Orthodox America

Bishop Photios of Triaditsa and the Old Calendarist Church of Bulgaria  

In an interview with Orthodox Russia, Bishop Photios described himself as "an ordinary man of his time." That is, growing up in communist Bulgaria, he did not receive a religious upbringing. He was fortunate, however, while still in high school, to meet Archimandrite Seraphim (Alexiev), in whom he saw "the embodiment of genuine Christian life according to the Holy Gospel." Through Fr. Seraphim, he became acquainted with the works of Bishop Theophan the Recluse, and these, together with the example of Fr. Seraphim, inspired him to dedicate his life to the Church. He graduated from the Theological Academy in Sofia in 1981, and later, wishing to read patristic texts in the original Greek or Latin, undertook studies in the Classics Department at the University of Sofia.  In the brief history of the Bulgarian Old Calendarist Church that follows, Bishop Photios himself describes the circumstances leading to his consecration on 4/17 January 1993, by the Greek Old Calendarist Synod of Metropolitan Cyprian of Oropos and Fili.

The Bulgarian Old Calendarist Church is still small but it is growing. "The communists implanted unbelief, fear. All this must gradually be overcome. . . One must have a good understanding of the psychology of people who have grown up in these conditions-not judge them but with love explain to them. [As Vladika Seraphim would say], meekly but firmly, always clear and principled, and always with love."

It was only natural that the Russian Church Abroad, having established full communion with the Romanian Old Calendarists in 1992 and, two years later, with the Greek Synod of Metropolitan Cyprian, should forge similar ties with the Bulgarian Old Calendarist Church-particularly, as Bishop Photios pointed out, since their spiritual founder, Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev), was for many years a member of the Russian Church Abroad. Such a united witness (joined most recently by the Greek Traditionalist Church under Bishop Petros) of moderate Orthodox traditionalists is especially needed today. "When we see such sweeping apostasy," says Bishop Photios, "when the official Local Churches are deviating from the truth and, unfortunately, have sullied themselves with ecumenism, we must stand united in order that together we might struggle against that pan-heresy-ecumenism-and together witness to our holy Orthodox faith."

"We are all united by a common ecclesiological position-a position of moderate resistance, i.e., we are trying to follow the royal path, the path of the holy fathers. . . avoiding, on the one side, the extreme of modernism, liberalism and ecumenism, and, on the other side, narrowness, fanaticism and a feeling of self-sufficiency.  This is very difficult, but it is the right and true path."

Quotations from Orthodox Russia Nos. 21 and 22, 1994 Editor

The spiritual founder of the Bulgarian Old-Calendarist Orthodox Church was Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev)-the well-known theologion, profound expert on the works of the Holy Fathers, the fiery defender of holy Orthodoxy. People who knew well his struggle for the purity of the Orthodox faith called him "the conscience of Orthodoxy."  A true monk, a man of exalted ascetical life, he often would say to his spiritual children that "theology is directly proportional to chastity," and he himself burned like a lamp with the fire of love for Christ-the True Light!

Archbishop Seraphim lived in Bulgaria for thirty years.  By his righteous life, filled with deprivations, calamities and persecutions from the dark powers of evil, from the powers "of this world," he drew to himself spiritual children.  Among them was a group of Bulgarian clergy.  Vladika Seraphim began to nurture them in the strict Orthodox spirit, and through them he exerted not a little influence on the faithful in our country, which is felt even to this day.  For example, he was able to introduce Confession before Holy Communion again into the life of the Bulgarian Church.  At that time, the Mystery of Confession was almost completely forgotten in Bulgaria.  Rarely also did the people approach the Holy Mysteries-once a year or even once in several years.  Vladika Seraphim's spiritual children appeared at clergy conferences, they gave lectures on these subjects, explained in their sermons to the people how essential these Mysteries are for the soul's salvation.  They struggled also with Protestant sects in Bulgaria, wrote articles in church newspapers against "good samaritanism" (a local variety of chiliasm), against the remnants of ancient paganism that had manifested themselves, for example, in the so-called "nestinarski dances" on fire.  Even now, after forty-five years of atheism in Bulgaria, the fruits of this activity of Vladika Seraphim's spiritual children are evident.

