“Off to the Holy and Ancient City of Constantinople”

– a travelogue by Rev. Fr. Taras Udod of the visit of His Eminence Metropolitan John, accompanied by Rev. Frs. Bohdan Hladio and Taras Udod, to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, Sept. 21 – 24, 2006.

View the photos from this trip here

It can be said that “life is not a matter of milestones, but of moments.” This is equally true for us as individuals, as well as for collective groups like the Church. Indeed, our liturgy calls us to be ever-present, in the here and now, worshipping our God who is with us, as we proclaim in the Great Compline service (“Z Namy Boh …”)

Thus it was that in a brief moment last August, (right on the 15th Anniversary of Ukraine’s “new” date of independence,) Fr. Bohdan Hladio proposed to me on behalf of Metropolitan John, that I accompany Vladyka John and himself to meet with His All-Holiness, Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar in Constantinople, (present-day Istanbul, Turkey.)

This moment for me is etched forever vividly in my memory. Amongst the many other matters of the few days preceding the call from Fr. Bohdan, I had conducted a very large and sad funeral for a young man who had been tragically killed in a freak car accident. The contrast from the grief and overwhelming sadness to “would you like to go to Constantinople to meet with the Patriarch?” was, to say the least, very stark. And yet, God provides opportunities for us to be of service to Him and to His Holy Church, and by the grace of God, I was honoured to accept our Metropolitan’s invitation and blessing to accompany him on this all-important visit.

I quickly realized that while there had been, according to Metropolitan John, six previous trips to the Patriarchate, this one was going to be significant in that it was going to be the first by our newly-enthroned Metropolitan. In the life of a Church, and therefore in the life of our beloved Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, such an inaugural visit by a new metropolitan is one of those “moments” that become milestones, as mentioned earlier.

Additionally however, there was a further very important goal to this trip and visit – namely to seek the assistance of the Patriarchate in reconstituting our Council of Bishops to at least three, with hopes of obtaining a fourth, auxiliary bishop, as soon as possible thereafter. To this end, this required a review of our UOCC’s “Articles of Agreement” with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, especially regarding the preparing, electing and consecrating of bishops. This became particularly relevant in realizing that our UOCC has neither received nor consecrated a bishop since Vladyka Yurij in 1989, prior to our entering into Eucharistic Union with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1990.

Preparing to go

It might be presumed by some people, innocently enough, that going over and meeting with the Patriarch in Constantinople involves a few phone calls, getting on a plane and enjoying a brief “holiday” overseas. To put it mildly, my experience was nothing of the sort. Taking the lead and following the example of Vladyka Mytropolit, “prior preparation prevents poor performance.” The key to this trip, I quickly realized, involved three steps: prepare, prepare, and prepare.

This was so because this trip was to be in the service of our beloved Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, and in fostering her mission in Canada, as well as in the service of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the land of our forefathers, in Ukraine. No amount of preparation, as well as all-important prayer was to be spared therefore in this service.

Many people were involved in helping to make this trip and visit happen, both in the weeks immediately preceding this trip, as well as over many years previously. As I wrote in my journal while flying across the Atlantic Ocean, metropolitans, bishops, priests and countless lay people have and continue to labour and serve for the good of our Holy Church, and have sought and continue to seek only what is best for our church at all times. I must, by God’s grace strive to do no less, especially on this trip, and in this meeting of our Metropolitan with the Patriarch of Constantinople.

A key event in the preparation for this trip occurred on Thursday morning, August 31, 2006. An “ad hoc” committee of our Consistory Board gathered for a teleconference to review the “Articles of Agreement,” and more importantly offer to our Metropolitan John suggestions for his discussions and meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew. This meeting lasted over two hours. It became evident that there was plenty of ground to cover when our metropolitan would meet with the Patriarch. It also became evident that our delegation was prepared to advocate as necessary and appropriate on behalf of our church, and in the best interests of our UOCC, while at the same time, respecting and honouring the primacy of the Ecumenical Throne.

The following weeks into September included the preparation of gifts for the Patriarch, and other support personnel and dignitaries. In my case, in the North Battleford (Saskatchewan) Parish District, preparing also meant explaining as fully as I was able to the significance of this trip. This included a special request that the membership of the parish district I’m blessed to serve pray fervently for the success of this trip and that our church benefit in every way possible as a result of it. [A special thank-you here goes out to the faithful and God-loving people of the North Battleford District for their prayers for our delegation’s trip!]

