As said in the service of the Eucharistic communion, what can we teach the soldiers for six months, why mandatory military “life lessons” and the help of coffee and croissants, if all multi-religious Rota came to the class – says the Orthodox chaplain of the Austrian army Archpriest Alexander Lapin.
Father Alexander Lapin. Foto: bundesheer.at
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In the last week of November the Republic of Austria celebrated its national holiday – neutrality Day. According to tradition, these days in the centre of Vienna planted a kind of troops of the Austrian army in the Central squares of the city, around the historic Hofburg Imperial Palace, part of which now houses the residence of the Federal President, there are tanks, self-propelled howitzers, armored personnel carriers, helicopter.
But it’s not the military situation, although some travelers might initially seem so. This kind of two-day parade: army held a solemn March, and holds “open day” in the city center. Children and adults love to climb on the armor of a tank or helicopter, communicate with the military. Here, on Heroes ‘ square, between the monuments of the two most important Austrian generals of the past – Prince Eugene of Savoy and Archduke Carl – and in front of the memorials to the fallen in the First and Second world wars, and the anti-fascist resistance fighters, the oath of the new recruits.
But not only the heavy equipment is these days in the city centre. There is a field medical service, which is staffed by real military doctors. And on the other side of the Imperial Palace – tent military chaplains. On Board three symbols with crosses – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox chaplaincy services, or Seelsorge, as they are called in German. Literally – “counselors”.
Hiking inside the chapel – the lectern, a simple cross, the icon of the Mother of God, pictures of a priest surrounded by soldiers. Here and one of the “owners” of this tent is the first Orthodox chaplain of the Austrian army Archpriest Alexander Lapin. A native of Prague’s community of the old Russian emigration, doctor of chemical Sciences, doctor of medical Sciences. In virtue of his position, father Alexander a priest of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, as under Austrian law the Patriarchate of Constantinople occupies a dominant position in a multinational Orthodox community in Austria.
We met a few years ago, after the Liturgy in the Russian St. Nicholas Cathedral in Vienna, where he was assisted by priests of the Moscow Patriarchate. Then accidentally met at the Greek Church in the centre of Vienna. “I remain a priest of the Greek Church, but are alternately in the churches of different jurisdictions”, said father Alexander.
In the days of the festival Alexander’s father was busy conversing with hundreds of guests in his tent or taking the oath of office military personnel, along with his fellow Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim chaplains.
So we met for an interview in one of the Viennese café a few days after the holiday. And started with the fact that all Orthodox are now experiencing – the crisis in inter-Orthodox relations surrounding the situation of the Church in Ukraine and declared the Moscow Patriarchate Eucharistic communion with Constantinople.
A completely unnecessary and incomprehensible complication
– The Eucharistic communion between Moscow and Constantinople has affected your Ministry?
– The situation is very difficult, especially for pan-Orthodox actions in the Diaspora. This is a completely unnecessary and incomprehensible complication. The problem is that radicalization takes place: for you or for another?
I personally have a completely different course of action: to give young people the impetus for life in terms of morality, Orthodoxy, confidence in their beliefs, at their roots. My goal is not to engage in any Church, and especially international politics. But, unfortunately, this is complicated by the question: who and for whom.
So you have to continue to work and hope that there is a solution – God will provide.
– And your wards of soldiers once discussing this subject?
– Most people – not only the Orthodox soldiers, but in General most people have about their religion clue. In connection with the national holiday I was approached by two Catholic journalist and began to ask about my work as a chaplain. And I tell them that sometimes you have to explain to people absolutely basic facts.
For example, I asked them where Jesus Christ was born? The response of these Catholic journalists was: “Or in Nazareth or in Bethlehem, but exactly unknown.” It’s the same with my young people. Here vacuum. And then approach different people with different information and send the youth to his side.
I don’t want no counter-propaganda to do. But we have the roots of our culture, which for centuries was created and it is necessary to know. This is my job.
– That is Church policy is on the side?
The problem is that the consequences of this policy of the Church is an attack on our work. Because what now? If we do pan-Orthodox Congress of youth, most will not participate in it because for them it is unacceptable.
In addition, because of the aggravation of the situation, the question arises: we like you as a priest or dislike?
In this story a lot from quite the chauvinist nationalism of the kind, and that’s what I really struggle to digest. I – “antinationalist” if you want. So it’s a sad sight.
– Now you are unable to serve at Saint Nicholas Cathedral of the Moscow Patriarchate?
– I can’t. But I have good friends. And I’m not “turned off” Dating, friendship, like-minded. It’s impossible! I have a principle: good relations with maximum people. And if, for technical reasons, something now impossible, well, wait. I hope this is all temporary.
I knew how to stand at attention or salute
– How did you become a priest, and an Orthodox chaplain of the Austrian army?
– I was born and raised in Prague. I’m third generation Russian immigrants. Mother spoke French, we knew the German language. We were such an international minded family. And we have experienced a moment when, in 1968 came the tanks (we are talking about the invasion of the Warsaw Pact countries, notably the Soviet – AZ). There was panic when two suitcase in hand, and come. Then we went to Austria. I studied first at the French gymnasium, then in the chemical Institute, he received his PhD, and at the same time began to study in medical school, and also graduated from. Worked in the field of laboratory medicine, received the title of associate Professor.
