Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: Intercessory Prayer Service for Ukraine, St Volodymyr’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral
Location: New York City
Date of visit: Wednesday, 9 March 2022, 8:00am
St Volodymyr’s Cathedral was built in 1894 as a synagogue. The architect was Arnold W. Brunner, who championed the Roman Baroque style and whose works range from synagogues and government buildings all the way down to public bath houses. The building became a church in 1958. The interior can only be described as grand and glorious, replete from floor to ceiling with the trappings of Orthodoxy. Of special interest is the stained glass, most notably the large window on the east wall that appears to hark back to the building’s synagogue days.
I really can’t comment on the church as community, as their bulletin, although downloadable from their website, is in Ukrainian, a language I don’t understand.
The cathedral is located on West 82nd Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues – Manhattan’s Upper West Side, one of the poshest urban neighborhoods to be found anywhere. The area is replete with fine old brownstone houses and older apartment buildings, all carefully preserved, and is dotted with eclectic gourmet restaurants of every cuisine imaginable.
His Eminence the Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA was host. Clergy from several faiths participated in the service, including His Eminence the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, His Eminence the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of New York, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, several other Orthodox clergy, and the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. Also participating were the Governor of New York and the Ukrainian Ambassador to the United Nations.
What was the name of the service?Intercessory Prayer Service for Ukraine.
How full was the building?
Surprisingly, it didn’t look particularly full judging from the video feed. The ground floor was about seven-eighths full, but the balcony was sparsely populated.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, as I was watching the video feed from home.
Was your pew comfortable?
My desk chair was its usual comfortable self.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet bustle. Congregation and non-Orthodox clergy trickled in. Friends greeted each other.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘May I ask everyone to rise, please.’ A procession of Orthodox clergy followed, as the choir chanted in what sounded like Ukrainian.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Those present had a handout of some sort, but nothing was available for download at home.
What musical instruments were played?
None. There was a choir of seven black-robed gentlemen.
Did anything distract you?
The splendor of the cathedral’s appointments and the vestments of the Orthodox clergy were a pleasant distraction.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The opening speaker explained briefly what the service would consist of, and then spoke about how prayer may seem inadequate under the present circumstances. But we must never give up on prayer, he said – without it we lose hope. When he was finished, the royal doors opened, out of which processed the clergy of the cathedral, who along with the choir chanted prayers in Ukrainian and English. There was a gospel reading: Luke 11:9-13 (‘Ask and you shall receive …’) followed by more prayers and chanting. Then came the speeches. The service concluded with everyone standing in a moment of silence for those who have lost their lives, with the choir intoning what sounded very much like a dirge. Finally the Metropolitan thanked everyone for coming, and this was followed by a photo opportunity.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Altogether, the speakers spoke for almost one hour.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 — I’m going to flip all the cards for all of them. Some were applauded, and one received a standing ovation. What follows is a summary of all of their speeches.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We must speak up against aggression; we cannot be silent in the face of brutality. All of us, even some of our churches, are sometimes slow to respond. Church leaders are accountable for their lack of transparency. What is happening in Ukraine affects all freedom-loving people throughout the world, many of whom have known the horrors of subjugation. We are all feeling the pain of Ukrainians, but that pain has captivated the world. It reminds us that freedom must be fought for; it can never be taken for granted. God has given us the greatest commandment: love your neighbor. It is not followed by a question mark, but rather by an exclamation mark! We should never have to witness the slaughter of innocent people. We are seeing raw evil in Ukraine, but God can bring good out of evil. The world has united as never before in standing up to the evil. Ukrainians are a deeply religious people – they know the difference between good and evil, between God and Satan. It is up to everyone to decide whose side they are on: God’s or Satan’s. Violence in the world is a sign of our fallen humanity – it is a sin that contradicts the reason why God created men and women. Ukrainians and Russians are all children of God – how is it possible that such a fratricide is taking place? Let reason and love prevail. Let us pray, by all means, but let us also offer support. Peace is more than a balance of power or the absence of war – it is faith, for Christ is our peace. The love of Christ can break down all barriers and bring healing to the wounds from which our world is suffering.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I did not understand a word of what was being said or chanted in Ukrainian, and I’m not at all up on the niceties of Orthodox liturgy. But the final dirge that the choir chanted had me in goosebumps! Also, to see so many clergy of so many denominations all sitting together impressed me as being how God intended it to be.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
My only regret is that there was no service leaflet available for download. And I was surprised at how difficult it was to find the video feed on the Internet. None of the many news reports of the service included a link to the feed. I finally discovered it on the cathedral's Facebook page.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The video feed ended abruptly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was a bit early for lunch, so I busied myself getting the report together.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
N/A – But we need more togetherness, not more separation.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Metropolitan’s concluding remark: that people who love God, whatever their faith, can come together to make a statement to the world.