The next stop on my whirlwind Paschal Pilgrimage (seven countries in 18 days) was Beirut and Lebanon, my first time in any Middle Eastern country. A few months ago, when Patriarch Gregorios contacted me about a book of pastoral letters I was publishing for him, he insisted that I should come and visit him in Lebanon or Syria. I replied that Syria was more dangerous for Americans and is even listed on the US State Department “do not visit” list. So I suggested I could visit the next time he would be at his residence in Beirut. Although his “see” is Antioch and All the East, Alexandria and Jerusalem, he splits his time between two residences in Beirut and Damascus, for the most part.
So we agreed that after my appointed audience with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, I would be “in the neighborhood” and could get a flight from Istanbul to Beirut for a short visit. Then he also told me of a pilgrimage he was leading to Rome with his Synod of Bishops, clergy and lay persons from around the world to meet Pope Benedict XVI and have a Divine Liturgy at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, in honor of the anniversary of Saint Paul this year. I asked if I could join his group in Rome, and he readily agreed. So the schedule was set and he agreed to have a driver and car waiting for my on my arrival at the airport, and that I could stay at the seminary/residence that the Patriarchate has north of Beirut in Rabweh.
Unfortunately, the Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Beirut leaves at 11:00 PM and arrives in Beirut at 1:15 AM. So I decided I should stay in Istanbul for the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning and travel to Beirut that evening, arriving early Monday morning. I faxed my flight details to the Patriarchate in Beirut and hoped for the best.
All went smoothly, no problems with the flight or entering Lebanon (not even a visa is required any more for Americans), but then I got a little nervous when I could not find my name on any of the signs held by drivers waiting for passengers. After searching about 15 minutes, I decided there must have been some problem and I was “on my own.”
In the arrivals area there was a larger poster for the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Beirut. So feeling this was the safest place for an American alone in Beirut to “hide out” until I could make contact with the Patriarch, I took a taxi from the airport to the hotel. The driver tried to get me to use another less expensive place nearby, but I insisted on the Intercontinental. It was five star, quite nice, a great large room with all the amenities, and a great view of the Mediterranean Sea that I found the next morning. I was on the 19th floor. Well, a little “R&R” never does any harm!
After sleeping in a bit (I finally got to sleep about 3 am), I started my phone search of the Patriarch. The cell phone number I had for him did not seem to work (I had an extra 3!), and I had difficulty finding the Patriarchate office numbers. But after a few hours of tracking down, I finally got through in Beirut. The Patriarch was still in Damascus, so I then called that number and was told he was in a meeting. I called back later in the afternoon and finally spoke to His Beatitude. Indeed, there was a misunderstanding – they thought my flight arrived at 1:15 PM not AM – they had misread my fax. So arrangements were made for a car and driver to pick me up the next morning – I offered to take a taxi but His Beatitude insisted it would be too complicated to explain how to get to the seminary to a taxi driver who would not understand any English. I agreed.
Beirut is a city in transition, for sure. My hotel was quite modern and clean and somewhat of an oasis in the center of the city, just above a modern marina. But it also was next to several other hotels and apartment buildings under construction, and even a few bombed out buildings left over from the years of civil war. As with many cities, there are nice new, clean neighborhoods and buildings right next to old, dilapidated and dirty ones.
The drive northward from the hotel into the hills took about 30 minutes, and after winding through a number of twists and turns – even on the same road – and a climb of several thousand feet elevation, we arrived at a very large curved building that sits atop a mountain. It is the Patriarchate’s seminary, chancery and residence in Lebanon. Patriarch Maximos IV purchased the entire hillside decades ago, and development still continues with several construction projects underway. It seems the building can house about 100 students with a great view of Beirut and the sea. I’m not sure about the students’ rooms, but mine had a private bath and shower, with a great balcony and view. One wing is the patriarchal offices and another is his residence. The chapel is tremendous with icons decorating every square inch of wall and ceiling space.
After settling in, I had an hour’s meeting with His Beatitude and we discussed many projects. I presented him with copies of his book of pastoral letters in presentation form for his own library and one for the Pope for him to present, and also a specially bound edition of We Are All Brothers/3, the festschrift I published last December in honor (and now in memory) of Archbishop Vsevolod, to which Patriarch Gregorios made a major contribution. We also discussed another book project of his in English on the liturgy on which we are working, and the status of Orientale Lumen TeleVision (he is our patron), as well as other future OL Conferences. After a wide range of discussions, we had a light lunch in the faculty dining room near the large refrectory.
