Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.
We are undeniably influenced by holy men and women. The Fathers tell us that we always become that with which we associate. The old adage, "birds of a feather" rings true despite its mundane origin. In the life of the Church, there are, every several hundred years, remarkable people who influence the life of Christians in extraordinary ways. Such was the case of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. Because of his holiness and meekness, he became a light for entire Orthodoxy. For many years since his repose in 1966 voices in the Church have been calling for his glorification. After countless thousands of miracles, millions of pilgrimages to his tomb and the prayers of the Church as a whole, the Lord, in His mercy, allowed us in this most sinful generation to witness the magnificence of this event.
This small and humble man whom the world regarded as odd and at best, quaint, in quiet prayer and service to his flock was the model of purity and the true image of Christ. He constantly guarded his spiritual children against false teachings, rearing them in deep piety and respect for the treasure passed to them from the Holy Apostles - their Orthodox Faith. He was a man of the strictest asceticism, never sleeping upon a bed, always obediently observing the fasts of the Church and dwelling in constant prayer. It was never too late or inconvenient to rush to the bedside of a dying or sick stranger, comforting those in sorrow and bringing the mercy of the Lord to those in need.
After a life of self-denial and struggle, he quietly reposed in the Lord on July 2nd (NS), the feast of St. Jude, the brother of the Lord. Thousands gathered in San Francisco to bid farewell to this most remarkable of Archpastors. Even then, his wonderworking was well known and cries pleading for his glorification began. As the Lord saw fit in His ineffable wisdom, the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad declared that the glorification would take place on the date of his repose, 1994.
The date set, thousands of believers began to save money and make plans to attend this once-in-a-lifetime event. Our small group of pilgrims from Pennsylvania, through the prayers of Vladika John, raised the money and completed plans in earnest anticipation. We began to serve Pannikhidas for the repose of Vladika and privately turned to him in heartfelt prayer, asking his intercessions. As the day drew closer, a feeling of anxiousness overshadowed us all.
Our spiritual journey began with a Moleiben for travellers at 6:45 am, June 29th. There was a very special feeling of prayer as we gathered in the small parish church, preparing for our trip. Our travel would take us to New York where we would join a number of other pilgrims and fly first to Phoenix and then to San Francisco. As we arrived in San Francisco for the long succession of services, we thought of how ironic that such a holy event was about to take place in such an ungodly and perverse city. The works of God are a mystery and all is done according to His perfect will.
After a restful night, we made plans to travel to the cathedral which was built by Vladika John. As we rounded the corner, we saw the massive domes of this holy church rise above the streets as candles casting their light to the entire world. Our group, by the mercy of God, was fortunate to be able to descend to the crypt on Thursday afternoon and serve a Pannikhida. We all had desired this, but the services were already scheduled and were continuing twenty-four hours a day. After inquiring, I found that a priest scheduled had fallen ill, and we would be able to serve one of the last Pannikhidas in Vladika's tomb. We hurried to the tomb and were joined by large groups of pilgrims who had arrived for the services. A seminary friend who is now a priest in France and his deacon assisted. The service was held in Church Slavonic, French and English, a witness to Vladika's earthly missionary activities. All present sang with great emotion and blessed their crosses, icons and prayer ropes on Vladika's sarcophagus. After the service, our pilgrims remained in the tomb for the successive Pannikhidas and Moleibens to St. John of Tobolsk which followed.
The first service to be widely attended was the Parastas, or Vigil for the reposed. This service is rarely served today and lasted a little better than three hours. Many tears streamed down the faces of those gathered as we sang the funeral hymns for Vladika. The next morning all gathered for the last Divine Liturgy for the repose of Archbishop John, where he, his parents, relatives and those who ordained him were commemorated. A Pannikhida was served after the Liturgy and we took a few minutes for lunch close by. At 3:00 p.m., we returned to the massive Cathedral of the Mother of God, the Joy of All Who Sorrow for the transfer of the relics from the sepulchre to the main church.
