Funeral of His Holiness, Aleksy II (2008)

Archbishop Seraphim : Report
Funeral of His Holiness, Aleksy II
Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’
Moscow, Russian Federation
7-10 December, 2008

His Holiness, Alexsy II, Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, unexpectedly reposed in the Lord early in the morning of 5 December, 2008, at his private residence in the village of Lukino (near Peredelkino), not far from Moscow.

In accordance with the blessing of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah, on the afternoon of Sunday, 7 December, I departed from Montréal, and travelled via Zurich in order to participate in the funeral services of His Holiness, Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow. Together with the Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky (as the chair and co-chair of the OCA’s Department of External Affairs and Interchurch Relations), we were to represent our metropolitan and our Orthodox Church in America at the funeral. I arrived in Moscow at 1730 hrs on Monday, 8 December, at the Domodedovo Aeroport.

At first, I had thought it would not be possible to accomplish this obedience, because when I learned of the repose of Patriarch Aleksy, the Russian Consular Office in Ottawa had already closed. Nevertheless, by God’s will, and the metropolitan’s blessing, all the necessary “doors” opened, and the Consular Office opened specially on Saturday in order to provide the necessary visa. The same thing happened for the Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky in Tripoli, Libya, where he had been participating in a conference.

Upon arrival in Moscow, I was met by Archimandrite Zacchaeus, and we drove directly to Christ the Saviour Cathedral in order to pay respects to the body of Patriarch Aleksy, which was resting on a dais in the midst of the Temple. There, I met many bishops and others I know, including the Archpriest Alexander Lebedev, who had accompanied Metropolitan Hilarion of New York. I also spoke briefly with Walter Cardinal Kasper, who was present with a Vatican delegation (he was for many years the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity). The exact arrangements about the nature of the funeral had been very fluid until the last moments. The decision of Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to participate had added some technical complications. Because he is the highest ranking of the patriarchs, he would normally preside at everything. That he wished to participate clearly showed his respect for Patriarch Aleksy. Therefore, in order to allow the Russian Church to see to the funeral and burial of her own father, Patriarch Bartholomew did not serve the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy. This was served only by the hierarchs of the Russian Church. Patriarch Bartholomew did preside at the funeral service afterwards. Nevertheless, in this context, he enabled the Russian Church to take the lead, because he alone stood not fully vested in the middle of the heads of Churches. He alone was vested in mantiya and omophor. It was for this reason of sensitivity that all the visiting bishops did not participate in that Memorial Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, but rather served together only for the service of the Funeral of a Bishop. It was nevertheless possible for us to watch the first part of the Divine Liturgy on television in the hotel.

On the evening before, Archimandrite Zacchaeus and I went to visit Metropolitan Kliment, briefly, because of needing a parking permission ; but the visit was slightly prolonged with warm conversation, as is characteristic. Metropolitan Kliment served in North America for some years (long ago) as the Representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, and he often visited Canada from New York in that capacity. After that meeting, the archimandrite and I were taken by car to visit briefly at the OCA’s Representation Church, Saint Catherine-in-the-Field. The restored frescoes in the Trapeznaya section of the Temple had been completed, and the Temple itself was returning to something of its former state. The restoration of the ceiling of the main dome is also completed, in accordance with the government’s requirements. Before its return to the Church to be used for worship, the Temple and its other buildings had been turned into public housing, and into ateliers for a company of art-restorers. It was a blessing to see the progress of the recovery, although it was also intimidating to hear how much this restoration was costing.

After this, I was taken to the National Hotel, where all the guests were being accommodated. This hotel was chosen because it is quite close to Christ the Saviour Cathedral. (Tuesdays are very bad days for traffic). There, also, I met several bishops I have known from elsewhere (including from Alexandria), and we were told that His Holiness, Patriarch Bartholomew I had arrived. Then the archimandrite took me to a nearby restaurant for a light supper, and I retired for the night.

