Pilgrimage to Romania 3 - 15 August 2004

Bishop Seraphim : Report
Pilgrimage in Romania
3-15 August, 2004

According to the report of the Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, it was many years ago that the late Archbishop John (Garklavs) of Chicago was asked by a little girl : “What do bishops do ?” He replied : “They bless”. In my experience, this is so very accurate. It is the foundation of what Christ gave bishops (in representing Him) to do in the Church. First of all, they bless the Eucharistic Liturgy ; and they are, from this, responsible to bless all the persons and ministries and projects, and everything that is necessary for the Christian life. For this reason, a bishop should never be long out of his diocese ; and for this reason, he should be regularly visiting the communities of his diocese : to provide life – Christ’s life.

The visit to Romania on 3-15 August, 2004, was primarily intended to be for the rest and refreshment of the bishop, and to a great extent it was so (particularly spiritually speaking). However, it was also very active from the aspect of the activity of blessing, because the bishop cannot really go anywhere (and particularly to such a believing people) without sharing the blessing and love of Christ with those who approach him. As always, we have to share Christ’s love in concrete ways ; and He always provides more and more for us, so that we have more and more to share. The blessing goes in both directions, too, for if the bishop is bringing such a blessing from Christ to the people, the love for Christ in the people brings Grace to the bishop. Through their faith and prayers, the bishop is strengthened. This is truly the wonder of the life in Christ. This is why a bishop does not take a vacation in the way others often do, because it is neither possible, nor is it congruent with his calling. One might say that it is not his vocation to take a vacation. A bishop cannot ever pretend that he is not a bishop. He must always, at all times be what and who he is.

Like other Churches recovering from the years under godless communism, the Romanian Orthodox Church is one with many new martyrs, and with many new confessors – both departed and living. Truly, I met a number of these living confessors for Christ. As in some other places, the new government officially gives freedom to the Church, but it does not particularly support the Church. Sometimes, it actually hinders the Church (much as there are obstacles in our “capitalist” West), and this in the face of the fact that the Orthodox Church in Romania is not divided, and also in the face of the well-known statistic that 80% of Romanians claim to be Orthodox Christians. This high percentage was a well-known fact even in communist days.

Romania is a mostly agricultural economy, and there are not many heavy industries. There is a tension between the desire to maintain and foster traditional ways of living, and by contrast, the desire to enter the European Union and become materially so-called “better off” (which usually benefits only those of higher income). The Romanian faithful have a long history of tenacious fidelity to Christ and Orthodoxy. In this, the formative person was Saint King Stefan the Great, of the 15th century. With God’s help, he united Bukovina and Romania ; and, over a period of 50 years he defeated the attacking neighbouring kingdoms and empires, including the Ottomans and Tatars. He was strictly faithful, a defender of Orthodoxy, and this heritage remains to this day in Romania, and particularly in Bukovina (north-east Romania and the country Moldova) – and, one may truly say, in the Chernovtsi area of Ukraine. Saint King Stefan founded the Putna Monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos in 1466. Just outside the monastery, in the village, is what is believed to be the oldest wooden church in continental Europe. It was built in 1353.

On 2 July of this year, the 500th anniversary of his death was celebrated at the Dormition Monastery of Putna (near the present Ukrainian border, west of Suçeava), where also is his tomb in the main Temple. Amongst the many participants in the holy celebration were almost 600 mostly young people who, from 29 June, had walked in a Cross-procession, with singing and prayers, all the 78 km from the old fortress in Suçeava, westwards to the monastery in Putna. This was organised by the Romanian Orthodox Student Christian Movement. Some of the participants, by the way, had walked all the way from Kishinau, Moldova, which means a walk of 500 km each way. Such pilgrimages are not uncommon in Romania, Ukraine and Russia, even for the aged ; and the age-range of this group was from nine to seventy.

