THE ORTHODOX CHURCH OF THE SOVEREIGN MOTHER OF GOD (OCSMG)
1946: Veniamin Iakovlevich Bereslavsky, the future Blessed Father John, was born in Moscow.
1966: Bereslavsky graduated from the Ippolitov-Ivanov Academy of Music.
1970: Bereslavsky graduated from the Maurice Thorez Foreign Languages Institute and became a spiritual seeker.
1971: According to hostile sources, Bereslavsky was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and was placed in a psychiatric hospital.
1970s: Bereslavsky became the leader of a small group of spiritual seekers who made pilgrimages to Russia’s holy sites.
1980: Bereslavsky was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church and served as a reader.
1982: Bereslavsky began writing a series of underground self-published (samizdat) religious works, entitled Penitential Fire.
1984 (November): While venerating the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God in the Orthodox cathedral in Smolensk. He received a second revelation in December, and the revelations became more frequent.
1985: Bereslavsky and two of his friends traveled to a secret monastery in the Caucasus where they were ordained by the synod of the underground True Orthodox Church, led by Metropolitan Gennadii (Grigorii Iakovlevich Sekach, ca. 1897-1987). Bereslavsky took the name John (Ioann) in honor of John the Baptist or John the Divine.
1989: Under new Soviet laws that allowed for new social organizations, Bereslavsky registered the Mother-of-God Center (Bogorodichnyi tsentr) as a trade union and placed advertisements in Moscow newspapers.
1990: The legislatures of the USSR and the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) passed laws granting wide religious freedom. In December, John Bereslavsky was consecrated bishop by Bishop Ioann (Vasilii Nikolaevich Bodnarchuk) of Zhitomir.
1991 (April): The Mother-of-God Center was registered with the RSFSR Ministry of Justice as a philanthropic, educational, and publishing organization; it began publishing Bishop John’s works and the revelations that he has received.
1991 (June): The Russian Autocephalous Orthodox Church held its First All-Russian Council in Moscow and officially changed its name to the Church of the Transfiguring Mother of God.
1992: Over the course of the year, the Church of the Transfiguring Mother of God held its Third, Fourth, and Fifth All-Russian Councils in Moscow. In May, the church joined the International Council of Community Churches, a liberal Protestant denomination whose member churches are primarily in North America.
1993: The church held its Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth All-Russian Councils. In the wake of many public attacks on the “Mother-of-God Center, the publishing arm of the church was renamed “New Holy Rus’.”
1994: The church held its Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh All-Russian Councils in Moscow. The Moscow prosecutor’s office began investigating the church for allegedly causing psychological harm to its members.
1995: The church held its Twelfth and Thirteenth All-Russian Councils. The Twelfth Council was held concurrently with the World Council of Orthodox and Catholic Marian Churches that included Marian visionaries from several different nations.
1996: The church held its Fourteenth All-Russian Council in Moscow. The Russian Ministry of Justice officially registered the church as a centralized religious organization (i.e., a denomination that has affiliated parishes), and the Moscow prosecutor determined that there was no evidence that the church had harmed its members.
1997: The church adopted its present name, the Orthodox Church of the Sovereign Mother of God (OCSMG), in honor of the miracle-working “Sovereign” icon of the Virgin Mary. It also held its Fifteenth and Sixteenth All-Russian Councils in Moscow. The Russian parliament passed a more restrictive Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, designed to limit legal registration for new denominations, such as the OCSMG.
2001: The church held its Twenty-first All-Russian Council in Moscow. After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Archbishop John published a revelation from Mary calling on Americans and Russians to pray the rosary 150 times per day to avoid another act of terrorism.
2004: The church held its Twenty-fourth All-Russian Council in Moscow. During a liturgy led by Archbishop John in Moscow, four icons began miraculously producing consecrated oil or chrism. When John traveled to America, one of his photographs likewise spontaneously produced chrism.
2005: The Moscow Center for Russian Spirituality of the OCSMG was attacked, ostensibly by young members of a Russian Orthodox Brotherhood. Archbishop John traveled to Mount Nightingale in Turkey where he received new revelations from Mary about her “theogamic” marriage to Christ.
2006: The church held its Twenty-fifth All-Russian Council in Kyiv, Ukraine. Archbishop John visited Cathar sites in France and Spain and adopted the titles “Blessed John of the Holy Grail” and “King of Cathars.”
2006 (December): In Lipetsk, the Federal Security Service closed an OCSMG exhibit and arrested church members for allegedly causing psychological harm to high school students who visited the exhibit.
2009: Archbishop John resigned as presiding bishop of the OCSMG and moved to Spain. He adopted the name Juan de San Grial and founded the Association for the Study of Cathar Culture.
