Fr. Daniel Sysoev was killed in Moscow, Russia, on the 20th November 2009. He was famous for his missionary work among immigrants from ex-Soviet republics. We offer you a translation of his story about his missionary work at St. Apostle Thomas Orthodox Church in Moscow where he served as a priest, and where he was shot dead.
Translated by Olga Lissenkova
Edited by Yana Samuel
Imagine a beautiful spring evening. Friday. By the wooden walls of the church of Apostle Thomas on Kantemirovskaya street an Oriental-looking guard is standing quietly. He is listening to the catechetical talk that is being broadcast over the street with the help of the loudspeakers. In a few weeks, the man will be christened as Alexander. So the church is realizing its missionary nature even on the streets.
These days we hear a lot of different discussions whether it is possible to create such a missionary parish as the one described in the Missionary Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church or not. I would like to share my experience of organizing such a parish.
Our Lord said, “without Me you can do nothing” (John 15: 5), and this is why, of course, in any church the main thing is prayer. All the more so in a missionary one. So, from the very beginning we anchored our activity on prayer. Even when the temporary church building was not erected yet, we held church services in an improvised chapel. We often recall how our parishioners would fight through snowdrifts almost two meters high, at 40 degrees Celsius, in order to sing a prayer to Prophet Daniel in honor of whom the main church would be erected. I think their struggles have laid the foundation for our parish.
From the very first days of our services in the newly built temporary church, we organized a current prayer watch without which nothing can be done. Anyone entering the church can see those who are on duty, reading the Hours and Psalter and also seeing to it that the newcomers are able to find their place in the church. The people on duty are prepared Christians who go through catechism beforehand. They approach the newcomers and explain the basics of faith to them. At the tables of those on duty there are leaflets about the Confession and the Holy Communion and other things necessary for the Baptism.
We have services every morning and every evening. Once the service starts, people on duty approach those who came for the service and hand out the text of the Liturgy or the Vespers. If someone has a question, they can ask those on duty.
On Saturdays, Sundays and other feast days, one can see in the church our good Tatiana, the catechist. She is responsible for preparing children and adults for the Baptism. She sees to it that the catechumens attend the catechetical talks by sending them greetings with the forthcoming feast day and calling those who are already baptized. Of course, she also consults all who come to the parish.
For our parishioners to be active participants of the service, we not only hand them the texts of the services, but also involve them in the singing by the blessing of the late Patriarch Alexy. Our rule is to keep our flock founding it on God’s Word. This is why on usual Sundays we have three sermons. The first one is during the vespers after the Gospel. It is about passions, virtues, and in memory of the saints of the forthcoming day.
During the Sunday Liturgy, the first sermon is delivered right after the reading of the Gospel in order to interpret the sacred text, and the second one is read after the dismissal to interpret the Apostles’ reading. Now we’re putting into practice a service on the Internet (http://mission-center.com) broadcasting the sermons for everyone who wishes to hear them.
One more find is using the time when the priest takes Communion. As is known, usually at this time either communion prayers or hagiographies are being read. We take it into consideration that many Orthodox people know the Holy Scriptures poorly, so we use this time to read the Bible. This way even our elderly women become well-read in the Word of God.
After the service we started a very useful tradition. Immediately after the Liturgy is over, all the parishioners drink tea or coffee together. On the one hand, it is extremely handy for mothers with children, and on the other hand, it helps people to get to know one another better.
Many people visit us not only on Sundays but also on Thursdays. Right after the vespers, we conduct Bible Study. We study the Holy Scriptures on the basis of the patristic writings. The lessons last for two hours where the first hour is dedicated to the Old Testament, and the second one to the New Testament. After the lessons all who attended have tea. In order not to put any strain on the church and to teach people apostolic love, everything necessary for the tea party is brought by the listeners themselves; it helps them to get acquainted better. I cannot remember how many people have found their spouses during such tea parties over the years!
These talks are attended by protestant pastors, members of various sects, provincial imams, the regular church-goers as well as those who are just starting a church life by reading the Holy Scriptures. I am sure that after the Rite of the Membership a former member of a sect must necessarily undergo a program of starting a church life. What can be better than studying the Holy Scriptures from the point of view of the patristic tradition?
Every Friday we have catechetical school. Anyone who wants to be baptized or join the church after being a member of a sect (and we have many such people, thanks to the work of the parish missionaries) has to attend five talks on faith. So the preparation takes about 40 days, as is stipulated by the Synodal resolution on Feb 20, 1840.
Our talks are held every Friday and last for two hours. The first talk answers the question Who God is, What His Nature is. I also tell the audience that the Bible is God’s word, which is especially important to know now after the “Da Vinci Code” was published.
The second talk is about the creation of the world. We speak about the angelic world, Lucifer’s rebellion, the Hexameron, the relationship between the Revelation and science, and human nature. In the same talk, we discuss the original sin. All the listeners notice how up-to-date the dialogues on Paradise sound.
The third talk is about the Salvation performed by Our Lord Jesus Christ, starting with the Incarnation and finishing with the Last Judgment. I base my story of the Expiation mystery on the treatise by St. Nicholas Cabasilas “Seven Words on the Life in Christ.”
