Source: Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia
Arriving in San Francisco, I was anxious and excited over the forthcoming event. As a pilgrim of the 20th century, I did not go on foot, but arrived by plane from my native Ottawa. I had earlier participated in the glorification of the Elders of Optina, the New Martyrs of Russia, Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg, but heading for California, I knew that this time it would be different.
At earlier canonizations, we had glorified those who had lived long before us and far away. Now we were to glorify a saint who lived in North America. St. John was appointed to the Western American Diocese in1962 and departed to the Lord only 28 years ago, in 1966, in Seattle. I know people, fairly young in fact, and older, who knew this righteous man personally and told me of their contact with him. Many of us had already visited the Cathedral of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow” in San Francisco, and prayed in the crypt under the church where he is laid to rest.
But this glorification differed from the others in yet another way. In October 1993, in connection with the preparations for the canonization, a special committee appointed by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia descended into the crypt and opened the sarcophagus and coffin of Vladyka John. The committee discovered that everything that should have remained whole—the metal coffin, the brocaded vestments and everything made by human hands—rusted and rotted away, but the body of the bishop remained incorrupt. The clergymen of the committee, who had known Vladyka John during his lifetime, saw his face, his beard and hands, and said that it was still so familiar, that it felt as though Vladyka returned to his flock. By the time of his glorification, the relics of Vladyka John were washed, adorned in new vestments and transferred to a beautiful new hand-carved wooden sarcophagus. For the first time, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia glorified her own saint and conducted the ceremonious disclosing of the uncorrupted relics.
I flew out on Thursday, June 30, 1994. When my plane descended into San Francisco, I felt a certain lightness in my heart, and a Paschal joy accompanied me—I had felt the same thing in Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, or at the Near and Far Caves of the Kievo-Pechersk Lavra. I had often visited San Francisco, but I had this feeling for the first time—that the relics of Vladyka John were no longer hidden away but shone for all who came to him. I think that even common travelers felt different in that airport that day. From all sides one could see bishops in their rassas, priests, monksЙ His Grace Bishop Hilarion arrived from New York at the same time as I, carrying the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God. Taking his blessing, I noticed his joyous and shining face—this mood was ubiquitous among all the pilgrims.
I was told that during liturgy on Thursday there were over a thousand worshipers—yet the main services lay ahead! On Thursday evening, the enormous church was overfilled with people. There were three holy icons to be welcomed: the Kursk-Root Icon, the Iveron Myrrh-streaming Icon and the Vladimir Icon (which renewed itself, a locally-venerated icon from a convent in San Francisco), all of the Mother of God; following this was a parastas [memorial service]. Two mens’ choirs saing antiphonally on the kliros (I was invited to direct the right-hand choir). After the 6th song of the canon, the entire church sang the kondakion “May his repose be with the saints.” On Friday, the funerary liturgy began at 8 am, and over 500 people partook of the Holy Mysteries, administered from three chalices. The Cathedral Choir, probably the best in North America, consisting of 100 singers, sang at all the services, beginning with this liturgy. On Friday evening and Saturday, the late liturgy was sung by the SS Kyrill and Methodius High School Chorus, supplemented by visiting youth—some 100 people!
It is worth noting that everything was wonderfully organized. Despite the multitude of worshipers and the long services, everything was done calmly and spiritually. On Friday, after liturgy, hundreds of volunteers helped prepare everything for vigil and the liturgies. The glorification was preceded by a three-day conference, which ended with a touching description by witnesses of the uncovering, washing and vesting of the relics of St. John. Photographers were preparing for the services, not only for a movie, but for direct relay of the service to the church hall, where many of the elderly and parents with children were found, and to an enormous screen standing before the Cathedral, so that all could see and hear the services. With the help of the police, the boulevard was closed to traffic. A group of clergymen, including two priests, who carved the wonderful iconostasis of the Cathedral 15 years earlier, were now finishing the canopy over the sarcophagus with the relics of St. John—this canopy was now to become the earthly abode of the saint. The entire time, more and more clergymen arrived and took their places in the altar. Everything was ready.