Before I knew it, it was Tuesday, Sept. 19th, and I had driven to Winnipeg. A Moleben’ was sung in the Consistory chapel before noon for our safe journey to and from Constantinople, and for every success while there, and in meeting with the Patriarch and his representatives.

The flight from Winnipeg over to Istanbul involved three “legs,” with stops in Toronto, Munich, and then on to Istanbul. Total flying time was nearly fourteen hours. Factoring layovers and the time-changes meant that our delegation left Winnipeg on Tuesday afternoon, and arrived in Istanbul later on in the afternoon, on Wednesday Sept. 20.

In Constantinople (Istanbul)

The Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, Thursday, Sept. 21

Metropolitan John and his delegation’s meeting with the Patriarch was scheduled for Friday, Sept. 22. In order to acclimatize ourselves to Constantinople, and in order to “observe” the great Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, we arrived on Wednesday afternoon. This meant that Thursday, Sept. 21 would be open for our delegation to attend a liturgy, if such could be arranged, (bearing in mind that most of the few functioning churches in Istanbul are on the “new” calendar.) As it turned out, we learned that the one priest serving the only church in Constantinople celebrating “Rizdvo Bohoroditsi” on Sept. 21, had taken ill, and there would be no liturgy the following day.

Fr. Bohdan managed instead to arrange for a chauffer and vehicle from the Patriarchate in order for our delegation to tour and visit some of the other churches and monasteries of the Patriarchate in Constantinople.

Thursday morning, our driver was at our hotel and ready to go at the appointed time. Going out in public as a cleric in Istanbul is an “interesting” process, as we had been instructed both as a result of previous visits and reminded once again on this visit. Bishops and priests/deacons, including monastics must not be seen in public in any kind of clerical garb – not clergy shirts, and certainly not in cassocks or wearing any kind of head-wear. Turkish law allows only the Patriarch himself to be so attired in public. As a result, Metropolitan John, Father Bohdan and myself wore “civilian” clothing, and would put our cassocks on only when we were in the church courtyards, or within the walls surrounding the churches or monastery we visited.

Our first visit was to the oldest continually used church in Constantinople, in use since the eleventh century, “Panagia Tou Moukhliou”. It was awe-inspiring to be in a place where church services have been held regularly and consistently for a thousand years…

We then visited the “Vlachernae” / “Pokrova” church, built over a miraculous spring that flows intermittently, as the grace of God wills it. We were graciously welcomed by Iannis, who serves as the cantor, gardener, caretaker and guardian of this church and property. It was in the original Church which stood on this site that the event we now celebrate as the feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God took place in the beginning of the 10th century, and here that St. Roman the Melodist first sang the Akathist hymn to the Mother of God. Immediately above the spring the words to the first kondak of the Akathist hymn are inscribed in marble, and it was very moving to hear Iannis, at our request, chant this beautiful hymn.

Following this we visited the church in Chora, which was originally a monastery, but now is a museum. It is in this Church that the world famous icon of the “anastasis” (resurrection) is found, as well as many, many other world renowned frescoes and mosaics. Though it is a public place, and there were many people visiting that day, at an opportune moment I was left alone before the icon of the anastasis. Seizing the opportunity, I softly sang “Chrystos Voskres” using the Galician melody, another unforgettable moment.

We then proceeded to the Monastery of the Life-Giving Spring of the Most Holy Theotokos. We were very graciously received at this small convent. For Metropolitan John, amongst highlights for him were to pray before a beautiful, old “life-size” icon of his patron saint – St. John the Forerunner located on the iconostasis of the monastery church. We then proceeded out to the small monastery cemetery where Metropolitan John, assisted by Fr. Bohdan served a panakhyda, in Ukrainian, for the blessed repose of the soul of Patriarch Dimitrios, who oversaw our church’s entering into Eucharistic Union with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. (The “junior priest” of the delegation was blessed to serve as the “dyak” for this panakhyda.)

We then proceeded to “Hagia Sophia,” the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God – one of the biggest and oldest churches in the world. For nearly a thousand years this building served as the main church of the Patriarchate, until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. For the following nearly five hundred years, it served as a mosque, and since 1935 is a museum.

