Primatial Fraternal Visit to Czechia-Slovakia 2004

Bishop Seraphim : Report
Primatial Fraternal Visit
of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman
to the Metropolitan of Czechia-Slovakia,
Nikolai of Prešov
18-26 September, 2004

The agenda was quite demanding on this visit of the delegation of the OCA, which accompanied Metropolitan Herman on his official visit to the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. It entailed driving to each of the four dioceses (in two countries), serving, visiting churches, meeting the faithful, and establishing or renewing personal contacts and friendships between our Churches. Nevertheless, albeit that this was an official visit of our primate to the Czech-Slovak primate, this visit was at the same time a pilgrimage.

Our metropolitan has been representing our Church for many years before he became the Primate, and he is already well-known by many hierarchs around the world. In this case, he was visiting the land of his ancestors, or at least a part of it. His family comes from Trans-Carpathia, a region of Slovakia annexed to Ukraine during the time of Stalin. Because of this border (and lack of time), it was not possible for him to go to his home village during this particular visit. However, this Church of Czechia and Slovakia is the ancestral home Church of a great many believers in the OCA, particularly in the USA. Our delegation consisted of Metropolitan Herman, Bishop Nikon, me, the Protopresbyter Robert Kondratick, the Archpriest Daniel Ressetar, and members of the Chancery staff.

We arrived in Prague on Saturday, 18 September. Czechia as a country is a union of two ancient and well-known territories : Bohemia in the north, and Moravia in the south. We were greeted by His Eminence, Kryštof, Archbishop of Prague (in Bohemia), and other clergy. From there we drove to the Monastery of Saint Prokop of Sazava Monastery in Most, which is one of the several recently opened monastic communities in Czechia. Czechia is a growing part of this Church, both through conversion and immigration, which complement each other. Later, we visited the historic Temple of the Holy Cross in Teplice, nearby. Here, we venerated the relics of the fourth-century Roman Martyr, Clarus, brought to Teplice in much earlier days.

On Sunday, 19 September, we drove to Prague, and we served together in the Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius. This cathedral was the site of a famous conflict in 1942 between the Nazi forces and Czechoslovak resistance, which resulted in the death of parachutists. It is, therefore, in part, a historic site. In that same year, 1942, Bishop Gorazd gave his life in exchange for the Church, as he tried to protect his flock. Because he died in this Christian manner, he is revered as a New Martyr. After lunch, a large bag of charitable gifts was given to Archbishop Kryštof, which included medications, because this Church has connexions with Kosovo, the destination of this aid. Later, we first visited a nearby village in which is the rather recently-established Romani (Gypsy) parish (the only one in this Church), with its Romani priest, who is also the first such priest. Two details are memorable about the Temple : the predominant colour was blue ; the principal icon of Christ on the iconostas was visibly giving myrrh. Afterwards, we visited Saint Vladimir’s Church in Maria Lanske. Then we went to the Temple of Saints Peter and Paul in Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), which is a long-time and historic Moscow Patriarchate representation Church, begun by Tsar Peter I. We also drank the healing waters there.

On Monday, 20 September, we visited the Russian, Canadian and US embassies in Prague. The Russian Embassy has an historic location with sufficient territory to allow for a “domestic” church on the grounds. We had enough time to visit the historic city hall, with its famous clock from the 15th century. At the hour, for over 300 years, the figures of the 12 apostles appear in 2 windows above the face of the clock. Then we drove to the Monastery of the Dormition in Velmov, via Olomouc, near Brno (in Moravia). The nuns here (who came from Varatec in Romania) give additional service to the Church by providing a retreat and conference facility. There, during dinner, we were given an overview of the relationship amongst the Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals through talks given by Archbishop Jan Graubner of Olomouc, and Bishop Vladislav Volny of the Silesian Evangelical Church. David Wagschal gave a presentation about the OCA’s activities in the Canadian Council of Churches, the National Council of Christian Churches (USA) and the World Council of Churches.

On Tuesday, 21 September, the OCA delegation served the Divine Liturgy in the Cathedral in Brno, together with Bishop Simeon of Olomouc and Brno. Built in 1931 in Functionalist Style (a style popular in this area, and which was followed by Sullivan and Wright in the USA), the cathedral is situated on a prominent hill, just below the historic castle. After the dinner, we were given a brief tour of Brno, and then we drove to Mikul. It was here that in the 9th century Saint Methodius lived and worked in a town with 12 Temples, and a population of 2500. Here, in the main Temple, the third excavated, was found the first tomb of Saint Methodius. Because the Pope later anathematised him, his relics were removed to a monastery in Austria. The Mission of Saint Methodius here was very effective in its day, but there was strong opposition from certain civil authorities and the western church. As a result, in the 10th century, the Franks destroyed, levelled and obliterated the town. It was found accidentally in excavations earlier in the 20th century, and the findings shed much light on the state of affairs in the mid-800s.

It is perhaps important for us to pay some attention to this particular town and its life, and its relationship to the Mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius. This place is, in fact, the focus of the foundation of the missionary work in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and the same principles of Orthodox missionary work have been used by all the children of these original missions during their missionary work (including our own OCA). After this visit, we went on to visit the Monastery of Saint Gorazd, at the place where he was born, in Hruba Vebka. From there, we drove to Bratislava in Slovakia, the capital of that country. We were greeted by His Beatitude, Metropolitan Nikolai of Prešov, the Primate of the Czech-Slovak Church, by Bishop Jan of Michalovce, and many clergy.

