For years, July 2  had been marked on the calendar as a day of pilgrimage to San Francisco for the annual Liturgy in the sepulchre of the ever-memorable and most-blessed Archbishop John, a tradition established soon after his repose in 1966. Some years there were more people, some years fewer, but the small sepulchre was always packed, with an overflow crowd standing outside in the passageway. In spite of the numbers, there was a feeling of intimacy, of closeness. Everyone participated in the service, everyone sensed a common bond of love for this extraordinary hierarch who, in turn, held everyone together in his paternal embrace. No one had any doubt that they were in the presence of a saint.
In many respects, this year's experience was similar. The same predictably chilly weather welcomed us to San Francisco, the same familial warmth that comes with being surrounded by those who share the same faith. And in spite of the explosion of numbers-here were sixteen officiating hierarchs, scores of clergy, and several thousand faithful-the same feeling of intimacy, of closeness prevailed. A mystery of heaven.
We arrived Thursday afternoon, in time to slip into the already packed church hall to hear several priests share in describing the opening of Saint John's relics, which took place October 13, 1993, and the revesting of the relics on December 14, 1993. There followed a discussion on the phenomenon of incorruption and on the veneration of relics in general. At 5:30 people gathered in front of the cathedral to greet three wonder-working icons of the Mother of God: the Myrrh-streaming Iveron Icon, the Kursk-root Icon "Of the Sign," before which Saint John had reposed, and the miraculously renewed Vladimir Icon from the San Francisco convent of the same name. Grace upon grace. Shortly thereafter more than a hundred priests and deacons filed out of the altar into the narthex to greet Metropolitan Vitaly, the Chief Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, and the requiem vigil (parastas) began. Two male choirs sang antiphonally in the tradition of Holy Trinity Monastery; Hieromonk Roman from Holy Trinity directed the right cliros, and George Skok, choir director at St. Xenia's in Ottawa, conducted the left cliros. At the seventeenth kathisma, Metropolitan Vitaly came out together with Metropolitan Blaise of the Old Calendar Romanian Church and seven other hierarchs to take their places on a specially built, semi-circular cathedra in the middle of the cathedral. All the worshippers, some 1500, joined in singing the kontakion after the sixth song of the canon, "With the saints give rest. . ." Commemorated together with Archbishop John among the departed were his spiritual mentors, those who tonsured him, who consecrated him, who served his funeral; his parents, Boris and Glafira, and other relatives and spiritual children. A seemingly unending line of people venerated the three wonderworking icons before being anointed with myrrh from the Iveron Icon. Shorter lines formed in various parts of the cathedral where priests heard confessions. The presence of grace heightened the awareness of one's sins and the desire to purify one's heart in order to partake more fully of this spiritual banquet.
It was after ten o'clock when the service ended. Clergy were invited to the church hall for a meal provided by the sisterhood before retiring for the night, some to hotels, some to acquaintances or to one of the many parishioners who so graciously opened their homes to accommodate pilgrims (one local priest and his family provided quarters for 11 people in their two-bedroom apartment). Some hardy pilgrims spent the night in cars or min-vans parked near the cathedral. It had been a long day, but the uplifting services and the joy of participating in this glorious occasion more than compensated for the abbreviated hours of sleep.
The next morning, Friday, a final requiem Liturgy for Archbishop John began with the greeting of the Metropolitan at 8 o'clock. The entire cathedral joined the cathedral choir in singing the Creed and the Lord's Prayer. Nearly five hundred faithful partook of the Holy Mysteries, which were administered from five chalices. Before the laity communed, Hieromonk Roman, who had served Vladika John as a young altar boy there in San Francisco, gave an emotionally charged sermon. "What was especially bitter and unpleasant for Vladika John was when his spiritual children, his flock did not get along, when they quarrelled or harbored animosities. This caused him great pain, for he saw that it only pleased the evil one who thereby mocked what was the crown of God's creation. Vladika rejoiced when he saw people living in harmony, in unity; when they forgave one another's offenses. And so, brothers and sisters, let us greet our beloved and holy hierarch as befits Orthodox Christians, with love in our midst. Today's service is like Great Saturday; we feel that we're standing at the threshold of something great and mystical. Just as before Pascha we prepare ourselves with spiritual cleansing and forgiveness, let us, in the words of the paschal sticheron, 'be illumined by the festival, let us embrace one another, and in the resurrection let us forgive everything. . .' Only with such a disposition can we hope to worthily greet the holy hierarch John and partake of this great solemnity."
