FIRST GREAT LENTEN CLERGY SEMINAR AND CONFESSIONS
Priests from around the Eastern Diocese gathered at the St. Sava Cathedral in Parma, Ohio on Thursday, March 23rd for their first Lenten Seminar under the leadership of their recently-enthroned hierarch, His Grace Bishop Irinej. Clergy from Florida to Maine, and as far west as Cincinnati, Ohio, began their multi-day gathering in prayer, celebrating Vespers on the eve of the feast of St. Sophronius of Jerusalem. The solemn, Lenten Vespers service was a fitting beginning for this seminar, which not only included discussion, lectures and a practicum, but also clergy confession.
During Vespers, His Grace made notice of the cathedral atmosphere, reflecting on one of the oldest Christian hymns, “Phos Hilaron” – “Gladsome Light”, authored by St. Sophronius himself. He pointed out how the dimmed cathedral lights and the quiet tone of the Lenten service better pointed faithful towards a true appreciation of the light and tranquil radiance of Christ.
Following an evening meal, clergy gathered to have a round-table discussion with His Grace Bishop Irinej and the four administrative Deans. A wonderful and stirring discussion regarding parish life throughout the Diocese followed. Many priests were happy to share their positive experiences with serving Presanctified Liturgies in the evening starting at 6pm. In particular, the priests pointed out that attendance at such service increased dramatically, and that those faithful who attend are preparing for and receiving Holy Communion. Other priests rejoiced in the new format for “Lenten Seminars” that now follow Deanery Lenten Vespers services on Sunday evenings throughout Great Lent, with a lecture at the conclusion of the meal. They commented that the seminar format allows for faithful parishioners to interact with clergy and ask questions on a variety of topics. As one priest shared, by moving from a sermon in church to a seminar in the hall, faithful were empowered to be curious and seek information. The new format, as he offered, “helped break down some of the barriers that seem to exist between clergy and laity.”
The general discussion continued, honing in on the practice of confession. Clergy universally recognized this as an important, yet misunderstood part of our liturgical life. Priests discussed various approaches to tackling this issue including how best to address the undesirable phenomenon of confessing during Divine Liturgy, and the frequency by which clergy and faithful should participate in the Sacrament of Confession. It was a wonderful and constructive conversation, one that was of great preparation for the presentation the following day, and the liturgical practicum.
On Friday, March 24th, clergy once again gathered at St. Sava Cathedral to begin their full-day of work with Matins and Clergy confession. While the Very Rev. Protopresbyter-Stavrophor Zoran Radovic served Matins, priests began seeking reconciliation with the Almighty God through Holy Confession. For those more comfortable in the Serbian language, Archimandrite Leontije (Alavanje) from St. Mark Monastery was available to hear confession; for those more comfortable in English, the Very Rev. Protopresbyter-Stavrophor Rade Merick was available.
After a light breakfast, the clergy gathered in the small hall for their seminar and liturgical practicum. The session began with a new tradition for this, and future, seminars – one of the youngest amongst the clergy offered a reflection on a chosen Gospel passage. For this inaugural reflection, the Rev. Presbyter Christopher Rocknage of Steelton, Pennsylvania stood and offered his thoughts on a reading from John 15:12-17. Looking to Scripture, he reminded all those present that Christ calls us to a specific type of love – a sacrificial love wherein Christ calls us to sacrifice the ‘self’ for the ‘other’. Fr. Christopher then posed powerful questions to all those present: “Wherever we are in our ministry, be it in Maine, Florida, Pennsylvania, or Ohio… are we known as Christ’s disciples? Do people look at us and say ‘look how they love each other’? If they don’t see it - they won’t want what we have”.
The seminar then began with a fascinating presentation by the Very Rev. Protopresbyter-Stavrophor Professor Dr. Vladimir Vukasinovic, Dean of Ruzica Church and the St. Petka Chapel at Kalemegdan Fortress in Belgrade and the Episcopal Dean of the First Belgrade Deanery. He presented on “The Sacred and Spiritual Table: A View into Serbian Liturgical Theology and Practice – XIII-XXI Centuries”. He emphasized the Latin influence on Serbian practice as a result of our physical location between two worlds, on a crossroads where we faced Latinization from two sources: one, which came through Peter the Great and his reforms; and the other, through Austro-Hungary and Maria Theresa. Fr Vladimir boldly addressed the polemic that is going on today, which seeks to define the most ‘authentic’ service for the Serbian Church. His wealth of knowledge on liturgical theology led to rich discussion.
His Grace Bishop Irinej then introduced a number of people to the assembly of priests of the Eastern Diocese, including; the Very Rev. Protopresbyter-Stavrophor Radomir Nikcevic, visiting on behalf of Svetigora Publishing House of the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral; a new member of the Eastern Diocese, the now parish priest of St. Nicholas Church in Monroeville, the Very Rev. Protopresbyter George Veselinovic; the new Episcopal Deputy, the Very Rev. Protopresbyter-Stavrophor Zivojin Jakovljevic; and the Deans of the Eastern Diocese, the Very Rev. Protopresbyter-Stavrophor Aleksandar Vlajkovic, the Very Rev. Protopresbyter-Stavrophor Rade Merick, the Very Rev. Protopresbyter-Stavrophor Stephen Zaremba, and the Rev. Presbyter Dragan Goronjic.
After a short break, His Grace Bishop Irinej led a liturgical practicum to better unify the liturgical practice, experience and understanding throughout the Eastern Diocese. From proskomedia to dismissal, His Grace offered an abundance of practical information regarding serving style and tradition. At all times, he offered liturgical practices that were deeply rooted in the history and ethos of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and clergy were free to dialogue and ask questions regarding best-practices.
The day concluded as His Grace Bishop Irinej, together with many priests from throughout the Diocese, donned vestments of royal purple and celebrated the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts. In the cathedral, with dimmed lights and quiet chanting, many faithful parishioners joined the clergy in hymns and prayer. Many of the faithful present heeded the call of their chief-pastor and hierarch, coming forward to receive Holy Communion “in the fear of God, and with faith, reverence and love.” His Grace once again offered edifying words regarding that evening’s service, and its place in the lives of faithful Orthodox Christians. A meal of fellowship followed the service.
On the final day of the seminar, a Hierarchical Memorial Divine Liturgy was celebrated by most priests and deacons from the Eastern Diocese. Having compiled a list of reposed hierarchs and clergy that had served in the diocese since its inception, His Grace and all present remembered through liturgical mention of their names, the many foundational members of their spiritual communities. As the names were read, it served as a powerful witness to the history and mission of Orthodox Christianity in the Serbian Church in the United States of America.
Clergy throughout the diocese departed for their home-parishes edified and refreshed, better prepared to complete the course of the Great Fast and to celebrate the Great Feast of our Lord’s Resurrection.