Beliefnet News

By Nicole Neroulias
2008 Religion News Service

NEW YORK — A child of Soviet refugees, the Rev. Andrei Sommer never thought his breakaway church would ever break bread with the Russian Orthodox Christians who remained faithful to Orthodox leaders in Moscow under communism.
But this Easter will renew and reunite two once-feuding Manhattan cathedrals: St. Nicholas Church, the Moscow Patriarch’s satellite base in America, and the Mother of God of the Sign, Sommer’s parish and headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, also known as the Church Abroad.
Nearly a year after a formal agreement ended eight decades of bitter schism, the groups will share traditional “kulich” bread for the first time May 3, the Saturday after Eastern Orthodox Easter.
Hundreds of worshippers and dozens of clergy from across the country will attend the St. Nicholas service on 97th Street, followed by a Fifth Avenue procession with the revered 700-year-old Kursk Root Icon, normally locked up in the exiled church’s nearby cathedral.
“This extraordinary service will show the world the living unity of the Russian Orthodox Church,” said the Rev. Joseph Kryukov, the young St. Nicholas priest who has worked with Sommer to organize the unprecented event.
Some churchgoers have attended services at both cathedrals for years, and the groups shared a funeral service in March for Metropolitan Laurus, the exiled church leader who signed the reconciliation agreement with Patriarch Alexy II in Moscow last year.
Still, most of Sommer’s parishioners can hardly believe they will soon celebrate their most important holiday together, walking their most priceless possession into the domed building they once considered the outpost of an evil empire.
“I always thought there was this big wall of communism between us and I would never see this day,” Sommer admitted. “Ten, 15 years ago, no one would have thought such a thing would occur.”
ROCOR’s mission had been to keep the church alive in exile until communism fell. Even after the Soviet Union disbanded, RUCOR leaders insisted the Moscow Patriarchate remained corrupted by decades of collaboration with a murderous dictatorship.
Yet with the passage of time and the Moscow patriarch’s canonization of the executed Russian royal family — already considered holy martyrs by Soviet refugees — the opposition softened, culminating in last year’s agreement that guaranteed ROCOR administrative control over its estimated half-million members.
Rather than becoming a fraction of the 100 million faithful under the Moscow patriarch, Sommer said ROCOR members have been valued for their experiences of maintaining the faith with limited resources in foreign lands, and now benefit from the religious and educational materials available from Moscow.
The joint Easter service will help solidify the relationship, but the Rev. Daniel Payne, a Baylor University lecturer and deacon at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Waco, Texas, said it’s not likely to sway the few thousand immigrants who opposed reconciliation and are forming new breakaway groups.
“This is a very significant and joyful occasion for the Russian people … but, not all of the clergy of ROCOR supported the union because of the distrust of the state,” he said.
Some Orthodox Christians will travel to the May 3 service, but members of the Cathedral of the Holy Assumption in Trenton, N.J., just 70 miles away, remain firmly opposed to such events. Instead, they have joined with the splinter Russian True Orthodox Church.
Sergei Iakimenko, a warden at Holy Assumption who immigrated from Russia in 1993, said his parishioners believe the hasty agreement left too many questions unanswered, particularly about how much the Moscow-based clergy collaborated with the Soviet regime.
“The patriarch and the bishops, they were at some point closely associated with the KGB,” he said. “How is that compatible with Christian values? It’s impossible.”
Yet Sommer remains optimistic the Easter week service and other shared activities will gradually draw the dissenters back into the fold of the reunited, strengthened church.
“They will come around, eventually,” Sommer said, adding that even his own grandmother, scarred by her refugee experiences, remains wary of Moscow-based clergy. “You can’t force anything on these kinds of people, and you can’t prove anything to people who do not want to accept these ideas.”
Kryukov, with typical Russian stoicism, shrugs off those who do not recognize the reconciliation, and said he and Sommer will continue planning joint events in Manhattan while waiting for “the lost part of the flock to return to the fold.”
As for the divided and reconciled Russian Orthodox churches around the world, he said, they will all come together eventually if they follow the same faith.
“Hopefully, we’ll live until the end of the world and then gradually go into the other,” he said, with a low chuckle. “Christ said that is the future for the church.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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