Metropolitan Laurus: Conciliatory Orthodox leader

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Although he was first hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (Rocor), Metropolitan Laurus might have remained an unknown figure to his fellow Americans until the Russian president Vladimir Putin invited him to the Russian Consulate General in New York in 2003.

Officially, Putin had arranged the meeting to hand over a letter from the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy inviting Laurus to visit Moscow. But Laurus and Putin went on to discuss how the two wings of the divided Russian Church could conduct a closer dialogue. Canonical unity followed at a triumphant ceremony – led by Alexy and Laurus – at the newly rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 2007. For die-hard opponents, the New York meeting was the clinching proof that it was all a KGB plot: the Moscow Patriarchate leadership was under total KGB control, Putin was a KGB man and Rocor – once defiantly anti-Communist – had been brought to its knees by KGB infiltration.

Laurus had come far from his roots in rural Slovakia. He was born Vasil Skurla in the village of Ladomirova near Presov into a devoutly Orthodox family. He decided early on he wanted to be a monk, and in 1939, soon after the death of his mother, he entered a monastery in his village. He was just 11.

As Soviet forces approached in 1944 and the Nazis fled, the monks feared the worst. Clutching their treasured icon of St Job of Pochaiv, they fled first to Bratislava, then westward to Germany and Switzerland. In 1946 the monks left for the United States at the invitation of a Rocor bishop.

They settled at the Holy Trinity Monastery at Jordanville in New York State, making it the biggest Orthodox monastery in the US. As well as their icon, the monks brought their printing press, the only one in North America that could print in the Church's liturgical language, Old Church Slavonic.

The young Vasil graduated from the Jordanville seminary in 1947 and the following year he was tonsured as a monk, taking the name Laurus (Lavr in Russian). In 1954 he was ordained priest. In 1967 he was named Bishop of Manhattan and became secretary to Rocor's Synod of Bishops. In 1976 Laurus was elected Bishop of Syracuse and abbot of the Jordanville monastery.

On travels in the Holy Land and to Mount Athos – and unofficially in Russia from the 1990s – he was open to wider Orthodox contacts, even with the Moscow Patriarchate.

When Rocor's leader Metropolitan Vitaly – a fellow member of the pre-war Ladomirova monastery – retired on health grounds in 2001, Laurus was elected in his place. Vitaly immediately regretted his decision, began denouncing his successor and agitating against growing ties between Rocor and the Moscow Patriarchate.

Amid bitter disputes between those who believed the time for enmity with the Moscow Church was at an end and those who believed in preserving their purity in isolation, Laurus maintained an irenic calm. At the crucial May 2006 Rocor council that approved canonical (though not administrative) unity with the Moscow Patriarchate, Laurus declined to argue his case for the agreement, merely calling delegates to pray over the decision.

Laurus was not one for pomp and politics. When he and another monk were left on their own at the home of a parishioner, the family were astonished on their return to find Laurus and his colleague engrossed in playing with their children's train set.

Felix Corley

Vasil Skurla, priest: born Ladomirova, Czechoslovakia 1 January 1928; tonsured as a monk 1948, taking the name Laurus; ordained priest 1954; Bishop of Manhattan 1967-76; Bishop, then Archbishop of Syracuse 1976-2001; First Hierarch of Rocor 2001-08; died Jordanville, New York 16 March 2008.