Conversation with Archbishop Gabriel of Comana 2008

Archbishop Seraphim : Report
Conversation with
Archbishop Gabriel (de Vylder) of Comana
Archbishop of Western Europe
(Russian Exarchate, Patriarchate of Constantinople)
in Maastricht, Holland
18 February, 2008

I had already been in Holland for several days, because of the gift of a few days of rest with a family that used to live in Ottawa, and now lived near Den Haag (The Hague). I had visited them similarly, ten years ago, to rest for a short time. During this visit, a meeting had been arranged one day between Archbishop Gabriel and me.

For this meeting, it was necessary, on Monday, 18 February, to travel by rail to Maastricht (about 3 ½ hours each way). The meeting took place in the upstairs, private quarters, above the small chapel (formerly a store), which is the Orthodox church for this very ancient city (over 2,000 years of age). The chapel was for many years a centre of the missionary pastoral work of the archbishop, while he was a parish priest in this region. The iconography of the chapel is completely finished. In this building lives Mother Marthe, who has been caring for the premises for 30 years. A similar arrangement (with a resident nun) exists in Liège, Belgium (quite nearby) ; but in Liège, there is a substantial, traditionally Russian-style church building. It was there that the late Mother Dorofea (Mirochnitchenko) had spent more than a year as a guardian-care-taker of the church that belonged to the Russian Exarchate. It was there also that she became acquainted with Archimandrite Gabriel as he was then known. He would travel regularly and frequently to Liège to serve the Divine Liturgy and other services for the believers in that area. Mother Dorofea was maternally watchful about this hard-working missionary labourer.

I was greeted affably by Archbishop Gabriel, and I was surprised to learn that we would be speaking in English (his mother was born in Chicago). He, like many Europeans, speaks at least five languages. During lunch, we began speaking about several clergy whom we know in common, and about some other personalities (past, and present) whom we mutually know. We also discussed the Autobiography of Metropolitan Evlogy (Gregoriyevsky) (†1946), Put’ Moiei Zhizni (The Path of my Life), in Russian, of which there are apparently few remaining copies. It had been reprinted briefly in Russia, and it had been popular amongst Russian bishops. Now, there is an abbreviated version available, edited by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), of the Sretinsky Monastery in Moscow. It was felt that the editing left out important elements.

In addition, there is a booklet recently published in French (2006), entitled La liberté d’esprit dans l’église est sacrée (Svoboda velikaia sviatynia tserkvi ; Freedom of Spirit in the Church is sacred). This booklet contains an outline of his life, and various personal recollections of the metropolitan. I learned that there is a translation of this booklet into English, but I have not yet seen it. I reckon it would be useful, were we to manage to distribute this recent booklet, and, in general, to give more attention to these works. The booklet provides us with an overview of the great difficulties faced by him, and the Church, in the wake of the revolution of 1917. The pressures that were exerted on him by the Church in Russia, and by the Karlovtsy Synod, and by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, are not so different from those experienced by our own Metropolitans Platon, Theophilus, and Leonty. It seems to me that we do, indeed, need to have our history lessons refreshed.

According to the conversation with Archbishop Gabriel, things are not so different in Western Europe, even now. The historic tensions that existed in the Russian Exarchate between Constantinople and Moscow in the time of Metropolitan Evlogy, appear to exist today. The original agreement with Metropolitan Evlogy was that the protection by Constantinople would be temporary, until Russia would be free. Now, Moscow is applying pressure to hasten the termination of this very lengthy temporary arrangement. As in the former days, the clergy and the faithful of the exarchate are very cautious. It is true that the vast majority of the exarchate (which covers all of Western Europe and Scandinavia) is Russian-speaking, and very large numbers of them are recent-arrivals. Such confusion and uncertainties are not so different from those experienced after the Bolshevik Revolution, and after World War II. At the same time that there is this effort to serve those who have arrived in the immigration (some of it temporary, for economic purposes), there is also, as before, the long-term commitment to care for the local peoples of the various nations who have embraced Orthodoxy (such as those in Holland). Archbishop Gabriel seemed to distinguish between the personalities and attitudes of Patriarch Aleksy II and Metropolitan Kirill. Archbishop Gabriel was not very glad to be in a position of having to engage in delicate diplomacy. He emphasised that he simply wanted to serve, and to care for the flock (this is told to me by other persons, besides himself). At the time that he became a bishop, he was chosen because he seemed to be the only possible choice. Although he says that his spoken Russian is not so good (he is of a Dutch family), he had learnt many years ago how to serve without difficulty in Slavonic.

I found the personality of Archbishop Gabriel to be very warm. Perhaps the fact that he has some connexions with us in North America through his mother helps him to have (and to show that he has) a concern for our welfare as well. Our late Mother Dorofea had a great respect for him from the time when she was assisting him in Liège. This is a reasonable indication that he seems to have remained not greatly changed by having accepted the responsibility of the episcopate.