Of course, I was wondering why people think differently, why different mentality, why it is the life, the culture, and why different people have different historical experience?
Here in Vienna was the arrival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the small chapel of St. Bridget Irish. I was there even elder for quite a while.
About twenty years ago – I was already under 50 – there is a possibility in absentia to enter the Orthodox theological faculty of the Eastern-Slovak city of prešov, which was then a small institution in the Moravian city of Olomouc, is from Vienna, two hours by car.
Every second Saturday there came Professor of theology and taught theology. The good Professor was. Those that are older, studied in Leningrad, so they had the old leaven of Russian theology. Younger even before 1989 received training in Greece.
There I received a theological education, and there I was ordained a deacon and a priest in the Orthodox Church of the Czech lands and Slovakia. And began to serve there. I know here in Vienna, nearly all priests, and I was – and remain – good relations with all.
About eight years ago he founded the Conference of Orthodox bishops of Austria, which was attended by representatives of seven local Orthodox churches that have congregations in Austria. (After the decision of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church from September 14, the diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate in Austria has suspended its participation – A. Z.)
And at the same time the idea arose to create an Orthodox chaplaincy in the Austrian army. Doing General Roman Fischer, who moved to Orthodoxy, is a very zealous man, he has a Russian wife, and he is now going to become a deacon in the Serbian Church.
And here called me into his office, Metropolitan Michael (Staikos) of the Greek Church, which according to the canonical Statute was the head of all the Orthodox in Austria, he was the Exarch of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. And said, “you Know, there is such a project. We will create a military chaplaincy. There are two candidates. You’re the chaplain.” I said, “How? I go to serve in the Czech Republic, I have three kids, I at least 40 hours a week in the hospital working on a responsible post”. He said, “With God’s help, you’ll be fine”. From that moment I began my work. Wrote a decree and signed in the Ministry. It was in 2011.
I helped one Catholic chaplain, with whom we are good friends, he’s from the same edge as my wife. We even were together and later on mount Athos. We are good friends. He gave me a lot of practical tips on how to understand the organization. As I scout the past, I have not had the problem of how to stand at attention or salute – salute here although the chaplains do not give. Especially since I’m not an officer, I just got the contract.
– But in the Imperial Austrian army were probably Orthodox chaplains?
– Of course. At the beginning of the First world war was about 350 Orthodox military chaplains. Among the Orthodox were mainly Serbs and Romanians, but there were Rusyns. Of course, it was Catholic, including the Catholic chaplaincy, Protestant chaplaincy. Was Muslim, and Jewish.
– Now how counseling in the army of the Austrian Republic? Who you were appointed?
Conference of Orthodox bishops. But in terms of the state — through the Ministry. There is a Department in the Ministry of defence, which deals with issues of chaplaincy. They coordinate. When an event of some sort or a national holiday, they write letters to all involved, and so on. And deal with financial issues.
– And how many Catholic chaplains in the army?
Is the whole diocese. The Catholic military Bishop is maybe 20-30 priests. Protestant pastors 9-10. Muslims – two. And I am one. There is one alevit. And one Jew, izrailtjanin. But it is a little involved, recently engaged in it.
Soldiers-the Jews meet?
– The last statistics I saw two new recruits.
One of them is named Murat, and another Warbler is now your brother
– The Austrian army is based on conscription?
– Yes, conscription six months. But you can go to alternative civil service, it longer. Is a nurse working in a hospital or in a nursing home.
– What can you teach a soldier for six months?
– A lot. I have this theory that today’s youth around the globe has the same appearance. They all have some stupid device (gadget – A. S.), they shake the same at the dance, I don’t know what to do – they are all uninteresting. And suddenly they find themselves in the barracks where they have their own bed, in my closet, they should be dressed in time to be here and there. Of them make these people that is not always easy. Then they have to act together. At first, the classes are held quite strictly. I think it’s a good experience.
Six months is enough for this? Life in the army, as a conscript army, the possibility of transition to a fully professional contract army is a constantly discussed topic in Russia. Previously, the lifespan was two years, now.
– No, there is another system. If the soldiers like it if he is fit, he can sign a contract for a year or three, and many do. It can kind the profession has to acquire a mechanic and so on. So many do and get good money.
Enough months or not enough – on this subject in Austria, too, all the while being a political discussion. There are a lot of officers and non-commissioned officers serving whole life, but they are specialists.
In General, it is good that we have a call, because it gives young people a start adult life.
It’s only one semester. If he’s in University, he loses nothing, but gets some important momentum for life.
– Students are encouraged?
– Are called. But before or after school. Usually they decide what to study to do it better. For example, where I work as a doctor, there are doctors military. He’s a doctor, but six months should serve. They run, athletics do. It also never hurt anyone. Of course, there are many who don’t like it. But I think this is useful.
