Of archons, dossiers, forgiveness and the future Patriarch: An interview with Bulgarian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Joseph

With some weeks to go to the election by a Bulgarian Orthodox Church electoral college of a new Patriarch, Metropolitan Joseph of the United States, Canada and Australia gave an interview to Bulgarian publication Християнство и култура (Christianity and Culture) on topical issues facing the church, including reflections on the legacy of the late Patriarch Maxim, the controversy around the granting of the title Archon, and the exposure by the Dossier Commission of a number of top church leaders – including Joseph himself – having been involved with communist-era State Security. Joseph, who has said publicly that he is not in the running for election as the new Patriarch, gave these answers:

As a cleric, you grew up under the wing of the late Patriarch, so we propose to start the conversation with your recollections of him. How will you remember him personally? How do you think church people and all of society should remember him? How would you describe the years of his ministry?

For 46 years, I was connected spiritually with the unforgettable Bulgarian Patriarch Maxim (God rest his soul). Born in the same year as my mother and father, in 1914, he was the priest to whom I owe everything in my growing up in the church. There are many memories of him that I will carry with me for as long as I live. On the day at Troyan monastery when I became a monk, he said in his address to me: “Today Ivan died,” my mother cried out from among the crowd: “No, he’s alive”. And when Maxim said, “Today Joseph is born spiritually!” She could not understand the change, that for her, and for me meant that I started a new life in Christ that I have led, with God’s help, so far.

Another important memory is his view, expressed back in 1971 when I was in coadjutor in Lovech and he, by then Patriarch, told me that he was sending me abroad to represent him.

I shall also never forget his words of farewell in 1982, when, as his first vicar in Sofia and having served at Troyan monastery, after 10 years of ministry as his coadjutor, he said to me: “Thank you for your honest service. I was calm and secure with you, as my assistant in Divine service, who has never failed me”. Words which he repeated in August 2012 when I visited him at Lozenets University Hospital.

When I was fired by the Director of the Religions Directorate, Metodi Spasov, in 1993 under Art. 13 of the communist Denominations Act, Patriarch Maxim visited Prime Minister Dimitar Popov specifically to save me from being dismissed from my office in America, although the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was in agreement with Spasov’s order.

I also will remember Patriarch Maxim for, not as chairman of the Holy Synod, but as Metropolitan of Sofia, responding to my entreaty to save from ruin the church in my home village Slavovitsa, Pazardzhik, the St. Ivan Rilski church in Pernik, the church in the village of Brakyovtsi, Pernik, and especially St. Sofia church from being turned into a museum, as the National Institute for Monuments of Culture had urged and as the Politburo of the Communist Party had ordered, with the consent of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Bulgarian Orthodox people and our society will remember Maxim as a “second Evtemii” leading the Bulgarian congregation after the service in the Pokrov Bodogorichen church in Sofia to Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev to ask him for help against the villainous takeover of the patriarchal residence at 7 Kaloyan Street by Hristo Sabev’s thugs.

Our society will remember Maxim with his torn veil in the presence of Patriarch of Constantinople Demetrios in the St Alexander Nevsky Patriarchal Cathedral in the turbulent years of schism.

Bulgarian Orthodox people will never forget Maxim’s blessings in the National Assembly of Simeon II, Georgi Purvanov and Rossen Plevneliev as state leaders.

The turnout by Bulgarian society for his funeral testified that he was recognised by our people as a man of God, seeking the Kingdom of Heaven and its righteousness, as a result of which the Lord gives us everything.

As regards the years of his ministry, viewed from America, I would describe them as years and a ministry dedicated to the conservation and preservation of the situation that preceded him and of the legal position of the BOC.

A few weeks ago, in the churches we heard the reading from the Gospel about the pious leader who from his youth had kept to the tradition of the Fathers and who wanted to inherit eternal life (Luke 18: 18-27). There was only one thing that he lacked, but it proved fatal. If the people of God of the Diocese of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church addressed this question to our Lord, what answer do you think we would hear? What is the one thing that we lack?

Thank you for this question. That evangelical story has been in my heart since youth. Not only because the Lord Jesus Christ corrected the way that the “pious leader” addressed him , having called him “good teacher”, but especially for my favorite message directed to him: “come and follow me”.

This is what was not achieved by the “pious leader”, which proved fatal to him. He did not want to become “perfect”, but went away from the Lord sorrowfully. No wonder! That was not an easy thing to do for a rich man, it is not an easy thing for the people of God from our BOC, which currently is in a moral and material crisis. But the question here is if such poor Orthodox Bulgarians ask our Divine Teacher Lord Jesus what we have not achieved, as a people who believe in Him, I think that He, the Gracious One, would respond in the same manner and with the same words: “My Bulgarian people! Come and follow me”. We do not achieve that which we profess in the Creed if we believe in Him, but do not follow Him.