It was not lost on our delegation that we were blessed with the opportunity to visit this place on what would have been its “khramove svyato” – parish’s feast-day, Sept. 21. We prayed (quietly,) and then I made my way to the very center of the “church,” and right under the huge main dome, quietly sang and prayed, “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia.” (This was a very powerful and moving moment for me, and I am most grateful for this blessing!)

In the evening, Metropolitan John met with Fr. Bohdan and me to go over final preparations before the visit to the Patriarchate on Friday afternoon. With prayer and thoughtful, measured deliberation and discussion, by the grace of God, the UOCC’s delegation, led by Metropolitan John was ready to go to the Patriarchate the following day.

Friday Sept. 22

We were able to attend liturgy at the “Vlachernae” / “Pokrova” Church (located very near the Patriarchate,) which we had visited the previous day. Fr. Photios greeted us very graciously, and our delegation was blessed to attend the liturgy, partake of Holy Communion, and prepare ourselves prayerfully and sacramentally for our visit with the Patriarch.

Our delegation arrived at the Patriarchate just before noon for Metropolitan John’s scheduled 12:30 p.m. audience with His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew (At the Patriarchate, this is still the “morning,” as lunch is usually sometime after 1:00 p.m.).

The Patriarchate is a complex of several buildings enclosed by a large wall. This whole complex is approximately the size of a small city block in an urban center of Canada. It is located in the old “lighthouse district” of Constantinople, once exclusively populated by Greek people, hence the name of the neighbourhood – the “Phanar,” (which comes from the Greek word for light / light-house.) The complex of buildings making up the “Patriarchate” includes the Patriarchal Church of St. George, a monastery, a library, a small apartment building serving as residences for the staff of the Patriarchate, and the central administrative building, (similar in function in certain respects, to our consistory building.)

The “audience,” itself:

The Patriarch, His All-Holiness Bartholomew, is a very kind, gracious and learned man. He is also keenly aware at all times of the setting in which he exercises his office as Ecumenical Patriarch.

The administrative staff about him is not large, consisting of approximately eight to ten assistant bishops, priest-monks, and deacon-monks who serve as advisers, secretaries and clerks. This administrative staff is further bolstered by cooks, servers, cleaners, maintenance personnel, gardeners / groundskeepers, and chauffeurs who also serve as “gatekeepers / security guards” at the main entrance to the Patriarchate.

The Patriarch is further assisted in his service and ministry by the “Holy and Sacred Synod of Bishops,” six of whom live in or near the Phanar.

After waiting for a short time, Metropolitan John and delegation were summoned from the large waiting area by an assistant of the Patriarch and escorted into the Patriarch’s main office – reception room.

His All-Holiness greeted us warmly, exchanging the kiss of peace with a brother bishop – Metropolitan John, and bestowing his blessing upon the two priests accompanying Metropolitan John. Unlike Roman Catholic bishops, Orthodox bishops do not receive a “blessing” from another bishop, even in the case where the other bishop is the Patriarch of Constantinople. This demonstrates clearly that all bishops possess, by their Episcopal grace, the same “rank”, though certain bishops are accorded a primacy of honour. After exchanging appropriate greetings, as well as introductions during which Metropolitan John indicated to Patriarch Bartholomew that he has blessed Frs. Bohdan and Taras to assist him in this meeting, our delegation presented the following five points to his All-Holiness:

First, the UOCC offered to be of assistance to the Patriarchate to the extent possible through Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As Canadian citizens, we offered our assistance to the Christian minority in Turkey, and in particular to the Patriarchate. His All-Holiness was obviously pleasantly surprised at this offer and gesture, and we discussed the various concerns that could be addressed and the assistance that could be so rendered.

Second, Metropolitan John expressed the interest of the UOCC to participate in the preparation of the Holy Myrrh. As well, Metropolitan John expressed the interest of the UOCC to resume active participation in the meetings (Synaxes) of the bishops of the Ecumenical Throne. Patriarch Bartholomew enthusiastically welcomed both of these expressions of interests and assured Metropolitan John that the UOCC will certainly be kept informed and would be most welcome to participate. Although the Patriarch informed us that Holy Myrrh will not likely need to be prepared until perhaps 2010 or 2011, a Synaxis of all bishops of the Ecumenical Throne is tentatively scheduled for some time in 2007 or 2008.

