ever been here before but he surely is, now.

    Lana Samokhvalova, Ukrinform