He himself, after the establishment of the atheist authority in our country, struggled with the Bulgarian variant of renovationism.  When the "Union of Bulgarian Priests" wanted to take the administration of the Church into their hands, removing the ruling episcopate from authority, Vladika wrote a powerful article in the newspaper "Church Herald" (an organ of the BOC [Bulgarian Orthodox Church]), and by his authoritative voice greatly helped the Bulgarian episcopate to retain its canonical authority.

But Archbishop Seraphim's greatest service lies in the fact that he explained to his spiritual children the new and most terrible heresy of our age-ecumenism, and he disclosed its anti-Christian essence.  He understood well and clearly pointed out the diabolic aims of the ecumenical movement-the annihilation of the Orthodox Church on the earth and the founding of a "new church," the church of the coming Antichrist.  Before his righteous repose, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy-13/26 February 1950, Vladika Seraphim left his spiritual children this testament:  "Never have anything in common with ecumenism!"

In late autumn of 1968, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church unexpectedly (of course, not without the participation of, and not without pressure from the communist authorities) went over to the New Style. Several months before the introduction of the reform, "The Church Herald" informed stunned believers that the reform was being made "in accordance with the ecumenical aspirations of the BOC."

The question of introducing the New Style into the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church was bound up with a general ecumenical program of innovations.  Already in 1920, it was the first point of the well-known ecumenical encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Knowing all this and preserving deep in their heart the testament of their righteous elder, Archbishop Seraphim's spiritual children did not accept the New Style and they formed a spiritual nucleus, as it were, around which gathered all those opposed to the introduction of the calendar reform in Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian clergy, and even the episcopate, proved to be completely unprepared for this opposition to the calendar innovation, and the people, suspecting something wrong, began to murmur silently.  Patriarch Kyrill-a vehement modernist and a "sincere" friend of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras-deftly and lightning-quick carried out the calendar reform. Everyone knew that the patriarch was in favor with the communist authorities (for his "services" to them he received the title "academician"-member of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences!).  His despotic manner was also well-known to everyone: he persecuted and annihilated his ideological opponents, if he had the opportunity.

And so, no one was able to object and raise his voice in defense of the holy faith in the Church. Only a certain number of Vladika Seraphim's faithful spiritual children dared to do this, trusting in the prayerful intercession of their holy elder and committing their fate into God's hands.

There were three archimandrites, one hiero-monk and the Protection Convent founded by Archbishop Seraphim in Kniazhevo (a suburb of Sofia, not far from Mount Vitosha).

We shall say a few words about these fathers:

1.  Archimandrite Panteleimon (Staritskij) from Poltava, a former colonel in the imperial army, Archbishop Seraphim's eldest and most beloved spiritual son.  In the course of thirty years he was his cell-attendant, then, for another thirty years, the spiritual father of the Protection Convent.  He died on the eve of the feast of Theophany,  5/18 January 1980, at eighty-seven years of age. . . . He was notable for his profound and sincere humility and firm and clear Orthodox consciousness.  He was saturated with patristic wisdom, constantly read and copied the works of the Holy Fathers for his edification and for the spiritual fortification of the sisters of the Protection Convent.  He understood well and transmitted to his spiritual children all that he himself had received from Vladika Seraphim.

2.  Archimandrite Seraphim (Alexiev) -a doctor of theology, a teacher on the cathedra of dogmatic and denunciatory theology in the Sofia Theological Academy.  He was a humble elder who, after Archimandrite Panteleimon, also was for many years the spiritual father of the sisters of the Protection Convent, and, one can say, the spiritual enlightener of all Bulgaria. He is known as the author of many theological works of dogmatic content, and likewise of spiritual-moral books, of numerous articles and religious poetry.  His last cherished work, Orthdoxy and Ecumenism, which came out at the end of 1992 not long before his repose, is, as it were, the end and crown of his half-century of creative activity and of his struggle in the defense of holy Orthodoxy.

