Winter 2010

Vol. 18, No. 1


Faith Can Unite Us:

A Conversation with Moscow’s Archimandrite Zacchaeus

William Yoder

Father Zacchaeus, your surname is Wood, but you speak Russian like a Russian. So I assume you are of Russian background?

I am Orthodox by birth – born 1971. I grew up in the church; I was an altar boy from age five. I was born in Spring Valley, New York, and grew up five minutes away from a well-known Russian Orthodox convent: Novodivevo. I grew up in an Orthodox Church in America (OCA) congregation with Slavic roots at the Church of St. John the Baptist, Spring Valley, New York.

Did your parents or grandparents come from Russia?

They were Belarusian on my mother’s side. On my father’s side, they were Irish and Scottish; he’s a non-practicing Protestant. Thanks to my mother, church was always a very important part of my life.

Where did you study?

I studied at Roman Catholic Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, from 1989 to 1991 simultaneously with my studies at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. Then, with the blessings of my bishop, I left studies to help start a monastery in New England. But there were problems and eventually the abbot of the newly formed monastery even left the canonical church. That was a difficult experience for me, but through difficulties we can grow.

After the monastery closed, I went to Syosset, New York, to be a personal aide to His BeatitudeTheodosius, who was then Metropolitan of the OCA. I studied under him for two years. Then my bishop, Job, with whom I had been close since my youth, was elected Archbishop of Chicago and the Midwest. At the Archbishop’s request, Metropolitan Theodosius allowed me to move there with Archbishop Job, and I served in Chicago as his secretary for eight years beginning in 1992. I then came to Moscow to study at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Institute, improve my Russian, and finish the master’s degree I had begun at St. Vladimir’s. I completed those studies in 2002.

Did you have a favorite professor at St. Vladimir’s?

I was really blessed by the opportunity to study under Father John Meyendorff (1926-1992). He was a church historian, wonderful person, and in many ways a very holy man.

How then did your spiritual ministry in Moscow begin?

The 17th-century Church of St. Catherine the Great Martyr in-the-Fields was returned to the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992. Two years later, it was designated the official representation church of the OCA in Russia. It remains the property of the Moscow Patriarchate and is only loaned to the OCA.

What do you see as being the greatest strengths of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)? What might be its strongest temptations?

I am incredibly impressed by the speed with which the ROC has found its place in Russian society. This is miraculous realizing that the church was in a very different place only 20 years ago. Under the wise leadership of Patriarch Alexy II and Patriarch Kirill the church has used its new-found freedoms for the good not only of the church, but for the people of Russia as a whole. His Holiness Patriarch Alexy always said: “The church is separate from the government, but the church is not removed from society.” To keep that balance requires a great amount of spiritual strength and responsibility. We know it is easy to abuse freedoms and benefits we might have.

The great strength of the ROC is its dedicated people. The people are its power base. People are willing to serve and to sacrifice their own needs, desires, and wants for the common good of the church. That is something unique and extremely beautiful about Russian Orthodox piety. There are no theological differences, but each culture allows the church to take on local traditions that add to the beautiful bouquet of Orthodoxy. In Russia there are liturgical differences and different ways of behaving. Here women cover their heads when they come to church and rarely wear pants. External forms help with the internal state of mind. They are a form of humility and obedience and help transform the inner person.

Temptations? My only comment would be that when everything is going so well, there can be a temptation to forget the past. We can get accustomed to the good very quickly and forget that if we are not careful, everything could again be taken away. Getting too comfortable is dangerous.

Help me get things straight: It was the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) – also called the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOA) - which rejoined the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007, not your OCA?

Correct. They are different and totally separate from us – our OCA was given its autocephaly (self-governance) by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1970. ROCA always was intent on remaining Russian and wanted to retain its ecclesiological sovereignty and independence only as long as Russia was not free from the Communists. So our mentality and mission differed. I believe – as does the ROC – that the church in America needs to be for Americans. The ROCA wants to be a Russian church.

So you are responsible to North America?

Yes. His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen) is my metropolitan. I am his official representative to the Moscow Patriarchate. We are a kind of embassy. I am the ambassador of the American church to the Russian church.

Did anything change for you through the merger of the ROCA with the ROC in May 2007?

It is a wonderful thing that we can now celebrate jointly with clergy of the ROCA. The OCA has always had a wonderful relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate. So thanks to this merger, we now have a much better relationship with the ROCA. Since that merger, representatives of the ROCA have served here consistently. It is now a rarity if a visitor from the ROCA does not stop by St. Catherine’s. Metropolitan Lauras (1928-2008), former first hierarch of the ROCA, was here. It has happened that we have three churches – ROC, OCA, ROCA - leading one service and joining in common prayer. We are not ROCA, but many who come here on Wednesdays for our weekly service honoring Saint John (Maximovich)* are. We have a part of his holy relics in an icon donated to us. He was once a saint of the ROCA, but now of the entire ROC. He is now seen as a truly American saint. So I strive to make this parish a place of gathering for many different people. That is one of my major missions - to bring people from various backgrounds, faiths, and nationalities together and give them the opportunity to understand one another.

