Pilgrimage to the Exarchate of Mexico (2008)

Archbishop Seraphim : Report
Pilgrimage to the Exarchate of Mexico
30 May - 6 June, 2008

For a week (ending in the Feast of the Ascension), a group of four from Canada travelled to Mexico City, for the purpose of visiting our brother, Bishop Alejo, and the Exarchate of Mexico, in the manner of a pilgrimage. Bishop Alejo had for some time been extending the invitation to do this. With God’s blessing, it became possible at last.

The first day, Friday, 30 May, was taken up in travelling. The three other members of the Canadian “delegation” (the Chancellor, Archpriest Dennis Pihach from Edmonton, Subdeacon Daniel Boerio from Ottawa, and Reader Mark Petasky from Edmonton) made a rendez-vous with me in the Toronto aeroport. In due course, we arrived in the City of Mexico, and we were greeted by Bishop Alejo, some of his clergy, and a representative of the Department of Religious Associations of the Republic of Mexico. After having passed through the usual other immigration matters (visa and passport-checks), we were driven to our hotel, in the centre of the City of Mexico. It was very near the historic main square (plaza), which includes the Presidential Palace, and the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral. It proved to be a very lively centre, with Aztec dancers, and other performances and military manoeuvers daily. Later, the Archpriest Ernesto Rios arrived from Florida. He was a class-mate from seminary, and we had not been able to meet like this since graduation almost 30 years ago. Padre (father) Ernesto and his wife, Madre (mother) Martha, are frequently visiting Mexico and supporting the missionary work of the diocese. They are both Puerto Ricans. By the end of this day, there was time only for conversation, and supper. We soon understood that, apart from our recent metropolitans, and Archbishop Dmitri (who was for a long time the “exarch”), this was the first visit of any other OCA bishop to Mexico since about 1980.

On Saturday, 31 May, after breakfast, we walked with Bishop Alejo to the Plaza (Square), and toured the Metropolitan Cathedral. A guide was arranged, and he explained the history of this building. He told us how it had been built (just as other nearby buildings) on land which had been brought in to fill in a lake and canals, and how the foundation of the cathedral continues to shift in various ways. The guide told us that the building could, under certain circumstances, collapse. It has, nevertheless, stood for a few hundred years. We were also told that it had been built on the ruins of a temple of an Aztec god — in fact, the god of death. Regardless, the Aztecs seem to have known how to establish firm foundations in this watery area, since the more recent constructions are tending to subside, whereas Aztec foundations remain stable. The guide gave a pleasant overview of the Spanish, and post-Spanish history. The many, and large bells of the cathedral are fixed (rather than swinging), and they sound very much like bells that one might hear in Russia.

After this tour, we walked around the corner, as it were, to the uncovered ruins of the Templo Mayor of the Aztecs. These were discovered in an archaeological dig over 30 years ago, and one of the archaeologists of this dig was our guide on these grounds, and in the adjoining museum. At this site, there was on display a plan of the Aztec city of Mexico, with its various temples. We were given a thorough lecture about the history of the Aztecs, their influence unto the present, including rediscovered medicines, astronomical, and mathematical information, and philosophical perceptions. In fact, like the Incas, the Aztecs seem to have been primarily philosophers. The archaeologist was also interesting, because she was such a forthright personality. She claimed Aztec ancestry, and she spoke with an interesting mix of allusions to Aztec mythology, Christian-Roman Catholic perceptions, and some reference to Mormon-British Israel ideas about the migrations of the twelve tribes of Israel. In this context, there appeared an incongruity, in that the Aztec temples were oriented, whereas the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral (built 400 years ago) faces south — at a time when it was rare to find any Christian Temple which did not have its Altar at the east end. This guide showed us in a photo that she was one of the archaeologists who discovered this temple complex. She further pointed out (in photos) how the stability of this temple complex makes it appear to rise, so that it appears to be several metres higher than it was 30 years ago. We were informed by a cathedralite that most of the city is subsiding at the rate of 10 cm per year.

