In memoriam: Archbishop Gabriel of Comana (1946-2013)

Memory Eternal

Archbishop Gabriel of Comana, formerly bishop in charge of the Archdiocese of parishes of the Russian tradition in Western Europe and exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, died on 26 October in Maastricht (the Netherlands), at the age of 67, after a long illness. He was the leader of the Archdiocese of parishes of the Russian tradition in Western Europe, which comes under the episcopal see of Paris and has autonomous status within the Ecumenical Patriarchate, from May 2003 to January 2013. On 8 January 2013 his illness forces him to ask the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to relieve him of his office, and this was approved by the Holy Synod with effect from 16 January.

Archbishop Gabriel (in the world Guido de Vylder) was born on 13 June 1946 at Lokeren, near Ghent (Belgium), into a Flemish Roman Catholic family. After finishing secondary school at the St Nicolas high school, he received a technical education in preparation for taking over the family business from his father. He finished his military service in 1966 and then joined the college of further education college at Courtrai, where he studied until 1970. From 1970 to 1974 he studied philosophy and theology at the seminary in Ghent. During this period, he came across Orthodoxy in the Russian Orthodox parishes in Belgium and the Netherlands, and this led him to refuse to be ordained to the minor orders of the Catholic Church. In January 1974, he was received into the Orthodox Church in the parish of St Andrew in Ghent, which at that time came under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese. Until 1976, he pursued his education in the department of ethics and religious studies at the University of Louvain. On 5 October 1975, after being made a reader and sub-deacon, Guido de Vylder was ordained deacon by Archbishop George of Syracuse in the parish of the Holy Trinity (in the crypt of the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral) in Paris. On 27 June 1976, he was ordained priest by Archbishop George in the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Parish. The following year, on 18 May 1977, he was appointed rector of the parish of St John Chrysostom in Maastricht (the Netherlands), a parish established in 1972 and for which he was responsible until 2003, working as a teacher of the history of religions in the Dutch secondary school system from 1976 to 1997. In the years that followed he was active in creating more parishes at Deventer, Breda and Anvers, maintaining pastoral work there until they became independent parishes with their own priests. He also established a chapel at Kollumerpomp in Friesland, in the extreme north of Holland. On 9 March, Fr Guido was raised to the rank of archpriest by Archbishop George of Eudociade. He was then appointed rector of the Russian parish of St Alexander Nevsky, in Liège, from 1 January 1993. Through his efforts, this parish is now officially recognised by the Belgian state.

In 1993, the new archbishop, Mgr Serge of Eukarpie, appointed Fr Guido as the senior priest of the archbishop’s parishes in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. In this capacity, he represented the Orthodox Church on the Dutch Council of Churches from 1995 to 2003. On 11 May 1994, Fr Guido took monastic vows in the presence of Archbishop Serge, at the Church of St Sergius of Radonezh, in Paris, and received the name of Gabriel in honour of the holy Archangel Gabriel (whose feast day is on 11 July). The following Sunday, he was raised to the rank of hegumen. On 21 May 1998, he was made an archimandrite. Having been elected by the general assembly of the Archdiocese to the Diocesan Council in 1994, he held this seat till 2002 as representative of the clergy, than from 2002 to 2003 ex officio as an auxiliary bishop. From 2000 to 2003, he was also a member of the disciplinary commission. Notably, he was a member of the delegation of the Archdiocese led by Archbishop Serge in 1998 to the Phanar, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, to discuss the status of the Archdiocese within the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a discussion that culminated in the granting of the Tomos in June 1999.

In 1990, Archimandrite Gabriel took part in a diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land and another to the Russian monasteries. Having been elected to be bishop of Comana and assistant to Archbishop Serge by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on 1 January 2001, he was ordained bishop on 24 June 2001, at the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky in Paris. After the death of Archbishop Serge, on 22 January 2003, he acted as interim head of the Archdiocese. He was then confronted with virulent attacks both against himself and against the canonical status of the Archdiocese within the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The dissemination of a letter addressed by the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexis II, to the ‘parishes of Russian tradition in Western Europe’, proposing for them a new ecclesial structure within the Moscow Patriarchate, caused serious tensions to arise, which he had to confront.

Archbishop Gabriel
Having been elected head of the Archdiocese by the assembly of delegates of the clergy and laity on 1 May 2003, at the second ballot, with a large majority (134 votes out of 168), Bishop Gabriel was raised to the rank of archbishop by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Throne on 3 May and appointed patriarchal exarch by Patriarch Bartholomew I. His solemn enthronement took place on 24 June at the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky. From then on, he oversaw the destiny of the Archdiocese, acting as president of the Diocesan Council, four General Assemblies of clergy and laity (2004, 2007, 2008, 2010), and several pastoral assemblies and diocesan conferences, organised on his initiative. As well as his responsibilities as head of the Archdiocese, Archbishop Gabriel carried out the role of rector of the St Serge Theological Institute (2003-2013), rector of the parish of Christ the Saviour in Asnières (2003-2011), and rector of the parish of the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky (2009-2013).