Then the he told me the news – because of anticipated trouble the next day, we would be leaving VERY early in the morning for the airport. He and the bishops would be on a private plane and I and some of the other priests and staff going to Rome would be on a commercial flight that would leave at 6:40 AM. We had to leave from the seminary at 3:30 AM for security reasons. So I laid down to sleep at 9 PM, but could not get even 10 minutes of sleep, constantly worried that I would wake at 3 to be ready on time! It was like being on an overnight flight without any sleep, except I wasn’t on the plane yet.
So at 3:30 my bags were brought down to the front courtyard and to my surprise there was a whole caravan of vehicles ready to leave. One Cadillac was for the Patriarch and his secretary, another sedan for a few bishops who gathered at the seminary for the trip, two other vehicles for me and the staff, two more carrying nothing but luggage, AND a military escort front and rear with about 8 soldiers in two cars. With no traffic at that time of the morning we made our way to the airport easily, checked in, and then had to wait about 2 hours for the flight to leave. After we arrived in Rome, we learned of the violence that broke out in Beirut a few hours after our departure. In fact, we passed another military convoy on the road to the airport which included several armored personnel carriers with tank tracks, and I suspect that unit might have been the one first attacked with two soldiers killed. The airport has been closed since we left, and now many on the trip are uncertain when they can return to Lebanon from Rome. Although I was a little inconvenienced to not get any sleep and leave so early, I am now VERY glad we did, or else we may have been stuck IN Lebanon indefinitely!
My only regret is that because of all the scheduling issues, and the preparations that His Beatitude and staff were making for the trip to Rome, I was not able to see much of the city or of Lebanon itself. I was hoping to see at least a few functioning churches, but that will have to wait for another visit – whenever that might be possible!
Just as it is complicated to get TO Uzhgorod, it is likewise complicated to leave FROM Uzhgorod. However, the next stop on this journey had some extra time built in – after Pascha my next appointment was a private audience with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on Saturday, May 3. That allowed almost a full week to get from point A to point B.
Father Taras Lovska and his brother, Father Joseph Lovska, both wanted to travel with me to Constantinople to see the city and meet the patriarch. So with three of us traveling together, we considered driving through Romania and Bulgaria to get to Istanbul. Unfortunately, both countries still require visas for Ukrainians and there was not sufficient time to obtain them. So, in the end, Father Joseph cancelled going on the trip and Father Taras and I decided to fly from Budapest rather than Kosice. This was for two reasons – there is a non-stop direct flight to Istanbul and two other priests who spent Pascha in Sub-Carpathia were returning to Rome from Budapest on the afternoon of Bright Tuesday. So on Tuesday morning the four of us loaded up the seminary van and with Father Joseph driving, we crossed the border into Hungary (only took 1 hour) and drove to Budapest. The total trip took about 4 hours.
After dropping the two priests at the airport (one was Father Joseph Mai, SJ whom I’ve know for ten years since the first visit to Rome I made with Archbishop Vsevolod to see Pope John Paul II), we went hunting for a hotel nearby. Travel advisors at the airport gave us the name of a four star hotel, but no real directions except the name of the nearby village where it was located. After 45 minutes and 5 inquiries of folks on the street, we finally found the place. It was a nice, modern and new hotel with all the amenities. We all had a great lunch of chicken paprikash and Father Joseph headed back to Uzhgorod.
The next day, after a relaxing breakfast, Father Taras and I headed to the airport and boarded our flight to Istanbul. The flight was delayed leaving Budapest because of air traffic control problems in Istanbul and so we did not arrive until about one hour late. Our van and driver arranged by the travel agent I use in Istanbul for all the OL Conferences met us and we made our way into the city. Unfortunately, with our delay, we were in the middle of rush hour and took over an hour to get from the airport to our hotel.
On Thursday, we had planned some shopping and touring, but it was May 1st and local workers arranged a demonstration in Taksim Square to protest low wages and to commemorate a 1977 shooting on the square. The Turkish government was trying to prevent the demonstration, and so all the streets leading to and from the square were closed. Being only a few blocks away, we could not get a taxi to leave our hotel so we were pretty much trapped. Father Taras wanted to see what was going on, so he ventured out and walked to Taksim. He was in the middle of some spectators when the police launched tear gas on them to get them to disperse. One canister landed a few yards from Father Taras and he kicked it back, but still got a good dose of gas. He came running back to the hotel and up to our room where he tried to wash out his eyes as quickly as possible. He said he never experienced anything like it since he was in training with the Ukrainian Army some 20 years ago.