Third, it is the practice and custom in the Orthodox Church that upon the election of a new Primate, he issues “new” Antimensia to all his churches, with his own signature. Metropolitan John’s interest on behalf of the UOCC was that the “new” Antimensia be in the Ukrainian language, style and tradition. After examining the antimension blank presented him by Metropolitan John, Patriarch Bartholomew assured our Metropolitan that these were completely acceptable to the Patriarchate. They would only be “stamped” with the Patriarchal Seal and then returned to the UOCC for issuance. This is a significant point for the UOCC, as having our Primate issue and distribute Antimensia confirms the internal autonomy [self-governance] of the UOCC.

Fourth, the discussion then turned to the need of the UOCC for at least two more bishops in the immediate future. A lengthy, spirited but most respectful discussion then ensued about various specific possible candidates to serve as bishops of and for the UOCC. His All-Holiness certainly agreed with Metropolitan John and his delegation that at least two more bishops are required immediately. At the same time, however, the Patriarch also noted that for various reasons, including present obediences / obligations, some of the “leading” candidates may not be available for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, His All-Holiness assured Metropolitan John and his delegation that the Patriarchate will continue to monitor the situation and strive to assist the UOCC in any way possible, and as soon as possible in this regard.

Fifth, Metropolitan John, assisted by Frs. Bohdan and Taras, then presented the concern of the UOCC regarding the use of the title “Bishop of Toronto” by both the Greek Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in Canada. Once again, His All-Holiness’s kindness and graciousness manifested itself in that he assured Metropolitan John that the Patriarchate will continue to work with the UOCC to find an acceptable resolution to and for this concern.

By this time, lunch had been prepared and as there were other guests waiting, our audience with His All-Holiness drew to a close. Metropolitan John at this time presented Patriarch Bartholomew with a gift – a framed embroidered “Otche Nash” (the text of the “Lord’s Prayer” in Ukrainian) from the UOCC. Photos were taken and then the Patriarch invited the UOCC delegation to accompany him to the Patriarchal Dining Hall for lunch.

After lunch, Metropolitan John and his delegation met with the Patriarchal Committee that oversees diocesan life in Metropolias of the Ecumenical Throne, including in the UOCC, and reports as necessary to the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This meeting continued the themes raised with His All-Holiness prior to lunch. Of particular significance and importance to Metropolitan John and his delegation was stressing to Metropolitan Meliton (chair of this committee,) that the UOCC needs at least two more bishops, and that the issue of the title “Bishop of Toronto” needs to be clarified.

At the end of a lively and lengthy discussion, Metropolitan Meliton assured Metropolitan John that the Patriarchate will continue to work for the resolution of any and all concerns raised by the UOCC.

Our afternoon ended at the Patriarchate with a visit and time for prayer in the Patriarchal Church of St. George. Particularly edifying was the opportunity to pray before and venerate the relics of St. John Chrysostom – an earlier Patriarch of Constantinople, and the compiler of the Divine Liturgy most commonly celebrated to this day in the Orthodox Church.

Upon returning to our hotel, but prior to going for supper, our UOCC delegation retired to our rooms and separately collected and recorded our thoughts, impressions and recollections of the audience and meeting at the Patriarchate.

We then went for supper and compared “our notes.”

Saturday Sept. 23

The Patriarch invited Metropolitan John and his delegation to accompany him on a visit the island of Halki, in the Sea of Marmara, approximately an hour-and-a-half ferry ride from Istanbul.

Halki is the site of the theological school of the Patriarchate. Unfortunately, although the school remains “open” and prepared to function, the Turkish government has not permitted it to operate as a school since 1971. This beautiful facility, which could accommodate over one hundred seminarians virtually at a moment’s notice, sits atop a high hill and is looked after by two monks.

The Patriarch regularly invites various guests, including government officials, to accompany him out to Halki in an on-going effort to convince the Turkish government to allow the school to re-open and serve the Patriarchate, and indeed the entire Orthodox Church throughout the world.

