Orthodox America

Metropolitan Vitaly, A brief Life

A Brief Life of the Chief Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, on the Occasion of the 40th Anniversary of His Archpastoral Service.

This year's feast of the Chief Apostles, Peter and Paul, marked the fortieth anniversary of the consecration of His Eminence Metropolitan Vitaly to the episcopacy. Last year, 1990, marked the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination to the diaconate; this year also marks fifty years of service in the priesthood. Few are acquainted with the biography of the Metropolitan, Chief Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad. Below is a brief "life" compiled in 1986 by Archbishop Seraphim of Chicago and Detroit.

On June 29/July 12, 1951, in London, there took place the consecration of Archimandrite Vitaly (Ustinov), appointed by the Synod of Bishops of the ROCA as vicar bishop in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The consecration was performed by Bishops Nathaniel (Lvov) and Leonty (Bartashevich) of Geneva.

Someone will undoubtedly write a more complete life of Vladika Vitaly. I shall simply relate what biographical facts I know and share my personal recollections about our life together in Carpatho-Russia.

Bishop Vitaly's name in the world was Rostislav. He was born in Petrograd on March 18, 1910, in the family of a naval officer. His parents were Petr Konstantinovich and Lydia Andreyevna. Soon the Ustinov family moved to Sebastopol, where Rostislav spent his childhood. There he entered the Cadet Corps, and with it went to Yugoslavia in the fall of 1920, where he remained until 1923 when he moved with his mother to France. There he finished college, where some of the courses were taught in English. He performed his military service in one of the French cavalry regiments and worked for a time in an English firm in southern Yugoslavia.

His successes, both at work and in society, gave Rostislav no particular satisfaction; he was drawn to seeking God. He spent a short time in the Russian theological institute in Paris, but found it to be spiritually disappointing and left. Several years passed, during which he began to think increasingly about monasticism. Some kind people helped Rostislav establish written contact with the missionary brotherhood of St. Job of Pochaev in Vladimirovo in Carpatho-Russia, and he decided to go there to try it out. He arrived at the end of Great Lent, 1938.

At that time the author of these words was the superior of the community. He immediately took a liking to Rostislav and took him under his wing. The community was strict, its life was rigorous, the food meager. Rostislav, like all newcomers, was assigned to work in the kitchen, in the garden and in the bread bakery. Although he was later given other obediences, he continued baking bread until the brotherhood left Vladimirovo. The last half year he was assisted in the bakery by Hieromonk Anthony (Medvedev), presently Archbishop of San Francisco. They were outstanding bakers; among the believers the monastery bread was renowned.

What free time he had after his obediences, Rostislav devoted to studying theology, making use of the monastery's extensive library.

About a year after he came to the brotherhood, I tonsured Rostislav a rassophore monk, with the name Vitalis, which means "full of life". He fully justified the name he was given. After this he was assigned more frequently to cliros and also began working in the printshop. A year later, in 1940, I tonsured him to the mantia, i.e., he became a full-fledged monk, and soon thereafter the local bishop, Vladimir (Raich), ordained him to the diaconate. This caused a still greater need for the study of theology, but days were spent working at various monastic obediences. Only evenings and nights were left free. Often Fr. Vitaly went to bed after one o'clock; the bell rang for morning prayers at four.

His meekness, humility and hard work earned Fr. Vitaly the love of the brethren and the administration. A need for clergy hastened his ordination to the priesthood, which was performed in Bratislava in 1941 by Metropolitan Seraphim (Liade) of Berlin and Germany.

The young Hieromonk Vitaly was entrusted with serving, on Sundays and major feastdays, two villages: Medvezhe and Porubka. The road was in such bad condition that spring, summer and autumn he had to cover the distance on foot, nearly seven miles through the forest. In winter he was always given a ride on a sled, an easy and pleasant ride.

