What prevents the “prodigal shepherds” from repenting?

The Church, like the loving father from the Gospel parable, awaits her lost children. Photo: UOJ

After the creation of the OCU, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church remained almost unchanged, but several dozens of its clergy fell into schism. Can they repent and return?

This article is focused on those former priests of the UOC who, for one reason or another, moved to the OCU after its creation at the end of 2018. There are such clerics in different eparchies, but we will take Vinnytsia for illustrative purposes. Firstly, because the author of the article is aware of the mood in this particular eparchy due to personal conversations, and secondly, because this is the only eparchy of the UOC, whose ruling bishop shifted for the OCU, which left its mark on everything that is happening now.

Rembrandt “The Return of the Prodigal Son”

On the betrayal of the Vinnytsia bishop

On December 15, 2018, Metropolitan Simeon (Shostatsky) of Vinnytsia and Bar left Vinnytsia for Kyiv for the so-called "Unification Council" convened by P. Poroshenko and Patriarch Bartholomew to found the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). It is unlikely that he would have dared to take such a step if he hadn’t been sure that he would be made the primate of the new religious structure. Moreover, he would not have gone to Kyiv if he had known what kind of reception he would receive from the clergy of Vinnytsia Eparchy after his return.

The day after the "Council", during a liturgy at the Transfiguration Cathedral in Vinnytsia, Shostatsky informed the clergy and parishioners about the creation of the OCU and his move to this structure. Simeon urged everyone to follow his example, but only a few responded to the call. Some priests from the clergy of the Transfiguration Cathedral did not attend the liturgy on December 16 at all, and the overwhelming majority refused to follow their former bishop after his announcement about his change for the OCU. So did all the clergy of the Vinnytsia Eparchy. After some time, in an interview, Simeon (Shostatsky) said with regret: “I have lost a lot. I had 320 parishes, now there are 20 left. I had 280 priests, and now only 30."

It is already a year and a half since those events. During this time, the clergy of the Vinnytsia Eparchy, as of the entire Ukrainian Orthodox Church, have been subjected to very strong pressure from the authorities, national radicals, and mass media to make them join the OCU. In vain! On the contrary, out of 30 priests who followed Simeon into schism, three have already brought repentance and returned to the bosom of the Church. But what about the rest?

Schism impossible to repent

Others think differently. Some are guided by the former Metropolitan Simeon and follow strictly in his channel. We remember the unfortunate Viktor Bodnar, who, after going into schism, became so embittered that he even tried to physically attack the new Vinnytsia bishop of the UOC, Metropolitan Varsonofy. Six months later, Bodnar died.

The ex-cleric of the UOC, banned for falling into schism, attacked Archbishop Varsonofy during a prayer service in Makhnovka. Photo: a video screenshot

Some do not return to the Church because they are not allowed by those in power or sponsors/ benefactors. It is unlikely that among them there were those who ideologically consider the sсhism to be the right choice. In this case, they would have long ago defected for the schismatic denominations of the UOC-KP or the UAOC, without waiting for the creation of the OCU. But perhaps the most significant part of the clergy who supported Simeon in 2018 would like to return to the canonical Church, but they are held back by one psychological moment.

The more time passes, the more psychologically difficult it becomes for the clergy who have moved to the OCU to return to the Church.

The fact is that those clergy who followed Shostatsky made their choice immediately. Then they had some short period, during which they could return to the UOC relatively painlessly and, as they say, “saving face”: the return could be explained by the fact that they, say, did not understand the situation, thought everyone would move, showed obedience to their bishop, etc.

The more time passes, the more psychologically difficult it becomes for the clergy who have moved to the OCU to return to the Church. The reasoning of such former priests is clear: they believe that if they did not return immediately, if they return now, after a lapse of time, they will be perceived as traitors both in the UOC and in the OCU. They will be outsiders anywhere. After all, it will be clear to everyone that they are returning to the UOC mainly not because they realized where the true Church of Christ is, but because of some materialistic considerations: someone has lost their flock or a significant part of it, someone misses their own fellow priests who remained in the UOC, some are not satisfied with the order prevailing in the OCU, and so on.

Therefore, they sigh with regret about what happened but are hesitating to bring repentance and return to the Church. And by purely human reasoning, they are right. But besides human reasoning, there are also spiritual ones.

Why did the prodigal son from the Gospel parable repent?

Let us turn to the parable of the prodigal son, which very expressively describes all aspects and stages of sin and repentance, as well as how God looks at the repentant and how he accepts him. It is sobering to read this text of the Gospel according to St. Luke. 

“And he said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fatted calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate” (Luke 15, 11-32).

We learn from this parable that the motive of repentance can be just the most self-interested. The prodigal son repented that he had left his father for nothing more than a feeling of hunger. He did not think that he had terribly insulted his father by his departure and demand for his share of the property. He did not think about his father's feelings at all, he thought about the fact that he had nothing to eat.

However, even hunger did not immediately make him turn his mind's eye to his father. At first, he tried to feed himself by herding pigs and was glad to be fed with the pods they ate. And only then, he began to think about returning to his father's house. At the same time, the prodigal son also thinks about the bread that his father's servants eat rather than his father: "How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!" And this was the beginning of repentance, indeed sincere and effective.

We learn from this parable that the motive of repentance can be just the most self-interested. The prodigal son repented that he had left his father for nothing more than a feeling of hunger. He did not think that he had terribly insulted his father by his departure and demand for his share of the property. He did not think about his father's feelings at all, he thought about the fact that he had nothing to eat.

St. Theophan the Recluse writes: “And the sinner, who converts and repents, awakens from the sleep of sin, comes to the resolve to change (rises) and, finally, invests with power from on high for a new life in the Mysteries of Repentance and Communion (ready for action). In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, these moments are indicated as follows: when he came to himself, he came to his senses; he got up and went – he decided to leave his old life; moreover, he says to the father: I have sinned – repentance, and the father put on the robe on him (justification and absolution of sins) and prepares for him a meal (Holy Communion)."

Reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the light of the question we are considering, i.e. the departure of some priests to the OCU, it can be seen that the prodigal son, having a desire to return to his father, did not think of how his elder brother would receive him or how servants and hired workers would look at him. He resigned himself so much that he was ready for anything: ridicule, sidelong glances, humiliation, and so on. This should become a model for those who are stopped by the thought of what those priests of the UOC who did not, following the example of their former bishop, commit betrayal of the Church will think. You shouldn’t think of this, you should think that God, our loving Father, is waiting for his prodigal sons and is ready to forgive them everything, without asking why they decided to return. The main thing is the sincerity of repentance. St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) writes: “We learn from the Gospel parable that for successful and fruitful repentance, a man needs to provide on his part: seeing his own sin, recognizing it, repenting of it, and confession of it. God sees a person who has made this pledge in the heart while he is yet a long way off; He sees him and runs to meet him, embraces and kisses him with His grace."

The prodigal son, having a desire to return to his father, did not think of how his elder brother would receive him or how servants and hired workers would look at him. He resigned himself so much that he was ready for anything: ridicule, sidelong glances, humiliation, and so on.

And the main fruit of such repentance is forgiveness and reconciliation with God. St. John of Kronstadt exclaims: “Oh, the inexhaustible abyss of God's mercy towards us sinners! Rejoice, earthly ones, that your Father, Who is in heaven, is so merciful. You can hope that if you care about your salvation, you will certainly receive it; really hope that the Heavenly Father is concerned about your salvation and will grant you, in his goodness, the promised bliss. Look: the prodigal son comes to his senses and says: I will go to my father. And what about the father? When the prodigal son was still far from him because of his uncleanness, because of his iniquity, his father saw him and took pity; and running, fell on his neck and kissed him. What the most tender, truly parental love! And this is the absolute truth, because the only begotten Son of God, the Son of the Fathers' love, assures of this.”

Repentance is possible

In February 2020, i.e. a little over a year after leaving the OCU, Archpriest Roman Asafa, the former rector of the St. Seraphim of Sarov Church in the town of Koziatyn, Vinnytsia region, returned to the bosom of the Church. Some details of this were reported by the local newspaper “RIA-Koziatyn”.

Archpriest Roman Asafa with Metropolitan Varsonofy and the clergy of the Vinnytsia Eparchy

The whole thing is very similar to the Gospel parable. Fr. Roman wandered "a long way off" for a whole year. He lost his flock since the community of the St. Seraphim of Sarov Church, even legally, has always remained a part of the UOC. As a result, he repented and decided to return. “The rector of the St. Seraphim of Sarov Church of Koziatyn, Archpriest Roman Asafa, who in March last year moved to the OCU, turned to Metropolitan Varsonofy of Vinnytsia and Bar with a letter of repentance, in which he expressed sincere repentance for the sin of falling into schism and expressed his intention to steadily keep faithfulness to God and unity with the canonical Church,” says the message on the website of the Vinnytsia Eparchy of the UOC.

At the same time, Fr. Roman’s former associates from the OCU, in a conversation with a RIA-Koziatyn correspondent, regretted his decision and hinted at some problems with which Fr. Roman will not be welcomed in the UOC. “Actually, I'm very sorry for Father Roman. Because the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate will not be as loyal to his problems as we do,” said Hieromonk Sofrony, press secretary of the Vinnytsia-Bar Eparchy of the OCU. But he was wrong. Metropolitan Varsonofy сame to the St. Seraphim of Sarov Church and, according to RIA-Koziatyn, “talked to Fr. Roman and his family, thanked for the courage and desire to serve the Church of Christ, the bishop also handed over the things necessary for the service”.

***

Certainly, for those priests who have left the Church, repentance is a very difficult move. You need to step over your pride, the condemnation of your new circle, possible earthly everyday troubles. But all this will be abundantly rewarded even in mortal life, not to mention the afterlife. If anyone comes to God with repentance, there will be a spiritual feast for him. The Heavenly Father will certainly put on the repentant his son's clothes, give him a ring on his hand, kill a fatted calf and call everyone to rejoice that the prodigal son “was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”.

And for those priests of the UOC who have remained faithful to their Church, the time of testing will come: are they ready to accept their returned prodigal brother, or will they, like the elder son from the parable, reproach the Heavenly Father for accepting the younger son, despite the fact that he squandered his property with harlots. An interesting detail: the text of the Gospel does not tell us whether the elder son agreed with his father's arguments and whether he nevertheless came to the feast or not. The Gospel seems to leave this question open, which means that everyone who considers himself in the place of the elder son must decide for himself.

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