In his exclusive interview with the RIA Novosti Russian news agency, Archpriest Serafim Gan, Chancellor of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and rector of St. Seraphim of Sarov Memorial Church in Sea Cliff, NY, spoke about the celebration of Pascha in ROCOR parishes, the attitude of the faithful toward the restrictions imposed in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic, and how quarantine measures can be assessed in different Local Churches.
‒ Fr. Serafim, how was Pascha celebrated in parishes of the Russian Church Abroad? Were most services held without parishioners or with their participation, though in small groups?
‒ The services of Holy Week and Pascha were celebrated quietly. In most parishes, they were conducted in the presence of a limited number of worshippers, who participated by singing in the choir or serving in the altar. As far as I know, all of the monasteries and convents were closed for pilgrims.
In one parish with a spacious parking lot, parishioners, sitting in their cars or standing beside them, observed the midnight procession and happily met the beginning of the radiant Paschal Matins service, responding with, "Indeed He is Risen!" to their priest’s greetings.
In my parish, we had no procession, so as not to attract the neighbors’ attention. We clergy came out onto the church porch, and the choir closed the doors behind us, after which we started serving the Matins quietly. Proclaiming the Paschal verses in the porch, I saw some people whom I believed to be outsiders; they were standing not on church grounds, but in the street, observing our service. Taking a good look at their faces, I recognized my parishioners and greeted them. After the end of the solemn service, the parishioners who had participated in it from a distance drove up on their cars and in groups came into the church for Communion.
‒ How did the clergy and laity react to such a measure by the authorities as the closure of churches for parishioners on Pascha?
‒ An overwhelming majority of clergy and parishioners easily submitted to the restrictive measures of local authorities and the directives of their ruling hierarchs. Of course, we cannot say that nobody was distressed at this. The fact is that the Holy Week services, which are touching and rich in content, and the victorious and joyous Paschal services, and all of the traditions and customs around these great and holy days, all hold a special place not only in the life of the Russian Church, but also in the hearts of our people.
It is worth noting that, at Great Vespers on Pascha, we read the Gospel lesson that tells how the Savior came through the locked doors into the room, where the apostles had been hiding after the final days of His life on earth. Judging by the feedback of the laypeople who had participated in the Holy Week and Paschal services online thanks to live-streaming the services, despite the closed doors of churches, God came to them and visited them with consolation and joy in their home prayer with their families and friends.
Thus, as a result of this unique experience of "Pascha in quarantine," I have concluded that if someone not only believes in God, but also trusts Him, he will not be left without His blessing in these days, regardless of the circumstances.
‒ Were there any places where the authorities even banned the celebration of services by priests? And what did the clergy do in such a situation?
‒ No such cases come to mind. As far as I know, holding the services was not prohibited anywhere. In a large parish in Australia (where churches are closed for public worship for half a year), the rector and the parish council members appealed to the local authorities, asking them to allow a few more worshippers than otherwise permitted to take part in the Paschal services, which was met with understanding.
‒ Was mutual understanding with the authorities attained everywhere? Were there any nasty incidents?
‒ We were informed of some clerics and parishioners, about whom their neighbors complained. Later police came to them to find out what had happened. In most cases, it turned out that there had been no violations on their part ‒ it was their neighbors who were panicky by suspecting them of violating local measures. But there were some instances when the authorities had to explain to parish officials the specifics of the local regulations and warn them that in case of violation they might be fined. But there were very few such incidents.
‒ Can you compare the quarantine regulations taken in different Local Churches? Which of them is closest to yours? How has the Orthodox world responded to the challenge of COVID-19 in general ‒ promptly or tardily?
‒ In some Churches, all of the parishes were closed and all of the services stopped, while other Churches continued to celebrate services in all parishes, ignoring the instructions of the authorities. I dare not and indeed have no right to comment on these decisions. The ruling hierarchy of these Churches sees the situation in the countries where they serve better than someone living in New York City.
But in the current situation, I think it is necessary to find a golden mean, a reasonable and peaceful approach to the issue, to observe the precautions taken by the authorities, and at the same time not to abandon the flock without spiritual care, prayer, and Church life. This seems to be precisely the approach that guided our Church hierarchy in dealing with this issue.
Many in the Russian Church Abroad understand that the closure of churches for public worship cannot be compared with periods of anti-Christian persecution. No one today is forcing us to renounce our Faith and no one is forbidding us to serve. We realize that the coronavirus has been permitted by God. Therefore, we should arm ourselves with patience and try to learn a lesson from this difficult situation.
Has the Orthodox world made some particular mistakes concerning the coronavirus infection? Perhaps it has. But mistakes have also been made on the level of governmental agencies of various countries, public organizations, health care services, and so on. The fact is that we are all human beings, and the Church consists of human beings, too.
God likely allows us to err so that we can learn, perfect ourselves, take care to fulfil all our duties and obligations, and should not think ourselves superior. And, most importantly, we should repent of our errors, learn from them, and try to improve.
We should always bear in mind that we will never find complete and full well-being on this earth. We will only find it in the Church Triumphant ‒ that is, in the Heavenly Kingdom.
‒ On Bright Tuesday, Archpriest Alexander Ageykin became the first cleric of the [Moscow Patriarchate] to die of the effects of coronavirus disease. Have there been any fatalities from coronavirus in ROCOR? Do you have any data about how many of your clergy have caught the virus to date and what their current condition is?
‒ Along with many other members of ROCOR, I am still very shocked by this sad news. Fr. Alexander and I first met in Moscow 20 years ago, long before the restoration of the unity between the Patriarchate and ROCOR. He came to us many times, visiting our churches and monasteries in the U.S. and Europe. His moving meeting with Metropolitan Laurus of blessed memory in late 2007 at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, was particularly memorable. I was privileged to be present for their interaction, and Fr. Alexander loved to recount it. I believe he will be vouchsafed God’s mercy in the world to come.
We, the clergy and parishioners of ROCOR who knew Fr. Alexander closely, will keep him in our prayers with love and gratitude, and do all in our power to support his family in this difficult time.
Unfortunately, several clergymen of our Church have caught this virus, as well; one of them, Deacon Alexander Gusev of the Western American Diocese, passed away on Sunday, April 5. Judging by the information available to date, the other clergy are recovering, thank God.
‒ What can you wish our readers on this Pascha?
‒ Not to lose heart and, guided by the truth of the Christ’s Glorious Resurrection, to continue their path through life with hope. Trials are important in our lives, too ‒ they educate us and bring us closer to God and to each other. If we look at them from this perspective, we will certainly remain calm, learn something, and enrich ourselves spiritually. May God grant us to overcome this trial and its consequences as swiftly as possible, so that we can come out of it stronger!
Interview by Sergei Stefanov
Translation by Dmitry Lapa