Centenary of the Archdiocese of Orthodox Churches of Russian Tradition in Western Europe

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Archbishop George (Wagner)

Monseigneur Georges Wagner

Archives cathédrale russe

Archbishop George of Eudociade, in the world George Wagner, is born in Berlin, on March 10, 1930, in a German and protestant family. His paternal grandfather was a Lutheran pastor who before the First World War was a preacher at the German Imperial Court. His mother, Martha Wagner, had discovered the Orthodox Church during the years 1930, at the church of Saint Vladimir at the Nachodstrasse, where Archimandrite John (Shakhowskoy) was the Rector. It is she who introduced her son to the Russian parishes of Berlin, at the end of the Second World War. These parishes were directed by Archbishop Alexander (Nemolovsky), who during many years had been the auxiliary to Metropolitan Eulogy for Belgium, and was later on placed under surveillance in Berlin by the Nazis. In 1948, when the blockade by the Soviets made life for the population of Berlin extremely precarious, George Wagner was received into the Orthodox Church. Vladyka Alexander already had returned to Belgium, but most of the priests in Berlin had received their education at the Saint Sergius Insitute, like Archpriest Serge Polozhensky (d. 1992) who was going to play an important role in the spiritual life of the young man.

In 1949, when he finished his secondary studies, George Wagner was enrolled in the Saint Sergius Institute in Paris. He was known as a serious student, though being somewhat reserved. In 1953 he finishes his studies with a Master Thesis on the Teaching of the Church Fathers of the second and third century on the Mother of God, which he had prepared under the direction of Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern). The other spiritual father of the young student was Bishop Methodius who resided in Asnières. In the month of May of the following year, at the invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, George Wagner stays at the Patriarchal Theological Institute of Halki, in Istanbul, in the company of the professors of Saint Sergius Institute Anton Kartachov and Leo Zander. At Saint Sergius George Wagner was invited by the Faculty to do research in a special field, while teaching part of the courses on the New Testament, in order to lighten the task of Bishop Cassian who besides his pedagogical and scholarly activities, held the post of Rector of the Institute. However, this project did not work out.

On May 29, 1955, George Wagner is ordained deacon, in the church of the Three Hierarchs at Rue Pétel in Paris, and on June 6 of the same year he is ordained priest by Metropolitan Nicholas (Eremin), Exarch of the Patriarch of Moscow in Western Europe. During several years he does his pastoral ministry in Berlin, in the diocese of the Patriarchate of Moscow, and he founds the parish of Saint John Chrysostom whose Rector he becomes and where the Services are held in Slavonic and in German. In 1962 he is enrolled in the Faculty of philology in Berlin and starts preparing a doctoral Thesis on the Byzantine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. The consequences of the Cold War as well as the changes in the Exarchate of the Patriarchate of Moscow are the reasons why Father George started to take his distances from the Patriarchate of Moscow.The Soviet agents approach him and try to convince him to publicly denounce the « American imperialism » in Germany. Father George coureagously refuses in spite of strong pressures from the side of the Soviets. This is an episode of which he hesitated to speak, probably because of the threats which he had received after his refusal to collaborate with the Soviet propaganda. In the Exarchate of the Patriarchate of Moscow in Berlin the situation had changed. It was administered by Archbishop Boris (Vik), who became notorious through his statements in favour of Soviet politics. He took possession of the parishes which were under Constantinople . Their priests had to leave and were replaced by priests sent by Moscow. Among them was Higumen Juvenal (Poyarkov), who later would become Metropolitan of Krutitsy and with whom Father George would have occasional contacts until the end of his life.

After some months of hesitation during which he attends the Services in the small Greek church in Berlin, Father Georg decides to turn to the Exarchate of the Russian parishes in Western Europe under the obedience of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which since 1961 was directed by Archbishop George (Tarassov). His arrival in 1964 caused some suspicion from the side of certain leading persons of the Exarchate who were afraid that the Moscow Patriarchate was trying to mingle in their affairs. But finally, thanks to the moral support of Fr. Nicholas Afanasiev, his former professor, and Fr George Drobot, his old friend at St Sergius, Father George Wagner is admitted to the clergy of the Diocese. In 1965 he is elevated to the rank of Archpriest and the following year he is appointed Dean of the parishes of the Archdiocese in the German Federal Republic.

In 1967, after the death of Fr Nicholas Afanasiev, the Faculty of the Saint Sergius Institute entrusts to Father George the chair of Canon Law. In 1969 he is also charged with the teaching of Liturgical Theology to replace Theodosius Spassky. During this period Father George celebrates regularly the liturgical Services at the Monastery of the Protection of the Mother of God in Bussy-en-Othe (Yonne) and establishes close contacts with the Community, in particular with Mother Theodosia who will deeply inflence his spiritual path.