The translation of the relics from the crypt to the Cathedral was scheduled for Friday at 3 pm. A group of pilgrims from Toronto arrived at the church at 2:30 and it was already impossible to enter. My friend from Toronto, a pilgrim named Anna, was very upset that she could not enter the church, when suddenly she saw an acquaintance who gave her a pass to ascend to the choir (Anna was a singer). I received my choir pass a day before—these passes not only allowed us to sing at the services, but gave us the chance to see everything happening in the church below. The Cathedral, inside and out, was filled with a great many people, but all were silent. The enormous church, despite its size, effused warmth and comfort. Partly this was because of the icons and frescoes, the work of the eminent icon-painter Archimandrite Kyprian of Jordanville. The Cathedral in San Francisco would be familiar to anyone who has seen his icons in Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville.
Finally, the clergy emerged from the altar, and, led by the choir, headed for the crypt. The sarcophagus was raised onto shoulders and after 28 years of cover, it was brought upstairs to the cathedral. The sarcophagus with the relics was covered with a mantle and placed in the center of the church. After the reading of the rules before Communion (the three canons and the akathist), at exactly 4:30, the final pannikhida for Vladyka John began. At my parish at home there was also a final pannikhida served (at 7:30 our time), and though I was far from home, I was in union with the prayers of my fellow parishioners. Grandly and with trepidation (but not in the weak, contemporary sense of the word), the words “Eternal memory” were sung for the final time!
During the pannikhida, the sarcophagus stood like a coffin during a funeral service, facing the altar. By the time of the singing of “With the Souls of the RighteousЙ” the coffin was turned 90 degrees, so that it now stood like the plashchanitsa during Great Friday. For the prayers for his repose had ended. St. John would soon be glorified by the Church! In the Orthodox Church, glorification is an act of that which is already apparent—that someone is holy through his life, word and deed. And at this celebration, the Church and her children were truly represented. Clergymen from around the world, some 200 of them, were headed by His Eminence Metropolitan Vitaly. Bishops from the Old-Calendary Rumanian, Greek and Bulgarian Churches stood in the altar and prayed. In the church itself was a great multitude of monastics from Jordanville, Lesna Convent in France, from Jerusalem, South America, Russia and Australia, and also bishops and clergymen from various Orthodox jurisdictions. Some people noted that it seemed as thought the entire Church Abroad was at the canonization. Others compared the celebration to the holiday of the Dormition of the Most-Holy Mother of God, when the apostles “from all corners” gathered at the tomb of the Most-Pure. Indeed, people gathered for the glorification of St. John from all points on the globe, on the anniversary of his death, as though he himself collected all of us, Orthodox Christians, Russians and those of other nationalities, other peoples and races. We had one goal—to glorify the bishop.
Much has already been written about the vigil that day. In will briefly note some moments of the service itself, but I will draw the reader’s attention to what I had felt during those moments. Vigil began right after the pannikhida. A third choir joined the first two, a male choir. At first I heard the stichera and prayers to the new saint. The worshipers were reminded of his ascetic life. He paid little attention to his needs, a great deal of attention towards the needs of others. About this, the troparion says: “Wholly sanctified by God through the ministry of the all-pure Mysteries, and thyself strengthened thereby, thou didst hasten unto suffering, O most gladsome healer.” During the litany, the clergymen emerged with the coffin, and in a procession of the cross, circled the Cathedral.” But no one, I believe, will ever forget the polyeleos. In order to give everyone who served the opportunity to emerge from the altar for the polyeleos, the choirs antiphonally sang the 21 sticherion of the 134th and 135th psalms “Praise the name of the Lord.” Priests surrounded the bishops in 5 or 6 rows. After the singing of the psalms, the Cathedral was absolutely silent. Everyone’s attention was focused on the sarcophagus. First His Eminence Metropolitan Vitaly removed the cloth from the icon of the saint (the icon lay in the sarcophagus), and two priests (one monastic, one from the lay clergy), raised it for all to see. Then, the mantle was removed from the coffin, and finally, a key opened the locks, the cover was opened, and the very relics of St. John were visible through the glass. There are no words to describe the feeling of humility and love which overcame all who saw the incorrupt relics of the saint in his white Paschal vestments. We awaited this moment for years, months, days, and as it finally arrived, we were not prepared for the reaction this moment incurred. Thousands of people in the cathedral, in the hall and outside stood breathless. This was one of the most profound moments of my life. Everyone fell to their knees before the relics and then the clergymen, in an unequalled choir of 200 male voices, joyfully sang “We magnify thee, Holy Father John!”
