Interview to Pravoslavnaya Beseda 2009

Archbishop Seraphim : Interview
Interview with the Journal
Pravoslavnaya Beseda
The interview was published in the No. 4, 2009 issue of Pravoslavnaya Beseda

Canada, in its time, received many new-comers from Ukraine, Russia, and other places. Do they keep their love and historical memory of their motherland, their traditions, and does this flock include “cradle” Canadians. And how does The Orthodox Church in America help them to preserve their identity ?

In Canada, we have received now at least five waves of immigrants, beginning with those from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires more than a century ago. Until now, the majority of immigrants have arrived from Ukrainian territories. Then, recently, the majority began to come from Russian-speaking territories of the Russian Federation. The first and the fifth waves of immigrants arrived primarily for economic reasons. The others arrived mostly for political reasons. Many, including some nobility, arrived as refugees. For instance, the Grand Duchess Ol’ga Alexandrovna (Romanov) lived in Toronto, Ontario during the last part of her life. For the early immigrants, it was always important that they build the church near where they would live — often even before building their own houses. In every case, it has been necessary to find a balance between remembering the homeland, and living in the newly-adopted country. Some have gone to extremes. Some have not accepted the move. They have lived in enclosed communities, and have avoided adapting to Canadian society. On the other hand, however, some have completely abandoned their heritage. They sometimes changed their names also, and they tried to live as British-descended Canadians. In no case has the adjustment been easy, because the contrast between Canadian ways and Russian Orthodox ways in life are very, very different. Both Canada and Russia, however, have similar recent histories, particularly secular and materialist. In earlier years, Canadian society was very unfriendly to Continental European immigrants (and to Slavs in particular). Whether it was true of them or not, they were often sneered at as being “DPs”, that is, displaced persons, and they were treated as being stupid. Now, there is far greater readiness to accept new-comers, as we like to call immigrants now.

Maintaining this “own identity” is difficult in Canadian culture, although Canada is officially called a multi-cultural society. One has to understand what is essential. For Russian immigrants, this must include Church life. Without it, there would be only some meaningless details associated with food, dancing and music. Therefore, the Church in Canada has encouraged parishes that are accepting new-comers to keep the Old Calendar (this archdiocese has a great majority of parishes on the Old Calendar). We encourage the singing of seasonal carols and spiritual songs as much as possible. These customs come more from Ukraine. We encourage the making, eating, and selling of traditional foods ; and we certainly encourage parents to teach their children to speak Russian or Ukrainian well. We also bless the publishing of Russian-language and Ukrainian-language journals and papers in order to help the people understand their Orthodox faith better. We also try to help people to remember, and to keep the traditional customs associated with baptisms, marriages, burials, and other important moments of life. There is no perfect way to help the Russian-speaking new-comers keep their faith and their culture. However, I must say that many seem to do this well, and they begin to reinforce the faith of the older immigrants.

What sort of missionary work is done in the Canadian Orthodox Church ? What is its form ?

The biggest challenge in missionary work amongst the new-comers is that our churches might be more easily found. When they are found, the believers in those churches must remember to behave in a Christian, loving, welcoming manner. Orthodox Christian hospitality is always one of the principal ways that missionary work is to be done amongst the local Canadians, as well. It is the love of Christ that brings people to the Church. Slowly, we have been trying to support the priests who are trying particularly to care for the new-comers. In several cases, large numbers of new-comers have truly found the love of Christ, and there have been many baptisms. In many cases, Russian-speakers have felt at home in our mostly English-speaking communities, because they were able to hear some Slavonic, and they were able freely to speak to each other in Russian.

We know that your family comes from Finland. The Finnish Orthodox Church especially venerates the holy Valaam startsi, new, and old. What can you share about New Valaam ?

It is a mistake to think that I am of Finnish descent. My father came to Canada from Norway a hundred years ago, and my mother was born in Canada of Scottish parents. However, in 1980, I did live in Finland for a year, at the New Valamo Monastery. Finland did, and does greatly respect and love the saints of Valaam. When I lived in this monastery, I had the blessing to know, and to serve with Archimandrite Simforian. He was the last monk to leave the main Island of Valaam during the Finnish-Soviet Winter War of 1940. As they left, he rang the one great bell that had to remain there in the great belfry of the main monastery, because of its weight (it was later broken by soldiers). When I knew him, he had a great reputation as a staretz, and on one occasion the then Metropolitan Aleksy (later Patriarch) came from Tallinn to visit, to serve with, and to speak with him. There was also a very old monk from the Trifonovsky Monastery of Pechenga who lived there. Even at age 107, he could be heard punctually at midnight in his cell as he sang “O Heavenly King” to begin the Midnight Hour. This brotherhood from the Valaam Islands (which became the New Valamo Monastery on its new territory) suffered much from the dislocation caused by the Soviets and the War, but it never has forgotten its connexion with the Valaam Islands. Finns wanted very much to help in the earlier days when there was a great hunger at the newly-re-opened monastery, and I know priests who love to travel there. There is also great support in Finland for the Konevsky Monastery (Konovits in Finnish), which is on Konevets Island on the western side of Lake Ladoga. Like Valaam Monastery today, it is in Karelian Russia.

You have a special responsibility in the Department of External Affairs and Inter-Church Relations. What is the first priority in your work ?

With regard to my work in the Department of External Affairs and Inter-Church Relations, I understand the first priority to be being obedient to the Metropolitan, and to keep clear communication with him about everything. This is because, as Head of our Church, he is the first in responsibility for all external contacts, as well as for leading us internally. Besides this, I have always tried to support every sort of loving, brotherly relationship with our sister-Churches that I could. It truly is sincere love.

What saints do you especially venerate in Canada ?

In Canada, there are three particularly known holy persons, who are very much loved. Saint Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow served as Archbishop in North America a century ago. It was he who incorporated the Archdiocese of Canada in civil law for the first time. He was a great missionary worker in Canada, and he consecrated the Holy Tables of many churches (mostly in western Canada). For him, it would likely have seemed as if he were travelling in Siberia. Another is the holy Archbishop Arseny of Winnipeg. He was an early co-worker with Saint Tikhon, both in the USA, and in Canada. He founded monasteries in both countries, pastoral schools in both countries, and he established several Russian-language publications. He was a charismatic leader, and he was such a preacher that people called him “the Canadian Chrysostom”. I have heard many stories about his holiness by people who knew him in the 1930s. Both Saints Tikhon and Arseny frequently stayed in the homes of the local believers as they visited the parishes. The third is a missionary priest, who worked mainly in eastern Canada, including Montréal. This is the Priest-Martyr Alexander Hotovitsky. He served also in the United States, in New York, and many other places. He was another co-worker with Saint Tikhon. He was later killed by the Soviets in Russia.

You are often in Russia. What holy places have you been blessed to visit ? What do you say about this to your flock in Canada ?

It is true that the Lord has blessed me to travel often to Russia, and also to Ukraine. In Russia, my visits have been limited mostly to the Moscow and Saint Petersburg areas, because I have been in Russia mostly for meetings, and for special Church celebrations. I have, however, been able to visit Sergeiev Posad, Optina, Valaam, Novgorod, and Kronstadt. Every time I have travelled like this, I have written an account of my journeys, and published them in the archdiocesan newspaper. I do this, both to help Christ’s flock in Canada share the experience, and to help them understand that even if I go for official reasons, I treat each visit as a pilgrimage. I have always been blessed to be able to venerate the relics of the saints in the places I have visited. It has never been other than a great blessing and a refreshment for me to do so. People frequently say that when I return from Russia I look refreshed in a particular way. Therefore, it is my custom to say, “Glory be to God for everything”. Because the land of Russia has been so blessed with so many saints, and during the last century so many martyrs, I believe that the Lord bestows a special grace, and a special blessing on the Russian believers, and on those who meet them. Again, Glory be to God for everything.

Original Russian Text published in the Russian Orthodox journal Pravoslavnaya Beseda (Orthodox Conversations), number 4, 2009, which is published in Moscow, Russia. Translated into English from the web site