Truth or Phanar: what contemporary monks of Holy Mount Athos lean to

Archimandrite Ephraim, Abbot of the Vatopedi Monastery of Athos. Photo: UOJ

With regard to the OCU, some monasteries of Athos took the side of Phanar. Why did this happen and can Athonites now be considered a spiritual beacon for the Orthodox?

On December 11, 2020, the abbot of the Athonite monastery Vatopedi, Hegumen Ephraim (Kutsu), spoke with Orthodox believers from Russia for the first time online. During the conversation, which lasted more than two hours, Abbot Ephraim was asked only once about his position on the most pressing problem of today's Orthodoxy – the granting of the Tomos to the OCU by the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

By and large, loyalty to the canonical Church, loyalty to the Tradition and order of the Church and, ultimately, loyalty to Christ depend on the answer to this question. The Tomos issue has already led to a split in World Orthodoxy and problems of inter-Orthodox communion. In addition, the stance on the Tomos significantly affects the attitude of Orthodox Christians towards individual monasteries of Holy Mount Athos.

Therefore, when the question about the OCU was raised during a conversation with Elder Ephraim, we had the right to expect from him a balanced, theologically and canonically grounded answer. Moreover, Abbot Ephraim is not only popular in the Orthodox world as an "elder", but is also known as a defender of the purity of Orthodoxy.

However, the elder's answer not only disappointed us, but also made us once again think about whether the Athonite monks can be considered unconditional spiritual authorities and whether loyalty to Phanar is not more important for some of them than loyalty to Christ.

Athos and OCU: there is nothing we can do or how the attitude towards schism has changed

So what did Hegumen Ephraim answer? When asked by the chairman of the brotherhood "Sons of Athos" Alexander Tuzenko about the confusion of the believing people by the position of the Athonites on the Ukrainian crisis, the archimandrite said that the monasteries of Athos are doing everything in their power, but there is nothing they can do to solve this problem. “There is a conflict between two Synods, two Churches: Moscow and Ecumenical, here is a different level and we can do nothing to help,” the Vatopedi abbot stressed.

But is it really so? Did the Athonites really do and are doing everything in their power to solve the problem that arose between, in their opinion, "two Synods"? And is the Ukrainian crisis really just an ordinary conflict between the two Churches, rather than a crime of Patriarch Bartholomew, who is trying to legalize non-ordained schismatics in the Church?

"There is a conflict between two Synods, two Churches: Moscow and Ecumenical, here is a different level and we can do nothing to help."

Hegumen Ephraim on the problem of the OCU, 2020

In the view of Orthodox Christians, Holy Mount Athos is a place where real ascetics, the true color of Orthodoxy, live a pious life. The opinion expressed by Athonite monastics is often more weighty than the words of many bishops; therefore, from the very beginning of the OCU epic, the position of the Athonite monasteries was a crucial guideline. After all, the Athonites are the true defenders of the purity of Orthodoxy; they are not able to “cave in” to the mighty of this world. Or ... are they able to? Archimandrite Ephraim has always been a role model of a shepherd for whom the interests of the Church are "above all". His authority was so high that no one could even suspect that he could be sick of "Hellenic solidarity" or have fears about his position.

It is interesting to trace how his stance in relation to the Ukrainian schismatics gradually changed. The abbot of the Vatopedi monastery had visited Ukraine several times, and three years ago he was considered one of the most devoted supporters of the canonical Church in Ukraine and an adamant opponent of schismatics from the UOC-KP and the UAOC.

In particular, in 2015, he said in an interview, “I appeal to the Ukrainian people and ask them to adhere to the canonical Orthodox Church, which is headed by His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry. And I ask you with love that we become members of the canonical Church. The entire Holy Mountain accepts and recognizes only the canonical Ukrainian Church led by Metropolitan Onuphry."

In December 2017, Abbot Ephraim addressed our people within the framework of the Word to the Ukrainians project, where he said the following about schism: “The schism cuts like scissors, and the one who backslides into schism must understand: he is already outside the bosom of the Church ... We here, on the Holy Mountain, are very grieving because of the schism in the Ukrainian Church, which was caused by Filaret. Therefore, we ask all our brothers who have left the canonical Church, we appeal to them to return to the bosom of the Orthodox canonical Church."