2010: Juan de San Grial convened an annual International Cathar Congress in Spain.
2013: The Intergalactic Cathar Congress was held in Spain.
Veniamin Iakovlevich Bereslavsky was born to the family of a mining engineer in Moscow in 1946 immediately after World War II. His older brother Leonid (b. 1940) developed a successful career in the electronics industry and later created a system of early childhood education (Bereslavsky n.d.). Like many of their compatriots, the two boys grew up in a communal apartment shared by several families. A talented pianist, Veniamin graduated from the prestigious Ippolitov-Ivanov Academy in 1966 and earned an undergraduate degree from the Maurice Thorez Foreign Language Institute in 1970 (Leshchinskii 2005). After graduation, Bereslavsky had unusual difficulty in finding steady employment; according to hostile sources, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in February 1971 and was twice hospitalized for this condition (Pechernikova et al. 1994). In 1973, he married, and his first daughter was born a year later. In the mid-1970s, he began to explore Orthodox Christianity, despite the Soviet regime’s strong anti-religious stance. By 1979, he led a small group of friends who visited churches and made pilgrimages together, and a year later, about the time his second daughter was born, he was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church (Filatov 2002:423). For a time he volunteered as a reader in a distant diocese, and he even considered becoming a priest. By his own account, he rejected this career path when he learned that he would be required to inform on his parishioners to the secret police (Ioann [Veniamin Iakovlevich Bereslavskii] 1997b). Instead, he sought out the spiritual guidance of two Orthodox ascetic women, Maria Orlovskaya and Evfrosinia Nikiforovna Nikiforova (1916-1993, shown here), who became his spiritual director. Under their influence, Bereslavsky started writing a series of spiritual books entitled Penitential Fire in 1982, which he circulated secretly (Clay 2013:94-97; Leshchinskii 2005).
In November, 1984, while venerating the wonder-working Smolensk icon of the Mother of God in the Smolensk Dormition Cathedral, Bereslavsky received a revelation from the Virgin Mary, who warned him of an imminent divine judgment and urged her followers to live a devout, pious, and ascetic Orthodox life. She strongly condemned hypocrisy in the church, and she responded to the questions that Bereslavsky and his companions posed to her. Bereslavsky received the next revelation in December after he had returned to Moscow. These revelations became increasingly frequent, and they have continued (Ioann [Veniamin Iakovlevich Bereslavskii] 1997:35; Petr [ Sergei Iur’evich Bol’shakov] 1991; “Revelations of the Holy Virgin Hodigitria in Smolensk,1984” 1999 ). A few months later, in October 1985, Bereslavsky and two of his companions traveled to a secret monastery in the Caucasus, the headquarters of one of the branches of the underground True Orthodox Church that had broken away from the officially recognized Moscow Patriarchate in the 1920s. Bereslavsky convinced the secret synod of this underground church to tonsure him and ordain him to the priesthood. The octogenarian leader of the church, Metropolitan Gennadii ( Grigorii Iakovlevich Sekach, ca. 1897-1987 ), acceded to Bereslavsky’s request, and the new priest-monk returned to Moscow as Father John, a name he adopted in honor of John the Baptist (Ioann [Veniamin Iakovlevich Bereslavskii] 1997:42) or John the Divine (Leshchinskii 2005:58).
As the USSR began to relax its restrictions on religion and allow greater freedom of speech in the late 1980s, Father John and his companions became increasingly open about their faith and sought out others who were interested in the True Orthodox Church. In 1989, he registered his Mother-of-God Center [ Bogorodichnyi tsentr ] as a trade union, one of the many public associations that proliferated under the more liberal rule of Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1985 to 1991 (Antic 1991; Krotov 1991:3). New laws adopted in 1990 granted Soviet citizens unprecedented religious freedoms, and many took full advantage of their new liberty to explore traditional and alternative spiritual paths. In this freer atmosphere, Father John moved to develop the institutions of his fledgling church. In December, 1990, he convinced a Ukrainian nationalist bishop who had broken away from the Moscow Patriarchate to consecrate him as the presiding hierarch of a new organization, the Russian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. In April 1991, the newly consecrated Bishop John expanded the scope of the Mother-of-God Center by registering it with the Russian Ministry of Justice as a philanthropic, educational, and publishing organization; the Center began distributing thousands of cheap pamphlets and books containing the Virgin’s revelations and John’s strongly anti-Communist works. In June, Bishop John convened the church’s first all-Russian council in Moscow which resolved to adopt a new name: the Church of the Transfiguring Mother of God (Leshchinskii 2005:59).