We spent this time in the sepulchre, where a sound system made the Liturgy clearly audible. In a corner a priest stood before an analogion receiving confessions. Not crowded, quiet, prayerful, the underground chapel held a feeling timelessness, just as it held the holy remains of one who stood outside time, and who called us to join him in the surpassing reality he now inhabited.
As the Liturgy concluded, more people made their way down to the sepulchre. Bringing to an end an almost continuous succession of panikhidas which had been served that week, Archpriest Victor Potapov served one in Slavonic, which was followed by one in English served by Father Svetislav Mirolovich. At two o'clock the sepulchre was closed. By that time Metropolitan Cyprianos of Fili (Greece) had arrived, together with members of his Synod-Bishops Chrysostom, Auxentios and Akakios of Etna-and Bishop Photios of the Old Calendar Church of Bulgaria. They made their way to the sepulchre where they were soon joined by Archbishop Anthony, several other bishops and some twenty priests, who crowded into the sepulchre for the transfer of the relics. A final litya for the departed was served. At the singing of "With the saints give rest," the lid of the coffin was lifted to reveal the incorrupt relics. Several of those present remarked later at the strong feeling of grace which emanated from the relics. Many wept. Here indeed was that communion with Heaven which caused the apostles to exclaim, Lord, how good it is for us to be here. The sacred remains were transferred into a specially prepared carved oak reliquary and covered with a glass lid, then a wooden lid draped with the Saint's mantia, still fresh after twenty-eight years on his coffin. Some of the younger priests took hold of the two long handles on either side of the bier. When Archbishop Anthony gave the blessing, they lifted it up and, to the singing of the irmosi of the Great Canon, sung at the burial of a hierarch, they carried the reliquary out of the sepulchre. The crowd on the street, breathless with anticipation, watched intently the large screens which showed the procession leave the sepulchre and come up the stairs. As the reliquary came into sight and turned onto the sidewalk in front of the cathedral, a few people fell to their knees while others reached out to touch it. It was a moment of overwhelming emotion. Here was Archbishop John himself, alive in another realm, being carried where his own feet had once walked, into a cathedral where he had served, among those who had personally known him. His presence was all but tangible. Lord, what a privilege. How good it was for us to be there. Inside the cathedral, the Saint was met by 16 bishops, more than 120 priests, numerous deacons, dozens of acolytes and a great throng of people from all over the world: from Europe, Australia, South America, Russia, Canada; there was the elderly Archimandrite Methodius from the Holy Land, Abbess Juliana from the Mount of Olives and Abbess Anna from Gethsemane; there were monks from Holy Trinity, from Blanco and Boscopel; nuns from Lesna; there was Fr. Christopher Walusimbi from Uganda, Fr. Oleg Oreshkin from Moscow; there was Fr. Chad Williams from Maine and his brother Fr. Gregory from Tennessee. And there were bishops, priests and laity from other jurisdictions. From the north and from the south, from the east and from the west, the faithful had come together to publicly glorify a modern-day saint. It was a stunning triumph of Orthodoxy.
The reliquary was placed at the front of the church, facing the altar, and was momentarily surrounded by a blazing sea of candles. After a litya, the rule was read in preparation for Holy Communion, with the singing of an akathist to the Mother of God. After the entire church joined in the singing of the last "Memory eternal" (yet another unforgettable moment), the reliquary was turned ninety degrees; instead of facing the altar in the normal position of a coffin during a funeral, the reliquary now stood parallel to the sole, like the Shroud, an icon, as it were.