On Friday, taxis were operating again and so we ventured out toward Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. We had lunch at a local Guest House that I have come to know over the years and did some carpet shopping there as well. In particular, I wanted to buy a new carpet for the ambon of the new chapel at the Uzhgorod Seminary and let Father Taras make the selection. We found one, a nice dark blue and light tan design that fits well with the rest of the red marble flooring. That evening we met Paul Gikas, a lay person from the US who is in charge of the English Correspondence Office of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He has also served as a liaison for our Orientale Lumen Conferences, and so dinner was also a bit of preparation for the audience and planning meeting the next day with His All Holiness.
Shortly after lunch on Saturday, May 3rd, we got a taxi from the hotel with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately traffic was quite congested, even on a Saturday, and the 15 minute journey took over 45 minutes. We arrived just in time for our 3:30 meeting to catch our breath.
After waiting a few minutes in the group audience room on the third floor of the Patriarchate, His All Holiness arrived and invited us into his working office. We exchanged greetings and I introduced Father Taras. I presented a special white leather edition of We Are All Brothers/3, a festschrift of essays that I published in honor of Archbishop Vsevolod of Scopelos. His All Holiness contributed the Preface to the book, which we were able to complete in time to present to the archbishop on his 80th birthday last December, one week before he fell asleep in the Lord. We talked briefly about how we shall all miss the archbishop.
The main purpose of our meeting was to discuss details for the Orientale Lumen Conference in 2010 that His All Holiness has invited us to conduct once again. In particular we reviewed several options for dates, themes, the agenda and possible speakers. It was a very interactive and lively discussion, and His All Holiness took a genuine interest in the conference and made several very welcome suggestions.
We agreed to move the date from May (the month of the first two conferences in Constantinople) to July – July 7 will be the anniversary of the repose of Patriarch Athenagoras, and His All Holiness invited us to join him in a memorial service at his tomb in the Baloukli Monastery. Also, the hotel staff we met with on Friday suggested that early July is not yet too hot, and that it is considered “off season” with much lower rates for hotel rooms. So subject to further confirmation, the dates for Orientale Lumen EuroEast III will be July 5-8, 2010. This will also be the Fourth of July holiday weekend in the US, and so Americans will have an extra day to use for taking their vacation for the conference.
Of the three topics I proposed, His All Holiness preferred “Church Councils of the East”, the same theme that I preferred. So we agreed that’s what it will be.
We developed a long list of possible speakers – hierarchs, theologians, academics, etc. So I will be contacting various people to invite them as speakers in the coming months, and will try to get a good mix of Church traditions, both Catholic and Orthodox, and a balanced blend of academic levels for our mixed audience of lay persons and clergy. I think the theme will be a great opportunity to learn about the first councils of the Church, all of which were held in or near Constantinople (Ephesus is the furthest away, but still in Asia Minor). We also discussed that the optional tour after the conference would be to try and visit both Ephesus again and charter a short trip to the island of Patmos. Although it is part of Greece, Patmos is just off the coast of Turkey near Ephesus. Metropolitan Kallistos is a professed monk of a monastery on Patmos, and we hope he will escort us on our tour.
The Ecumenical Patriarch also relayed to us his personal joy with his recent visit to Rome for the anniversary of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, and his fraternal lunch with Pope Benedict. He also said he accepted the pope’s invitation to come again and celebrate Vespers to the beginning of the Year of Saint Paul on June 28, and also to attend and give an intervention at the meeting of the Synod of Bishops in Rome in mid October, and unprecedented event that again demonstrates the closer relations that are developing between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
At the conclusion of our audience, His All Holiness gave us two red Paschal eggs and a small Greek cross as gifts. He also gave Father Taras booklets about the translation of the relics of St John and St Gregory to Constantinople, and gave me a booklet with an English and Italian version of his speech in Rome in March at the Oriental Institute.
After the meeting, which lasted more than 40 minutes, we went down to the Cathedral of Saint George and attended the last half of Vespers. We said goodbye to Paul, our host who came to work on Saturday afternoon for our visit, and made our way back to the hotel.
On Sunday, we attempted to attend the Divine Liturgy at Saint George Cathedral, but some large gathering was taking place along the Golden Horn, and the road to the Patriarchate from both directions (about a 5 mile length) was closed to all traffic. Not being able to walk the 2-3 miles to get there, we went back to our hotel and attended Mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral across the street. It was disappointing, but another example of how the local situation of the Patriarchate is so restrictive.
The flight from Bratislava to Kosice was uneventful on Monday April 21, except for having to pay extra for the overweight baggage that was traveling with me, containing various books, presents and video recording equipment. Uzhgorod is right next to the border with Slovakia and its airport only services domestic Ukrainian cities. So the most direct way to get there from the West is via Kosice in eastern Slovakia and then make an hour’s drive eastward to cross over into Ukraine. Unfortunately, Father Taras was 3 hours crossing the border from Ukraine into Slovakia to pick me up, and so I had to wait about an hour for his arrival after my flight landed.
