A sad note of Orthodox reality in Eastern Europe

It’s impossible to know precisely what is happening inside the mind of a politician when he or she is taking part in a religious ritual, whether or not listeners are hearing the voice of a believer or that of a political realist who is skilled at watching national opinion polls.

The Russians have a special term for this slice of life in our sinful, fallen world and, truth be told, some public leaders do deserve this label — “podsvechnik.”

This word means “candlestick holder.” This is the politician who walks into a church sanctuary on a major feast day — usually Christmas or Pascha — lights a candle at an icon, makes the sign of the cross then stands around long enough for photographers to have a chance to take his picture.

Alas, in the lands of the former Soviet bloc, this same term can be applied to some church leaders.

Once again, however, it helps to remember that the human heart is a complex thing and some true believers struggle with major and minor sins throughout their lives. What if this person is wearing the vestments of a bishop?

Why bring this up? The other day, our own Father George Conger sent me a Reuters story from Bulgaria that was both fascinating and scary. Here’s the top of the report:

VARNA, Bulgaria (Reuters) – The death last week of one of Bulgaria’s most senior bishops, found floating in the Black Sea wearing a snorkel and flippers, was mysterious in its own right, but it was only the final chapter in an enigmatic life.

In the days after Bishop Cyril of Varna, 59, was found dead, a picture emerged of a man respected by many but who had also spied for the communist-era secret police, brokered land deals that raised questions and driven a luxury Lincoln sedan given to him by a local businessman.

Through it all, he was never investigated or disciplined, making him a kind of symbol of modern Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest member, where graft and organized crime often go unpunished and where many people feel public institutions — from the Church to the government — have betrayed their trust.

OK, that’s rather muddy, to say the least. In another nasty, yet powerful, image a believer describes the bishop cruising through crowds of people on Epiphany, flinging holy water on poor Bulgarians through the open window of his luxury car.

Is there more to the story? Yes, there is and, to the credit of the Reuters team, other details make it into the report:

At his funeral service, people who knew Cyril spoke of an energetic man who in 24 years as bishop built and restored some 70 churches and chapels, ordained dozens of young priests, ran soup kitchens and supported a drug rehabilitation center.

“He was a great, holy man, very sporty, very open and down to earth,” said Mladen Stanev, a businessmen from Varna who often met Cyril and shared with him a passion for snorkeling.

Like many people of his generation in Bulgaria, the bishop lived a complicated life, in which the lines between communism and religion, public service and private business interests, right and wrong, were frequently blurred.

The connections to power and corruption ran deep in the bishop’s family, since his uncle was a leader in the land’s secret police in the Soviet era. Files opened after the fall of the Soviet empire made it clear that Cyril was an informer during his years as a monk and theology student in Greece and he spent some time in Moscow, as well. At one point Cyril:

… stopped his work for the secret services, but the files show he was “activated” again after he was appointed Bishop of Varna in early 1989. At the time, secret police connections were often required to reach senior positions in the church, historians say. …

Early last year, Cyril’s past life as a secret police informer was exposed when the police files were made public. He was one of 11 Bulgarian bishops found to have worked for the secret police — a revelation that shook public trust in the 1,100-year-old Orthodox Church to which around 80 percent of Bulgarians at least nominally belong.

Some of the 11 bishops sought public forgiveness but Cyril refused to apologize, saying he had repented to God long ago.

So what about the state of this man’s heart and soul?

That’s territory that is hard for journalists to explore, other than through a man’s actions and the words of observers in positions to offer insights.

The Reuters report offered many fine details but, I must admit, I found myself wondering if anyone was present at the funeral rites to report on the contents of the sermon. It would surprise me if the clergyman delivering the sermon didn’t address issues of sin, repentance and grace.

Once again, let me add a personal note from my own experience. I was in Moscow back in 1991, days after the coup, and had a chance to talk with several Orthodox priests. One of them offered this sobering set of reflections:

It’s impossible to understand the modern Russian church, one said, without grasping that it has four different kinds of leaders. A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.

“We have all four kinds,” this priest said. “That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church.”

One must assume the same typology could be found in Bulgaria. It would appear that Cyril fit into that priest’s second category, among the bishops who were believers lured into compromise — but who never publicly confessed their sins.

That certainly fits the facts reported in this tragic and sad story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    I just finished an excellent book that looks at many of the problems that Russia has along the same lines as Bulgaria. It is titled “The Last Man In Russia.” It is by Oliver Bullough. The title is based on the plummeting Russian population which has become a real problem for both the Russian state and the Orthodox Church.


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