"The schism cuts like a pair of scissors, and the one who backslides into schism must understand: he is already outside the bosom of the Church."

Hegumen Ephraim on the Ukrainian schism, 2017

One should agree that these words cannot be interpreted somehow ambiguously. They clearly testify that at that time Abbot Ephraim clearly stood in the position of the canonical Church and was not ready to enter into communion with schismatics without their repentance. Therefore we were taken by surprise when, on the eve of the granting of the Tomos to the OCU, it suddenly became known that the abbot of the Vatopedi Monastery would attend the "enthronement" of Epiphany Dumenko.

Change of position: cause and effect

What or who made the Elder, who enjoys huge authority in the Orthodox world, change his position?

It is known that on April 17, 2018, the former US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Payette visited the Vatopedi Monastery at Athos. In the same place, in Vatopedi, he held a meeting with one of the main initiators of the recognition of the OCU in the Church of Greece, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Navpaktos, after which he stated that “we had an important discussion about Orthodoxy worldwide and US support for the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”

On October 12, 2018 (that is, a few months before the recognition of the OCU), Abbot Ephraim visited the White House and the US State Department. There, American officials held several conversations with him, the main point of which was "the affairs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the reopening of the theological school in Halki and the destruction of temples and monasteries by Turkey in Northern Cyprus." It is clear that the caliber of Hegumen Ephraim is too big for him to be summoned to the State Department only to talk about the Halki Seminary, but enough to talk about participating in the "enthronement" of the head of the OCU to impart at least some status to this event.

Actually, this was almost achieved – Abbot Ephraim came to Kyiv. Moreover, the pressure on him was so strong that he came despite the fact that the Holy Kinot of the Holy Mount Athos decided that representatives of the monastic brotherhood would not participate in Dumenko's enthronement.

And they actually did not participate, showing a certain amount of guile. Abbot of the Xenophontos Monastery, Archimandrite Alexy, represented Phanar at the event in Kyiv, not Athos. As for Vatopedi’s hegumen, Archimandrite Ephraim, he suddenly fell ill. Moreover, his physical state was so serious  that he left the borders of Ukraine and flew to Germany, where he underwent heart surgery.

Of course, we do not undertake to assert that the elder's illness was simply a reason not to participate in the “divine service” with the schismatics, but it was this idea that probably occurred to everyone who followed the events in Ukraine at that time.

Then, we will remind, Dumenko suddenly descended upon the hegumen in the Kyiv hospital, after which he stated that Elder Ephraim "wished him successful service as the primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine." Later it became known that Vatopedi’s Abbot did not say these words.

Why didn't Athos oppose Phanar on the OCU issue?

However, even without the verbal support of the head of the OCU, the behavior of Elder Ephraim is difficult to justify. The very arrival in Kyiv with the intention to participate in the “primate enthronement” of a secular person without any priestly rank speaks for itself. The elder's sudden illness, his hasty "departure" from Ukraine suggests that he perfectly understood and understands that the representatives of the OCU are schismatics, with whom it is impossible to enter into Eucharistic communion without their preliminary repentance. Why then did he even agree to participate in this action?

It is impossible to canonically justify what the Patriarchate of Constantinople committed in the territory of Ukraine. That is why, when he was asked about his attitude to the OCU, Elder Ephraim simply avoided answering. Here are his words: “Do not forget that the Holy Mountain is officially part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. I ask myself this question – if one of the bishops or monasteries would go against the Moscow Patriarch, how would he (Patriarch Bartholomew – Ed.) respond in this case? And we, too, are subordinate to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, we belong to it ecclesiastically, but this does not mean that we have ceased to love Russians. We also pray for them, and we pray that unity will return."