While I was in Bratislava that morning, Metropolitan Babjak had arranged for me to visit the Jesuit school and monastery in Kosice where he was director before becoming bishop, and so we were welcomed and shown the facilities and taken out for dinner. After dinner we headed for the border and even though late at night, it took two hours for us to cross over into Ukraine. The crossing involves both passport and customs checks for both leaving Slovakia and entering Ukraine. Nothing but paperwork!
Father Taras and I arrived late at the Blessed Theodore Romzha Seminary and I was assigned Father John Zeyack’s former residence room for my stay – quite comfortable with a private bath and shower, sitting area, desk and bed. Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week were relatively quiet except for attending the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts with the seminarians in the evenings. I video recorded both for future OLTV programs.
On Holy Thursday morning we went to the Cathedral where Bishop Milan Sasik served an Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, blessed the Holy Chrism for the eparchy, and performed the “washing of feet” ceremony with 12 of his priests. I had never before seen this service since I was never around a cathedral or bishop during Holy Week. It is one of the most humbling services I could imagine and it brought tears.
Toward the end of the Liturgy, twelve priests sit in front of the iconostasis and remove one shoe and sock. The bishop partially unvested and with an apron to cover his sticharion, he went down the line washing with water and then kissing the foot of each priest. The last of the twelve was Father Taras, the seminary rector but who is also the Protosyncellus of the eparchy. With a deacon saying the “narrator” parts, they concluded the service from scripture with the bishop saying the words of Christ and the priest saying the words of Peter. I only hope the video captures the spirit of that moment. As usual, the singing in the Cathedral by the choir and congregation was great. I hope all the video comes out.
That afternoon, evening and most of the next day, I worked with the seminary choir in making a series of video recordings (that we will also make into audio CDs). We recorded Marian Hymns, Eucharistic Hymns, Lenten Hymns, and Paschal Hymns. We also recorded selections from the Divine Liturgy, Vespers and the Panachida. Finally the lead member sang the eight tone Plain Chant music for the tropars, kondaks, Psalm 140, and the Glory … stichera. These will form a whole series of recordings for OLTV to go along with the Christmas Hymns from last year.
On Friday evening, the seminary chapel filled with over 100 local residents who now consider the seminary their home parish, and about 20 seminarians who stayed for Pascha rather than going home. It was again reassuring to hear the familiar melodies of our Holy Friday Vespers but with Church Slavonic words. Somehow it felt comfortable but interesting at the same time.
On Holy Saturday morning, the Liturgy of Saint Basil was celebrated (I skipped Jerusalem Matins!) including all the readings. We found an English Bible and I chanted the last reading from the Book of Daniel. The only other time I remember attending that service with all the readings was when I visited Athens for Pascha once or twice many years ago with Father Serge Keleher.
After an afternoon rest to prepare for the evening of services, we gathered at the seminary chapel about 11:30 pm and Father Taras and a few other priests started Resurrection Matins with the ceremony to move the shroud from the tomb in the center of the church to the Holy Table. Then candles were lit and we started the procession around the building. At the end, Father Taras sang the prayers and the first “Christos Voskrese!” rang out in front of the chapel doors. About 200 people had arrived by then, most then went back inside the chapel with some remaining outside with their baskets of food.
All sang with vigor the Canon of Saint John Damascene and then the Paschal Divine Liturgy. The Gospel of Saint John was proclaimed in Greek, Hungarian, Church Slavonic, English and Ukrainian. At the conclusion, we moved back to the front doors and by now, another 200 people had appeared outside and two sets of double lines of baskets stretched from the chapel doors in two directions. To see the lines of baskets and candles lit in the darkness, and then watch as the priests walked among them blessing with water going everywhere, was a very moving experience. Again, tears of joy and pride filled my eyes, to see such piety and spirituality.
When all was finished, the people went home and the seminarians and staff went into the refrectory for a sumptuous late, late night snack of pascha bread, spiced sausage, hrutka (egg cheese that I made myself earlier in the day!), hrin (beets with horseradish to which I added extra!), died eggs, butter, and plenty of liquid refreshments. Rather exhausted, the party concluded about 4 am and we all slept until noon the next day!
Early in the afternoon on Pascha, a group of Americans who were touring with Father Ed Cimbala arrived for a festive banquet at the seminary. It was a real joy to see some people that I knew, including Fathers John Cigan and Tom Wesdock, and talk about all our experiences of Pascha in the “Old Country.” They had attended Resurrection Matins at the Cathedral the night before, and Pascha Liturgy also at the Cathedral that morning.
The rest of Pascha was truly a day of rest with somber but joyous Vespers that evening.