On 20 - 22 December, in addition to our “regular” nine full-time seminarians, St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary hosted eight Distance Learning students and seven Short-Term Residency students. One of the signs of the health of a Church is its ability to produce healthy vocations. Of our twenty-four full-time students; nine are from parishes in Ukraine, six are from mission parishes, eight are from more established parishes, and one came to us from outside the UOC-USA altogether. None of our seminarians and students were born into the UOC-USA but all have such a strong desire to better serve God and His children in and through the UOC-USA that they sacrifice significant time and effort to learn to do so (with the exception of our Coptic Orthodox student; she does this in service of her Church and Tradition) . No matter where we or they came from, we are all blessed by their dedication and look forward to seeing their vocations flourish in our midst!
For the full-timers, this was finals week. It was such a blessing to see the way they greeted the distance learners and shared their time and space with them. The depth of their hospitality was an indicator that the Lord has indeed sent us virtuous laborers from our ancestral homeland to tend this soil!
For the Distance Learning and Short-Term Residency students, it was their end-of-semester pilgrimage to the seminary and Metropolitan Center of the UOC-USA. Several were new to the program and for many it was their first time in South Bound Brook. By the time they left, it had found a special place in their hearts, just as it has for all of us who have worshipped and fellowshipped there.
We started out on Thursday evening with a special “guest lecturer” who came to talk to us about current events in the life of the Church in Ukraine and here. This “guest” was none other than a former Exarch of the Ecumenical Throne to Ukraine (and Provost of the Seminary), His Eminence Archbishop Daniel! Archbishop Daniel had recently returned from his long service in Ukraine and he was able to describe the events there and frame them in terms of their ultimate significance: the glorification of God and the serving of His people. His Eminence has a special way of connecting with people, and his words and witness did much to console and inspire. After this, Fr. Anthony Perkins (Pokrova in Allentown, PA; Vocations Director) gave a talk on how the Sacraments, and especially Confession, restore us to the Royal Priesthood. Fr. Anthony then led everyone in the Service of Repentance, after which many of the pilgrims (to include the priests) came for Confession. When Evening Prayers ended around 10:30PM, students were free to go to their rooms (although many elected to continue their discussions well into the night/morning).
Friday morning began with a Divine Liturgy at 7AM (!), followed by a morning lecture by Fr. Anthony during which he continued his lesson on the Royal Priesthood and another by Fr. Gabriel Rochelle (St. Anthony in Los Cruces NM, Professor) designed to prepare his students for their final. Many of the students had only known Fr. Gabriel “virtually.” After his lecture, they were able to join the rest of us in our appreciation of his special genius and the breadth of his expertise. After lunch and a Memorial Litya for the departed professors of our seminary (to include two, Fr. Bazyl Zawierucha and Fr. John Harvey, who reposed within the last few months), Fr. Gabriel gave his exam to his students and Fr. Anthony talked frankly with his priestly formation students about ecclesial politics and how they might impact the people they served. After dinner (another excellent communal meal prepared by Pani Maria!), we had a roundtable discussion, during which Fr. Gabriel, Fr. Anthony, and the more advanced students shared their thoughts on the value and challenges of the program and gave advice and encouragement to the newer students. This included some very moving testimonials to the value of fellowship and perseverance and a lot of appreciation to our hierarchs for the vision and support for late vocations. At 8PM, the two classes broke into two groups, with Fr. Gabriel sharing wisdom on the Book of Revelation while the members of the older class gave their end-of-semester homilies in the chapel (they were excellent!). Once again, we wrapped up the evening with evening prayer at 10PM (ibid on the discussions continuing elsewhere well into the night).
Saturday was the Conception of Anna and the students began with Divine Liturgy at 7AM. Fr. Vasyl Pasakas (Nativity Blessed Virgin in South Plainfield; Dean of Students), the primary organizing force behind the pilgrimage, was the primary celebrant. He shared words of wisdom about the Feast and our life in Christ. This was followed by breakfast and a double session on chanting and liturgical order led by Dn. Michael Abrahamson (St. Michael in Woonsocket). After lunch, the formal events ended with Fr. Taras Naumenko (St. Vladimir, Philadelphia) providing practical and theological instruction on the Services of the Departed in the Ukrainian Orthodox tradition and a benediction by Fr. Vasyl Pasakas.
In his remarks of welcome on Thursday, Fr. Anthony shared how much his life and ministry was blessed by his pilgrimages to South Bound Brook during his time as a distance learning student, how his attachment to that sacred place has only grown since then, and how he hopes all of the students have the same experience. By the end of this end-of-semester pilgrimage everyone knew exactly what he meant because they had experienced it themselves. Each had a genuine experience of God, had grown in their love of the Church, their desire to serve her, and their willingness to sacrifice to accomplish God's will through the Gospel.