After last December’s success of the Christmas Hymns recording I made of the Uzhgorod Seminary Choir of the Eparchy of Mukachevo, Ukraine (over 300 CDs and 100 DVDs were sold in one month!), I thought that more recordings of Plain Chant (Prostopinije) singing from the Carpathian Mountains by that choir could also be successful. So I decided some months ago to schedule a return visit to Sub-CarpathianUkraine. Since Pascha (Easter) was celebrated five weeks apart between my home parish in Virginia and the Uzhgorod region this year, it seemed the right time to visit would be for Holy Week and Pascha and also make video recordings of some of the Holy Week services in the “Old Country” along with the seminary choir.
Then, it seemed other opportunities presented themselves to extend the trip before and after, and thus a three-week journey started when I left home on Friday April 18, the day after attending Pope Benedict’s Mass at NationalsPark in Washington.
My first stop was Vienna, Austria where I landed on Saturday the 19th to get to Bratislava with the intent of visiting my cousin, Jan Figel, Slovak Commissioner to the European Union, who usually spends weekends in Bratislava, and to visit a friend and former parishioner from my home parish, Vince Obsitnik, newly appointed United States Ambassador to Slovakia. Unfortunately, both were away for the weekend, but Mark Northrop, Jr. (son of the videographer from the OL conferences) now lives in Bratislava, was recently married there, and attends the new Greek Catholic Cathedral. So, a few days visit to Bratislava seemed to make sense, before I traveled to Uzhgorod for Holy Week.
About two weeks before my journey started, Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun of the External Affairs Department of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, was giving a lecture at VillanovaUniversity for the class of my friend, Father Joe Loya. Since I travel to Philadelphia on business regularly, I scheduled a trip to be at the lecture and we all had dinner afterward. Father Cyril had been a speaker at an OL Conference in Washington a few years ago, and so it was good to “catch up” with him. When I told him of my upcoming trip, he offered to introduce me to Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna, a former classmate of his, and possibly schedule a short “get-acquainted” meeting on my way through. The appointment was arranged through emails, and I had very friendly meeting with His Grace. He speaks fluent English and so I also gave him a copy of our recently published festschrift honoring Archbishop Vsevolod, of blessed memory, We Are All Brothers/3. We discussed his possible participation in a future Orientale Lumen Conference, and he agreed to favorably consider a formal invitation. Although very brief, I’m sure our encounter will only be the first of many in the future.
Another friend from Bratislava arranged for a parishioner with a car to meet me in Vienna, and we then crossed the border into Slovakia. With Slovakia now in the EU, the crossing was effortless without even showing a passport – much different than 24 years ago when I first crossed that same border on that same highway and it took over an hour!
It was also arranged for me to use a guest room at the chancery of the new Greek Catholic Eparchy of Bratislava, and Father Rastislav Cizik, the rector of the cathedral, was very hospitable and welcoming. On Sunday morning there are two Divine Liturgies in the new cathedral church – the first in Church Slavonic and the second in modern Slovak. Both were well attended, with a few more over-flowing the church for the second. But I was pleasantly surprised at the number of young people and even children who attended the first Liturgy in Church Slavonic. The singing was good with old familiar melodies of my childhood. I video recorded the Church Slavonic Liturgy for a future OLTV program. More details about the parish can be found on their excellent website at: www.grkat.nfo.sk/Bratislava/english.html
After Liturgy, Mark Northrop and his wife took me to a local “character” restaurant called the Slovak Pub. It was walking distance from the cathedral and near the university, so it was a students’ hangout. Located in a very old building (one floorboard under our table bounced up every time someone walked by!) it had great ethnic food and local beer. By that evening I was ready to crash and slept quite well!
On Monday morning, the new Metropolitan of Slovakia, Jan Babjak, came from Preshov to Bratislava for a meeting that he and the other two Greek Catholic bishops – Bishop Peter Rusnak and Bishop Milan Chatur – had scheduled with the president of Slovakia. Over breakfast, and continuing well into the morning, Metropolitan Jan and I had a wide ranging conversation about the new Metropolia of Slovakia, some of the recent publications he had produced, and how we might work together to make them available in English for distribution in America. I also invited him to attend our next OL conference in Constantinople in 2010 that we are already planning. He was enthusiastic and positive. Our conversation continued with the other two bishops when they returned from their meeting. We all had lunch together with several other priests.
That afternoon, I finished the layout and design of the next batch of parish bulletin covers (I didn’t quite get them done before I left on the trip, and fortunately the chancery office had a high-speed internet connection that allowed me to upload the PDF files to the printer in Virginia even from Bratislava!). I then flew from Bratislava to Kosice where Father Taras Lovska, rector of the seminary in Uzhgorod, was to meet me for the border crossing into Ukraine.