The Unknown Life of Orthodox Venice

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Author: Olga Bogdanova

By drawing nearer to the sacred things culture acquires wholeness and reasonability, but by drifting away from faith it becomes cold and cruel

Archpriest Alexei Yastrebov, rector of the Russian church in Venice, shares with the Pravoslavny Vestnik magazine how he collected the material for his book, The Shrines of Venice, talks about his search and discoveries and the people who come to live and work in this ancient city, becoming parishioners of its Russian church.

Father Alexei, please, can you tell us who is interested in the shrines of Venice today? And how did it come to pass that you began to collect this information?

When I came to Venice, I wanted to understand what this city lived by, how it developed and what its spiritual roots were. Venice is absolutely unique. Firstly, it stands on water which is unusual in itself. Secondly, it has neither pagan nor modern strata: Venice is a medieval Christian town, rich in holy shrines, which has survived to this day. Each of a number of small churches of this city possesses several strikingly significant relics at the same time.

Is Rome different?

There are many strata of history in Rome: we can see ‘the pagan Rome’, ‘the Christian Rome’, ‘the modern Rome’. As for Venice, it has a more homogeneous structure. Besides, Rome has plenty of space, so one could build a special huge church or monastery for keeping the most precious relics in it. But Venice is a compact city, so making a special reliquary for the relics in one of its churches was the most that could be done.

The desire to describe all these shrines appeared soon after my arrival to Venice. First I made a general list of them for myself, then drew up a more detailed list, and with time added descriptive notes to it; and after that I wanted to find out how these relics had ended up in Venice. The attribution of quite a number of the relics is still the subject of controversy, and I wanted to know why Venetians claim to be the possessors of genuine relics. Thus, little by little my book was created.

The stories of which shrines have stuck in your mind?

There are many of them. For example, there is a very famous adventure connected with the holy relics of the Apostle Mark. The people who were sailing with the saint’s relics had to deal with the Saracens carrying out customs examination at the border. As is known, pork is considered unclean for Muslims, so the Saracens tried not to touch it while carrying out their inspections. Knowing this, the travelers hid St Mark’s body in a chest overlaid with the carcasses of swine, and the precious relics remained unnoticed.

Another story is associated with the Byzantine Princess Maria Argyropoula who brought the head of Great-martyr Barbara to Venice. At the turn of the tenth century she married a doge of Venice, and her uncles, the Byzantine co-emperors, gave her this relic as a dowry. It would seem that a young wife of the doge who, in addition, brought such a great treasure to the city, should have been received cordially and hospitably; but that is not what it turned out.

Although Venice residents knew the Byzantine traditions and lived near the Byzantine Empire, they didn’t accept all the customs of Byzantine Greeks. The Venetians showed indignation with Maria because she wore make-up, and used knives and forks . In one of his treatises Peter Damian, a prominent theologian of that time, wrote that Maria used ‘a pitchfork similar to that with which Satan torments sinners in hell.’ And wearing make-up was considered disgraceful. But it is unknown how the relations between Maria and the Venetians could have developed: the princess died of plague, having lived in the city for only one year.

An interesting story. And how did you collect all this information? Where did you get the material?

By the time I was sent to serve in Venice I could speak Italian quite well, so I just visited local churches (mostly Catholic churches, of course) and spoke with priests. Catholics showed great understanding of my research, were always willing to help and communicated very kindly and openly, so I didn’t have to overcome any bias or obstacles. When I needed more detailed and specific information, I approached libraries and archives.

But couldn’t modern sources, for example, Italian guides, really help you?

I managed to find very little information in modern sources: unfortunately, not many people are interested in antiquities today. In most cases guides are focused on works of art rather than on holy objects.

Are there many Orthodox pilgrims coming to Venice?

Fourteen years ago, when our Church life was just beginning, we had to contact the pilgrims or organisers of pilgrimage tours who did not find it necessary to include Venice into their itineraries. Today the situation is different. I don’t know the statistics, but, as far as I can judge, now all pilgrimage groups from Russia and the Ukraine, travelling through Italy, have Venice on their itineraries. The information on its shrines has become available for everyone, and people aim to come here and venerate the relics. So now we have many more pilgrims.

Moreover, there are those who go on pilgrimages on their own (and their number is increasing) and those who come to venerate these holy objects during their holidays in Italy. They are not pilgrims in the full sense of this word, but it is faith that inspires them to visit Venice. It can be said that at the present time Orthodox pilgrims are an integral part of Venice.

And do many people use your guide-book?

Basically the guide-book is intended for those who travel on their own, because a pilgrimage group is led by a qualified guide who will definitely tell the faithful about the most significant sacred sites and shrines of the city.

Are there modern tried and tested pilgrimage itineraries across Italy?

Many believers strive to visit the island of Lido where the holy relics of St Nicholas the Wonder-worker are kept; they often come to the relics of St John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria; come to honour the memory of Great-martyr Barbara on the island of Burano. I often see pilgrims beside the relics of St Paul the First Hermit at St Julian’s Church and, of course, at the Basilica of St Mark. I heard from many people working at the churches where saints’ relics are kept that Russian pilgrims visited them and venerated their relics.

How do you manage to combine the pilgrimage and cultural components? After all, apart from relics and other material treasures, Venice is a unique city in terms of the Christian art of various periods and traditions, from the mosaics of the Basilica di San Marco to marvelous Baroque masterpieces of architecture and art. Are Orthodox pilgrims interested in them? Do you succeed in drawing their attention to art?

We hope to succeed in it one way or another. ‘Culture’ is derived from the Latin word ‘cultus’, so the true culture is always cultocentric. By drawing nearer to the sacred things culture acquires wholeness and reasonability, but by drifting away from faith it becomes cold and cruel. It is very interesting to follow the evolution of painting, plastic arts and architecture down the centuries: works of art gradually drift away from the Church, drifting from theosis towards humanization, from theology towards humanism. Despite this tendency, a host of outstanding architects, sculptors, painters worked in Venice in order to glorify the very same saints who are venerated by Orthodox visitors today. The best models of the Western artistic thought, embodied in the most unusual city in the world, are not only of aesthetic value, but they also offer spiritual food. That is why it is logical that we should speak about these sculptors and their canvasses.

Which works of art, omitted by standard guide-books, can you recommend to Russian tourists?

Secular guides tend to regard masterpieces of art as things of great value in themselves, while the authors and their contemporaries understood them as the ‘framework’ of the sacred space of the church. Their meaning is fully revealed only when we keep this fact in mind and view them in the religious context.

Your parish is fourteen years old. Is it the only Orthodox parish in Venice or not?

There is a 500-year-old Greek church and also a Romanian parish in Venice. As for the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church, we are the only parish of this jurisdiction. It was opened in 2003 in response to a letter by a group of Orthodox residents of Venice who had appealed to the Holy Synod with a request to send them a priest.

The beginning was very peaceful, and it may seem that Venice has a fertile ground for the development of parish life in it, since its very residents wanted to have a parish priest. But in reality the picture is more complex, isn’t it?

You are right. The letter to the Synod was signed by nearly 100 people, but I saw only five to seven of them in person.

One of the peculiarities of parish life abroad is instability: people come and leave very quickly. And we don’t have our own church building. The Catholic Church gave us the ancient Venetian Church of the Beheading of St John the Baptist for temporary use and we have served at this church for the past two years. We installed a temporary iconostasis along with lecterns and candle-holders inside this building. Our parish has a Sunday school and a room where we organise tea for our congregation after the Liturgies.

The ministry abroad is seen as something very prestigious. Is it really so?

I would say that this ministry is responsible rather than prestigious.

Who are these Orthodox Venetians that attend your church regularly?

These are mainly citizens of Moldova and the Ukraine who came to Italy to work as nurses, caring for the elderly and the sick. They usually come to Italy for several years and in the course of this period they become our parishioners. Then new nurses come to replace them.

These people often bring their local customs, superstitions with them, their own ideas of what the relations between a priest and his parishioners should be like. On the one hand, you should show considerate attitude to them, but, on the other hand, you will never be able ‘to play up to them’, given your several higher education degrees and many years of life in the Church. How do you manage to find a balance?

I at once did my best to take it for granted, as something that I would never change. The people who come to work abroad have to go through tough times, so I make efforts to accept them as they are, taking into account that they have well-established standpoints and notions of many things, including those of life and relationships in the Church. I try not to teach them too much.

When you don’t look down on others, when you try to imitate Apostle Paul and ‘rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep’ (Romans 12:15, King James Bible), then you feel at ease in spite of difference of opinion and some people’s ‘eccentricity’, without indignation and anger. For example, I already take as commonplace and as something quiet ordinary the Moldovan customs of ‘blessing of the waters’ for a woman in childbirth or slightly lifting a table with offerings and moving it ‘to and fro’ during memorial services.

The life of a nurse, a cleaner or a nanny is very difficult. What kinds of help do they need most of all and do you manage to support them by some means or other? For instance, Father Arseny in Lisbon and Father Andrei in Madrid visit Russian-speaking inmates in prisons of Portugal and Spain; though this example is an extreme one and the situation may be differentin Italy. But what is their everyday life like? Do they have an opportunity to attend church services? Do they take part in any parish events?

The life of a nurse is a heavy cross. Let us take a typical situation: a person comes from the Ukraine where he/she enjoyed a high social status, was respected by his fellow-countrymen, had a family in which he had a honourable place, and now he has ended up at the bottom of the social hierarchy. All his titles and degrees are useless here, he has to start his life again from nothing, not hoping to achieve much; and he has to face this at the age of fifty, when he has more than a half of his life behind him! The first impressions are normally very bitter, such change of residence and mode of life is like a real ‘endurance test’.

