Interview with Fr. Alexander Golitzin: “Our vocation is to serve as best we can”

AFR: On October 4 of this year [2011], the members of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America elected Archimandrite Alexander (Golitzin) to the vacant see of Toledo and the Bulgarian Diocese. We have the privilege today of sitting in the apartment of Fr. Alexander in Milwaukee, not far from Marquette University where Fr. Alexander is a faculty member and has been for 21 years, and we’re privileged to talk today with Fr. Alexander. (Listen to the interview on Ancient Faith Radio.) First of all, thank you for welcoming us into your home.

Fr. Alexander: You’re very welcome!

AFR: Now, you’ve been here at Marquette, teaching in what department?

Fr. Alexander: Theology.

AFR: What subjects are you teaching?

Fr. Alexander: They hired me to be the ornamental Oriental, to round out the ecumenical spectrum of the faculty members. They had a couple of Lutheran theologians; they had an Episcopalian. They had a Jewish rabbi at that time to come in and give talks. Now we have two Jews, actually, on faculty, and one Muslim. So they decided they wanted someone from the exotic East, and I was lucky enough to be chosen.

AFR: What were you doing just prior to that, Father?

Fr. Alexander: I was in one of our tiny missions in the dead center of California, about an hour north of Fresno in the great central valley.

AFR: And when you say “our,” in the Orthodox Church in America?

Fr. Alexander: Yes, yes.

AFR: All right then. Some of our listeners may not understand when we talk about the Bulgarian Diocese of the OCA. What does that mean? How is there a Bulgarian Diocese in the OCA?

Fr. Alexander: Gosh, I don’t know the whole story, but it’s like the Romanian Diocese or the Albanian Diocese. These are groups of people from a particular nation. At the time their old countries were under Marxist, Leninist rule, and so they did not feel at ease with the church establishment in those countries and there wasn’t any in Albania, because they had all been put in prison. In Romania, of course, the Church was obliged to make concessions to the Communist government, and people here did not feel at ease in establishing full ties with the Patriarch in Bucharest, so they came to the then-Metropolia. That was Bishop Valerian. And the Albanians similarly.

I don’t know quite how this particular group, the one that I’ve just been elected bishop of, came. The title is “Bulgarian,” but in fact most of the people, or their parents or grandparents, come from what’s now northern Greece. They’re Slav-speakers in northern Greece, and, of course, there weren’t supposed to be any Slav-speakers in northern Greece. They were all supposed to be Greek. So these people all speak… I’ve met a few of them all speak fluent Greek, because they were educated in it, and couldn’t speak their own house language, mother language, publicly in the streets. It was like Turks and Kurds until a few years ago, and similar things happen in other countries.

And you may be aware that in Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav government sort of fostered a nationalism of people speaking this particular language that isn’t Serbian, which is certainly related to Bulgarian it’s a variant dialect in the southern-most part of Yugoslavia. I think that these folks that we have may have been connected somehow with that movement. Some of them, anyway.

At any rate, it led to the then-Bishop Kyrill (Yonchev) making an overture to the newly autocephalous OCA to come in under the same sort of rubric that the Albanian and Romanian Dioceses were. These are non-territorial diocese in the sense that they cover all the people in this particular group which may be scattered throughout the country as the Romanian Diocese certainly is and as the Bulgarian one certainly is, too, though it does have a see city, Toledo, in this instance; Detroit for the Romanians; Boston in the case of the Albanians. And there I am.

AFR: How many parishes are in the Diocese?

Fr. Alexander: Oh, it’s very small. It’s fifteen or sixteen, I think. Something like that.

AFR: Teaching now, as you have for all these years, how is it going to be, moving from academia and a professional faculty member to a shepherd of a flock?

Fr. Alexander: Well, like Monty Python: it’s going to be something completely different. I don’t know! I’ve never been a bishop before, so obviously it’s not going to be what I’ve been doing for 20-plus years, and, in fact, that was one of the attractions, that I would be doing something very different. I’ve done this 20 years. “Been there, done that,” as they say. And I’ve enjoyed it. The university’s been very good to me. I’ve had wonderful students. I’m in my early-mid-60s now, and I probably have only so many years left of any energy. I thought I’d like to spend that energy remaining to me on something else, and this appeared.

AFR: Now when will it be come official? You’re bishop-elect now.

Fr. Alexander: Well, I asked the Holy Synod that they not consecrate me until I’m finished the second semester here, so I can complete the contract obligation that I signed last March, our contract month, and finish up without trying to do two things at once. So they will consecrate me on the first Saturday in May. May 5, I think. Then that’s when it’ll become official.