After this educational and detailed tour, we travelled to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and to the Teatro Nacional. Much of the art collection was unavailable for viewing, because of changing displays. We nevertheless spent a good amount of time touring this structure of “ecclectic architecture”, which was begun in 1904, and completed only in 1934, because of war-interruptions. These 3 tours were very long, and this led us to dinner time in a fish restaurant. After eating, instead of taking the siesta, we went to an area of the city which still preserves the old water-way combination of rivers and canals. On this, there is a very popular provision of barge-like, covered boats that are moved by a person, usually a youth, pushing a pole. The traffic on this network was active on this day, but we were told that it was not at all as busy as it is of a Sunday. People are often singing, reciting poetry and talking, and there are exchanges of at least waves between the passing vessels. This trip took longer than expected, because of the apparent slowness of our pilot, and because a thunder-storm passed over us at the same time, whose winds made it difficult to move the barge at all. This meant that we missed Vespers, so we returned to our hotel to take a snack, and to retire early. The Mexicans are, in general, delighted with their principal city, and of their history, and they are glad to share it. In fact, this city has always been the centre of Mexican life, even since the times of the Aztecs. We all were very impressed with how clean such a large city is, how efficiently it seems to run, and how little very visible poverty there is (we did know that the poverty does exist, however). It is very different, say, from Cairo in Egypt, where the poverty is very visible. A further detail became clear from the start : one cannot assume that anyone speaks English, or has the confidence to do so. One occasionally finds an English-speaker ; but even in a hotel or in a restaurant, it is better to be a Spanish-speaker, or to be accompanied by one.

On Sunday, 1 June, we left the hotel at 0900 hrs for the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at the Annunciation Cathedral. The Divine Liturgy was very pleasantly served, more or less in the style of the Diocese of the South (the Spanish translation of the service-texts is that of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas). The servers seemed to know reasonably well what to do, and when to do it ; and they were appropriately attentive, so the Divine Liturgy flowed well. The service was well-attended, and well-sung, in Spanish. Bishop Alejo and I served, together with six priests, and two deacons. Afterwards, there were many photographs taken. This was followed by conversations over lunch, which was taken in the newly-constructed library, above which are also newly-constructed monastic cells. This library was constructed with the long-promised money that had finally been sent from the Central Administration of the OCA. Following lunch, Bishop Alejo crossed over to the neighbouring park, in order to bless a three-bar Cross that had been erected there some time previously. He also showed us where, and how further extensions are in preparation for construction at the cathedral itself, in order to provide more housing and classrooms, in addition to the existing monastic quarters (where he resides with the other monks). He commented that the neighbouring Franciscan clerics are sometimes expressing discontent, because the cathedral is always open (every day), whereas their church is not, and that their people go to our cathedral to pray. Afterwards, we simply returned in mid-afternoon to the hotel. In the evening, we found a place to take supper. Always there is plenty of conversation.

On Monday, 2 June, after breakfast at the hotel, we left at 1000 hrs for the cathedral, where we met Father Antonio Perdomo, who had now arrived from Pharr, Texas for the Ascension Feast. Traffic, combined with construction, makes all travel take a longer time than may be anticipated, especially during the daytime. After spending some time at the cathedral, we departed in a caravan of three cars, in order to travel for a couple of hours to the Volcano National Park, not far from the summits of the “Sleeping Woman” and “Popocatépetl” volcanoes. Both summits are over 5,000 m in altitude, and Popocatépetl was emitting smoke. For a Canadian, it was very impressive to see to what altitude vegetation continues, and how tall trees are at such altitudes. At the foot of these mountains there are many farms and villages. They, likewise, are clean and orderly, even though much farming is still done with animals. Organic farming has apparently never left rural Mexico (or at least not where we were). Bishop Alejo clarified for us that indeed the people have a very low income, but they live with dignity, and they are apparently a joyful people for the most part. When money comes from the USA or Canada, much can be done with it, because at present the exchange of the peso to the dollar is ten to one. On the return, late in the afternoon, we stopped in a village (Amecameca) by the highway to take dinner, and we then returned to the city in time to see the official lowering of the Mexican flag in the main plaza by the army at 1800 hrs. The raising and the lowering of the flag, is accomplished on a daily basis by the military branches at 0600 hrs and at 1800 hrs. In the evening, we took supper.

