ENGLISH VERSION: Nativity Epistle of His Grace, Bishop Gregory of Petrograd and Gdov (ROAC) - To the monastics, clergy, and laity of the Russian Orthodox Church
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men – we know that these words, which we hear on today’s feast day, are true for all time, as in heaven as on earth, even when neither peace nor good will among men are visible on earth. But we recall that even when these words were first pronounced In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not (Matthew 2:18). Recalling these events from the time of the Nativity of Christ, we cannot claim that we are now in a time of trouble. By God’s mercy, and despite the worrying signs of social change, we must give thanks to God for granting us a quiet and tranquil life in the present time, and ask Him, if it be His holy will, that He grant us the same in the future. What is most important is that within ourselves we always can and must find that peace that is above all minds, which is granted only by the grace of God, and which is proclaimed to us in the present feast day. Therefore let us give thanks to God and be attentive to ourselves, for our spiritual condition and even our external circumstances, concerning our bodies and souls, depend on nothing else.
The feast day invites us to be attentive to ourselves and to be exalted to meet Christ Who cometh from the heavens, as St. Gregory the Theologian proclaims in today’s divine service. Yet "being attentive to oneself" means only in the first place to be "attentive to oneself personally." This is important and foundational; without it all the rest is impossible. But there should also be something else: attention to one’s brothers and sisters in the faith – the members of one’s church communities or other communities also made up of True Orthodox Churches – and attention to all other people with whom God has called us to live, even if the vast majority of them are neither our brothers and sisters in the faith or even Christians at all. It is not so much that they require our attention, so much that we must guard our conscience in relation to them, and pay them a certain amount of attention, especially when they are in need of this. The great Christian feast days are times when the entire world traditionally looks at Christians, and when Christians notice each other more. Here we can sin not only through some sinful action, but also through inaction, and therefore if we live in society we must clearly understand the needs of those around us.
As far as our Church is concerned, recent years have brought both joyful and worrying changes simultaneously, for each one of these changes is a challenge for Christians. If we will find a Christian answer to such challenges, then our Church will strengthen and grow; but if not, it will be destroyed. Now more and more new people, and even entire communities, are coming to us from ecumenical jurisdictions, and they do not always have a priest – and this is perfectly normal, inasmuch as priests are too often employees of their bishops, and they have neither time nor cause to think about the content of their faith. One most often meets believers among the laity and simple monastics, and not among professional church functionaries.
But what should be done with such communities, for which the visit of a priest from another city is a great rarity? The answer is in church tradition, and even in that part of it closest to us in time – in the practice of the Catacomb Church. In the Catacomb Church until a few decades ago one priest had not simply one thousand parishioners, but even tens of thousand, only a few of whom had the opportunity to gather for the divine mysteries with a priest; the rest gathered for prayer in small groups. For Holy Communion the priests would pass on to these communities reserve Holy Gifts through trusted persons; in this manner the whole Church was united in common mysteries. Today this can be done much more easily, because communities that do not have a priest do not need to feel particularly left out: they have everything that is needed. It is not necessary to wait, as some do, for a priest to come in order to say: "prayer is served!" If we want to pray, then nothing is stopping us from beginning right now to serve at least some divine services from the daily cycle and to appeal to the bishop for the Holy Gifts for Communion at home with the service of the Typika. It is very important to remember that it is generally better to have no priest than to have a bad one. A good priest is either raised by the community itself, or he himself raises a community. Therefore such a priest cannot be assigned to a community by will of the bishop; he can only be found by the parish itself and be presented to the bishop for ordination or reception. It is wonderful when there are such priests, but it has become completely normal not to have them. With or without a priest, all of our communities strive toward one and the same goal, which is equally attainable by all who are in the communion of the saints, that is, to be in communion with the Holy Mysteries.
Therefore our most important obligation in relationship to one another is to be in communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith, namely in ecclesiastical communion and no other. Ecclesiastical communion requires our continual participation in the Communion of the Holy Gifts and in the divine services in general – and this is regardless of whether our community has a priest in it or not. If we miss a Sunday or festal divine service simply because "we’ve recently been," or because someone came to visit us, or because we have "lots of work," or some other similar circumstance that is not in fact insurmountable, then we should not be surprised if the opportunity to participate in the divine services is taken away from us; or, if there are many such members in a community, that the community itself will collapse. The existence of church communities is possible only by God’s mercy; but God’s grace is not assigned by lottery, but rather is given to those who desire to make use of it appropriately. A careless attitude to divine worship is not only a sin against ourselves, but is a sin against the entire church community.
Church unity is also maintained by attending the divine services of other True Orthodox communities to which we ourselves do not belong. Due to the sins of Christians in general, and especially due to the incapacity of our bishops – who themselves did not have experience in managing the vessel of the Church and who did not have senior bishops from whom they could learn – at the present time the external unity of the True Orthodox Church has been disturbed due to administrative divisions among brothers and sisters in the faith. These divisions, as we today understand better than ever, are frequently unjustified and should be overcome. Already in the present time laity and monastics of different jurisdictions that confess one and the same faith pray together and commune one another, and this creates the conditions that will subsequently compel the bishops to agree on mutual recognition and communion. If the entire Church is built up from below, beginning with communities – and not with the bishops – then the overcoming of the current division among Christians can be made possible only as a movement from below.
Let us once again give thanks to the Lord for the possibility to pray together, about which the Psalmist said: what is so good or so joyous as for brethren to dwell together in unity, and let us especially pray that we ourselves do not fall from ecclesiastical unity due to our negligence.
Along with the internal circumstances of our communities, the external circumstances continue to change as well. True Orthodox Christians should always clearly understand that the social system that has just collapsed in Russia would not have allowed the slightest chance for the survival of True Orthodox Churches outside the "catacombs." The problem was not so much in any one person’s unkind will, but in the very structure, which would not have allowed the True Orthodox Churches any place apart from the underground. Of course, for the genuine Church this is nothing terrible, and we should be grateful for everything, but for the preaching of True Orthodoxy this would have been a serious blow. But it was impossible not to see that the persecution of our Church was carried out by those who came out against not only religious freedom, but who were against all the values of our secular society – and therefore the end of such authority was inevitable. Now, finally, it has arrived – inasmuch as a return to the past, to the old system of power, is no longer possible, and this regardless of whatever individuals remain at the head of the government. But will things get better? The true answer to this question cannot be given by a fortuneteller, but by we ourselves – because, as Orthodox, we believe that the future is not predetermined, but is dependent upon us. Therefore we will offer our own actions in due time as the answer to the question about our future.
Among us True Orthodox Christians there may even be professional politicians, on whom certain demands may be made at the present time; but all the rest of us believers are also subject to special demands as Christians. We may not understand either politics or economics, but we are obliged to understand what it means to act in good conscience, and what it means not to. We are obliged to examine these things ourselves and to help all others who might ask our opinion to understand – although, of course, you should not speak when you are not asked, or when you yourself do not know what to say.
Such are the many and various responsibilities we have not only in everyday matters, but also in regards to spiritual care. And there is only one way to fulfill them: to remain Christians when we are alone with God and with ourselves, so that we may fulfill what has been said:
Christ is on earth, be ye exalted!
+ Gregory, Bishop of Petrograd and Gdov
Nativity of Christ, 2011/2012