The clergy vested in light gold vestments and we began the procession to the tomb, led by Metropolitan Vitaly and many other hierarchs. There were well over 100 priests and deacons in this most solemn procession as we sang the Lenten hymns from the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. As we wound our way to the underground tomb, thousands of pilgrims wept and prayed while the sacred relics were borne on the shoulders of all the priests. The many who lined the route pressed forward to hold children out to touch the holy reliquary. Triumphantly entering the Temple of God, preceded by the beloved Archpastor and saint, we placed his remains in the middle of the church and began the last Pannikhida.
No one who was present will ever be able to forget this incredible service. For the last time, this "little flock" of which the Lord spoke, the children of the Most High, had gathered to beg mercy on the soul of Vladika John. There were very few eyes without tears. Even the clergy were unashamedly weeping. But these were not tears of sadness, but witnessed the unspeakable feeling of unworthiness as we stood before the body of God's chosen one.
As the Pannikhida ended we began the All-Night Vigil. The clouds of incense wafted heavenward and hundreds of voices filled the air with the singing. The service quickly moved along and before we knew what was happening, it was time to descend from the Altar and sing the praises of Vladika John. Thunderous voices of the thousands gathered both in the large cathedral as well of those flowing into the streets of San Francisco echoed the familiar refrain, "We magnify Thee! O Holy Father John, and we honor Thy holy memory, for Thou dost pray unto God for us!" And with these melodies, the glorification had taken place. We were now not standing before the body of a loving pastor, but the completely incorrupt relics of a saint. What an awesome feeling of holiness and reverence filled the crowds. With extreme piety these thousands of pilgrims, for the first time, filed past the holy relics and covered the reliquary with tears and kisses, bringing each their prayers and needs to Vladika. And indeed he heard them. Who knows how many miraculous answers to prayer were witnessed that grace-filled night. We were reminded of the words of the envoys of St. Vladimir who said, "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. We only know that there God dwells among men."
This unusual gathering of the leaders of the Orthodox Church was a witness of the Lord's mercy before the appearance of antichrist and terrible times. It is as though the Lord is strengthening His people with abundant grace to endure. In addition to the hierarchs of the Russian Church Abroad, Metropolitan Vlassie of the Old Calendar Romanians and Bishop Gennady of the same Synodia served. Present, but not serving, was Metropolitan Cyprianos and members of his Synodoa from the Old Calendar Greek Church and represenatives of the Bulgarian Old Calendarists. Also present were bishops and clergy from a large number of other jurisdictions.
The course of the services which began at 3:00 in the afternoon lasted well after midnight and all returned to their homes for a little rest. As there are three Altars in the cathedral, there were three Divine Liturgies served; one at 2:00 a.m., one at 5 a.m. and the main service at 7:30 a.m. Most folks wanted to attend the main Liturgy. The city police had previously blocked off four streets surrounding the church so the many thousands of pilgrims would have places to stand.
The Divine Liturgy began with the meeting of Metropolitan Vitaly and his vesting. Approximately fifteen bishops served along with well over a hundred priests and a couple dozen deacons. Additionally a number of other bishops and clergy who did not serve were in attendance. The magnificent cathedral choir sang the responses. The Liturgy was indeed beautiful beyond words. Certainly America has never seen such a magnificent Orthodox service. I am quite sure that it rivalled even pre-revolutionary services. The priests who served were forced, by their number, to stand in four rows deep on each side during the first two Antiphons. During the Small entrance, the clergy descended from the Altar and bore up the relics of St. John. At this point the Metroploitan elevated Deacon John Opnopko to the dignity of Proto-Deacon. The clergy began to sing "Come let us Worship" amid clouds of incense and the usual magnificense of Russian liturgical style. As the procession entered the Holy Altar, the relics were placed at the High Place behind the Altar at the Bishop's Throne. It was as though St. John was presiding at this Divine Liturgy. When it came time for the Eucharistic Canon, every voice both in the church and on the streets joined in. "The Creed", "A Mercy of Peace" and through "It is Truly Meet" was a heavenly experience. I have never heard so many voices praise God! Truly this was a gathering led by the Holy Spirit. Hundreds and hundreds of faithful participated in the Holy Mysteries. It took almost an hour to distribute the Mysteries even though seven chalices were distributing the Gifts. During the priests Communion, Protopriest Valery Lukianov of Lakewood, NJ delivered the homily in Russian and English. He spoke of the necessity to follow the example of St. John, in making our faith in Christ the central focus of our lives.