– How are your meetings with the military?
– I have these soldiers see one or two, maximum – three times during these six months. No longer be obtained. But I think it will be a boost in life. I have not converted, and none of them did, no, I can’t, but I may have something to say, and I think they take it take.
Most of my soldiers, which I do not have any idea, or have a very distant idea about their religion. I usually tutorials. It’s called Lebenskundlicher Unterricht “life lesson”. I’m an hour or two doing with them. In the class for a few guys.
I begin, as a rule, always with a prayer. I pray with them in German. Who can on his own, let him read on his own, – I have a collection of prayers in all required languages. This is what we read, we sing in front of the icon. I explain to them that such a thing is religion, what is religion, what is Christianity, what Church do exist, what is baptism, and so on.
Then there are various other meetings – Orthodox military ethics, prayer, the Bible, that from the Orthodox point of view for various topics that I designed in power point format – I made it back from the academic sphere of the University.
By the way, my academic practice helps me a lot. Because I can speak normally. With people of all rank and titles – from boy to any General and Minister. I have no problem with because I have my scientific prowess.
If there is some formal event, the parade, then some VIP-reception – for me it is a pastoral occasion with people chatting. There are a variety of problems are identified – for example: I have a wife and children, such difficulties? This is a classic problem – this difficulty is always there.
– Come and worship. But this is the biggest problem, because participation in worship here is voluntary. I try regularly to conduct services. We have the blessing of the water sometimes, and Easter. But someone should put an order and this order needs to go to these soldiers, and they should come. This chain does not always work. I’m doing everything I can.
– And these “life lessons”, about which you say – that they are in the schedule from the military?
– Yes, they are in the schedule. Once a month every soldier, regardless of religion and regardless of rank, should have such a lesson. But actually I have access only to the new recruits. Non-commissioned officers and officers, a little Orthodox, very few. But there will be more and more, because the Serbs arrive at different military schools.
Christianity is the fourth religion in number of followers in Austria. In the first place – the Catholics, the second – atheists, or, as it is called in Austria, the people of “no religious affiliation” – the third are Muslims, and we are fourth. We have here more than traditional Protestant, and not much less than Muslims.*
There is such a situation that a colleague was ill, and we should all gather for a lesson, not just Orthodox – the whole company, 70 people. What can I say? I said, “Who is from what religion? I see you raised your hand, and you raised your hand for their religion. Tell me, how many armies in the world where you can ask, and soldiers will raise their hand? In most armies only one religion or no religion, and we’re still unable to raise my hand. Now we will see what the historical roots of all these religions and the history of this country. Muslims when they came here? Why do we coffee** drink in Vienna? Why do we have this croissant*** where it come from? Or when was the first Orthodox here? When did the Christians start? What happened before that? As it was under the Romans? Then there was no tolerance, then cut the other.
Is famous for the Austrian army? This small army, which conducts the peacekeeping mission. Why? Because our people have different historical roots, but they know with all the people talking. We are not Germans, we Austrians. It is very important that we can be together, and we will not give it to others to ruin. To do this, we must learn together to speak.
This is our joint work, and it does not matter if his name is Murat, he is a Warbler, and that some of Edgard, we have one army, we have a common future. Ten years from now you will remember: “here we are then.” It is now your brother. We came here for various reasons, someone did not want to be here, but we have a common future.
Let’s respect each other, let’s not scoff, think about this. This applies not only to relations between religions.
You’ll find a friend, you will have a wife, and she can’t say, “Thou fool.” She once say, and the second time, the third time is not going to say because she’ll say “bye-bye”. Learn in the army how to talk to each other, the mom you never taught.
*According to the Austrian office of statistics, in 2016 in Austria was 64% Catholic, 17% of those declaring “no religious affiliation”, 8% Muslims, 5% Orthodox, 5% Protestant, 2% other. In the capital Vienna, the number of persons “without religious affiliation” has reached 30%, Muslim 14%, and Orthodox – 8%. Between 2001 and 2016 percentage of Catholics in Austria fell from 75% to 64% the proportion of persons “without religious affiliation” increased from 12% to 17%, the proportion of Muslims has doubled from 4% to 8%, and the percentage of Orthodox Christians has grown more than doubled – from 2% to 5%.
** ***According to popular legend, when the Saxon and Polish king Jan Sobieski liberated Vienna from the second Turkish siege in 1683, for many centuries Vienna and providing the status of the undefeated Bastion of Western Christian civilization, the Turks left the city walls three items that have become an integral part of European culture: bags with coffee, biscuits in the form of crescents, and drums. The honour to open the first Viennese café belongs, not proven historical facts, tradition, Ukrainian Orthodox merchant, diplomat and spy Yuri Franz Kulchytsky, who, being informed in Turkish captivity, learned there to make coffee. Favorite Viennese cookies Crescent-shaped Austrian Princess Marie Antoinette took with her to Paris when she married Louis XVI in 1770, and later became a furnace puff pastry and they got European fame as croissants, croissant – that is, the crescents. And the drums became part of the Symphony orchestra.