From that moment on, the worshipers could not hold back their tears. I looked around and everywhere, people were crying from joy. We, especially the singers, tried to concentrate on the prayers we sang, but it was impossible to hold back—Vladyka John truly returned to his flock. The sight of his relics forced us to think about his life, his miracles, his labors in Shanghai and in San Francisco, how he was able to unify church forces and complete the construction of magnificent cathedrals. Between singing prayers, we gazed upon his relics and again broke out in tears. The entire vigil continued this way. Though people approached his relics from two sides of the sarcophagus, the veneration still lasted for some four hours. The people prostrated themselves, wept, kissed his relics, applied paper icons and prayer beads to the glass. Most of the people had arrived at the Cathedral at 2 pm, and here, 9 hours later, they did not wish to leave.
The Cathedral has three altars, and so it was possible to conduct three liturgies on Saturday, July 2, at 2 am, and 5 am and the main liturgy at 7:30 am. I was honored to direct the two choirs, along with Peter Alexeevich Fekula, at the first liturgy. This was sung by all the worshipers in the church in Slavonic and English. Peter Alexeevich and I had prepared 70 photocopies of the texts and notes, thinking that only 300 people would be at the 2 am liturgy. People, after all, need to sleep. We were mistaken. There were over 1000 people there, and some 700 of them partook of Communion. After the solemn vigil, now it seemed everything was calmer. The whole church sang the Eucharistic canon in unison, in the znamenny tone, and we felt a special peace in our souls, unforgettable to this day. After 22 hours in church, I headed home to get some rest.
Most of the clergy served at late liturgy, but almost all the priests and worshipers who attended early services returned to the end of the last service to participate in the moleben and procession of the cross—I had not seen such a procession in the Russian diaspora. Thousands emerged from the Cathedral into the street. The clergy carried the sarcophagus with the relics of St. John by means of a special armature. From the windows of nearby houses, many watched, unwittingly bowing before the procession with the relics. My heart softened to see how our priest from Uganda carried one of the Miraculous Icons. When I reentered the Cathedral with the choir, I was surprised to see that the church was already filled with people.
After the services, I had the opportunity to take part in a feast organized in an enormous hall in the center of San Francisco. During the trapeze, in which some 1500 people participated, we shared our experiences. I was able to meet with our archpastors, pastors, monks and brethren and sisters in Christ, many of whom I had not seen in 15 years. I was able to spend some time talking to a few of them. Many had a similar goal for their trip to San Francisco as I did—to gain spiritual strengthening and direction in our difficult and complicated times. We remembered many of those who because of their health could not come to this event, for example, Fr. Archimandrite Kyprian. We did not forget those who was no longer with us, but, thanks to whom we remained close to the Church throughout our lives. It is likely that without them we would not have participated in this celebration. We began to think about how important the way we were reared from childhood proved to be, how important it was that our parents took us to Jordanville and taught us to understand our faith. We also thought about how many children participated in the services of glorification—in the choirs, serving in the altar and standing in church with their parents. Some pilgrims were disappointed that their children could not come with them. One local priest told me that after early liturgy, he came home and was expecting to eat eggs, kulichi and sausages, only to remember that this wasn’t Pascha, but the Fast of SS Peter and Paul.
That evening, at vigil, the sarcophagus with the relics was moved from the middle of the Cathedral and placed under the canopy on the right side of the church. During the following days, pilgrims did not depart, but continued to approach the relics and venerate them during services. The time came to venerate them for the last time and to bid farewell to everyone. On the way home, in the plane, I was able to think about the wondrous week I spent in San Francisco, and I was saddened that everything ended. Then I remembered a sermon spoken by Vladyka Metropolitan Vitaly many years ago. He said that after Pascha we return to our daily, gray lives, but that Pascha had given us the opportunity to endure and survive them, this recollection of Pascha and theat bright joy which it brings. Those of us who were able to go to San Francisco during those days will always remember the glorification of St. John. Hierarch and Miracle-worker John, pray to God for us.
Russky Pastyr, No. 20, 1994
Read also The Veneration of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco: Recollections of a Spiritual Son