3.  Archimandrite Sergij (Iazadzhiev), the spiritual father of the Protection Convent, Archimandrite Seraphim's spiritual son and faithful comrade-in-arms, who after his death completed the book Orthodoxy and Ecumenism and translated it into Russian.*  Before the calendar reform, he taught New Testament and Greek at the Sofia Theological Academy.

4.  Hieromonk Seraphim (Dmitrievskij), a graduate of the Russian Pastoral School in Bulgaria, was the last monk of the Russian Kokaliaskij Monastery near Sophia.  Subsequently he transferred to service in the Protection Convent.  He likewise refused to accept the calendar reform.  He was notable for his straightforwardness, childlike simplicity and kind-heartedness.  He died on 9 December 1984 at the age of 83. All these four monks humbly, but firmly, expressed to Patriarch Kyrill (through his vicar, Bishop Joseph) their categorical disagreement with the reform of the calendar and meekly asked to let them continue Divine services according to the Old Style, the more so because the Protection Monastery always served according to the Jerusalem Typicon while the whole Bulgarian Church held to the abbreviated Constantinople Typicon. This decisive step of those clerics faithful to Orthodoxy and of the Protection Convent evoked the terrible wrath of Patriarch Kyrill: Archimandrite Seraphim and Archimandrite Sergij were expelled from the Theological Academy, and all four priests were banned from priestly service.

The Protection Monastery was removed from the jurisdiction of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the main church, dedicated the Holy Evangelist Luke, was expropriated and the sisters were deprived of work in winter, so that they remained without any support.  Many other sanctions followed.

Real persecution began.  For mutual strengthening, all four priests settled near the Protection Convent, forming one spiritual family, which lived in constant expectation of new trials and tribulations.

It was winter.  The New Style was introduced immediately after the feast of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker.  In the Synod, Patriarch Kyrill said that all those who did not accept the New Style, he would unfrock or banish to confinement in a small, half-ruined monastery located in the mountains far from Sophia.  People were afraid to visit the convent or to speak with the sisters, thinking that the militia was constantly there.

In this difficult time, the Lord performed several miracles in order to strengthen His children who were weak but who sincerely desired to be faithful to Him.

Completely unexpectedly, during this general fear, an elderly man from the provinces came to the Protection Convent.  He knew nothing about the convent and its difficult circumstances, when Saint Seraphim of Sarov appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to find the Convent of Saint Luke (the convent was called thus after the name of the main church that had been taken away by the New Calendarists) and to say to the abbess and the sisters:  "Peace be unto you!"  This mercy of God was a great consolation to the inhabitants of the persecuted convent.

A second miracle occured after the New Calendarists occupied the convent church in accordance with a directive of Patriarch Kyrill.  On October 18 the New Calendarists were to perform the Divine service and to celebrate the memory of the holy Evangelist according to the New Style.  But the Lord and His great saint showed their disfavor.  The weather had been particularly fine-a quiet, warm and bright autumn.  Such days occur in Sophia at this time of the year.  It pained the sisters to see from afar their beloved church, into which they could not enter.  And suddenly, on the 18th of October, upon waking up, they saw with amazement that the whole monastery was buried in snow.  The soft snow stuck to the leaves that had not yet managed to fall from the trees, and under their weight the birches were bowed to the ground, and some lay on the earth uprooted.  At the very gates of the convent three large birches were bent down at a sharp angle, completely blocking the road to the church.  All the other entrances were likewise obstructed, even the small wicket-gates.  And at the western entrance to the convent, across from the road, lay an uprooted willow, barring the way of the New Calendarists.  The joyous sisters did not know how to thank the Lord.  Some managed to photograph this wondrous miracle of God.  And when, thirteen days later, the real feast of the holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke arrived, the weather was again warm and gracious.  The birches at the gates stood straight and orderly, as if they had never been bowed.  With quiet joy the sisters celebrated this day in the small house church of the Protection, glorifying the great Apostle.

