A Conversation with the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia Metropolitan Hilarion
– Vladyka, please tell us about your “new homeland.” Where were you born?
– I was born in Western Canada, in the Province of Alberta, where there were a great many Ukrainian settlers. My parents immigrated to Canada in 1929 from Ukraine, which at that time was part of Poland. They had lived in Volhynia guberniya. After World War One, Poland was granted the western part of Ukraine—Volhynia oblast, Galicia, etc. During World War II, the Soviet Union seized these territories. But by that time, my parents were already in Canada. At home we spoke Ukrainian, and English at school. My first language is English.
– Did you not speak any Russian as a child?
– I began to study Russian only when I enrolled in Seminary, in New York State, where I received my theological training.
– What memories do you have from your childhood?
– At that time, all the Ukrainians lived on farms. Canada is an enormous country and there are vast tracts of land, such as in Texas and Oklahoma. For the first few years, we lived far from school, and along with other school-age children, I walked two-and-a-half miles to school every day. Sometimes someone would give us a ride. During the spring, when it was muddy, it would stick to our shoes, and it would be hard to walk. But it was fun, and safe—we all knew each other. During the winter, if the ditches were filled with ice and not covered by snowdrifts, I would skate part of the time to the bus, or take another road. I had a very pleasant childhood, absolutely free of any harmful influences. No one even knew that illegal drugs existed… Since early childhood I loved the Church and decided that I would become a priest at the age of six or seven.
– Do you remember your first visit to church?
– Yes. We would go to Holy Trinity Church in the farming village of Spirit River, where everyone was Ukrainian. First there was a little church, which at the time seemed very big to me. After a while, they built a new, bigger church. It was consecrated by Archbishop Panteleimon, who headed the Diocese in Canada. He often visited our parish and served there, because we had a dearth of priests, and divine services were not held often: once a month or even every two months. Archbishop Panteleimon himself traveled 400 miles by bus to visit us in order to conduct services on days off. He was my idol, I revered him. Once he gave me his blessing and said: “Someday you will be a priest,” as though he could see my future.
Services were held in Church Slavonic. My mother sang on the kliros, and though I really wanted to serve in the altar or go to the kliros, I was afraid, because only adults served in the altar then, and they didn’t allow children there for some reason. I yearned to go, but just didn’t dare. It was only after I joined the seminary that I could frequent the kliros, because I could sing. I learned the order of divine services, which are very complicated—you have to know when to go where at what time, learn the order of divine services. Later I learned to serve as an acolyte and I continued to serve until my ordination. All this was at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY.
– Vladyka, you graduated seminary in 1972, and in 1976 you graduated from Syracuse University with a Master’s Degree in Slavic Studies and Literature. Why did you decide to also get a lay education, having already gotten theological training?
– Our Vladyka Laurus blessed several monks to enroll in the university to obtain academic status and have the chance to teach at seminary. Our seminary already has state accreditation from the State of New York, and Vladyka wanted to elevate the quality of teaching of Russian language and literature so that the quality of our seminary education in these subjects would improve. We studied Church Slavonic, Old Russian and Old Slavonic at the university. A very kind, nice man by the name of Yakov Panteleimonovich Gursky taught this subject, and there were also other Russian and American teachers.
– Vladyka, it wouldn’t be totally inappropriate for me to call you a colleague, for you were the editor-in-chief of a magazine at one time…
– Starting with my second year at Seminary at Jordanville, I began to work as a typesetter, when I didn’t even know Russian yet. I was appointed to typeset Orthodox Life in English, the editor of which at the time was Archimandrite Konstantin (Zaitsev)—a highly-educated but older person born in St Petersburg before the Revolution. As a result of his age, it was difficult for him to execute the duties of editor, and so that job was soon assigned to me. After some time my boss in the print shop, Hieromonk Ignaty told me to do the Russian typesetting, too. This helped me learn the Russian language a great deal, because while typesetting, you had to read and proofread, and even correct, text.
– Now the main problem faced by any editor is financing. What was your main headache at the time?