Our UOCC delegation enjoyed this day, accompanying His All-Holiness, and visiting this lovely and important facility, as well as partaking of the opportunity afforded us to become better acquainted with the Patriarch.

Upon returning to our hotel in the late afternoon, Fr. Bohdan, after receiving the Metropolitan’s blessing, then left our delegation to travel on to Kyiv.

Metropolitan John and I enjoyed supper, and reflected further upon the events of the day, and prepared for a very early morning on Sunday.

Sunday Sept. 24 – St. Thecla, the Great-Martyr (new calendar)

Metropolitan John and I were invited to accompany Metropolitan Germanos to the Monastery of St. George, on the island of Buyukada.

This ancient monastery was founded in the tenth century, and dedicated to St. George. Twice a year, it is the site of very large pilgrimages, and one of these two days is St. Thecla’s Day. On this day, because of the large numbers of pilgrims no vehicles are allowed to operate on this island, other than “official” vehicles. Metropolitan John and I traveled in the “church entourage,” including being met at the ferry and driven right up to the top of the high hill where the monastery is located by the local police.

This was another very powerful and moving experience for Metropolitan John and me. First, the vast majority of pilgrims are Muslims who have come for generations to pray before the icon of St. George the Great-Martyr. Many miracles have been witnessed before this icon, and St. George has interceded and worked many miracles for people of all faiths and walks of life.

Secondly, Metropolitan John blessed me to serve the liturgy with Metropolitan Germanos in the main monastery church. This church was built in the tenth century. Not a large church, it was nonetheless filled to over-flowing with pilgrims.

Thirdly, Metropolitan Germanos, an older, experienced and very pious man, blessed and encouraged me to chant portions of the liturgy in “my language.” Additionally Metropolitan John and I said “Otche Nash,” (the Lord’s Prayer) in Ukrainian.

Fourthly, as God’s grace would have it, on this day there happened to be many pilgrims from Bulgaria, Ukraine and Russia who heard the Ukrainian / Slavonic language in the Divine Liturgy. Following the liturgy, both Metropolitan John and I were surrounded by pilgrims seeking our blessings, – another very powerful and moving moment.

And fifthly, a woman who we determined was Armenian, but spoke very little Turkish, and no Greek or English, sought out Metropolitan John for a special blessing over her and an ordinary plastic bottle of water. We were able to determine further that her son was very ill, and she believed that God’s grace would manifest itself through this bishop (Metropolitan John of the Ukrainian Church, from Canada,) in this place and on this day, healing her son…

The three monks from Mt. Athos who man this monastery were most gracious in their hospitality, and after lunch, and fellowship, Metropolitan John and I had returned to our hotel by the middle of the afternoon, back in Istanbul.

After receiving Metropolitan John’s blessing, I met up with (my) Dobrodiyka Sonia’s first cousin and his family. They have been residents of Istanbul for fourteen years, and were most gracious in their hospitality. As well, they were helpful in describing some of the particular nuances and challenges that the Christian minority faces in Turkey, and particularly in Istanbul.

Very early Monday morning, September 25, Metropolitan John and I flew back to Winnipeg from Istanbul, via Frankfurt and Toronto, arriving in Winnipeg in the late afternoon.

Closing thoughts and reflections

The importance of these visits and trips cannot be over-emphasized. Our UOCC has a contribution to make and our voice needs to be heard in the Patriarchate of Constantinople. A prime way of doing this is to visit the Patriarchate regularly and frequently.

It was abundantly clear that the Patriarch himself and therefore his administrative staff are very interested in the views of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada. The Patriarchate is obviously willing to work with our church for the on-going growth and development of our mission here in Canada.

Perhaps equally significant, the Ecumenical Patriarchate seeks to “partner” with the UOCC, which it sees as a moderate and therefore potentially mediatative voice with respect to the successful resolution of the many challenges facing the Church in Ukraine.

Our church’s contribution however, can and will be made only if and when and to the extent that we, as church, dialogue with the Patriarchate – appropriately, honourably and respectfully advocating for the needs and best interests of Ukrainian Orthodoxy throughout the world.

To this end may God continue to inspire and lead Metropolitan John and our Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Canada to continue to work for the growth and betterment of the universal Orthodox Church, including the Orthodox Church in our ancestral homeland of Ukraine.

View the photos from this trip here