BISHOP NICHOLAS OF MANHATTAN: “GOD HELPED US SPREAD THE ORTHODOX FAITH THROUGHOUT THE WORLD”
Interview with Dmitry Zlodorev
The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) marks its 100th anniversary this month. Her path began with the last of the ships departing the coast of Crimea, carrying aboard them White Russia, and together with them, the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign,” which has become now the Hodigitria, the Shower of the Way, of the Russian diaspora.
Because of the pandemic, all celebrations had to be postponed. But they were not canceled, they may take place next year. Bishop Nicholas (Olhovsky) of Manhattan discusses how the Church is preparing to mark its centennial, how Russian people were able to preserve their faith over such a long time, and when the Kursk Icon will once again visit Russia.
– Vladyka, this year the Russian Church Abroad marks its centennial, but all the events had to be postponed because of the coronavirus. Will this jubilee still be celebrated?
– We were preparing to hold many splendid divine services and events in Germany, the USA and other countries, but the pandemic has forced us to change plans. Still, we accepted these circumstances and decided to hold them next year.
God willing, we will be able to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the All-Diaspora Church Council held in 1921 in the Yugoslavian city of Sremski Karlovci,and will thereby be celebrating two important events in the life of the Church. For now we don’t have concrete dates, but it is possible that we will study this matter at the Synod of Bishops session this December. If God grants, there will be divine services next spring after Pascha, and maybe a Council of Bishops will be convened. Also, we wished to visit the places in Serbia where 100 years ago the Russian emigration found hospice, the churches and monasteries that served as the cradle of the Church Abroad.
But we would like to begin celebrations on 10 December of this year, when the 725th anniversary of the glorification of our Hodigitria will occur—the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign.” On this day we celebrate a solemn Liturgy at our Synodal Cathedral of Our Lady “of the Sign” in New York, which is its feast day.
– This year, the Kursk Icon for the first time in many years could not visit Russia. Many believers wait to see her, traveling from other cities specially for the occasion, to venerate Her. When will this be possible again?
– This year, because of the pandemic and related limitations, the icon has barely left New York and the surrounding region, only rarely did we visit nearby parishes, but traveling to Russia or other countries has been impossible. We pray to God that He helps us continue the magnificent tradition of visiting the city of Kursk, and possibly other cities of Russia. Most likely we will deliberate on this matter at the Synod meeting in December.
– During the pandemic, you and several priests visited not only churches with the Kursk Icon, but hospitals, private homes, and even conducted an aerial procession above New York. Did you have any revelations, any miracles, seen or unseen, during this time?
– Many people found consolation. And I feel that the city has become somewhat calmer. I think that the Veil of the Mother of God played a special role in this. Of course, everyone knows that we pray for all people in America and in the world, we perform moleben services and akathists, and the people of God understand this, sense it and is thankful.
– In your view, what is the main goal that ROCOR has been able to achieve over the 100 years?
– By Divine mercy, we were able not only to preserve the Orthodox Christian faith, but as it seems to me, spread it throughout the whole world, to confirm Orthodoxy in Europe, the USA, South America, Australia, Canada… This is simply a Divine miracle that Russian people abroad not only safeguarded their faith, their culture, their language and traditions, but were able to illuminate other peoples. We see how even now our Orthodox Christian faith is strengthening and continues to survive, and with God’s help will remain here forever.
– Was it difficult to accomplish this?
– I think that there were difficulties. Establishing new communities and parishes, bringing people together is never easy. But, again, everything that seems impossible to man is possible for God. The Lord blessed our ancestors not to wane in spirit, to strengthen in faith and to create, to continue Church life.
– In sated America, it is probably hard to exhibit heroism. Have you met people who have been heroic in order to preserve their roots and faith here?
– I remember first and foremost my parents, grandfather and grandmother, and of course, our Church leaders, whom I had the joy to know—Metropolitan Laurus, our present First Hierarch Metropolitan Hilarion, Protopriest Boris Kizenko, Archimandrite Kiprian (Pyzhov) and the brethren of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville. All these people served as an example, by their own lives preserving and passing on to us the Orthodox faith, the beauty of divine services and the value of our Russian history and culture.
– How did your family pass on these values? Was it easy for them to pass them on to little Kolya Olhovsky?
– I remember some of this, therefore, they were able to pass it on: by their kind words, prayers, their peaceful nature, their stories. The very fact that they were near us, their children, meant a lot. Sensing familial tenderness, praying together at home, read Holy Scripture, it seems simple but it gave us a solid foundation for our future lives.
– In one interview you admitted that as a child you were upset that you had to keep the fast when everyone around you was celebrating Christmas. What did this teach you?
– Of course, there were childhood anxieties, but I learned to love our faith even more, to understand and value what we have, specifically, the Orthodox, meaning correct, faith.
– Were there moments in your life when you might have left the Church and rejected your roots?
– There are always temptations. But with God’s help, I remained close to the Church, because I was surrounded by good Church people. And I personally never left, I always wanted to be close to the Church, I loved and continue to love Her. It’s all very simple: the Church is my life.
– In what way does Orthodox Christianity in the diaspora differ from Russian Orthodoxy in Russia? It seems to me that believers in Russia don’t understand very clearly how important the role of the Church is for those who for one reason or another found themselves abroad. Here, the parish is more than a parish, it is not simply divine service. All around here is the cultural and national life.