– My biggest challenge as editor-in-chief was to find material. There were no financial issues, since we had our own printing presses at the monastery. But we had to collect materials and do translations. Some people we knew would submit texts. There were a great many biographies of saints translated then, which I asked not only monastics but visiting laypersons, too. Russian articles were translated into English. Our journal was published six times a year. It is still published today, but improved, with a new format. Things were a lot more difficult then. It was hard to work with the old linotype machines. Molten lead was used for the galleys. The press would often jam, and we had to clean out the metal. Sometimes it would splash in your face, your beard, your feet. Sometimes you couldn’t do any work for a whole day as a result, having to clean the equipment instead. Sometimes the typeset assemblage would fall apart and you had to begin all over again…
– Vladyka Hilarion, you have a beautiful lay name—Igor Kapral. Was it hard to abandon it and get used to a new, ecclesiastical name? Why were you given the name Hilarion?
– Sometimes a priest can request a specific name. I didn’t, but I had a feeling it would be Hilarion. I liked the name, I revered Metropolitan Hilarion, who entered Russian history books as the first Russian metropolitan of Kiev and All Russia. Archbishop Averky (Taushev), who tonsured me, gave me that name. Of course, when you are tonsured and given a new name, it is difficult at first to get used to it. But I was happy that I got this name, because my saint is Schema-monk Hilarion of the Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra. Vladyka Averky thought that he was a metropolitan first, only later taking on the schema. But some scholars think these were two different saints. The Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra has the relics of St Hilarion, and whenever I am there I always venerate them.
– In 1974, you were ordained a priest, and in 1984 you were already made Bishop of Manhattan. In lay terms, that is a brilliant, skyrocketing career…
– At first I served a few years as a priest-monk in the monastery, as I worked at the printing press. I was often sent to parishes to replace priests who were away. I celebrated Pascha and other church holidays in Cleveland, where there was no priest at all, and in Pennsylvania… In this way I learned the practical aspects of serving in parishes. This proved very important in preparing me for service as a bishop. A bishop really should know the local conditions in distant parishes.
I knew Pennsylvania pretty well, and I often visited Washington, DC, when I was Bishop of Manhattan. In 1995, I was given the title of Bishop of Washington, but that only lasted one year: in 1996, I was sent to the Diocese of Australia and New Zealand. In America, my work stretched throughout the Eastern American Diocese, which included Maine, New York, Washington and Florida. I often visited the southern states, and sometimes I was invited to parishes of the Chicago Diocese.
Since 1996, most of my life has been connected with Australia—there full-time for 12 years, then two or three years of visiting them for periods of time. At first I was sorry to leave my diocese on the Eastern Seaboard of the US, because we had been opening new churches here, I ordained many clergymen here, so it was hard to say goodbye. But I accepted the obedience laid upon me, left for Australia and came to love the flock there a great deal, and again it was hard to leave. I hoped to remain there for the rest of my life. Many people begged me not to leave, to stay in Australia, because I remain to this day Ruling Bishop of Sydney, Australia and New Zealand. I hope that a vicar bishop is found soon who could live there and help me. Now I have no such vicar, so the ongoing diocesan matters are left to me alone to tend to.
– But the Orthodox believers of this country do not want a different bishop, preferring that you remain their ruling bishop. Why is that?
– Before me, Australia had not had a regular bishop for five years. Archbishop Paul, my predecessor, fell seriously ill and could not rule. Various bishops were sent there, but the lack of a bishop in a diocese leads to various problems and conflicts, that is why it is important for an archpastor to be there. Some parishes and priests wanted to be independent of the diocese. When they left for another church, they took church property with them, and the church buildings. We had to protect the interests of the diocese and stem this. Even before me, a Property Trust had been set up for the diocese, though it had its flaws.
We worked on the text of the founding document and amended it, and sent it to all the priests and parishioners for consideration. In the end, at a specially-convened diocesan assembly, at which both clergy and laypersons participated, it passed a vote. It was then submitted to Parliament. After the New South Wales Parliament approved it, everyone relaxed. This was a great accomplishment.