If again there is anyone among us in the diocese of the BOC who like the Apostle Peter, says to the Lord Jesus: “Behold, we have left everything and followed you”, He also will say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life”. (Luke 18:28-30).

What are the things that we lack? Faith in the Lord’s words, “Follow me”, that apply to each of us Orthodox Bulgarians. “Come and follow me! Believe in me and in my ways, and then you have reason to answer the question ‘Is our Orthodox faith successful?’ Yes, it is successful and will prosper, thanks to my death on the cross, because you Bulgarians, believe in my victory and in that I act. Yes. I act, but you too, Bulgarian, also should act. The faith has been successful now, prospers now and will succeed, because you believe and act. If you believe, you will have the victory with me, and then will be with me to reign in my Kingdom!

According to the Statute of the Orthodox Church, the Patriarch has no extraordinary powers and is the only the first among equals. This means that his power and influence, to the extent we can talk about power, derive mostly from his authority among the people of the church and society. To what extent will this feature of the Patriarchal ministry guide you and your fellow members of the Holy Synod in the choice of the three bishops to be candidates for the Patriarchal throne?

The Statute of the BOC is clear to all of us – the Patriarch is the Holy Synod’s president, its spokesman, the first among equals. He is our intermediary to the government, the public, to the whole world. All correspondence is addressed to him, within his authority lies his power. All this is well known by my brothers, the diocesan metropolitans, members of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church – the Bulgarian Patriarchate and the specific nature of the Patriarchal ministry guides our personal and professional relationships with him as our head. All bishops are satisfied with great authority and power that is given us by the Statute of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church – the Bulgarian Patriarchate, rest assured, that the Bulgarian Patriarch has no power over us, and we are all the Holy Synod, in which in first place is the Patriarch as its president, and we are assured that neither he without us, nor we without him, can make big changes in our church and administrative life. In short, we are not afraid that in the choice of the three bishops, candidates for the patriarchal throne will be put forward that have the character of a despot.

In one of your interviews you said that the new Bulgarian Patriarch must be an analyst, to be able to look and listen to the people and processes around us. What do you think are the topics and issues that should be started on, and why?

There are many problems. It’s hard to tell which ones have priority. Because all are important and waiting resolution as soon as possible. Our internal structure seems to be the most important. It is imperative that the Holy Synod must be united, and if there is not consensus, at least two thirds of its members must be united in making the most essential choices, ie the Holy Synod must maintain, centralization and our authority as the supreme ecclesiastical authority.

It is common knowledge that our financial situation is in crisis. Together with the Holy Synod, the newly-chosen Bulgarian Patriarch will be required to carry out an accurate and complete analysis of our property, to ensure our material support, especially wages and benefits of the Bulgarian clergy. Because we have rich churches, rich dioceses, but a poor Holy Synod and materially exhausted BOC.

Discipline from top to bottom also needs correction. The rights of each in the BOC should be known, but do not put aside as well our obligations and our responsibilities before God, Holy Church and society. It is necessary to restore the fear of God and shame of people.

The words of Jesus Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) shall also be included in our programme for immediate action, ie, the problems of the Seminary, our theological faculties, of the church in our schools and general education of our laymen, who expect our care and love. Our duty is to go on a mission to strengthen our educational activities also to return the people of Bulgaria to the church. It would be better if the Holy Synod proposed a programme to update the distribution of the Holy Gospel according to the spiritual and material needs of our people. Like the former, the new Bulgarian Patriarch must have a heart eager for church ministry, so that Orthodox Bulgarians at home and in the Diaspora keep their forefathers’ Orthodox faith and not become servants and slaves of foreign nations (St. Methodius) and have the Lord Jesus Christ for their fortress and shield, to trust Him, listen to Him and in Him to save souls.

In 2007, you sent an open letter to the Synod in regard to your disagreement with the Archon title given to Slavi Binev. A few months ago, in the absence of His Beatitude and three of the metropolitans (with you also absent), the Synod adopted a resolution on the granting of the title of Archon, which met strong opposition from the people and some of the metropolitans. Has anything changed in your attitude towards this practice and the Bulgarian version of it? What about the fears of some that the Archons or similar business structures can affect the upcoming choice of a Patriarch?

I’m glad you raise this question again, because once and for all, it must have an answer in our church community. It is true that I was one of those who from a distance voiced their opposition to the archon title in general. It is true that I have not agreed and currently stand firm in my position against giving this title. There will be no change in the future in my understanding that the production of archons of the Bulgarian variety should not be introduced. Moreover, I hold to the strong resistance of our church people and some of the metropolitans to do everything possible to restore the 2008 decision of the Synod that giving such a title is not in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. For the record, I want to say to your readers that I submitted to the Holy Synod for their examination the resolutions of the 37th annual assembly of the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese of the USA, Canada and Australia of July 2012, which express the opinion of the Bulgarian clergy and laity from throughout our diocese on this matter and ask the Holy Synod to rescind the decision of the Plovdiv diocesan council, which was a non consensual decision, and of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, with which we abroad disagree and therefore demand to restore to effect the correct decision of 2008.