*Interviewer’s note: When Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco (1896-1966) served in China from 1934 to 1949, he was the only Russian hierarch there who did not submit to the authority of the Moscow-based ROC. He was canonized a saint by the ROCA in 1994 and is – since 2008 – venerated by all churches in full communion with the ROC.

How does the OCA assist the ROC?

We had a very active humanitarian aid department in the 1990s. But our ability to give aid has decreased. Sofrino, an Orthodox firm just east of Moscow producing icons, literature, and church vestments, received its first computers from the OCA. They have thrived and their budget is now larger than the OCA’s budget!

Do you try to interpret the West to the ROC?

As an ambassador of my church, we coordinate some things with the ROC Department of External Affairs, now headed by Archbishop Hilarion. It is a source of pride and joy for us that the Archbishop, who also studied in Oxford, once served as a clergyman here in our parish! We try to coordinate things with the U.S. Embassy – meetings between the Ambassador and the Patriarch, for example. Being a bridge between America and Russia is something very important to us. When Russian clergy or bishops visit the U.S., we help coordinate that. The U.S. Embassy’s visa department has been very willing to accommodate us. At His Holiness, Patriarch Kirill’s request, we will be working closer with U.S. embassy staff in their preparation of the State Department’s annual report on religious freedom. The ROC will at least be open for questions in hopes of making the report more fair and realistic.

Do you help interpret North American Evangelicals to the Orthodox in Russia?

We have a very good relationship with non-Orthodox communities here. Their representatives are always invited to events at our parish, including the Feast of St. Catherine in early December. In 2009 American Metropolitan Jonah and Patriarch Kirill participated. This was the first joint celebration here for both of them and it marked our 15th anniversary. Having both here allowed conversations to take place in a very informal way between representatives of the Orthodox church and the non-Orthodox community. This is usually appreciated very much by both sides. A forum for conversation on neutral territory is always helpful and takes the pressure off both sides.

Which Protestants usually attend these events?

Rev. Bob Bronkema from the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy comes, also usually Father Michael Ryan from the Roman Catholics and Canon Simon Stephens from the Anglican community. The Salvation Army has also attended. We do not send out general invitations, but we would be pleased if more Protestants came.

How did the 9/11 Monument come to be on your property?

After 9/11, I was contacted by a representative of Bell Manufacturing Co. which wanted to donate a bell to a Greek Orthodox church at the site of the World Trade Center. They wanted a memorial bell there and an identical bell here. The Bradley Foundation in Wisconsin then offered to fund the building of a monument to house the bell. And so now we ring the bell every year on 9/ll, and it is a very moving experience. The U.S. ambassador, a senior Russian official, and I ring the bell together. We began by commemorating only 9/ll. But terrorist attacks are continuing, so we have broadened the scope of our service to include victims of the Beslan School attack and all other innocent victims of terrorism around the world. At this service we have ambassadors from 15 to 20 nations. When there has been an attack in their area, they come. Last year they came from Egypt and Pakistan. We are the only place in Moscow that hosts such a service, and this is something very positive for us. It is an honor to be able to do this.

What is the demographic composition of your congregation? I believe the vast majority are Russians.

Despite being the representation church of the OCA, St. Catherine’s is also a typical Moscow parish – 99 percent of our parishioners are Muscovites. It varies, but if there are Orthodox Christians working in the U.S. Embassy, they choose St. Catherine’s as their temporary spiritual home. This year we have four from the embassy and others from American businesses. Some years we have 15 Americans here; other years, not even one. Russians are the stable part of our community. The ROC’s definition of canonical territory gives it virtually exclusive access to ethnic Russians living in Russia. So is there any room in your theology for North American Protestants to do mission in Russia?

We have to concede there is freedom of religion in Russia. That means Russia is open territory. We Orthodox have to realize that we ourselves are constantly called to be a missionary church – here and in North America. So if we fear foreign missionaries, it is only because we are not doing a proper job of missionizing ourselves.

There have been very positive meetings in the recent past between Archbishop Hilarion in particular and representatives of the Protestant community. That is something very, very good, because we must be open to understanding one another. And through that we will be able to overcome past difficulties and conflicts. There have been instances in which Protestants sought to missionize not only non-believers, but also the Orthodox. We must dialogue openly about this, for that is unfair and a major part of our problem with Protestant missionaries. If they were preaching to those who have never heard the Gospel, then that is one issue. But if they are preaching to those who just walked out of an Orthodox church, then that’s extremely irresponsible.

Is there a way for Protestants to missionize in Russia without proselytizing? Can we do it in a peaceful way that allows us to remain friends?

I hope so. We wanted to cooperate with Pastor Bronkema and his soup kitchen - he’s a wonderful man. I wanted our people to plug into what his ministry is already doing. Why reinvent the wheel? So we helped out for several months. But I must confess to my shame that I was not able to make it work long-term. Most of our people have a job during the day and don’t have time then. But there are ways in which we can work together. We can work together to feed the hungry. That way we can bear witness to the love that we preach about every Sunday. By our example we can demonstrate the bond of love and understanding between us and our Protestant brothers and sisters. We have mistaken faith in ourselves for faith in God. But if it really is God in whom we place our faith, then that faith will unite us. F

William Yoder is press representative for the Department of External Relations, the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, Moscow, Russia. The interview with Father Zacchaeus took place on 7 November 2009