In 1970 he finishes his Doctoral Dissertation on the « Sources of the Liturgy of Chrysostom » which he successfully defends at the University of Berlin. This Thesis in which he points out the authentic authorship of Saint John Chrysostom, based on a profound philological analysis of the text of this Liturgy, has been published in Münster under the title Der Ursprung der Chrysostomusliturgie, in the series « Liturgiewissenschaftliche Quellen und Forschungen » (1973). On March 12, 1971, Father George becomes riasophore, the first monastic degree, and the following Sunday he is elevated to the rank of Archimandrite in the church of Chaville. On June 30 of the same year he is elected auxiliary Bishop with the title Bishop of Eudociade (an ancient episcopal see in Asia Minor). The episcopal ordination of Vladyka George (Wagner) was celebrated in our Cathedral, on October 3,1971, under the presidence of Archbishop George (Tarassov), surrounded by Metropolitan Meletios, Bishop of the Greek diocese of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in France, his auxiliary, Bishop Jeremias (later Metropolitan), and the auxiliary Bishops of the Archdiocese, Bishop Methodius (Kuhlman) and Bishop Alexander (Semenov Tian Chiansky). In 1973 Bishop George decides not to continue his teaching activities at Saint Sergius and in April 1974 he moves to Asnières, where he becomes the Rector of the parish of Christ the Savior. Besides this pastoral ministry in Asnières, in which he is assisted by Father Alexander Rehbinder, Archbishop George I charges him to serve the parishes in Germany, and, after the death of Bishop Stephanos in 1979, in Scandinavia. During these years, and until the end of his life, Vladyka George takes an active part in the « Semaines liturgiques » at St Sergius Institute, and delivers several lectures. He also publishes some articles in the Messager of the ACER (in Russian).

Several times Vladyka George will take certain responsabilities at the request of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He is charged to translate into Russian the report on the « Sources of the Divine Revelation according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church », which was presented by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Preparatory Committee of the future Panorthodox Council which was held in Chambésy (Switzerland) in 1976. He also publishes an article in the theological and historical volume published by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1981 on the occasion of the 1600th anniversary of the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople I in 381). Later on, the Ecumenical Patriarchate entrusted him with the preparation of a collection of documents on the, in his own words, « very complex history » of the autocephaly of the Church of Georgia. As a result it was recognized in 1991.

After the passing away of Archbishop George I (on March 22, 1981), Vladyka George (Wagner) ensures the administration of the Archdiocese until the reunion of the Diocesan Assembly. He very quickly succeeds in reorganizing the canonical structures of the Diocese which practically no longer existed since several years. On May 1, 1981, the Eleventh Diocesan Assembly presided by Metropolitan Meletios, Extraordinary Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, elects him head of our Diocese. After confirmation of the election by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Vladyka George is elevated to the rank of Archbishop of Eudociade. On July 5 of the same year he is solemnly enthroned in our Cathedral, in the presence of Metropolitan Meletios, the Bishops Jeremias and Roman (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Gabriel (Patriarchate of Antioch) and Adrian (Patriarchate of Rumania) as well as some forty priets. Vladyka George also became the Rector of the Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky, at Rue Daru.

During the twelve years of being at the head of the Archdiocese, Vladyka George organized regular diocesan (1982, 1986, 1990) and pastoral assemblies (1984, 1989, 1992), giving the possibility to the clergy and laymen, coming from France, Belgium, Italy and Sweden, to meet, to pray together and to discuss certain pastoral and liturgical problems. Being specialist of the liturgy he took care to celebrate the pontifical services in the properly solemn style, while he did not cease in his sermons to explain the meaning of the prayer of the Church and the sacramental mysteries.

Finally, one of his principal merits consisted in reinforcing the ties of the Archdiocese with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in particular during his several visits to Patriarch Dimitrios at the Phanar together with the Rector of Saint Sergius Institute, Protopresbyter Alexis Kniazeff (1981), Serge Obolensky (1983, 1986), and Father Eugeny Czapiuk (1986). He made his last visit to the Phanar on the occasion of the first Synaxis of the diocesan Bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which was convened by the new Patriarch, Bartholomeos I, from August 30 until September 1, 1992.