Unfortunately, the majority of Italians simply ignore the moral suffering of nurses. They like to see themselves as benefactors of poor nations who are giving them a helping hand, forgetting that their fellow citizens (Italians) refuse to undertake these kinds of hard work. By saying that Italians fail to understand the deep inner drama of broken families I don’t mean that they feel particular disdain for our compatriots, although this does take place from time to time. But even if all the conditions were ideal, people will inevitably feel homesick, feel lonely without their nearest and dearest, and in most cases the local residents are unaware of this.

Do these people eventually feel an affection for this city’s spirit? Are they somehow transformed by the complex, romantic and mysterious city of Venice after living here for some time?

I don’t think that any of them is filled with mysticism or romanticism of any kind. Roughly speaking, they are in no mood for romance! However, some of them in the end have a desire to venerate the relics, so our guide-book is in demand at our parish. But, curiously enough, very few of our parishioners have investigated the sacred sites of Venice.

Venice International Airport has a chapel. Can you tell us about it in more detail, please?

Yes, the airport has a hall used as a place of worship (sala di culto), for it is not a chapel in the strict sense of this word, so non-Christian believers can pray in it too. Two aircraft of the Aeroflot company arrive at Venice Airport every day,Venice being one of the most popular foreign cities with Russian tourists.

Several years ago it occurred to me that some of them could benefit from speaking to a priest or participation in a short public service, while waiting for boarding. There was a real meeting of minds between the directorate of the airport and the board of directors of the local Aeroflot branch: I was given a chaplain’s plastic card, and an announcement appeared at the check-in counter of Aeroflot that a public supplicatory service [in Russian – a moleben]with akathist to St Nicholas the Wonder-worker, patron-saint of travelers, would be celebrated at the chapel at such-and-such an hour.

I conscientiously came to the airport every Saturday morning for several months, observed the overcrowded check-in counters of ‘Venice – Moscow’ flights (each airplane accommodated up to 300 passengers), waiting for travelers at the entrance to the chapel; but, alas, nobody came in over all those months! No one wished to submit an intercession list, to pray during the akathist or just to talk to the priest. People walked past me with their bags full of duty-free goods, mostly alcoholic drinks, and they sometimes cast a glance at my vestments, either with surprise or an ironical smile.

More than that, when some passengers saw my announcements at the check-in counter, they asked if everything was all right with the aircraft! Otherwise, why were they offered a supplicatory service with akathist? Imagine how many people read my announcement over the course of several months! And nobody came! It is quite natural that passengers hurry, bustle about before boarding. They need to buy souvenirs and drinks, so important for Russian people. But I truly couldn’t expect that absolutely nobody would come.

As you see, the passengers nearly complained, interpreting my announcement as an imposition of my ‘prayerful help’ on them or evidence of a malfunction with the plane. So if you ask about superstitions, widespread among my parishioners, I will say that superstitions are widespread not among them, but among my compatriots who are preoccupied with diplomas of higher education and high levels of social status.

An overwhelming majority of your parishioners are in difficult life situations and they can hardly make large donations. How do you survive?

People do their best to help the parish all the same, they have a sense of responsibility, so we feel that we belong to one community, to one family. We receive support from pilgrims and from individuals who help us on purpose so that we could arrange one or another event. Also priests serving overseas receive subsidies from the Moscow Patriarchate.

You obviously feel an urge to communicate not only with members of your community, but also with your fellow-clergymen. Which of the representatives of the clergy are you in touch with?

We have contacts with Greeks and Romanians. A Metropolitan and other clergymen serve at the Greek cathedral that I have already mentioned. We maintain very good relations with them, we come to them and concelebrate together, and when we celebrated our tenth anniversary one priest from the cathedral came to us and greeted us on behalf of the Metropolitan.

Are there many Russian priests serving in Italy?

Recently we had an assembly and some fifty-six or fifty-seven clerics were registered – the deacons and priests of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Apparently, nearly all of them serve in Rome?

Certainly not. They serve mostly in the north of Italy where you can find Russian parishes virtually in every small town. Of course, there are priests in Rome, too. However, there are few parishes in the south of the country, with the exception of Bari, Naples and Sicily.

Is the life of these parishes oriented mainly to migrant workers?

Not only migrants. You can find other social strata in Rome, Milan and other major cities. For example, these are our businessmen, Russian housewives – spouses of those who work abroad.

Can you share the most vivid impression that you had over your fifteen years of ministry in Italy with us?

The most vivid impression is my daily meeting with the human destinies, the human searching. As I have said, sometimes our people have to take care of elderly people who are gravely ill or insane. The experience like this is a profound shock. This kind of work very often helps you cultivate humility and revaluate your life. So it is common occurrence that people come to believe in God whilst living overseas, and each story of conversion is remarkable. When you see and feel that you do your bit to help others turn to the Lord and come to the Church, it really ‘blows’ your mind.

All photos, except the last one, are by Vladimir Khodakov.

Archpriest Alexei Yastrebov

The Church of the Beheading of St John the Baptist in Venice
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