The fourth talk is dedicated to the structure of the Orthodox Church and the sacraments. I dwell in detail only on the sacrament of Baptism touching upon other sacraments a little bit. I only tell why they are necessary without explaining their sequence of prayers. I always say, “As soon as you get baptized, I will explain to you the order and the symbols of the Divine Liturgy. Right now you do not deserve to listen to the explanation.” This advice by St. Augustine comes in handy here. By inspiring the natural curiosity, it makes the newly converted still be interested in the church after the sacrament. About twice a year, after Nativity and Easter, we offer talks about the church sacraments for which we invite the newly-baptized and all other parishioners. During these talks we discuss in detail all the beauty of the Holy Eucharist.
Finally, the fifth talk is dedicated to Commandments. We speak not only about what good is and what evil is, but also give the basics of ascetics. We explain how evil finds a place in the heart, what passion is and what virtue is. We offer people ways to fight a sin and point out the purpose of acquiring virtues and that is becoming closer to God through Divine Love. I ask everyone who’s being baptized if they are ready to strive for Divine Holiness with the help of the Lord. If we do not require following the norms of absolute perfection from people, we come to nothing as a result.
I insisted that every parishioner should participate in these discussions. The experience of hearing confessions showed that a big number of regular parishioners know the basics of Christianity poorly. About 70 per cent of the parishioners doubted (or did not believe at all) the resurrection of the dead. They interpreted the words of the Symbol of Faith “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead” as a symbol of the immortality of soul. There were Orthodox believers who had attended Moscow churches for more than 10 years but still believed that the Divine Spirit was a faceless force. I was glad to see this ignorance disappear.
I remember how once I walked into the church quietly when no one expected to see me, and saw elderly women arguing violently. I was going to bring them to reason saying that the church was no place to argue, but when I approached them I got surprised at the question of their argument. They did not argue as to who should have stood by which candlestick, but discussed who was the Calvary sacrifice for.
True, we do not call our elderly women to mission, and this is why they turn into “Orthodox witches” (as Metr. Antony put it). Indeed, idleness is the mother of all sins. So one of the new programs of our church is to create “grandmothers’ voluntary missionary groups.” This is in order to make our elderly parishioners feel wanted and necessary for Church and for people. But this is still to be implemented.
The catechumen in our church should attend Sunday services as often as possible, or as their laziness permits. We always perform Baptism in a solemn way, either during the Christening Liturgy, blessed by the late St. Patriarch Alexei, or before the late Sunday Liturgy. All our parishioners greet God’s new babies with joy, and the Baptism itself becomes a new center for unifying Christians. But the Baptism ceremony is even more beautiful at big feast days, the Great Saturday and the Nativity. All our parish still remembers how at the last Nativity we baptized two Maya Indians now living in Bolivia. It was a truly universal festival! Imagine mother and daughter with red skin, with Indian braids, reading the Symbol of Faith in Spanish and then walking to the altar in white clothes!
As a result of the work of this catechetical school, the majority of the baptized ones become our parishioners, and some of them even Christ’s missionaries.
We started to solve one more problem in our community. Even in churches where the system of catechization is well regulated, the following difficulty emerges: a person turns to Christ, studies the elements of faith, gets baptized, learns about the sacrament of the Eucharist, and this is all. Where does he head from here? Yes, there is a spiritual guidance (though the form that most often exists in our parishes becomes hard to practice due to the priest’s inaccessibility). There is a certain rhythm of Christian life: Pray, fast and so on. But the spiritual growth itself is often left to the will of the parishioners themselves. On the one hand, this is good because it develops the feeling of responsibility. On the other hand, many parishioners do not know how they can fight a passion, how they can learn a virtue. This is where the problem with Confession appears: a person just does not know what to repent of, what to do, and this is why the spiritual life of the Orthodox person can turn into an endless search for sins with no time for following the commandments.
To rectify the situation, at least partially, we decided on an imperfect way of solving the problem: every Great Lent, after reading the penitential canon of St. Andrew of Crete, we started the so-called “master classes on commandments.” I find out beforehand which passion worries the parishioners, which virtues interest them at the moment, and then we analyze what the Holy Scripture and the Holy Fathers say about them. The main author for us is, of course, St. John Climacus, but we also base our talks on the works of St. Theophan the Recluse, Dorotheus of Gaza, Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom. As a result, we witness a very important change in the parishioners’ choice of books. They read fewer of the current religion-political treatises, ‘church’ novels, and more of the new creations by the Holy Fathers.
Of course, this is not enough, and we have more ideas on how to educate our parishioners. It is not incidental that St. Theophan advised to constantly keep the mind busy with thinking about the faith and the commandments of the Holy Scriptures in order not to flee to sin because of idleness. The aim of the newly written programs should be creating the system of reading the Bible in the patristic understanding.