Consequently, the only reasons why Abbot Ephraim took the Phanar's position is the administrative subordination of Athos to the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the negative reaction of Patriarch Bartholomew to those "who will go against him." But shouldn't an Orthodox Christian denounce his brother if the latter falls into heresy or starts a schism, even if he is a patriarch? Was it not in the history of the Church when priests did not agree with heretic bishops, deacons – with heretic presbyters (remember Deacon Athanasius of Alexandria and Presbyter Arius), and ordinary monks, like Maximus the Confessor – with the hierarchy of the Church?

We know that there are many proponents of LGBT and abortion in the Catholic Church. If suddenly tomorrow Patriarch Bartholomew climbs on the bandwagon, will Athonites also support him just because they “ecclesiastically belong to the Patriarchate of Constantinople”? And this is not such a fantastic prospect. The world is changing rapidly, and what was “impossible” yesterday becomes “possible” today and “right” tomorrow.

We know that there are many proponents of LGBT and abortion in the Catholic Church. If suddenly tomorrow Patriarch Bartholomew climbs on the bandwagon, will Athonites also support him just because they “ecclesiastically belong to the Patriarchate of Constantinople”?

The strange logic of Elder Ephraim, according to which Mount Athos should not oppose the lawlessness of the head of Phanar out of considerations of jurisdiction, does not find confirmation in the history of Athos itself. Moreover, in the history of the monastery, whose governor took part in the "enthronement" of the layman and un-ordained schismatic Epiphany Dumenko. We are talking about the Xenophontos Monastery.

How did Mount Athos treat Phanar before?

In 1972, Demetrius (Papadopoulos), who was elected Patriarch of Constantinople, decided to continue the ecumenical and pro-Catholic policy of his predecessor, Patriarch Athenagoras. This policy was opposed by the brethren of the monasteries of Mount Athos, for whom the truth was more precious than prosperity and "good relations" with Phanar.

As a result, the Patriarchate of Constantinople decided to remove from the Holy Mountain the abbot of the Esphigmenou Monastery, Archimandrite Athanasios, and three more monks of the Esphigmenian brotherhood. In 1974, the decision to deprive Archimandrite Athanasios of the rank followed, which entailed a violent reaction from the Holy Mount monastics. The abbot of the monastery of St. Paul, Archimandrite Andrew, was also removed.

About four hundred monks signed a petition protesting against this kind of action. All these abbots and monks decided to stop commemorating the name of the head of Phanar during the Divine Liturgy.

Later, due to repressive measures, some of the abbots, who had interrupted the commemoration of the patriarch, began to commemorate him again. However, abbot Eudocimus of the Xenophontos Monastery, who had been in this monastery for 49 years and led it for the last 22 years, did not commemorate the patriarch. Further we quote "New Athos Patericon":

“Then representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarch came to him under the chairmanship of Metropolitan Maxim of Stavropol. After Father Eudocimus explained the reasons why he had stopped commemorating the patriarch, the chairman of the commission asked him:

“Holy Hegumen, how many monks do you have in your monastery?”

“What kind of monks?” Father Eudocimus asked. “Eaters or hard workers?”

“How dare you talk like that?!” exclaimed Vladyka, feeling furious. “Don't you know that I can take away from you the stick you are holding?!”

“Here you are, Vladyka, you may take it away,” Father Eudocimus humbly answered and gave the hegumen's staff to the Metropolitan. “I came here not to become an abbot but to save my soul.”

So on March 10, 1974, by the patriarchal decision, Father Eudocimus was demoted. Subsequently, the governor of Mount Athos, Mr. Kriekukias, ordered that "the abbot of the Xenophontos Monastery Eudocimus leave the above monastery, since he continues to occupy the same spiritual position."

“Don't you know that I can take away from you the stick you are holding?!”

“Here you are, Vladyka, you may take it away,” Father Eudocimus humbly answered and gave the hegumen's staff to the Metropolitan. “I came here not to become an abbot but to save my soul.”

New Athos Patericon

Hegumen Eudocimus died in 1990. The only monastery that accepted him was the Dochiarou Monastery. The elder humbled himself and departed to the Lord in contempt and humiliation. His burial was headed by the invited abbot of the Xenophontos Monastery Alexy (yes, the same one who came to Kyiv in 2018 to "enthrone" Dumenko). The day after the death of Father Eudocimus, Phanar forgave the deceased hegumen ...