No matter how unpleasant the topic of the “dossiers”, it cannot be left out of discussions about the election of a new Patriarch. After they became public, we can say that your dossier and Metropolitan Neofit are among the few in which there is nothing compromising. We do not forget your letter in 2008 entitled “Forgive me, Bulgarian people” So we want, instead of throwing around agent code-names, to talk about this from a human perspective, beyond black and white polarisation. Please speak a little more about that era of state intervention in church affairs, how “safe” spiritual ministry was in these years, and how the shadow of State Security was present in the years after 1989?

The (State Security) dossiers really are an unpleasant topic. I agree that it is part of the discussion about choosing our new Patriarch. Everything about us should be known, to recover the fear of God and shame of men. Because our codenames as agents are a fact, which cannot and should not be removed from a human perspective. Because I am a servant of God, I will tell you more about my spiritual ministry in that era.

I admit that the years from 1980 to 1988 were anxious ones for me. As is usual, I was asked in the Holy Synod whether I wanted to become a bishop. I replied that I had nothing against it. All well and good, but I heard that I would not remain for long the first vicar of the Metropolitan of Sofia, in service also as the abbot of Troyan monastery, but that I would be nominated, with my consent, to serve abroad. This message marked the beginning of a strong influence of evil forces upon me, represented by the recruiters of the Bulgarian secret services. Swept away into the abyss of sin, to my regret, I became an angel of the devil (Mat.25: 4) and his accuser, deceiver of the world (Rev. 12: 7-9).

At each meeting we would “sign a contract” with the recruiter, that I can not tell anyone anything about the meetings, and at my request, that he be silent. But what happened! I found out from the published apology of my recruiter, that he not only reported to a higher level, but also filled two folders, as the dossiers were called, and as my secret godfather he gave me not one, but two names: “Nikolov” and “Zografov” which apart from Bosakov Blagoev, I did not know from a partial reading of the folders.

I say partial, because when I was allowed to read the file, a pretty girl stood steadfastly with me and did not allow me a good look at the secret pages of my resume.

This is even more perplexed my willingness to know everything written by others about me. Because apart from the official response of Mr. Andreev at the time, that information was not gathered about me, by reading the file I found freely available for reading my official report to His Beatitude Bulgarian Patriarch Maxim (God rest his soul!) in my capacity as administrator and bishop in charge of the former Diocese of Akron, from 1983 to 1988. Such reports, as I was obliged to compile under the Bulgarian Orthodox Church rules, I also write now.

For such are the demands of the administration and management of the institutions.

And now, thinking clearly, this says that, because my official reports were in my file, then I was really an accuser and informer. Furthermore, although I was relieved from monitoring in early 1988, I still write reports on the affairs of the diocese, asking the Holy Synod for different blessings, which means I’m still a snitch now.

It is mysterious that as both my recruitment and conversion with my new patronymic and surname happened between 1983 and 1988, without being officially notified, so also the removal of my report in 1988 was done in secret, without me being known as “their person”.

It would be good to know what the official reason was for my “dismissal as an agent”. Because as I recall it, not only had I “forgotten the password” for possible instructions and tasks, but I received no “special report” about my double role for the whole five years.

That is why I am amazed, for whatever reason the secret service fired me in 1988, and the next thing, in 1989, the Holy Synod, again against my desire, nominated and chose me as the Metropolitan of the newly united dioceses of Akron and New York under the name of the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese of America and Australia and I was the first bishop elected after the political changes in Bulgaria.

Leaving aside astonishment, back to the fact that I’ve worked with the spirits of wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12). And that I freely fell hard and stayed for several years in the state of this evil activity. But the good thing for me is that while evil spirits cannot repent, then, by the grace of God, I continue to repent and to invoke His mercy, by the advice of St. Theophan the Recluse.

Merciful Lord, the fallen spirits were expelled from their original homes (Jude verse 6) and fell from heaven (Luke 10:18), and I’m still in place. I am sorry and I repent, that I truly was in special places, where plans were made, orders received, statements of approval or condemnation of people were accepted. These are the “depths of Satan” (Rev. 2:24), as St. John the Evangelist expresses it.

However, nothing happens by accident. In the words of St. Theophan the Recluse, the devil pretends to be a lord, and the people deceived by him rush to serve.

