Over the summer, a youth group representing different ROCOR dioceses participated in a pilgrimage within the framework of the Concord of Orthodox Youth project and under the sponsorship of the Fund for Assistance. The young people, all of college age, comprised 20 participants from ROCOR and 80 participants from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, visited holy sites in Russia, Ukraine and Germany. Fr. Andre Sommer, vice chair of the Synodal Youth Committee discussed the pilgrimage and its outcome with the Fund for Assistance.
What was the main goal of the pilgrimage?
To introduce youth from different parts of the world to different aspects of Russian Orthodox Faith and culture, and for them to be able to meet with like-minded people. Participants besides our ROCOR youth included youth from Belarus, Moscow, Kursk, Ukraine. There were 100 young people total.
The organizers – the International Fund for Slavic Literature and culture, and the Fund “Korennaya Pustyn” - are hoping to continue this kind of group conferences where they can show non-church people that Orthodox youth “normal.” In Russia there is a widespread view that church youth are extreme conservatives opposed to a normal life in today’s society. These conferences show that they are interesting young people with a sense of purpose in life, and that they are able to have peaceful good relations and good times. There is not as much socialization among the Orthodox there as in ROCOR and they wanted to give them an opportunity to bond with each other and help them form lasting friendships.
How different were the goals for the ROCOR group?
It was to secure those same bonds and same ideas. In Russia, they have either completely church youth or completely non-church youth, whereas even our church youth can be somewhat swayed and lukewarm. These trips help secure the faith in the church youth and also help us to learn how to bring in non-church youth through socialization.
What did you want ROCOR youth to learn from this experience?
We wanted them to see that God and prayer in the lives of young people are a major center on a much larger scale than in ROCOR and to learn by example.
This trip was more intense than last year’s; we were able to show the youth parts of Russia they may never have been able to see, such as the place where the relics of St. John of Kronstadt lie in Saint Petersburg, the chapel of St. Blessed Xenia. They went to the Trinity Sergius Lavra on the feast of St. Sergius where they saw how thousands and thousands of people came to express their love for the great saint. Our youth was able to attend the service with the Patriarch, and later had an audience and got a personal blessing from him, as well as a pastoral word.
We also were at the birth place of Russian Orthodoxy in Kiev on the day of St. Vladimir; visited Pochaev, venerated the footprint of the Mother of God there and climbed in the cave of St. Jobe.
We had a unique opportunity to expose the non-abroad youth to ROCOR. All hundred participants, the Belorussians, Ukrainians, Russians, along with two bishops and the ROCOR group flew to Germany to venerate the Kursk-Root icon which was flown there from Canada. All of the young people, as well as Archbishop Herman (of Kursk and Rylsk) and Archbishop Theodosius (of Polotsk) who were travelling with us, were seeing the icon for first time.
To see their reaction to the icon was an unbelievable experience. Archbishop Herman fell to the ground and venerated the icon with tears in his eyes; all the youth had a moment to personally pray in front of it. Seeing that reaction to such an important relic that we almost take for granted had a profound effect on ROCOR youth.
What was the best thing that came out of the trip?
There might be a marriage between a young man from Brisbane, Australia and a young lady from Kursk. Both of them are church choir directors and all of us we witnessed how they were growing closer together between serious discussions about choirs and church music. By the end of the trip it was obvious that they were very serious about each other, and when we got back, he announced that they are planning to get married and live in Australia.
But it was different everyone. Some had a special spiritual opening in Saint Petersburg being at holy sites there, some had special moments in Kiev, Pochaev, and other holy places that our youth was able to participate. Overall, I think the best things were the opportunity to visit holy sites and being able to bond with like-minded people.
How can ROCOR youth participate in these events?
This has to be done through the local diocesan youth committee. Let them know you are there, that you are interested. This way when the SYC reaches out to the diocesan committees, we have people who want to work with us, youth who want to participate, otherwise, if youth don’t approach their diocesan committees, there’s not a lot I can do. I reach out and there’s nobody there. We had a sad situation, where no one could come from Canada. Canada doesn’t have its own diocesan youth committee. We need to try to coordinate. All our youth would benefit from exposure to the larger Orthodox world.