Now I’d like to say a few words about the school of preparing missionaries working at our church. We founded it a year and a half ago, but in this little time it has already brought much fruit. The entrance exam to this school is the catechism exam by St. Filaret of Moscow. The lessons are dedicated to the Dogmatic theology in the missionary light (i.e. we explain how to speak about this or that dogma in the modern language, based on the Holy Scripture), practical study of sects, study of Islam, polemics with occultism. Our teachers are such well-known theologians as Father Oleg Stenyaev, Y. Maximov, A. Solodkov, A. Lul’ka, and also the author of this text.
The main thing is that having taught people the elements of missionary work, we immediately send them to perform God’s business. We start with the simple – mission on the sreet. Our missionaries, with badges of Apostle Thomas’ church, come out to parks, bus stops, yards and invite passersby to come to the church. With this, we hand out the leaflets (about the confession and christening), and those who get interested also receive the Gospel by Mark, published by Sretensky Monastery. It is remarkable that in most cases, as soon as they understand that we are not a sect but the Orthodox, passersby talk to us with pleasure, Muslims and pagans argue (but benevolently!), and they all have one reproof, “why do members of sects go out (to agitate), and the Orthodox don’t?” One of the main rules is that, if there is another church nearby, we try to send people there.
This mission gives the real fruit. This Easter I looked at the faces of our parishioners and was surprised: many of them learned about the Church and the faith with the help of this mission.
After our missionaries have learned to work together, we send them for a more difficult task. It can be a sermon for guest workers or, more important, a talk at sectarians’ meetings. We visit open meetings of the charismatic movement or the Baptists’ and start to prove, basing it on the Bible, that the Church of the Apostles is the Orthodox Church. Our main idea is that “we are messengers of the Christian unity, we are not calling you names, but calling you to realize Christ’s own commandment that “all may be one” (John 17: 21). But that unity is possible only in the Truth, in the Faith of the Apostles that’s been given to us by God. Let us look absolutely frankly where this Truth is, and let us unite in it.” Fortunately, this voice is not lost in vain, and many members of various sects come back to God, to His Church. For our whole parish, seeing repentant Protestants, Pentecostals, satanists and magicians undergo ascension, brings great joy. All of them acquire peace in the bosom of the Church, by the sacred altar.
On Paternal Saturdays our missionaries have to work harder than ever. They preach on the street near the church, explaining the need not only to set up candles, but also to participate in the sacraments. But the hardest way of sermon on this day is at the cemeteries where our ‘missionary patrol’ comes. Here also our labor produces good results.
There are two more days when all our employees, missionaries, and those on duty, don’t have an opportunity to have rest. These are the days of the ‘great invasion of those of little faith,’ Epiphany and Great Saturday. We try to greet everyone who comes for holy water or for the blessing of the Easter cakes. Missionaries tell about the Sacred history, speak about the Confession, explain the need of Christening and Wedding. They hand out our leaflets and invite people for meetings with the priest. So for many a visit for an Easter cake becomes the first step on the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.
By the way, there is one more missionary discovery to share. As is known, many people who don’t regularly go to church come for the Easter procession. Usually they stand nearby and watch parishioners; but there is an internal force that has brought them out of warm homes to the dark street, to participate, at least partially, in the Easter celebration. So we decided to use this moment. In the interval between the Easter midnight service and midnight (if we start the midnight service at eleven p.m., the interval is about 20 minutes) I read in Russian the Gospel passage about the women who brought anointments to Christ’s tomb late in the night (usually I take the 20th chapter of the Gospel by John), and tell the parishioners and those who listen on the street about our main hope – the hope for the resurrection of the flesh, the forgiveness of sins and life eternal. As I said before, the loudspeakers in our church broadcast the sermons for everyone on the street to hear. Also, even before the sermon starts, our missionaries strive to approach every passerby, greet them on account of the feast day and invite for the service, giving them leaflets about the Confession and the Communion.
A special place in the missionary parish is taken by our publishing house that publishes missionary literature. These are not only books in Russian. We published a missionary Psalter (that includes not only the main prayers, but also elements of the Faith and a call to join the Orthodox Church) in Tatar, Kirghiz and Chinese. Now we are preparing Chechen, Turkish and Azerbaijani translations. Not only Orthodox believers of these nationalities, but also guests take such books for prayer with pleasure.
There are also many other ideas waiting to be implemented. For instance, if we had more priests in our church, we could organize Confession vigils during the time when there are many people in the church – on Epiphany, the Great Saturday, the days of Easter and Nativity. Indeed, it would be great if anyone who enters the church and talks to a missionary could start their first Confession and get purged at least from the most serious sins.
Another plan is to broaden the missionary opportunities of pilgrim’s trips that are seldom used these days. The missionary trips that our missionaries undertake should also lead to organizing missionary parishes.
We plan to have common activities with our youth and missionary organizations.
All this has one side effect: as a result of our missionaries’ and catechists’ work our temporary church is so overcrowded that there is literally no space in there. Our principal task now is to build the main church in honor of Prophet Daniel with a big missionary center, in which a missionary institute will be placed. If the Merciful Lord helps us in this business, I think there will be more missionary parishes in Russia.
Please also read about Fr.Daniel: