BOSTON – His Eminence Metropolitan Arsenios of Austria and Exarch of Hungary was the first hierarch who because of the prohibition by the authorities of the use of the common spoon in administering Holy Communion turned to the ancient way, offering separately the Holy Body and the Holy Blood of Christ, as is the practice during the Liturgy of St. James to this day.
Metropolitan Arsenios, one of the most learned and respected hierarchs of the Church, was interviewed by The National Herald.
The entire interview follows:
The National Herald: Your Eminence how is the situation in your Metropolis? Are there affected people or cases of deaths, including the clergy?
Metropolitan Arsenios: In both Austria and Hungary the pandemic was kept under control thanks to the governments’ timely measures. Despite the early spread of the virus, the situation improved quickly, and today the epidemic is in decline. The borders were closed down, however it was still possible to move around when necessary. There was no particular issue with patients’ hospitalization. We pray for the repose of the souls of the departed. There was only one case amongst our parishes in Austria and all our priests are in good health.
TNH: What measures and restrictions have been put in place for the reopening of the churches?
Metropolitan Arsenios: In our parishes we are respecting all measures of hygiene against the spread of the disease and we have limited the number of the faithful present during the Divine Services. We have increased the number of Divine Liturgies, thus allowing everybody to live their faith in Christ and to partake of His Body and Blood.
TNH: Should the way of administering Holy Communion be changed?
Metropolitan Arsenios: The Holy and God-given Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist is and will always be celebrated flawlessly, according to the canonical and ecclesiastical orthodox tradition. Any changes can only be decided at a canonical and synodical level, neither individually nor occasionally.
According to the Holy Canons, it is only temporarily and for reasons linked to the Divine ‘Oikonomia’ that the Bishop is able to take the necessary decisions for the pastoral care of the faithful, adapting them to the specific circumstances of his province, while always staying in line with the guidance of our Ecumenical Patriarchate.
TNH: For centuries Holy Communion was offered the same way bishops and priests take it today. What is your opinion on this matter?
Metropolitan Arsenios: This tradition of our Church is old but not dead. We still celebrate ancient liturgies, like that of St James on his feast days, where we all commune in the same way as the priests. A valid source is the 32nd Canon of the Penthekte Ecumenical Synod (691/2), which refers to this liturgy as a liturgical model. In the 12th Century Maistor Theorianos also refers to it in his Dialogue with Heretics. In his 5th Mystagogical Catechesis, St Cyril of Jerusalem says: “The faithful puts his right palm over his left palm…it becomes the throne which will welcome Christ the King.” The 101st Canon of the same Ecumenical Synod highlights that those who partake of the undefiled Body and become one with It through transubstantiation, “receive the Communion of Grace, without letting any utensils come in the way, even if they are made of gold…”
TNH: What was your approach regarding Holy Communion during the period in which the measures were in place?
Metropolitan Arsenios: The Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is the source of Life and Immortality. Those who commune after having prepared themselves receive remission of sins, hope for eternal life, enlightenment, strength, healing, and health of soul and body.
Holy Communion can never become a means for transmitting contagious diseases. For a thousand years, Holy Communion has been given out with a spoon without any case of contagion. But if we want Christians in Austria to commune undisturbed, we need to temporarily follow the ancient way of Holy Communion, which will not arouse the outside observers.
We are on good terms with the government and we follow a collaboration protocol. By deciding to follow this ancient tradition, we respond to the dilemma: Holy Communion or abstention from It during this period? We avoided innovation by looking for a solution within our Church’s tradition, so as to not compromise the sanctity of the Sacrament and to not raise any suspicions, thus also avoiding the risk of creating a precedent with the authorities. We wanted to clearly state that divine worship is indissociable from Holy Eucharist and Holy Communion. In Hungary there was no need for a change in that aspect.
TNH: How many Parishes do the Metropolis of Austria and the Exarchate of Hungary count? How many Monasteries? How many Priests do you have?
Metropolitan Arsenios: In Austria we have one holy monastery, nine parishes and 20 priests. His Eminence Paisios, Auxiliary Bishop of Apamea, is based in Hungary. There we have seven priests serving in seven parishes and one Holy Hermitage. The priests serve the pastoral needs in many cities, thus covering our whole province.
TNH: How does the Metropolis sustain itself financially? How do the parishes and priests sustain themselves?
Metropolitan Arsenios: Our income comes from the contributions of the faithful. Our parishes are small and financially weak, but have an evangelical outlook. Laity contributes greatly to the versatile mission of each parish, which is also a centre for Hellenism and an embracing meeting place.
The majority of our priests do not receive a salary. Most of them work in parallel to sustain their families and parishes.
TNH: To what extent did the pandemic have an impact on your financial situation?
Metropolitan Arsenios: These last few months, the crisis and the lockdown did have an impact on our income, however there is no major problem as of today. We glorify our Lord for the fact that the faithful contribute to our mission despite the difficulties. We hope that with the contribution of all those wishing to help, the construction of the first Orthodox Monastery in Central Europe dedicated to the Holy Protection of Mother of God and St Paisios will become a reality. God willing H.A.H Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will soon lay its foundation stone.
TNH: What are some of the questions about the Orthodox Faith and now about the coronavirus that the faithful and especially the youth are asking?
Metropolitan Arsenios: All people who approach us have a thirst for Christ’s words. Humbly we ask for divine enlightenment, so that our words and our actions reflect “the will of God”, thus opening doors to a steadfast faith, to the cleansing of mind, soul and heart through confession, to a pure life on earth, and to the hope of the inheritance of the Kingdom of God, starting with the love of one’s “neighbor.” Our youth is very interested in the observance of the traditions, the ‘typikon’ and the art of chanting. Our dialogue with the faithful continues through discussion groups in Greek and German through our online channel. We thank our Lord for this new blessed method of communication as well as for all His other daily blessings. One of these is also today’s communication with you and through you with all our brethren in America, led in a God-pleasing way by their worthy Archbishop, His Eminence Elpidophoros. We pray that God forgives our mistakes and protects all Christians worldwide, making them the “salt of the Earth” according to His will. May He keep the whole world safe!