– First of all I would point out that we have a lot in common: the same traditions, the same prayers, the same divine services, thank God.
Of course, in America, the Russian Church has a special mission: not only to preserve the Russian language and culture, but to provide Americans the opportunity to have contact with the sanctity of our faith. For instance, at the Synod in New York, there is very active parish life in two languages. On Sundays, early Liturgy is celebrated in English. They have their own community, Americans who converted to Orthodoxy, mixed families where either the husband or wife are Orthodox, and they help their spouses understand everything. The later services are celebrated in Church Slavonic. After services we organize either a luncheon or at least refreshments, so that the people of God could continue their prayerful communion. This is very important, for every parish represents an ecclesial family, where almost everyone knows each other and stay in contact outside of church. I would say that this is a special quality of the Church Abroad.
– There is also another trait: our Church is small, familial, so all the priests and even bishops are more accessible than in Russia. Here everyone does indeed know each other. How important is it for you as a bishop to have contact with simple parish priests and parishioners? What do you gain from such meetings?
– Of course, this is important. We don’t only pray together, we discuss matters of Church life with our priests. It is important for me to be with the flock, to understand how people live, what their concerns are, what they may not understand. In this contact I also gain some consolation. This is also beneficial in order to understand how to preach the Word of God and explain the important elements of Church life, so that do not stray on this earth. But at the same time I would note that there are wonderful bishops in Russia, who strive despite their burden to spend time with the people.
Visiting the parishes of our Eastern American Diocese, I understood that our clerics try very hard. We have wonderful priests who try to set examples for their flock. At the same time you should know that the parishes here are generally not wealthy , and so many priests are forced to take on civil jobs to support their families. This is wrong, of course, but such is reality. They combine church and civil work and still remain exemplary pastors. I rejoice that we have such priests.
I’m often able to visit parishioners with the Kursk Icon—sometimes to homes, sometimes to hospitals, and people often invite me to namesday celebrations or other holidays. This helps give a sense of how much faith our parishioners have, how they try with all their might to help our churches. I see in them humility, love for God and Church, and it gives me great joy.
– In light of the objective reasons, the Russian Church in the USA is becoming less Russian and more American. Some attend Slavonic Liturgies, others English-language services, and sometimes it seems that there are two communities under one roof. Is this a problem, and how can two such communities live in union and not incur another division within the Church?
– I don’t get the sense that there is such a division in our parishes. Where parishioners speak Russian, the services are of course performed in Church Slavonic. A priest must understand who is in his parish, when the Gospel reading should be repeated in English, or more English is introduced in the service itself. But I would say that there must be harmony everywhere so that no one is pushed away, to give everyone the opportunity to pray and sense the beauty of the services. I don’t see division, but again much depends on the rector and how he leads. Many Americans love and respect the Slavonic tongue and even seek out Slavonic services.
– What is most painful when parishioners turn to you, what most worries and alarms people who lie in the Russian diaspora?
– Many ask for prayers for their relatives who remained in Russia or live in other countries, for the reunification of families. Of course, parents worry over their children, they wish to give them the best education at home and at school, so that they would turn out to be exemplary people, so they would have a profession and could start their own families. A lot depends on the parents themselves, how Mama and Papa pray, what their relationship is like, how they rear their children. Such family matters are often very sensitive. Prayer and attending church services can help resolve them, and of course save our children.
– Many parents in Orthodox families in the USA are worried about same-sex marriage and the aggressive mass culture. What advice would you give to protect children from these tendencies?
– Of course, all of this is unpleasant, but we can struggle against this and give our youth the proper Church understanding of family and marriage. During services we hear the Gospel and Epistle readings, and at home, to the extent possible, everyone should read together at least a page from the New Testament. Before this was standard practice in the family, why isn’t it anymore?
– What in your opinion must people most of all understand about the Orthodox faith, and how do you explain it?
– The main thing is to preserve one’s faith, to understand that you are a baptized person, you have the Grace of the Holy Spirit. But this must be increased constantly and do elementary things: try to read all morning prayers daily, or at least some of them. Likewise in the evening, if you are unable to read the evening Rule, read some of them, so that the day starts and ends in prayer. In addition, it is important to set up a daily pattern, so that on Sunday we attend Divine Liturgy, without fail, to start each week with divine service. These are very simple things and can do much to preserve the faith, and I am certain that then everything will proceed on the proper path.
– You serve at the Synod in the very center of New York, which can honestly be called the manifestation of earthliness, the center of the financial world, where other “gods” reign, and people “die for metal.” This influence is spreading throughout the world. Can you share and stories about how room for Christ in the heart can be preserved?
– I can only speak of myself: one needs to have a daily schedule: wake up, pray, work or study. One can constantly think about God, and pray briefly during the day. It is for this that Orthodox Christians keep icons in their houses, their offices, in their cars, so that as we live our daily life, we have a chance to think about the fact that God and the saints are with us. That is how my day goes. Our parishioners also visit during weekdays to have a moleben served, or they read religious literature.
– Being a monk in the world isn’t easy, how difficult is it while living in Manhattan?
– Of course, there are difficult moments, but there are great joys, too. It is a joy to have the opportunity to pray every day, to be with wonderful people who help conduct divine services, to live Church life in the diocese. Of course, there are temptations, but that is a personal matter for each person. I try to endure it with prayer to God and try to correct any errors I may have. Again, with the Cross, everything can be overcome.
12 November 2020