The Christian hospitality of the family that hosted me, and of the monks of Putna, enabled me in a short time to experience some of the principal holy places, the historic monasteries, and the life and work of the Romanian Church. I visited the Patriarchate in Bucharest (where I served the Divine Liturgy with Bishop Ciprian on the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration), and the historic Antim Monastery nearby. Then, travelling south of the Danube, near the currently Bulgarian city of Silistra (ancient Dorostolum), I had the blessing of visiting the monasteries of the Cave of the Apostle Andrew, and of Saint Parasceva of Dervent. The Apostle Andrew did evangelical work all around the Black Sea, and along its tributary rivers. At Dervent, there is a spring which began at his prayers (he needed water for baptising), where pure water still flows ; and there are cruciform rocks that rose from the ground over the graves of 4 early convert martyrs. Here, as elsewhere, it was evident that there has grown up a laudable symbiotic relationship between the monasteries and the people who live nearby (not forgetting the urbanites who also regularly visit them to receive, and also to give help).

Romania has very many monasteries everywhere : both new ones, and older ones re-opened after communist closures. However, the Carpathian Mountains, which run through the midst of the country, are home to most of the old and historic monasteries, and many of these were built by Saint King Stefan the Great and his family. It was a very great blessing to be able to spend most of ten days at the Dormition Monastery in Putna, and to attend the daily services, morning and evening.

During three consecutive days, I was taken by the monks to visit several of the area’s historic churches and monasteries. Some of these had been monastic Temples previously, but they had been turned into parish churches in Austro-Hungarian days, and they remain so until now. In the nearby village of Radauti is the historic Bogdana Temple, which is one of these. In this same village, a new parish church is nearly completed ; and there is also being constructed a complex of houses, with their own church, for homeless and orphaned children.

Many of the older Temples are frescoed on the interior and on the exterior as well, and most have had the frescoes cleaned and conserved, or they are now being cleaned. During these days, I visited the Temples and monasteries in Arbore, Sucevita, Moldovita, Humor, Voronet, Dragomirna, Varatec, Agapia, Neamt, Secu, Sihastria, and Sihla. It is not possible in a short space to describe all of these. However, anyone can find photos of these Temples in libraries and on the internet.

In the end, although it was very moving and very important that I see and experience these historic places, what was more important still was encountering the Christian life and love of those who worship in them, particularly the monastics. How hard many of them work. The services of prayer take many hours every day, and there is a great deal of work required on the lands around in order to feed and clothe the monks and nuns, and to offer hospitality to the many visitors and pilgrims. Those who are hearing confessions seem to do so for many hours daily (especially on weekends). Each community has its own historical and inherited crafts, as well as those according to the gifts of the current monastics. Some communities are very large, such as the women’s communities of Varatec (600) and Agapia (350). Others (and particularly the more hesychastic ones) are rather smaller, and they tend to be more isolated in the higher hills.

Thanks to some of the many publications of the monastery in Platina, California, one can read a considerable amount about the spiritual heritage of the Romanian monasteries, and particularly about the well-known recently reposed Elder Cleopa of Sihastria. Anyone who might have the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to these, and/or others of the monasteries in Romania, would be well-advised to seize the occasion and do so – probably the sooner, the better. When doing so, take extra resources for gifts to the monasteries, and as well for the many needy persons one will encounter. One finds them often at a church or monastery, but very often elsewhere.

For additional information, and to repeat what was published in the Autumn issue of the Canadian Orthodox Messenger of 2003, there is a Canadian woman, Catherine Langston, who is living in western Romania and caring for children who have been given up for dead. With God’s help, she brings them help. She does this on her own, as a Christian, without any government support here or there. I did not see her, because I was not in that part of Romania. Nevertheless, I strongly encourage anyone who can to support her in her Christian work. This can be done through her mother, by writing to the following address :

Missionary Relief Fund, re : Catherine Langstone

c/o Marina Mantle
8020 Silver Springs Rd NW #31,
Calgary Alberta T3B 5R6.

For a tax-receipt, the address is :

St. Olave’s Anglican Church,
360 Windermere Avenue,
Toronto, Ontario, M6S 3L4
(with a notation : “Kathy Langston’s Missionary Support” on the cheque).