Archbishop Gabriel tried to make the presence of the Archdiocese known on the inter-orthodox scene. He made several visits to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He participated in official delegations at the side of Patriarch Benjamin I – to the Georgian Church in Tblissi in 2004 and 2006 and to the Russian Orthodox Church in Kiev in July 2008. He made official visits to the churches of Poland, in May 2008, and Finland, in February 2005. He received and held meetings with Patriarch Bartholemew I in Paris three times (February 2007, April 2009 and April 2011), and also Patriarch Alexis II of Moscow, in October 2008, Metropolitan Savas of Warsaw, in September 2004, and Metropolitan Leo of Finland, in August 2004. He led a diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land in October 2011, in the course of which he received the cross of Knight of the Holy Sepulchre from Patriarch Theophilus III of Jerusalem.

The nine years spent by Archbishop Gabriel at the head of the Archdiocese were marked by numerous events, some of them radiant and full of grace (Archbishop Gabriel visited all the parishes and communities in the Archdiocese without exception, celebrated the consecration of new places of worship across Europe, notably the new church of the Monastery of Our Lady of Protection at Bussy-en-Othe, and he ordained about forty priests and deacons), and others that were darker (the taking by force of the church in Biarritz and the events that followed, the ceding of the parishes of Perpignan, Lyon, Altéa and Charleroi to the Moscow Patriarchate, and the loss of the Cathedral of St Nicholas in Nice following a decision of the civil courts in Russia), and it is certainly too soon to make a final assessment of this whole period. The reception of several Orthodox parishes in Great Britain into the jurisdiction of Constantinople, led by their bishop at the time, Bishop Basil (Osborne), and their integration into the Archdiocese took an act of courage on the part of Archbishop Gabriel, who wanted to allow these communities to continuer to lead their liturgical and pastoral life in peace and in line with the spiritual legacy of their founder, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, which they considered to be impossible within the framework of the previous canonical status. The solemn declaration of the sanctity of Fr Alexis Medvedkov, Fr Dimitri Klepinin, Mother Mari (Skobtsov) and their companions Elias Fondaminsky and Yuri (George) Skobtsov, when they were canonised by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the request of Archbishop Gabriel on 16 January 2004, was without doubt a significant moment, with a particular meaning for the Orthodox Church in the West as well as for the Church universal. It was the first canonisation of saints of the Orthodox Church who had lived in Western Europe in modern times. Archbishop Gabriel presided at the solemn liturgy for the canonisation on 1 and 2 May 2004 at the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky.

Archbishop Gabriel began treatment for a cancerous tumour of the lungs at the beginning of 2011 and his health deteriorated rapidly in the second half of 2012 following courses of chemotherapy. After going into retirement in January of that year, Archbishop Gabriel went to live in his house close to the church in Maastricht and he continued to follow a rigorous medical regime. A few days before his death he had to be taken to the De Keederberg hospice. After a sudden deterioration in his condition, he was transferred again to the university hospital in Maastricht (AZM) on 24 October, and it is there that he passed away on the night of 25-26 October. When his death was announced, Metropolitan Emmanuel distributed the following message: ‘I have just heard some sad news and wanted to share it with you immediately. Archbishop Gabriel has died. Let us pray for the repose of his soul and that his memory will be eternal.’

The archbishop’s body was placed in the church in Maastricht on the evening of 26 October and was taken to Paris in the middle of the week. Archbishop Gabriel’s funeral will take place at the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky, led by Metropolitan Emmanuel, who is the temporary administrator of the Archdiocese. His burial will take place in the crypt of the cemetery church of St Genevieve-des-Bois (Essone), where his predecessors have been laid to rest – Metropolitan Eulogius, Metropolitan Vladimir, Archbishop George (Tarassoff), Archbishop George (Wagner) and Archbishop Serge (Konovaloff).

‘The moment has come for me to leave you. … Through tribulations of all kinds, always have confidence and hop in the Word of God, which is the measure of our salvation and the affirmation of our Church. The liberty of the Church and the universality of the Orthodox faith are the two treasures that I have sought to preserve, following the example of my predecessors at the head of this Archdiocese, in order that we should be able to concentrate on what, in the eyes of Christ’s disciples, must be the ‘one thing necessary”: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice”, as the Lord himself commands us (Mt. 6:33). My last word will be to ask you to maintain your love and your unity. That is the most precious treasure of our Church. May the Lord “give you a spirit of wisdom” and “enlighten the eyes of your heart so that you are able to see the hope to which he has called you” (Eph. 1:17-18) [pastoral letter from Archbishop Gabriel, dated 8 January 2013].

May the Lord grant rest to his faithful servant and welcome him into his Kingdom!

Here is an extract from the Archbishop’s pastoral letter for Easter 2012:
Easter Message, 2012
When we consider our lives, the lives of all human beings on earth, we are tempted to sadness and we could say with the writer of Ecclesiastes: ‘All is vanity and chasing after wind’ (Ecc. 2:17). How many misfortunes, how many broken loves! Serious illness, unexpected accidents, old age when everything declines – all these can overwhelm us. Many young people are uncertain about their future and suffer attacks of anguish, sometimes looking for substitutes that have no tomorrow. When we face these fears, this anguish, we must remember that Good Friday came before Easter. We must think again of Gethsemane – ‘My soul is sorrowful even unto death’ – and of the crucifixion – ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Then we shall understand that the resurrection is not a simple, jolly family festival that is forgotten the next day, but a true outpouring, a hymn to life and love! If Christ accepted suffering, abasement (kenosis), exclusion, rejection, terrible solitude, abandonment by his apostles and, finally, death on the cross, it is in order that, through the resurrection that followed them, we should no longer be afraid!’