During all the travel and eating, there was considerable conversation, as usual. This time, I was told about the history of the Mexican Exarchate, and about the manner in which the exarchate had acquired the status of a “National Church”, because it is, indeed, a Mexican Church, of and for Mexicans. There is no doubt about the difficulties that the exarchate has faced in its history, difficulties which made its survival a question at times. However, both the perseverance of Archbishop Dmitri, and the hard work over many years of the now Bishop Alejo have not only saved the situation, by God’s Grace, but it also appears that there is now real hope, and a sound foundation prepared for the future. Where there was danger of disorder and division, there is clearly now unity. Bishop Alejo literally devotes all his resources to the development of this Missionary Diocese, which he loves. This love is obvious, not only in his paternal care for his people, but also in their warm response to this loving care. Besides my own perceptions, I received considerable historical information from the Archpriest Ernesto Rios, who has been associated with the exarchate since the time of the late Bishop José. An important factor for us outsiders to keep in mind is that a priest who had recently reposed in Christ had baptised around 20,000 persons in the states of Chiapas, Veracruz, and Puebla. Bishop Alejo is preparing someone to succeed him there.

On Tuesday morning, 3 June, after breakfast at the hotel, we were collected by Bishop Alejo, in order to pay the official visit to the Department of Religious Affairs. When we arrived at the office, it became clear to us not only that Bishop Alejo is well-known and respected, but there are also some employees in this office who are Orthodox, and connected with the cathedral. It is again important that we understand that the exarchate has a status that the other Orthodox in Mexico do not have, and perhaps cannot have. The others are regarded by the government as being canonical, but foreign Churches. The visit with the Director General for Religions Associations was brief, informative, and very warm. The conversation ranged over the state of believers in Mexico. It seems that various Protestants and sects have made significant inroads in Mexico, so much so, that the Roman Catholic Church may now only count about 50% of the population. The Orthodox Church, and our exarchate (which is regarded as the National Orthodox Church) are respected. This is, in part, because of the contributions made by the exarchate towards stability in society, far beyond what would be expected of its relatively small membership, and also because it is not a politically active body. The person of Bishop Alejo and his personal reputation count for much. He has, after all, been an active professor of philosophy at the university, and he now remains a part-time administrator of the faculty there (in addition to everything else he does). The Director General, who had previously (when he was in the Ministry of Energy) been in Alberta several times, parted with us, as he expressed his intention to try to increase contacts with us in the north. We had made it clear, I believe, that it is our purpose, as The Orthodox Church in America, to enable, and to become, the local Church for, and of the local peoples throughout North America. After this visit, there was a pause at the cathedral, and then a visit in the afternoon to the Pyramids in Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Some dared to climb the Pyramid of the Sun. This is not a minor feat. After this, and the return to Mexico City, we were taken for supper to the home of a family of the cathedral parish. This experience, giving a taste of local hospitality, was very positive. It also showed us that the cathedral congregation has many well-educated persons who work in responsible positions. By their behaviour, they demonstrated how well-formed they are as Orthodox Christians. The Orthodox Church has been in Mexico for over 30 years, and it has taken root well in those who have embraced her.

