The month of June, burst forth sunny, hot and joyous in South Bound Brook, New Jersey, as the administrators, faculty and students of Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary prepared for this year’s graduation ceremony.
The peonies, happily blooming around the Seminary building lazily swayed in the hot afternoon sunshine, as the bees buzzed from flower to flower oblivious to the guests who began to arrive and ascend the steps to the Seminary.
With complete confidence and faith in Almighty God the Holy Trinity, Giver of all good and perfect gifts, St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary began its forty-second academic year in the Autumn of 2017. The seminary, in addition to being a training ground for future clergy, serves as the center of the spiritual and intellectual life of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church here and abroad - a model of Orthodox Christianity.
His Eminence Antony, Metropolitan & Prime Hierarch of UOC of the USA and Diaspora, Seminary Rector, and His Eminence Archbishop Daniel – Consistory President, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy and Provost, Academic Dean and Professor of Pastoral Theology and Ukrainian Studies at the Seminary, were led in the Academic Procession by the Seminary Faculty, including - V. Rev. Stephen Hutnick - Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology; V. Rev. Anthony (Douglas) Perkins - Assistant Professor of Church History and Vocation Director; V. Rev. Taras Naumenko - Professor of Music and Liturgics; V. Rev. Gus George Christo - Adjunct Professor of Theology and Koine Greek; Rev. Vasyl Pasakas - Dean of Students; Dr. Michael Andrec - Adjunct Instructor of Ecclesiastical Music; who were preceded by clergy, the current seminary students, and the graduates.
Singing “O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance”, everyone entered the Three Hierarchs Seminary Chapel, venerated the icons and found a spot to stand for the Moleben to Christ the Savior. The small peaceful chapel burst into life, as a wave of praise in the form of human voices was lifted up, twirling among the rafters and enveloping everyone in a surge of humility, love and worship. One could not help being spiritually moved as the faithful joined the clergy and seminarians in singing the responses. It was truly a magnificent and moving service.
Having concluded the moleben, Vocation Director, V. Rev. Anthony Perkins, stepped up to the podium welcoming the guests and calling the start of the Commencement Ceremony.
Fr. Anthony introduced newly ordained Rev. Volodymyr Yavorskyi, the recipient of the Degree of Master of Divinity and class Valedictorian, who came up to say a few words. “The theologian is the one who prays, and the one who prays is a theologian. At the St. Sophia Seminary one’s prayer life and education are on the same level. To participate in the church services, and to be prepared for them is just as important as to participate and be prepared for class. Your spiritual life and moral Christian behavior are just as important as your success in studying.” Father Volodymyr continued by explaining how beneficial seminary life was to his studies, getting valuable knowledge not only from professors and books, but, from spending time and discussing topics with fellow seminarians and faculty members.
Fr. Volodymyr concluded by thanking his lovely bride, Ginny, and giving the remaining seminarians some advice. “Now, at the end of my journey here at St. Sophia Seminary, I would like to share some advice with the remaining seminarians. Listen to the words of God, and the prayers which we pray daily. Try to enjoy as much as possible the life at the seminary and the company of all who surround you before you graduate.”
Next, Fr. Anthony introduced the recipient of the Degree of Master of Arts in Applied Orthodox Studies, Subdeacon Valentine Olynyk, who receiving the hierarch’s blessing, stepped up to the podium. Subdeacon Valentine told of how joining the seminary was a journey. His life was a series of phases, and he was glad that even though older than the typical seminarian, he found his path. His father and grandfather attended seminary, and he was proud to follow in their footsteps.
Children are of great importance to the world, and Subdeacon Valentine expressed his heartfelt interest in joining a future Mission trip to Ukrainian Orphanages. He realizes how important it is for those children to know love. While monetary gifts are good, actually touching a child and impacting their life personally is invaluable.
With everyone still contemplating his words, Fr. Anthony Perkins called Elizabeth Symonenko, Valedictorian of the graduating class of the Youth Ministry Program to the podium. Elizabeth spoke a few words on the importance of teaching our youth and teaching them correctly. While society is preoccupied with providing our children with bodily nourishment, very few parents worry about nurturing their childrens’ souls. Quoting St. James, she stated that those who teach will be judged harshly, stressing the importance of knowing what and how to teach. To that end the seminary education has been a blessing, teaching various methods to successfully share the Word of God with the youngest of the faithful. Elizabeth concluded by asking the hierarchs and all those gathered to keep the educators of our youth in their prayers, so that the seeds that they plant fall on fertile soil.
Following the speeches was the Conferring of Degrees and Presentation of Diplomas. As their names were called out, the graduates stepped up to Metropolitan Antony to receive their Degree or Diploma, and then stepped over to Archbishop Daniel who hung the Masters Hood upon the graduates receiving a Masters Degree, and giving his blessing to the Certificate recipients.
This years graduates were Rev. Volodymyr Yavorskyi, Degree of Master of Divinity; Subdeacon Valentine Olynyk, Degree of Master of Arts in Applied Orthodox Studies; Subdeacon Clint Kifolo, Diploma in Applied Orthodox Studies, as well as those who received a certificate for completing the Youth Ministry Program – Tracy Galla, Danielle Geeza, Anna Kobilaski, Daria Pishko Komichak, May Ost, Pani Dobrodiyka Oksana Pasakas, Andrea Roelofs and Elizabeth Symonenko.
Having conferred the diplomas, His Eminence Metropolitan Antony gave a few words charging the graduates with using their newly acquired knowledge to continue the work they have begun. Vladyka reminded them that they are gifted the Grace of God, who will work miracles through them. He thanked everyone present, especially the faculty members and assured the graduates of his continued prayers.
His Eminence Archbishop Daniel stepped up to the podium also expressing his gratitude, giving his blessing and assuring the graduates of his prayers as they put to use what they have learned at the seminary.
After the benediction, the church exploded in resounding renditions of Mnohaya Lita/Many Years for the graduates. With the joyous strands of the tune still in the air, prayers of remembrance were said for Fr. Bazyl Zaweirucha, of blessed memory, who had taught many of the graduates. Singing Veechna Pamya/Memory Eternal everyone’s joy momentarily turned melancholy, as each person remembered their personal interactions with Fr. Bazyl, and his impact upon their lives.
Before exiting the chapel, the graduates loitered to take photos with their hierarchs and family members, while others took the time to venerate the icons and relics in the chapel.
The time flew quickly as everyone gathered in the Seminary Dining Hall enjoying a light repast and each other’s company. Laughter bounced off the walls of the seminary, and the chatter of happy voices could be heard flowing from room to room. With smiles and hand-shakes the party began to wind down, as people started to make their way back home.
As the sun began to sink behind gathering clouds, the seminary glowed like a welcoming beacon, the warm interior lights glowing through the windows, made for a welcoming and nostalgic scene. With such beauty and wisdom, the presence of God can be felt at the seminary, and it is assured that for many years people will be coming to study, to celebrate and to pray at the Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary.
Text by Elizabeth Symonenko
Photos by Seminarian Yaroslav Bilohan and Elizabeth Symonenko