Fr. Vitaly's pastoral work developed very successfully. The peasants loved him, and within a year he was able to inspire them to build a new large wooden church in the central village of Medvezhe, to replace the old dilapidated one. The consecration of the church took place in early 1944. Fr. Vitaly served in it less than a year before the brotherhood was forced to evacuate to Bratislava, due to the approach of the front. There was no sense in staying, since nearly all the brotherhood's printing activity was directed against the godless, and consequently against the Bolsheviks.

The brotherhood spent about half a year in Bratislava, where they transformed an old, dilapidated restaurant into a house church. There they even resumed some small-scale printing. Fr. Vitaly was very active in this work, although he was primarily involved in spiritually nurturing nearby communities of Russian refugees.

With God's help and with the help of friends of the brotherhood in Switzerland, all the brethren managed to get Swiss visas, but the Germans were unwilling to grant the necessary transit visas. After considerable delays, the German consul advised us to go to Berlin and there, in the center, try to obtain exit visas.

Just before Nativity, 1944, the Saint Job of Pochaev Brotherhood arrived in Berlin, where the brethren found lodging in the homes of Russian residents of the city. At that time almost nightly, and often during the daytime, Berlin was the target of American and British bombing raids. Often a hundred planes or more would fly over the city during a single mission. Two-thirds of Berlin was turned into rubble.

The brotherhood spent more than a month in Berlin under such stressful conditions, and never did manage to obtain exit visas. It was decided to go to the south-west of Germany, closer to the Swiss border. We were given a separate car on the train. The rector of the Berlin cathedral, Archpriest Adrian Rymarenko (the future Archbishop Andrew of Novo-Diveyevo), asked to go with us, together with his spiritual children. This left the Berlin church without any clergy. Meanwhile, there still remained a sizeable flock, especially the so-called "Osterbeiters" (laborers from the east).

Seeing this tragic situation, Archimandrite Nathaniel and Hieromonk Vitaly elected to remain behind to take care of the flock-at considerable risk; the Bolsheviks were already less than a hundred and fifty miles from Berlin. These self-sacrificing pastors stayed in Berlin to the very last, when it was no longer possible to join us in the south-west; the route was cut off by the Soviet armies. The only way out was to try to get through to the northwest, towards Hamburg. And in that direction Father Nathaniel and Father Vitaly set off on foot, carrying backpacks which contained all the necessary appurtenances for conducting the divine services. Occasionally they would get a lift from a passing truck.

With God's help, they finally managed to reach Hamburg. There they soon organized regular services, and when the war ended they began travelling around the DP camps, in order to rescue the "Osterbeiters" from being handed over to the Bolsheviks for punishment. Both spoke English fluently, and for this reason they met with a friendly reception among the American and English occupying forces. Within a matter of months they were able to rescue and send to the west several thousand unfortunate Russians, whom the Chekists were preparing to send to hard labor in the USSR. More than once both of these priests came close to being sent themselves to the USSR, but the Lord saved them-sometimes at the very last minute-for with God no good deed is lost.

In about a year they had to separate. Archimandrite Nathaniel was consecrated to the episcopacy in Geneva and appointed by the Sobor of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad to administer the Western-European diocese, which had its cathedra in Paris. Fr. Vitaly, who by this time had been elevated by the Synod to the rank of archimandrite, was appointed rector of the London cathedral and provost for all England. He stayed in England until the summer of 1951, gathering around himself a number of monastic brethren.

On the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul he was consecrated bishop for Brazil, where he soon arrived, and where he likewise activated church life. In 1955 Vladika Vitaly was transferred to Canada, as vicar bishop in Edmonton. Two years later he became the ruling bishop for all Canada, with residence in Montreal. At this time he also became a member of the Bishops' Council.

In 1986 Archbishop Vitaly was chosen to be the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and to this day continues his service, being the senior hierarch of the Russian Church.

Translated from Pravoslavnaya Rus', July 1/14, 1991 (1442), Jordanville, NY.