On Wednesday, 22 September, we went to visit the Chairman of Parliament, and various other civil authorities, and the US Embassy in Bratislava. We also saw the nearly completed new cathedral there, and we met the priest, choir and faithful who currently worship in an old Roman Catholic Church near the city’s castle. Then we were driven to Prešov. En route, we saw by night a huge castle, the largest in Europe.

On Thursday, 23 September, there was a meeting with the Holy Synod of the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, and a visit to the Theological Faculty, the Seminary, the Mayor of Prešov and the President of the Prešov region. The meeting with the Holy Synod produced several agreements for future co-operation and mutual support, and this was reinforced by the meeting with the Theological Faculty, professors and students. The Mayor of Prešov, in particular, stressed the fact that this city is multicultural (albeit seemingly isolated), and that it is on what has been the crossroads of the routes of east-west-north-south commerce from very ancient times. Prešov has been a town for 750 years, and there are signs of human presence from 40,000 years ago.

On Friday, 24 September, we were given a tour of the Diocese of Michalovce, which took us close to the Ukrainian border and to Uzhorod. We began with a visit to the village where Saint Alexis Toth was born, and we continued through Svidnik, Mezilaborce (near the birthplace of the artist Andy Warhol), Straske, Michalovce, and Sobrance. Because almost all property was taken away from the Orthodox Church after 1989, and then given to the Unia, most of the Temples we visited were quite new. This included the diocesan offices and the cathedral. During these years, the Orthodox Church in Slovakia has built over 100 Temples. Everywhere, the faithful met us with beautiful plainchant (prostopeniye) singing. This is the melodic system that is characteristic of Slovakia (Karpatho-Rus’), much as is Valamo Chant characteristic of Karelia. Such chant-systems are all related in some way to the ancient Znamenny Chant, but they are simplified.

We visited the Saint Nicholas Orphanage in Mezilaborce, which is one of those supported by thc OCA’s Christmas Stocking Project. It brought into focus the great needs of the Romani people, and the many ways in which the local Orthodox Church tries to meet these needs. We visited several Temples under construction. In Michalovce, we visited the technical school which is operated by the Church, the first school of its kind in Slovakia. All this served not only to show to us North Americans the Church in Slovakia, but also to show to the Slovak faithful that the Church exists far beyond the Slovak borders, that others are interested in their situation, and that these others might be able to help and to support some aspects of their life. This is one of the major factors involved in a Primatial Visit of this sort to this or to any other Church.

On Saturday, 25 September, the Divine Liturgy was concelebrated in Košice (the second-largest city of Slovakia) by Metropolitan Herman, Bishop Jan, and six priests. The rest of the delegation was in attendance in the nave, because of the awkward and limited space in this Temple (which is a former Soviet-style meeting-hall). As in so many other places, the Orthodox Church was deprived of its property first by the Soviets, and then by the democratic government, as properties were returned to the Unia. However, the Orthodox faithful have continued to build anew, and in a Christian manner of forgiveness. Here, and also in Bratislava, a particularly large church-building is required to accommodate the believers, and sponsors willing to help are very much needed. Because of the costs, more sponsors are needed than can be provided locally. [If there is anyone who feels moved by the Lord to help, contact Bishop Jan of Michalovce, at Duklianska 16, 071 44 Michalovce, Republic of Slovakia.] This was followed by a visit with the Mayor of Košice, and then with the Governor of the Košice Region. The political regions of Slovakia are actually provinces, and their political structure is similar to those we have in Canada.

On Sunday, 26 September, there was the consecration of the new cathedral in Prešov, which included the concelebration of the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy. This new building is yet another example of rebuilding. This Temple, like the other new Temples, is constructed in a much more traditional Orthodox style than most of the edifices that had been taken away from the Church. The cathedral still needs more finishing work, which requires money not yet available. Nevertheless, the Temple was full to overflowing with the faithful who sang very strongly and fervently in the traditional plainchant. Present were many civil authorities of a rather high level (not by any means were they all Orthodox), and similarly high ecclesiastical representation from other Christian confessions. In itself, this indicates the significance of this visit, not only to the Church, but to the society in general. Our visit gave great encouragement to the faithful to persevere ; and they strengthened us by their warm love in Christ.

The two countries (Czechia and Sloviakia) share a generally common history under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and during their union as Czechoslovakia. However, they are quite different in character, with somewhat different languages. Although the Czech language is a close cousin of Slovak, it is as distinct from Slovak as is Norwegian distinct from Danish. Czechia is a more industrial country, and the society is very secularised. Its society has rather a low number of believers in general, albeit that the Orthodox are increasing. The majority of the faithful there seem to be people who have converted to Orthodoxy. Slovakia is more agrarian and a bit more eastern in character. There is a large number of believers ; and especially in the east, the Church and their society are conservative and traditional. In this society, however, conversion to Orthodoxy can cost the loss of all relationship with one’s family. Here, Orthodox believers have suffered a great deal for a very long time ; but they are, nevertheless, active Christians, strong singers, and lovingly hospitable.

The return to North America followed on Monday, 26 September.