The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

[Part II of Russian Religious Missions to India, loosely translated excerpts from the original Russian.]

A special place in the history of Russian religious missions to India belongs to the archimandrite Andronicus, who spent eighteen years in India and established close ties with Indian Christians of various denominations. He was born in 1894 to a professor of church history, the seventh of twelve children, and he followed his brothers into the theological seminary of Olonets. Shortly after his graduation from the seminary in 1916, it occurred to him to travel to India. Having read in Eugraph Smirnov's history of the church that there were Christians in South India with rituals related to the Orthodox, he asked himself - why not travel there if they want to join us?

Andronicus took part in the Great War, during which he heard the happy news that he had been admitted to the St Petersburg Theological Academy. Of course, the Revolution intervened, and his studies were disrupted, with the result that he spent a few years in Finland and Germany, before moving to Paris in 1923. Two years later, at the St Sergius Church in Paris, he was tonsured as a monk, and ordained to the priesthood. He was then sent to the Belfort, close to the German frontier, to take over a parish.

He was a somewhat austere soul, reluctant to take money for religious services from his congregation: instead, he rented a house with a large garden where he grew his own food; he also worked at a local Peugeot factory. 

Again he brought up his desire to sojourn in India, a request that was granted by the Metropolitan Eulogius. With the money saved up from his Peugeot job, he travelled on the steamer General Messenger to Ceylon.

En route, he befriended a couple of Indians: one a Brahmin who had graduated from university in England, the other a Muslim Bengali merchant.

From Colombo, Andronicus travelled to India, and settled in Bangalore where he worked in an agricultural factory that employed an old Russian acquaintance of his. S. F. Kirichenko had bought a small estate in South India and taken up farming; unable to concentrate on his new projects, Kirichenko had asked for another worker to replace him, and Andronicus offered to take his place. 

Andronicus worked in Coimbatore as well. In one of the rooms of the factory, he established a little chapel. In those years, there were only around 300 Russian Orthodox Christians in the country, and it was his duty to provide pastoral care to them all. Prior to his arrival, Russian believers had to visit non-Orthodox clergy in times of trouble. One example was that of the Princess Urusova, who wanted to partake of Holy Communion on her deathbed in Bombay, and had to beseech the Anglican bishop who  initially refused, but finally relented. 'You may pretend that you are taking communion from the hands of an Orthodox priest,' he said to the princess, 'I shall get in touch with your bishop and ask him to approve the holy eucharist.' It was clear that there was an urgent need for an Orthodox priest in the country.

In October 1931, Andronicus visited Travancore for three weeks, during which he met Syrian Orthodox Christians. Their denomination had split 22 years earlier from the Syro-Jacobite patriarchate of Syria, and was interested in making peace with the patriarchate, but the latter's demand for complete submission prevented any harmony. After the death of Metropolitan Dionysius VI in 1934, the first Catholicos of the church, a constitution was drawn up at the conference of all the churches in Kottayam that established the independence of the Syrian Orthodox denomination under the leadership of a Catholicos, although it was still spoken of as a subsidiary of the Syrian church. (The issue was resolved only in 1962 with the recognition of the Malabar Syrian church by the Antiochian patriarch Ignatius-Jacob III.)

In Travancore, Andronicus visited the Catholicos Basil-Gregorius and had a conversation with him. He also visited the local seminary, sharing meals with the priests, teachers and students, followed by theological discussions. Subsequently, in Kottayam, Andronicus stayed with the Catholicos, and was thereafter always assured of the most welcoming hospitality. He established close links with the clergy and bishops of the Syrian Church of South India. In their conversations, Andronicus was quick to indicate the prominent drawback of the isolation of the Syrian church from the universal church, but was comforted by the desire for unification with the universal church through their links with the Russian Orthodox church.

In Kottayam, Andronicus was also able to meet the Jacobite patriarch Ilia, whose visit from Syria was an all too rare event for the local Christians. Ilia recalled the deep faith of the Russian Christians in Jerusalem and sang their praises. Andronicus then visited the Syro-Jacobite Metropolitan Athanasios in Alwaye; staying at his residence, he had the opportunity to speak with the clergy and seminarians.

Andronicus met the bishops of the Mar Thoma denomination, which was at the time headed by the Metropolitan Titus, and comprised a hundred thousand worshippers and a hundred churches. This church was allied with the Protestants, he discovered: among other things, it did not recognise saints. Rounding off his visits with the metropolitan Dionysius in Kunnamkullam, he was happy to inform his superiors back in Paris that he had met the heads of all the denominations of the Syrian church in South India that were of interest to the Russian Orthodox.

In 1932, Andronicus joined the monastery of Bethany ashram (near Vadasserikara) to study the religious life of Christians in India. He paid great attention to the missionary activities of St Thomas the Apostle in South India, the Nestorian movement and so on.

In particular, he was interested in the propagation of the Roman Catholic faith in India. He learned of St Francis Xavier, who had begun his mission in Goa, converting the locals, then moving on to Travancore, and Madras. Returning from Japan in 1562 to Goa, this energetic missionary then headed to China where he perished of malaria. He is interred in a magnificent tomb in Goa, and is considered the patron saint of India, reported Andronicus.

Andronicus noted that the Catholics had been very active in the previous decades in all parts of India, establishing great churches in Madras, Bangalore, Calcutta, Delhi, in the Nilgiris, all over Malabar, and in Goa; everywhere, there were crowds of pilgrims; one would hear of their bishops, their monasteries and nunneries. Their resources were tremendous, he said, they acquired land and buildings; in a pagan country, their presence was a cultural boost.

His greatest interest remained towards the Syrian Orthodox. He wrote of its doctrines, governance, peculiarities of ritual, the sacraments, the tradition of iconography, the church hierarchy and so on.

At the Bethany ashram, he was permitted to perform the orthodox liturgy, and even after his sojourn ended, he often visited the monks, whom he considered close friends. In his missives to Paris, he wrote detailed accounts of the monastery. He said that the Jacobite monastic charter was quite distinct from the Russian Orthodox: not as austere, no long services, no vows at tonsure, and no use of the Jesus Prayer; prayer and obedience were not the essence of monastic life; common prayers were frequent but brief; on the other hand, institutionalised hours among the Jacobites for meditation and silence were better defined.

[To be continued…]


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