Patriarch Kyrill intended to break up the convent and send the monks and nuns living in it to the mountains.  During the most forceful repressions against the Old-Calendarists, there died an agronomist of the Sophia metropolia, Traicho Christov, a pious man and even of righteous life, who loved those living in the convent and profoundly sympathized with them. And suddenly, soon after his death, he appeared in a dream to his grieving spouse and commanded her to go at once to Kniazhevo and say to the sisters: "The convent is saved!" The wife, who was very comforted that she saw him joyful and bright, immediately ran and conveyed his words.  And truly, soon after this unusual occurance and especially after the death of Patriarch Kyrill, the menacing clouds hanging over the convent began to disperse. In the difficult time of persecution, many sympathized with the open Old Calendarists and tried stealthily in whatever way possible to help. This was not easy, for an open campaign began against the Old Style and its proponents.  In church sermons and newspapers a real war was going on! The Divine services in the convent had to be performed at night, by candlelight, because everyone was watched and informed against.  And only later were we permitted to serve behind closed doors, not allowing visitors in.

At this time the words of the famous confessor of the Orthodox faith, the ever-memorable Serbian Archimandrite Justin (Popovich), especially strengthened us.  Having learned about the persecution against the Old Calendarists in Bulgaria, he asked to convey to us that we hold firm, that we not give in and that we continue to perform the Divine services according to the Old Style.  In spite of the difficulty, Archimandrite Seraphim continued to write spiritual-moral books, and likewise works explaining the complex issues of our time.  Besides his work dedicated to the calendar (still to be published), he began to gather materials and to write his extensive work on ecumenism.  He worked on this book right up to the end of his life, dedicating all his energies to it.  Father Seraphim, together with Archimandrite Panteleimon (while he was still alive), Archimandrite Sergij and two other theologians, among whose number was also my lowliness, began to get together each Sunday after Liturgy.  Father Seraphim would read a new chapter from his book on ecumenism.  Being still a student of theology, I had the good fortune to participate in these Sunday readings.  We carefully monitored each new apostasy from the Orthodox faith, not only in our Bulgarian Church but also in all the other autocephalous Churches.  Likewise we discussed in detail the compromising decisions of the preconciliar conferences, noting with bitterness the disregarded but constant and perniciously carried out line of gradual apostasy from the truth of Orthodoxy in the majority of local Orthodox Churches.  Information about the struggle of the Greek and Romanian Old Calendarists reached us, although with difficulty.

After the death of Patriarch Kyrill, there came a period of greater tranquility.  Representatives of various Old Calendarist groups began to visit the convent from Greece.  Once, on returning from Romania, the Synod of Metropolitan Kallistos, almost its complete membership, unexpectedly visited us. Among the other hierarchs was Metropolitan Cyprian of Oropos, who subsequently paid us several more visits.

When I completed the Theological Academy, it was proposed that I continue post-graduate study. But, desiring to get away from the ecumenical atmosphere of the academy, I entered the faculty of classical philology at the University of Sophia.

As a student I had the opportunity to make use of assignments to Greece, and I had the good fortune to visit several times the well-known monastery of Saints Cyprian and Justina (not far from Athens). The monastery's strict order of life and the self-denying struggle of the brethren for the purity of holy Orthodoxy made a strong impression on me. Vladika Cyprian's well-known moderation, his good-intentioned gentleness, his love for the works of the Holy Father found agreement in my heart.  In this way, I drew near to him and to the brethren of the Monastery.  Desiring from my youth to dedicate myself to serving pure Orthodoxy, I asked my spiritual father to bless me for this path.  Having become acquainted in detail with the canonical status of Metropolitan Cyprian, Archimandrite Seraphim gave me his blessing, and in 1988 I was secretly ordained to the priesthood by Vladika Cyprian.