There was a short break and the all-night vigil began. Those unable to fit in the packed cathedral followed the service on the screens outside or in the church hall. There the experience was less intense but the atmosphere was nevertheless prayerful; candles burned on candle stands and people crossed themselves and bowed, attentively participating in the service. Archimandrite (now Bishop) Eutychius of Siberia was the chief celebrant. The cathedral choir under the direction of Vladimir Krassovsky shared the singing with the youth choir directed by Vladimir Stamirovsky, and a male choir comprised primarily of clergy and seminarians and directed by Hieromonk Roman (brother of Vladimir Krassovsky). During vespers, the cathedral was illumined only by candles. The service proceeded peacefully, but there was an undercurrent of emotional tension, like the anticipation at Pascha of the first "Christ is risen." Finally, the long-awaited moment draws near. The chandeliers light up and an exultant "Praise ye the name of the Lord" resounds antiphonally, as hierarchs and priests file down from the altar to stand row upon row before the holy relics. Everyone holds burning candles. There is a breathless silence. Metropolitan Vitaly steps down from the cathedra and removes the cloth from the icon lying on the reliquary, revealing the haloed image of the Saint, which is lifted up for all to see. He then removes the mantia and, pausing for a moment, lifts the lid of the reliquary. "Prostration!" Everyone follows the deacon's lead and falls to their knees in awe. "We magnify thee, O holy hierarch John . . ." First the clergy, then the congregation chant the magnification, joining their voices with the voices of heaven to glorify "with one mouth and one heart" this extraordinary saint and wonderworker of these latter times.
I am the Good Shepherd . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep. and other sheep I have which are not of this fold . . . and they shall hear my voice . . . The matins Gospel reading is particularly appropriate for the newly-glorified hierarch, who sacrificed all personal interest for the sake of the salvation of his flock, and who, even now, continues to bring lost souls into the fold of the Church. The service to Vladika John, written by Archbishop Anthony, recalled his life even more precisely: his childhood devotion to God, his tonsure in Milkovo, his extraordinary asceticism, his zeal in helping the poor and visiting the sick, his unceasing prayer, his gift of clairvoyance, his boldness before God as a wonder-working intercessor. Archbishop Anthony himself read the canon to the Saint, as an estimated 4,000 faithful venerated the holy relics and wonderworking icons and were anointed. Even with two lines, one on either side of the reliquary, it took over three and a half hours. At the anointing everyone received a printed icon of the Saint, prepared by Holy Trinity Monastery (shown page 3). The vigil was over well after ten o'clock, and even then many people stayed in the cathedral to pray near the relics while awaiting the first of three Liturgies, which began at 2 a.m.
For many non-Russians certainly, this early morning Liturgy was a memorable highlight and a profoundly heart-warming experience. The entire service was sung by the congregation, half in English and half in Slavonic, an arrangement whose success was made possible by the careful planning of Peter Fekula and George Skok, who had prepared photocopied packets of music and guided the singing, most of it simple Znamenny chants. Bishop Ambrose of Vevey celebrated the Liturgy, assisted by 28 priests. The cathedral was full but not crowded, the service peaceful and deeply satisfying. Of the estimated 1,000 people present, almost half received Holy Communion. Fr. David Moser from Idaho gave an inspired sermon, urging us to imitate Saint John in his genuine love for God.
Twelve priests served the second Liturgy, which began at 5 o'clock. Here, too, there were several hundred communicants. In his sermon, Archpriest Michael Konstantinov reminded those present that all Christians are called to that which Vladika John attained-holiness. We too must fast, we too must visit the sick. As much as lies within our strength, we must follow the same path as Vladika John-the path of holiness.
By 7:30 the cathedral was again packed to overflowing as people awaited the arrival of the Metropolitan. Thirteen hierarchs and 86 priests and deacons assisted at the celebration of this Liturgy. At the singing of "O come, let us worship . . ." the reliquary was lifted up and borne aloft through the Royal Doors to the High Place behind the altar, in order that the Saint himself might lead the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. At the Creed, all the deacons came out of the altar and led the congregation in singing the Symbol of Faith. In giving the "kiss of peace" in the altar, some of the priests greeted one another with "Christ is risen!" Before Holy Communion, mitred Archpriest Valery Lukianov gave a sermon, in both Russian and English, expressing the hope that the Glorification would be a turning point in our lives, that we would come away from it with the resolve to give more of ourselves to the Church, and to God. There were close to 800 communicants, served from five chalices in the cathedral and a sixth chalice in the church hall.