On Tuesday, 9 December, I did not go to the breakfast, partly because of travel-fatigue, and partly because of wanting to participate in the services remotely by television for as long as possible. Archimandrite Zacchaeus collected me from the hotel at 0915 hrs, and we went straight to Christ the Saviour Cathedral, where the Divine Liturgy had begun at 0800 hrs. It concluded at about 1030 hrs. The Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky had already arrived at the cathedral for the Memorial Hierarchical Divine Liturgy (he was staying with his daughter nearby). There, having vested fully, and waiting in the nave of the “basement-church”, I met, and spoke with Bishop Nifon (the Representative of the Church of Antioch in Moscow) ; Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and Albania ; Archbishop Leo of Finland ; Bishop Hilarion of Vienna, and others. Our presence was welcomed by all. On ascending the spiral staircase to the main Altar, I greeted several bishops I know from Russia and Ukraine, and I spoke particularly with Archbishop Demetrios of New York, Metropolitan Volodymyr of Kyiv, and then with Patriarch Bartholomew. I also greeted Archbishop Arseny (a Vicar-Bishop of Moscow), and Bishop Mercurii, the Moscow Patriarchate Representative in the USA. I also met (and spoke warmly with) Metropolitan Hilarion of New York (ROCOR) and with the Archpriest Seraphim Gan of New York. I also met Bishop Seraphim who was representing the Japanese Orthodox Church. During the service, I had the blessing to be able to stand in the forward row of bishops, just facing the middle of the coffin and the body of His Holiness, Patriarch Aleksy II. From there, I was able to be close to this man whom I had come to respect greatly and to love. The service began under the presidency of Patriarch Bartholomew I, who was vested only in mantiya and omophor, and who was not very vocal or active during the service, save for reading a Gospel, and a few exclamations. Metropolitan Kirill, the Locum Tenens, was clearly in charge. Present also were the heads of the Churches of Georgia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Albania, Czechia-Slovakia, Ukraine, and Finland. Every other Church was represented at a lower level. During the service, Archbishop Simon from Poland told us that Metropolitan Sawa of Warsaw was absent because he would be having a surgery the next day.

Visibly present during the service were the President and the Prime Minister of Russia (the latter and his wife were several times visibly moved), and the Presidents of Byelorus, Serbia, Armenia, Abkazia, South Ossetia, and Moldova. There were moments of concern when seven bishops (and some priests also) for various reasons suffered fainting spells during the course of the service. It was mainly understood that this resulted from the length of time without food, and, to some extent, age. There was no break between the Memorial Divine Liturgy and the Funeral Service, apart from a brief pause. The Funeral Service was well-served and restrained, despite the considerable emotion felt by the clergy and the faithful. Despite the pain and stress, the Russian Orthodox Church looked after us all very well, and warmly.

After the singing of the Kontakion, there began the veneration of the body of Patriarch Aleksy II by the bishops, priests, deacons, and monastics present. Some were very deeply moved with emotion, and amongst them, the many nuns who had operated his household. The civil leaders also venerated at this time. This included the representatives of the Romanov family who were present. Again, there were understandable expressions of considerable emotion. Metropolitan Kirill read the forgiveness prayer before the Dismissal, and the veneration continued. Then the clergy were asked to go and unvest. There was the possibility to go by bus to the Epiphany Cathedral for the interment therein ; but under the advice of Bishop Nifon (the Representative of the Patriarchate of Antioch), we did not do so (because of the press of people and the great lack of space there). Therefore, at the end of the funeral, we slowly made our way out of the cathedral. On the way, at the exit, we encountered Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Demetrios (who were awaiting their transport), and we took the opportunity to talk briefly and to take a photo. We then visited Saint Catherine’s Church, and took tea there. I was also shown the newly-restored side-chapel of Saint Nicholas. Archimandrite Zacchaeus indicated that a complete restoration of the Temple to its former state would take up spaces that are presently used for offices, Church School, meeting rooms, and other purposes. This is why a complete restoration is not yet anticipated.