Returning to my homeland, I again began to work in our small theological committee, while being officially an assistant at the Universty of Sophia. Under the communist regime I was not able to function openly, but when this regime fell, there opened up the opportunity to continue the work of my spiritual father, already seriously ill, in the struggle for the preservation of the purity of Holy Orthodoxy in my dear homeland. After the fall of the godless regime, the people breathed freely.  Sensing the incorrectness of the calendar reform and seeing the dangerous results of ecumenism, which allowed free access to every kind of sect in Bulgaria, the faithful from various cities began petitioning the Synod to return to the Old Syle and to withdraw the Bulgarian Orthodox Church from the World Council of Churches.  We kept hoping that someone from among the Bulgarian hierarchs would head this popular movement, striving to return to the purity of its original faith; but, alas, not one in the Synod paid attention to this. Letters expressing the popular willl even annoyed certain of the hierarchs.  Moreover, when the bishops were able to act freely, to strengthen the faith and to be concerned about the Church, the Synod divided into two hardened warring parties that anathematized each other and mutually accused each other of serving communism.  Unfortunately, not one of these parties . . . was interested in either the purity of Orthodoxy or in striving for the rebirth of faith among the people, who after forty-five years of atheism have the most confused understandings about the Faith of their forefathers.

Orthodox Bulgarians suffer profoundly from the scandal taking place in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and neophytes are scandalized and even lose faith.  Seeing all this, those steadfast and enlightened in the faith, as also all the devoted disciples of Archbishop Seraphim and Archimandrite Seraphim, formed an initiative group and decided to stand firmly for holy Orthodoxy.  Having lost hope that someone from among the Bulgarian hierarchs would stand on a firm Orthodox position and head the popular movement, they turned with a request to the Holy Synod of Resistance in Greece that I be ordained bishop for the Bulgarian Old Calendarist Orthodox Church.  I dared not refuse to take this heavy cross upon myself, since I myself suffered profoundly from the betrayal of the Lord that had taken place in the bosom of my native Church.

My chirotonia took place on 4/17 January 1993. Upon returning to Bulgaria already as a hierarch, I found my spiritual father, Archimandrite Seraphim, near death.  I received from him his last blessing, and my first service as a bishop in my homeland was his funeral.  All said that it was as if Archimandrite Seraphim had waited for my return in order to commit to me his testament to continue the struggle for the truth, and after this he was peacefully translated to the world on high.

After my return, from various cities in Bulgaria there joined me several priests, who are esteemed for their piety and zealous service to God. Through God's great mercy, one pious woman, the handmaiden of God Nina (Khlebarova), donated the upper floor of her home, and within a month it was turned into a small house church dedicated to the Ascension of the Lord.  This was realized by the unsleeping labors of many volunteers who worked during the coldest part of the year.  On 13/26 February 1993, on the anniversary of the repose of Vladika Seraphim, regular Divine services began there and straightway a Sunday school for children was founded at the church.  Likewise religious-moral talks were conducted which took place weekly after an akathist to the Ascension of the Lord.

The number of parishioner -adherents to the patristical calendar-increased with each day.  The young especially are drawn to the church, which is very comforting.  But since the house was old and, from the influx of people, dangerous cracks began to appear in the floor, it became impossible to continue the Divine services.

Not wanting to enter into conflict with the official Church, we do not have any pretensions even for empty churches.  Therefore, we had to quickly build a new, also temporary, small church dedicated to Saint John of Rila. Already it cannot contain all who desire to be present at the Divine services.

The situation is similar in other cities of Bul-garia, where there are Orthodox adhering to the Old Style.  We are setting to work to build new churches and chapels, although we do not have any kind of financial means, and economic conditions in Bulgaria right now are such that it is almost impossible to rely on donations.  In spite of all these difficulties, we are setting to work; our priority is to build a church in Sophia, hoping only on God's help and mercy and having before our eyes the inspiring example of your Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.

(Slightly abridged from a translation by Daniel Olson from Pravoslavnaya Rus', Jordanville 1994, No. 21.)