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  Pastoral Gatherings

From the memoires of Bishop Arsenius (Zhadanovsky) +1937

     After the death of Fr, John of Kronstadt, pastoral circles began to be formed in his memory. In Moscow the initiators of such a group were two highly respected archpriests: Fr. Alexey Mechev (Maloroseysk) and Fr. Nicholas Smirnov(Kodashevsky). They came to see me at the Chudov [Monastery].

     "In church life," they said, "Moscow was always ahead of Petrograd, but in the veneration of the great pastor of Kronstadt we have fallen terribly behind. There, a circle dedicated to his memory has been in existence for some time already, while we still don't have one, even though many Moscow priests have great veneration for Fr. John and are ready, in their activity, to be inspired by his memory. We ask you, Vladika, to lead sucha group for us."

    I accepted their offer with love and presented Metropolitan Makary with a report in this spirit. There soon came a favorable decision from the arch-pastor who called God' s blessing upon this good initiative.

    We scheduled the opening of the circle on December 20, [the year is estimated c. 1915] the day of repose of the great luminary. On the eve a parastas was served, and in the morning a Liturgy for the departed and a memorial service. The first gathering, numbering 25 priests from the capital, was held in the Metropolitan's quarters in the Chudov monastery, where I brought various things which Fr. John had given me as gifts, including some manuscript pages from his diaries. Having prayed and kissed them, those present chose a chairman and a secretary who was entrusted with a special book for recording all the discussions and resolutions made at the meetings. The introductory speech was made by Fr. Alexey Mechev. His voice trembling with emotion, he told us of the impression he had received the first time he served with Fr. John:

     "I, a sinful and unworthy priest," said Fr. Alexey, "until becoming acquainted with Batiushka, often, if not always, offered the Bloodless Sacrifice with a cold heart, with scattered thoughts, often without faith. After co-serving the Divine Liturgy with Fr. John, I was seized with a flaming love for God and neighbor, and I understood not only the depth of the Mystery of the Eucharist, but also the meaning of pastoral care for souls. When I looked upon Batiushka, praying so intently that he perspired, with many tears and inward groans, my heart trembled from proximity to such a great Saint, this angel of God, and I involuntarily lifted 'my eyes heavenward and called out: 'O God, how great is Thy mercy towards the human race. By Thy sufferings on the Cross, Thou hast saved us from sin, damnation and death. Thou didst grant priests to stand before the altar and intercede for themselves and for Thy people. Help me also, O Lord, by the example of Fr. John, always to offer the Bloodless Sacrifice with inspiration, and incline my hardened heart towards the zealous fulfillment of my pastoral duty."

     "The Lord hearkened unto my entreaty. After this, by the prayers of Fr. John, I began, first, to serve the Divine Liturgy with greater seriousness, greater fervor, and whenever I felt a spiritual cooling coming over me I would warm myself by recalling that unforgettable first time when I served with Fr. John. Secondly, I completely gave myself over to caring for the salvation of my spiritual children."

      As Fr. Alexey spoke, tears streamed down his face, affecting those present with similar emotion.

     The first gathering was dedicated to the memory of Fr. John. It was decided to meet as needed for the exchange of ideas and the re solution of perplexing questions about pastoral practice. Here are a few of them.

    Several meetings were devoted to questions of spiritual guidance. They discussed under what conditions so-called 'mortal sins' could be resolved, particularly, unlawful cohabitation which, in our times, is so common. Some pastors are very severe regarding such offenders; they deny them Holy Communion. Others, more condescending, allow them to approach the Holy Chalice, thinking that this will help dispose them towards amendment, and believing that the g r a c e which is imparted through the Holy Mysteries will itself renew their lives. All spiritual fathers, however, must take it as a rule that one cannot apply to all sinners the same prohibitions; one must not act according to a set formula; what is suitable for one person may ruin another.

    One member of the brotherhood related an incident that occurred in Gethsemane Skete. A priest committed a serious carnal sin of which he whole-heartedly repented. Nevertheless, his spiritual father gave him a penance and did not allow him to serve Divine Liturgy. That night the priest suddenly died. This made the spiritual father wonder if he had dealt properly with his brother, especially when he considered God's mercy towards all repentant sinners. Another priest commented that there are cases of carnal sins which are sometimes simply monstrous, and one can only regard those persons subject to them as possessed, in their own way, by evil spirits. Experience shows that the most effective means of deliverance from such passions are Holy Unction, prayer, rebuking the evil spirits and even exorcism.

    Resolved: Canonically the Church has the right in certain cases to deprive her members of Holy Communion, but she does not permit disdain to be shown towards anyone, because this can serve to push a person away from faith. The foundation of all relations with people must rest on Holy Love which draws even inveterate sinners to repentance and amendment. Being guided by love, the pastor is obliged to have particular concern for his sinful spiritual children; he must watch over them with increased vigilance, fervently pray for them and meekly bring them to understand that until they correct their ways, the Holy Mysteries will only serve to their condemnation, and for this reason it is more beneficial for salvation to consider oneself unworthy of the Holy Chalice and hot to demand it until one is free from this sin [of fornication]. Only at the hour of death, when all passion departs and man is brought to involuntary repentance, is no one denied the Holy Mysteries. In a word, the faithful must be schooled in awareness that the Holy Mysteries stand in absolute conjunction with repentance, and a pastor must watch for its development in his flock so as not to lose any of his sheep, not to deprive any of them of the future life to come.

    There was a lot of discussion concerning the Liturgy and its significance. The Liturgy is the focus around which a priest should center all his activity. Just as a child is drawn to its mother and, nourished by her milk, grows, strengthens and matures, so, too, a pastor must cling with all his soul to the Divine Eucharist, thirst after it, constantly nourish himself with it, and in this way grow in spiritual perfection.

    Resolved: To propose that all members of the circle acquaint themselves with the diaries and teachings of Fr. John--those parts concerning the Divine Liturgy--so that by reading these lines, filled with the spiritual experience of the Kronstadt luminary, each might enkindle within himself a love for the celebration of the Eucharist.

    Having set forth this resolution, all arose and with compunction sang to the much-revered Batiushka "With the saints give rest," and "Memory Eternal."

     Many other questions were also brought forth at these meetings. The gatherings always left a consoling and uplifting impression. About this, one of the members, A. S., once said: "There are quite a number of various church circles and brotherhoods in existence. But how much of man's fallen nature is brought into them: arguments, divisions, disagreements... At our discussions, however, I sense the breath of the Holy Spirit, and I experience God's blessing; they are conducted in such peace, such harmony, in the spirit of the Gospel. And this is understandable. What can transcend that aim which unites us here: to be not simply inheritors, but genuine, active workers in the vineyard of Christ." 

(Translated from Prvaoslavni Put, Jordanville, N.Y., 1985)

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