Therefore, I believe that God also allowed me to be tempted. Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him (James 1:12)

Thank God that through temptation I discovered the secret properties and qualities of my soul, but also I came to know its weaknesses and sinful inclinations, that hopefully prevent me from spiritual pride (1 Cor. 12:7), from light-heartedness and ignorance, and which has made me be careful and cautious.

Praise the Lord for limiting and stopping the evil activity of the recruiters. Had it not been cut back, the seed sown by them in our church would have resulted in human evil gradually growing and assuming frightening proportions.

Great is God, who allowed the recruiters to influence me for the sake of the freedom that He bestows on me.

True, it did not open my spiritual eyes in time and so I tilted this way and that, depending on how my soul conversed with God through faith, repentance and zeal for good deeds or whether I deviated from Him because of ill-discipline, freedom and turning cool towards what it is good.

Thank God that He did not reject me as His servant and the prayers of the clergy and Orthodox actions of the diocese freed me from the bondage of the recruiter and the recruiting agents of the past, and now I believe I can restore my dignity to be again be a child of God .

Thank the Lord that delivered me out of the traps and ambushes on all my paths, and was with me in my thoughts, feelings, meetings, deeds in life and my communication with people.

I pray fervently especially that the honorable Orthodox Christian readers of the magazine Christianity and Culture forgive me for my past as an agent, pray to the Lord to accept my repentance, to eradicate from my heart the sinful passions and not send me back to my previous life. Because of Him, the Lord, I am stronger!

In 2010, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA) ceased to exist and its successor, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, started work. Why was there a need to change the form of the organisation? Are there grounds to say, after two years, that this is a real step towards unification of the Orthodox Christians in America or do controversies still dominate?

Indeed, in 2010 the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA) ceased to exist and its successor, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, started work. For the third year, we are continuing our work in accordance with the decision of the heads of the local autocephalous Orthodox Churches and the preparatory Conference in Chambésy, Switzerland. The global goal of improving the successful implementation and deepening of Orthodox unity among the Diaspora created the need to change the organisational form. SCOBA was only for the US and Canada and now the meetings of Orthodox Bishops are for the Diaspora around the world. The goal is for all Orthodox jurisdictions in the Diaspora to work in unity for the success of the joint pastoral ministry for the sake of the Orthodox mission and witness in different regions of the world, as well as the required correction of anomalies in various canonical Orthodox jurisdictions in the Diaspora.

As chairman of the committee on the clergy in the Assembly, I had the task to gather information from all Orthodox jurisdictions in North and Central America on the requirements for ordination of priests and procedures on recruitment and relocation of clergy, and how to pay retirement and health insurance of the clergy.

The Third Episcopal Assembly on September 12 to 14 2012 in Chicago, US, lent hope that our work is a step towards the unity of all Orthodox Christians in North and Central America, although controversies among us remain.

* Bulgarian Orthodox Church Metropolitan of the US, Canada and Australia Joseph was born as Ivan Blagoev Bosakov on December 6 1942 in the village of Slavovitsa in the Pazardzhik region. In 1961, he graduated from the Sofia Seminary, and in 1970 from the St Kliment Ohridski Theological Academy in Sofia. He became a monk the name of Joseph on April 12 1970 at Troyan Monastery in the diocese of the then Lovech Metropolitan Maxim. On May 3, 1970, he was ordained a deacon, and on December 27 1970 as hieromonk and was appointed coadjutor bishop of Lovech. After Lovech Metropolitan Maxim was chosen as Bulgarian Patriarch and Sofia Metropolitan in July 1971, he became coadjutor bishop of Sofia. From October 10 1971, Hieromonk Joseph’s conducted specialist theological studies at Moscow Theological Academy, where on July 21 1973, he was ordained archimandrite by Russian Patriarch Pimen. After returning to Bulgaria, he resumed his duties as coadjutor bishop of Sofia, which function to perform in December 1980 On December 7 1980, in the St. Alexander Nevsky Patriarchal Cathedral, he became hirotonisan bishop with the title Velichko and was appointed second vicar of the Metropolitan of Sofia. He was briefly Abbot of the Troyan Monastery, but from June 1 1982 he became the first vicar of the Metropolitan of Sofia, which he remained until the end of March 1983. From 1 April 1983, Bishop Joseph headed the Bulgarian Diocese of Akron in the US, and on April 17 1986 he was elected Bishop of Akron. After the December 18 1989 decision by the Holy Synod to restore the unified Bulgarian American and Australian diocese that had existed until 1969, on December 19 he was elected Metropolitan of the US and Australia. By the decision of the Fifth Assembly of the Church and Laity, held in Sofia on December 17 2001, he was named Metropolitan of the US, Canada and Australia. On November 27 2012, the Holy Synod designated Joseph as the spokesman on the Patriarchal church council election.

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