After the Divine Liturgy, the first Moleiben to St. John was served. The relics were once again carried upon the shoulders of all the priests in turn and wound up and down the streets surrounding the cathedral. Many non-Orthodox hurried to witness this extraordinary event. At the four sides, the Procession stopped for an ektenia and blessing with Holy Water. Here, in triumph was one of the ultimate expressions of the Orthodox Faith. This was the revelation to the world of the Mystery of Faith. A man, not unlike us, had struggled and achieved the crown of victory given by Christ to those Orthodox Christians who live a life of obedience. The festal procession again entered the church and prayers were offered up for the episcopate of the persecuted Church, the hierarchs of the Church Abroad and all Orthodox Christians. A specially written prayer to St. John was read by Archbishop Anthony of San Francisco in Slavonic and by Bishop Kyrill, Vicar of the Western American Diocese in English. The singing of "Many Years" resounded from the frescoed walls and the crowd began again to press forward to venerate the sacred relics. The service had lasted over six hours, but no one wanted to leave Vladika John.
At last, the pilgrims made their way to a hotel where a Lenten meal had been prepared. After a short reading about St. John, both in English and Russian, the prayer after the meal was sung and all departed home, filled with indescribable Paschal joy, knowing that a new intercessor in heaven was watching over them as a loving father.
Our small group returned to the cathedral to attend the All-Night Vigil and be with Vladika John. We awoke the next morning and made our way to the Mother of God of Vladimir Convent where Divine Liturgy was served with responses by the beautiful female monastic choir. Mother Evgenia, the Abbess, invited us to share in a delicious meal in the monastery refectory. In silence, we heard Matushka read from the life of St. John. After the meal, we left with Matushka Evgenia's blessing and went to the place of the martyrdom of St. Peter the Aleut, the Mission Dolores. Even though it is not known the exact location of his martyrdom by the Roman Catholic "missionaries", we sang the magnification to St. Peter in the cemetery.
Leaving the Mission, we proceeded to St. Tichon's house. In this house is a beautiful and intimate chapel dedicated to St. Tichon of Zadonsk. Here was the earthly home of St. John. Vladika had brought a number of orphans to live with him here. He shared his earthly things with them, but most importantly, bestowed upon them incorruptible heavenly treasures. His cell in reality was his office, preserved exactly as it was when he left for Seattle over twenty-eight years ago. He returned from this last trip accompanied by funeral hymns. This cramped office portrayed the life of Vladika. It was austere, with many icons and a lampada. In the corner stood his pastoral staff and shelves of spiritual books. And most telling of all, the armchair in which he took the only rest he allowed himself. From his monastic tonsure many years ago, he never slept in a bed, but rested a little sitting up. In the quiet of this little chapel we sang the magnification to the newly glorified St. John. His presence was very real in this place he loved so very much.
After a brief bus ride around the city, we returned for the last time to the cathedral where our group sang a Moleiben before the sacred relics of St. John. We all took a few moments to prostrate before the relics and say heartfelt prayers, beseeching St. John to help us find salvation. After piously kissing the relics, we left, assured of his guidance. These few very special days will always remain in our hearts, encouraging us in our Christian struggle in these last days.
Through the prayers of Thy Wonderworker St. John, O Lord have mercy on us!