On Wednesday, 4 June, after breakfast at the hotel, we first went to the cathedral, and then we stopped to visit the Holy Trinity Mission, which is on the opposite side of the aeroport from the cathedral. This mission had been in poor condition, but it is now very clean, and in good order. Everything we saw and experienced showed to me how Bishop Alejo is a patient and perceptive leader. He is determined that the clergy become responsible and strong leaders in their various communities. He wants them to have secular employment, in order to care for the development of their missions. I am told that he is very careful in his discerning of vocations (or lack thereof) in potential candidates for ordination. After this visit, we travelled to Saint Antonios’ Monastery, the monastery belonging to Metropolitan Antonios (Chedraui). The members of the Chedraui family are very known, and they are greatly influential in Mexican society. This monastery has at present only a few monks and one nun, although it usually has a larger population. There are also partly-resident older orphans from the Guatemala Orphanage, who move to Mexico to continue higher education. They usually begin their life in Mexico at the monastery, and then they go to live with families. We were received with a short Te Deum in the rather large Temple, and then we were given dinner. Then, after taking coffee, we were given a walking-tour of the monastery and its grounds. There is a main building, which includes some cells, other rooms, a refectory and a sitting-room. Nearby, there is a new building which has both modern and spacious guest-quarters, and more monastic cells. The monastery has fields that are planted, and greenhouses from which they sell plants and flowers. They also have rabbits, which they sell regularly at the market (the demand is still small). Besides that, the monastery has a flock of sheep and goats, a couple of horses, and a flock of chickens for eggs, . There are fruit trees and bee-hives, and fields of corn for the animals. The community apparently originally was envisaged as including a seminary as well. At the end of the walking-tour, we went back to the Temple for Vespers and Litya for the Ascension. After all this, we made the two hours’ drive back to the hotel.

On Thursday, 5 June, at 0900 hrs, we were collected and taken to the Cathedral of the Ascension, in order to serve the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy for the Altar Feast of the Cathedral. I served alone, together with eight priests and two deacons. There was a small, but effective choir, and Bishop Alejo was organising and co-ordinating in the back-ground of all. At the end of the Divine Liturgy, the clergy went up to Bishop Alejo’s apartment/office for coffee, cake and conversation. Then, once we had spent time there, we travelled to another part of the city for the formal dinner of the Altar-Feast. This dinner, again, was mostly for the clergy and the helpers. The dinner took place in a room/apartment of a building which had been recently donated to the exarchate. There are problems associated with this building, in that it cannot be used for income, because it was donated to the Church. In due time, however, it is expected that this building will be used primarily for a Pastoral School/Seminary.

At the conclusion of the dinner, we were driven to the Basilica of the Theotokos of Guadalupe. Guadalupe is a former town, which is now a suburb in northern Mexico City. This Image of the Theotokos of Guadalupe is venerated by the Orthodox as well as the Roman Catholics, because of its particular nature. Representations of this Image are now becoming available in our Orthodox iconographic style. We had the blessing of sufficient contacts (through Hieromonk Victorin) to be able to be brought to the upper level of this modern structure, and therefore as close as it is possible to approach the actual Image (this is still a gap several metres over an opening ; most people look up to it from a lower floor, through this opening). We were very well-received by a monsignor. After this, some of us went to a family for a light dinner, and the others went to the hotel to pack. It was once again a pleasant opportunity for contact with parishioners, and we returned to the hotel late.

On Friday, 6 June, after breakfast at the hotel, we were collected after 0900 hrs, to make our way towards the aeroport. This included a quick stop for shopping, and also a last visit to the cathedral. Bishop Alejo and his clergy escorted us through the whole process, until security barred them.

In my view, in association with, and following the late Bishop José, Archbishop Dmitri himself, through his translations, and his paternal attention, laid a good foundation in this country. It is important that we all understand the importance of his personal contribution to Mexico’s Exarchate. Without him, it would not likely have survived the early and unexpected death of Bishop José, the first bishop.

In this context, I must add that it seems to me that we are really lacking in our seriousness about our missionary purpose in North America. In Alaska, we have heard accusations about suppression of aboriginal languages, and cultures. In Canada, we have really only one serious French-language Mission. Although this mission has existed for many years, it is still very small. In the USA, which has so many Spanish-speakers, there are very few truly Hispanophonic parish communities. It makes me feel that, despite any good intentions, or well-intended declarations, we are perhaps being satisfied with tokenism in mission. Perhaps we are not, in fact, capable of addressing the many other cultures of North America, and it seems to me that we have a lot of re-thinking to do about our actual mission-work on this continent. This is maybe particularly the case when we see how often, and how quickly we see people writing ridiculously about possible dissolution of the OCA, or its being absorbed into some patriarchate. It really gets my goat (or fries my potatoes) when people seem so ready to be like Esau (see 1 Moses 27:1-40). The Lord has called us all to be missionaries, and it is time we seriously determined to accept this call, and live it out. Our Canada was, is, and always should be a Missionary Diocese !