After we had connected again with our Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky at the Representation Church, we once again drove to Christ the Saviour Cathedral by 1630 hrs, in advance of the Memorial Supper which was to begin at 1700 hrs. When we arrived, many were already seated, and eating (as has become awkwardly the custom recently), and so we did the same. During this time, the chief bishops of the Churches began to arrive singly, including Patriarch Bartholomew. Last, Metropolitan Kirill arrived with the President of Russia, the Prime Minister of Russia, and the Mayor of Moscow. Attending the meal were not only local and international Orthodox Church leaders, and other Christian guests (including some Roman Catholic Cardinals, and the Anglican Bishop of London), but there were also Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist leaders. Besides Patriarch Bartholomew and Metropolitan Kirill, it was only the President, the Prime Minister, and the Mayor who spoke. I found the words of these three government leaders to be particularly significant. Indeed, they all spoke with some emotion, and perhaps Mayor Luzhkov with the most. With the help of Archimandrite Zacchaeus’s memory, these are some items from the words of President Victor Anatolievitch Medvedev : The Patriarch’s rôle in bringing people to Orthodoxy after the fall of communism was great. He allowed those who were baptised in the 1990s (as was he, the President himself) to feel fully a part of the Church. Patriarch Aleksy united the secular world and the Church world in a blessed harmony, as he also brought harmony to those of different religions within Russia — Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Orthodox. The loss of the Patriarch is a loss for the entire nation. Then Prime Minister Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin recalled : The most important accomplishment during the Patriarch’s life was to bring healing to a horrendous schism within Russian Orthodoxy — that is, the reunification of the Church Abroad with the Moscow Patriarchate. The life of the patriarch can be summed up as having been a life of striving for unity amongst all. Even in his death, this legacy continues. Here, in this hall, we see Orthodox, Catholics, Jews, and Muslim, all honouring the memory of the Patriarch. A great patriot of Russia, he was loved by Russians both here and abroad. His kind eyes revealed the greatness of the man. Similar words were spoken also by the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Mihkailovitch Luzhkov, and they were spoken with the most visible emotion.

It was a very sober affair, this meal, but very significant. There were also present many prominent government and business leaders. For instance, I was seated near a part of the Czech-Slovak Delegation, and beside the head of the Russian Railway System, Mr. Vladimir Yakunin (who, I later learned, is a frequent visitor at our Saint Catherine’s Church). Again, the presence of so many during all the services, the private comments that were voiced, and the attitude of all reveal clearly the significance of Patriarch Aleksy II. Television reports indicate that around 100,000 persons passed by the dais in the Cathedral, on which the Patriarch’s bier rested, during the days before the funeral. A survey indicated that people had come from all over Russia to pay their respects in this manner. The length of the queue waiting to pass by the bier reminded me of the queues at the time of the return of the Icon of the Theotokos of Tikhvin, as people waited to venerate this Holy Icon. As Archimandrite Zacchaeus later commented, many people interviewed on television had said that although they had never met Patriarch Aleksy personally, they had come to feel very close to him (even as if he were a family member) through hearing his many talks, speeches, sermons, and both formal and informal interviews on television. From the first (from long before I met him), I had heard about how much Patriarch Aleksy was loved by so many.

After the repast, we parted from Father Leonid Kishkovsky. His daughter lives nearby, and it was faster for him to travel by metro than to take extra time by car. He had to prepare for an early departure from Moscow. We travelled to the hotel for packing. Archimandrite Zacchaeus had several appointments with foreign delegates there, as well. Archimandrite Zacchaeus informed me later that he had been told by a Moscow cleric with a certain ability prayerfully to recall and to understand, that Patriarch Aleksy had died on exactly the same day in the course of his life as had two other recent Patriarchs ; and further, that he had died on his father’s name-day — The Feast of Saint Michael of Tver.

Departure from the hotel on Wednesday morning was at 0415 hrs, in order to be on time for the 0645 hrs departure from Domodedovo Aeroport.