After the dismissal, the clergy once again shouldered the reliquary and carried it in procession out of the altar as the choir sang the 33rd Psalm: . . . Many are the tribulations of the righteous, but the Lord shall deliver them out of them all. The Lord keepeth all their bones, not one of them shall be broken. A great crowd of people on the street watched as the procession filed out of the cathedral. Acolytes with banners were followed by the choir, 200 voices strong; then came gold-vested hierarchs, priests and deacons with the three wonder-working icons and an icon of the Saint, and in their midst, the exquisitely carved reliquary, as if floating on a river of gold, as the procession slowly made its way around the city block. A rare and glorious spectacle. Back inside the cathedral, everyone kneeled as Archbishop Anthony read a prayer to the Saint (see page 3), which was repeated in English by Bishop Kyrill.
After kissing the Cross, pilgrims were shuttled by busses to the Mariott Hotel for a celebratory banquet. There, Reader Seraphim Gan, a student at Holy Trinity Serminary, read a panegyric, likening the new Saint to other Saint Johns in the history of the Church: to St. John the Baptist in calling many to repentance, to St. John the Theologian in his special love for the Mother of God; to St. John Chrysostom in bringing many to the light of Christ through his inspiring sermons and writings; to St. John Climacus in his ascetic warfare against the passions and in ascending the ladder of virtue; to St. John Damascene in defending the faith from heretics and apostates. Before the thanksgiving prayer, Archbishop Mark of Germany informed those present that the Serbian Church had formally resolved to enter the name of St. John into their diptych, as well as the names of St. Innocent of Moscow and St. Nicholas of Japan, glorified by the Russian Church Abroad earlier this year.
The banquet was one more evidence of the long hours and months of planning spent by the Glorification Committee in resolving the logistics of parking, of feeding and lodging pilgrims, as well as in arranging for the professional filming of the entire proceedings (to be available in video), and for the production of commemorative booklets and medallions. The fact that everything went so smoothly is a tribute to their labors, for which may God reward them.
Before the vigil service that evening, the reliquary was moved into a specially prepared shrine which stands against the south wall of the cathedral. Four spiral columns support a canopy adorned with five small cupolas and icons of Christ, the Mother of God (Kursk-Root) and various saints significant in the life of St. John. Along the outside border of the canopy the magnification to the Saint is lettered in Slavonic; the same text appears in English along the inside, also beautifully lettered in gold. Four cherubim hover on the ceiling. The shrine was designed in the ancient Russian style by Archpriest Stefan Sabelnik and executed by him with the help of Fr. George Kurtow and Deacon Vitaly Kichakov. The icons are the work of Archbishop Alipy, Archimandrite Alexis of Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Australia, Hieromonk Andrew and James Ferenson of Jordanville, and Vladimir Krassovsky. Fr. Stefan also made the reliquary, artfully decorated with masterful carving; on one side an eagle, symbol of a bishop, holds two cathedrals-of Shanghai and San Francisco; an inscription reads, "The righteous live forever." The shrine, the reliquary-so clearly the result of a fruitful combination of God-given talent and love for God's Saint. Inside the reliquary the Saint's incorrupt remains are clothed in gleaming white vestments trimmed with silver, the work of a priest's wife; the cloth shoes were sewn in Siberia, the under-vestment also brought from Russia. The Saint's head rests on a pillow into which were placed names of all the hierarchs and clergy of the Russian Church Abroad and in Russia, and their families. When the reliquary had been put in place, Vladika Anthony exclaimed, "By the prayers of our holy father among the saints, John, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us."
Saint Seraphim of Sarov prophesied concerning the translation of his relics: "There will be a Pascha in the middle of summer." That was in Holy Russia. Here was something even more remarkable: the glorification of a wonderworker in late twentieth-century America, where Christ's flock of Orthodox Christians are few and scattered, strangers in a foreign land; where genuine sanctity is almost unheard of. And here, in this cultural Babylon, in this time of spiritual enfeeblement, we are blessed with such an outpouring of grace. What a mercy of God. Lord, how good it was to have been there!
This account draws upon articles by Fr. Valercy Lukianov and "a Russian pilgrim" in Pravoslavnaya Rus, 1994, Nos. 15 and 16, and by George Skok in the St. Xenia's Parish Newsletter, Ottawa.[_private/oabot.htm]