However, even after Elder Eudocimus, there were monks on Mount Athos who denounced the activities of the pro-Catholic Phanar. For example, in 1984, a council of twenty Athonite monasteries made the following statement: “For several years now, we have been feeling deeply uneasy about a kind of apostasy on the part of some autocephalous Local Orthodox Churches, as well as on the part of individual hierarchs ... If those who have gone astray, do not make amends, we will be forced to make an official decision on this issue” (Ορθοδοξοφ τυποξ, No. 595 of 02.24.1984).

"If those who have gone astray do not make amends, we will be forced to make an official decision on this issue."

Declaration of the Athonite monks to the Philocatholics

After the meeting between Patriarch Demetrius and Pope John Paul II, the Holy Mountain sent Abbot Christodoulos of Kutlumush Monastery, Abbot Vasily of Iveron Monastery and Abbot Gregory of Grigoriat Monastery as their representatives to Istanbul to protest against this meeting and the forthcoming "dialogue" between Rome and Phanar.

Against this background, the words of Abbot Ephraim that “we are in the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople” and “there is no way we can help” look very feeble and strange. What’s happened to Athos?

Greek hierarch: Athos has ceased to be a "breakwater of heresies"

In order to get an answer to this question, let us turn to the publication of Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus of the Greek Orthodox Church, who once was a monk of the Holy Mountain, and today he is the spiritual authority for the majority of Christians in Greece.

In his article criticizing the pamphlet of the monk Nikita from Pantokrator, who supported the OCU and Phanar, Metropolitan Seraphim notes that “the serious spiritual degradation and collapse of today's Mount Athos have already become common sad conclusions for many spiritual people and famous personalities who follow the events on Holy Mount Athos and the general presence of the monks of Athos in the modern church world."

Vladyka emphasized that during almost a decade of his stay on the Holy Mountain, he met many devoted hermits, who can be an example for Christians. However, "with heartache we discover that, unfortunately, the modern Mount Athos, once a stronghold of Orthodoxy, a breakwater of heresies, which gave the world a number of saints, ascetics and confessors of faith, has nothing in common with Athos of our youth, which existed about 35 years ago."

Metropolitan Seraphim writes that “today we have an Athos being spiritually unrecognizable, frightened and enslaved by its ecclesiastical authority, ready to obey the orders of Phanar, even if in many cases they do not meet the truth ... We see the Holy Mountain without pulse and vitality ... The Holy Mountain, which oscillates between heresy and Orthodoxy, unable to formulate a theological discourse, unable to oppose heresy and those who promote it, wherever they come from.

With heartache, we discover that, unfortunately, the modern Mount Athos, once a stronghold of Orthodoxy, a breakwater of heresies that gave the world a number of saints, ascetics and confessors of the faith, has nothing in common with Athos of our youth, which existed about 35 years ago.

Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus

Vladyka noted that these conclusions do not apply to all the monasteries of Athos, because among them there are the monasteries of Grigoriadou, Karakalou, Konstamonitou and Filofeo, "as well as several monks in sketes and cells" who resist the lawlessness of Phanar, but the picture is pretty sad, by and large.

For many Orthodox Christians, these words of the Metropolitan of the Church of Greece will come down as shocking truth that "all that glitters is not gold." Always, at all times, the Church has called Christians to sobriety, which also means the ability to draw correct conclusions. In our situation, this means that if some representatives of Athos, instead of serving Truth and Christ, chose to serve Phanar, they cannot be role models in spiritual life.

These people are unable to justify their position by church canons, because they act solely out of either man-pleasing or fear – for their lives, reputation, fear of angering the head of Phanar and losing the abbot's seat or a place in a monastery. And if a monk is afraid to denounce a heretic and a schismatic, then what advice can he give regarding spiritual life? Zero.

But history knows other examples when the monks of Athos stood firmly in the Truth and were ready to endure hardships and tribulations so as not to lose Christ. We hope that even today on the Holy Mountain there will be such ascetics who will raise their voices in defense of the Church, because a different scenario is even hard to imagine...

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