AFR: Let’s talk a little bit about the office of bishop and particularly in the Orthodox Church in America. I mean, it’s no secret that the OCA has had its share of difficulties over the years, and controversies always seem to be among us. Tell us a little bit about your vision as a new member of the Synod of Bishops in the OCA. What do you look forward to?

Fr. Alexander: Well, on a sort of macro scale, I understand what legitimacy the OCA has as grounded in the understanding that it is to be the servant of a normalized canonical life in the Western hemisphere, and particularly in North America. By that I mean that we received this gift from the Church of Russia autocephaly that enables us to, as it were, decide our fate. And, as I understand it, from the beginning, the architects of the autocephaly, people like Fr. John Meyendorff or Fr. Alexander Schmemann, had it in mind that this should be the kernel of a normalized church life in the Western hemisphere.

By that I mean our present situation is intolerable. We go down to Chicago, an hour and a half south: you’re going to find five or six Orthodox bishops. Simultaneously claiming to be bishop of Chicago. And all in communion with each other! Now the Church in Exile has settled its affairs with Moscow, we’re all one Church ... except we aren’t, in terms of the structure of things. There are all kinds of obstacles to that. It happened, really, in the wake of the Russian revolution, when we got this multiplicity of bishops, the old countries sent their bishops to care for the people of their nations in the New World, and now that’s become habit. And there are different interests involved. And, of course, we have the assertion of the Ecumenical Patriarch that it alone is to be in charge of all the Orthodox outside of the traditional boundaries of the churches.

How it’s all going to work out one doesn’t know, but I do know this: that our vocation, as you will see, is to serve as best we can the birth of this truly local Church which would include everyone. We can say that, in a sense, ultimately, our mission is to die as institution; to die fruitfully, however; to die like a seed, yes? in helping to give birth, or midwife, this normal Orthodox Church in the New World. And I think that is a vision that’s worth serving, and I hope to serve it in my coming function.

Now, on the micro scale is this larger issue well, not obviously and immediately apply. It will be the usual thing for any diocesan bishop, that is, seeing to the well-being of especially the clergy, because bishops can’t know all of the flock, even in so small a diocese as this one, scattered as it is. But they can and must know their priests, and they are to serve their priests. It’s, after all, the parish pastor who is the sort of front-line troop, yes? He’s in there, fighting the battle, and it’s the bishop’s office, I think, to see to it that he can do so, and to do whatever he can (the bishop) to assist that task.

AFR: The parishes that you’ll serve, are there any openings for priests now that you’ll immediately have to think about?

Fr. Alexander: I don’t think so right now.

AFR: And have you met any of them?

Fr. Alexander: I’ve met most of them; not all of them.

AFR: And your travel, I understand that it is not a localized diocese, so how far away will you have to travel?

Fr. Alexander: Well, most of it is Rust Belt. They, like most of the Orthodox in the United States, came in those waves to feed the American Industrial Revolution, to be the cannon-fodder for our mines and mills. That’s located in what used to be our industrial heartland before we shipped everything to China, so most of the parishes are in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan; a couple in Illinois. So that’s not so scattered; that’s all drivable.

Then there are, I think, two little communities in Washington, D.C., and there are three or so in California, including a monastery. I told them when they were interviewing me that that was one of the attractions of the job, and they could count on a summer White House, because my only kin living inside the United States lives about 30 miles north of San Francisco.

AFR: Where is the monastery?

Fr. Alexander: The monastery is in [the] San Francisco Bay area. It’s south, about 30 miles northeast of San Jose. There are four monks, and they have a beautiful property or canyon in the hills going up from the east Bay, southeast Bay, and have built it all themselves. Interestingly, the people they serve there in their Sunday Liturgies are almost all Romanians. When I went to visit them when they were sending me on tour through the different parishes, the Liturgy was almost entirely Romanian inside. They’d learned, the monks, in order to serve these people. So, as I said, that was one of the attractions of the job, and I hope to, if they’ll permit me to, spend some time there regularly through the years.

AFR: Well, Fr. Alexander, soon to be “Your Grace,” we congratulate you and be assured of our prayers and we wish you well. This will be effective in May of 2012, and in the meantime, we hope that your last few months here at Marquette University go well and you finish well here as you have started well.

Fr. Alexander: Thank you very much.

AFR: It’s a pleasure to talk to you.