The diocese had a shortage of priests then, we had to find candidates, do missionary work, because there were Australians who wanted to convert to Orthodoxy. We had to strengthen the diocese and its church life.
– Vladyka, after the death of Metropolitan Laurus, the Council of Bishops of ROCOR elected you the sixth Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and elevated you to the rank of metropolitan. Was this a surprise to you or did you sense that events would unfold in such a way?
– I very much feared that this would happen, because Vladyka Laurus had appointed me his deputy with the approval of the Council of Bishops. Vladyka hoped that I would replace him. I hoped that Vladyka Laurus would live for a long time, and didn’t even want to imagine becoming metropolitan. But after his death, which was a great shock to me, I anticipated this moment, the [decision of the] approaching Council, with fear and trembling. Unfortunately, I was elected. I feared this because it is such a heavy cross to bear. But I thank God that day after day, problems are being handled, though they are replaced with new ones, but by Divine mercy they also get resolved. One must pray fervently for God to help.
– What is your main mission as First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad?
– My main duty as the Primate is to be the senior bishop in our Orthodox family, which is scattered throughout the Western world. I must also convene meetings of the Synod of Bishops, at which bishops gather three or four times a year, as well as other representatives of dioceses. I convene the Council of Bishops, to which all the hierarchs of the Church Abroad come, to discuss and decide the fundamental questions in the life of the Church. So the role of the First Hierarch is to unite everyone, to keep them all together. When bishops convene in Russia, or some important church event takes place, the First Hierarch acts as representative of the Russian Church Abroad. The First Hierarch also has his own diocese. As I said, my own dioceses include both those of Eastern America and Australia and New Zealand.
– Vladyka, how many parishes now comprise the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia?
– It is difficult to answer this question. Not long ago we had 500 parishes, but I think we have many more now. Although after the reunification in 2007, some parishes, for instance, in South America and a few American states, broke away. A great many new communities have sprung up in their place, consisting of Russians who are now scattered throughout the whole world, and new missions are being formed. Recently 12 priests have appeared in Indonesia, there is a mission in Haiti, where we have two priests, and about 7 native Haitians will soon be going to the Russian Orthodox seminary in Paris, France. I am hoping that they become Orthodox clergymen. The Dominican Republic now has a community, and there is one in Costa Rica. South America is a problem, financially, and because of the lack of clergymen and the schism. In Guatemala there is a large group of people, mostly local natives who wish to convert to Orthodoxy. There are many examples of America priests, Catholics and Lutherans who accept Orthodoxy together with their entire parishes. Some of them wish to preserve the Western Rite, and we give our consent. The Western Rite was actually permitted by the Russian Orthodox Church in the 19th century. Now we have 20-25 such communities.
– Vladyka, how does the process of gathering parishes happen in practice?
– Very naturally, very normally. We can breathe easy, because there is no division now, no quarrels or accusations, and we can move forward together in love and mutual understanding. The path of schism is unconstructive and leads to nothing good. One Church has not consumed the other, there is no inequality in our relations. Many priests from Russia now visit us, and we can pray together. This greatly enriches our spiritual life. We can participate in conferences and our youth can socialize.
– Vladyka, these are not the simplest of times: there is a global economic crisis, catastrophes and natural disasters occur, people are frightened by talk of the end of the world. How is a person to endure all this? Whence comes spiritual strength?
– Of course, it is in faith. One should remember that God suffered for us, and suffers now together with us now. The cause of all tragedies is the sinfulness of mankind. One must pray that God protect us from such things, and remember that God is love, He desires our salvation. All earthly things are perishable and temporary, while ahead of us is eternity, which will be blessed and joyous.
– Your favorite prayer, which you would recommend that all Orthodox Christians learn?
– O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, Who art in all places, and fills all things; Treasury of good things, and Giver of Life, come dwell in us and cleanse us from our every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.
– Thank you for your time, Vladyka.
New York-Oklahoma City