Since 1992 Vladyka George had resumed his teaching at Sergius Institute, ensuring a part of the courses on Liturgical Theology as well as the whole course on Canon Law. After the death of Fr Kniazeff Vladyka George was elected Rector of the Institute, on February 12, 1991, while at the same time holding the post of Rector of the parish of Saint Sergius. However, the painful illness which started to afflict him in the course of the summer of 1992, and which was diagnosed as varicose veins of the heel, would not permit him to resume his course the new academic year. No longer being able to stand, Vladyka George had to endure the most difficult ordeal for him as a Bishop, theologian and liturgist, for he could no longer celebrate the Liturgy. Forcing himself to overcome the pain, about which he never complained, he will preside for the last time the Divine Liturgy in the Cathedral, on the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, on February 15, 1993.

Vladyka George died of a pulmonary embolism which resulted from his illness, on April 6, 1993 (the eve of the feast of the Annunciation of the Mother of God, according to the Julian calendar) in his residence in Asnières, at 10 o’clock in the morning. He died silently in the arms of Hieromonk Nicholas (Moulinier), who celebrated on this day the services of Great Lent and the Fore-Feast of the Annunciation in the church in Asnières and who has given him the last Absolution. Shortly after, the vesting and the first Panychida were held by Bishop Paul of Tracheia, in the presence of Fathers Boris Bobrinskoy, Nicholas Cernokrak, Nicholas Moulinier and the hierodeacon Nicodemus. The Funeral was celebrated on Saturday April 10, the Saturday of the Resurrection of Lazarus, in the Cathedral by Metropolitan Jeremias (Ecumenical Patriarchate) and Bishop Paul, surrounded by thirty eight priests and six deacons, and in the presence of the Bishops Roman, Stephanos (Ecumenical Patriarchate) and Gury (Patriarchate of Moscow). The burial took place in the crypt of the church of the Dormition, at the cemetery of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois. Vladyka George rests in the same tomb as that of Bishop Cassian. It is a remarkable fact that his funeral was celebrated on the day when the Church celebrates the Resurrection of Lazarus, the « friend of Jesus », for whom Vladyka George had a special veneration, as is shown through the fact that he commemorated him during the blessing given at the end of every service for the departed.

Vladyka George has left to his successors, to the clergy and laymen of his Archbisdom two lessons. He incessantly insisted first of all on the necessity to remain faithful to the Russian Orthodox Tradition, as well as on the fact that it is not incompatible with the universal vision of the Church which was always present in his theological thinking : « We want to live a life with is permeated with the spiriual and liturgical Tradition which we have received from the Christian East and from ancient Orthodox Russia », he stated in his message at his Inthronisation, in 1981. He insisted particularly on the importance of the liturgical and sacramental life, centered around the Bishop and his representative, the parish priest. From there the importance which he attached to the parish, to the diocese, and his distrust of para-ecclesial organizations and movements. Being faithful in everything to the Tradition, he knew that the Tradition is the living expression of the life of the Church and that it has to be adapted with wisdom to the local conditions of each parish. We have to « remain faithful to the spiritual heritage which we have received and at the same time work on the actualisation of our Orthodox witness in the countries we live in », he repeated all the time ; faithful also to the Patriarchate of Constantinople which he qualified as the « great canonical and historical center of conciliar unity of the Orthodox world ». It is symptomatic that he has dedicated his Doctoral Thesis on Saint John Chrysostom to « the Great Church of Christ which is in Constantinople ». Concretely speaking he insisted on the absolute necessity for the Archdiocese to « keep our attachment to the plenitude of the Orthodox Church while we are in the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate ». This jurisdiction has been instituted in provisional form in 1931, because at the time it seemed temporary and transitory. In 1971 it had received a new form which is « valid until the question of the diaspora will be settled in accordance wit the canons by the Holy and Great Panorthodox Counil », he explained in his message to the pastoral assembly in February 1981.

From here followed his second teaching, that is, the ability to preserve the precious gift of freedom facing the non-ecclesial interferences and pressures, being of a political, national and ideological nature. « God has given to our ecclesial organism a great and precious grace which we all use but of which we are not always sufficiently conscient. He has given to us to live our ecclesial life in full freedom facing the influences which are foreign to the Church and to the pressures of the powers of this fallen world. We absolutely have to keep this precious gift », he stated at the General Assembly of the Archbisdom in 1982 (Diocesan Messager, n° 1-2, p. 22).

An important volume of articles on liturgical liturgy by Vladyka George was published, in 2003, in French, by the Presses Saint-Serge, entitled La liturgie, expérience de l’Église. Études liturgiques. A translation of his Doctoral Dissertation as well as a volume of his sermons have also been published in Russian by the Editions Liturgica.