In August, 1991, a group of hardline Communists conspired to overthrow Gorbachev and halt his reform. Although the abortive coup failed, it led to the dissolution of the USSR and the independence of its fifteen constituent republics, including the Russian Federation by the end of the year. John credited Mary’s miraculous intervention with defeating the “red dragon” of Communism and saving Russian democracy (Ioann [Veniamin Iakovlevich Bereslavskii] 1991:20-24). In subsequent church councils, John was promoted to archbishop, and his message (that the Virgin Mary had placed Russia under her special protection and was working through her followers to transform the world) attracted thousands of followers. Initially this message warned of an imminent apocalypse. To defeat the devil and to save Holy Russia, the Virgin called for a million Russians to sign her “White Charter,” make a covenant with Christ and Mary, and become “knights of the Immaculate” or “myrrh-bearing women.” With enough signatures, the Antichrist would be defeated and the world transfigured. Dressed in bright blue cassocks, the priests of the church stood on street corners and at busy metro stations where they sold books, gathered signatures, and won converts (Weber 1992). Followers were expected to observe a strict monastic asceticism, including a rigorous schedule of extended prayer, prostrations, and fasts. According to hostile sources, the church also instituted a controversial secret “rite of renunciation of the mother,” in which adepts rejected their natural mothers in favor of the Virgin Mary (“Belaia Gramota” 1991; Witte and Bourdeaux 1999:176; Lunkin and Filatov 2008). Some members of the True Orthodox Church rejected John’s message and claim that he was excommunicated in 1992 by members of the very synod that had ordained and tonsured him in 1985 (Feodosii [Gumennikov] et al. 1992; Feodosii [Gumennikov] et al. 2003). For their part, John and his followers deny these charges (Baklanova 1999).
In the early 1990s, Archbishop John sought to internationalize his movement. He traveled to Canada in 1991 to meet with representatives of the International Council of Community Churches (ICCC), a liberal North American Protestant denomination founded in 1950 that had recently admitted a group of Old Catholics into its communion. One of the congregations of the Church of the Transfiguring Mother of God formally joined the ICCC in 1992. Through its participation in the ICCC, the church could claim membership in the World Council of Churches. John also actively sought to make common cause with other Marian visionaries around the globe. In his sermons, brochures, and books, John argued that the Age of Mary had begun; through her many apparitions, the Mother of God was revealing a new Third Testament. He fully embraced Roman Catholic apparitions, including those at the Rue du Bac (1830), Lourdes (1858), Fatima (1917), and Medjugorje (1981-present). He also adopted Catholic doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception (which the Orthodox Church explicitly rejects) and Catholic practices, including the recitation of the rosary. In Moscow in 1995, he convened a World Council of Orthodox and Catholic Marian Churches, with seers from the USA, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, France, and Germany. This effort to unite the Marian movement appears to have failed; the seers represented at the council were predominantly marginal figures who had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church ( Arsenau 1998; Clay 2001; Leshchinskii 2005:130-31) .
The rapid growth of the new movement, its sharp criticism of the Moscow Patriarchate, and its ascetic practices provoked opposition. In 1994, at the instigation of concerned relatives of church members, Moscow prosecutors began an investigation into charges that the church had harmed the physical and psychological health of its adherents; two years later, they dropped the case for lack of evidence ( Baklanova 1999:19) . Nevertheless, the church was often attacked in the press and by Orthodox heresiologists as a “destructive cult.” In response to this pressure, the church relaxed its strict ascetic practices and moderated its apocalyptic message. Mary’s messages did not point to the final judgment, but rather to the transfiguration of the world and the inception of a new age (Burdo and Filatov 2004:143-144).
John reached beyond traditional Christianity to welcome mystics from many different traditions. He met with the Korean ZenBuddhist master Seo Kyung-bo (1914-1996) when the latter visited St. Petersburg in 1994. In November 1997, John spoke and prayed at the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s “Blessing ‘97”—a mass wedding ceremony of 28,000 couples held at the Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, D.C. In 2005, John traveled to Cyprus to consult with the Naqshbandi Sufi Sheykh Nizam al-Haqqani (b. 1922) (Ioann [Veniamin Iakovlevich Bereslavskii] 2014).
In 1997, as the Russian legislature debated and passed the Law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Organizations, which was specifically designed to discourage new and foreign religious movements, the church increasingly emphasized its connection to Russia, the Romanov dynasty, and the underground True Orthodox Church. The church adopted a new catechism (Ioann [Veniamin Iakovlevich Bereslavskii] 1997a) and a new name: the Orthodox Church of the Sovereign Mother of God, a reference to the miraculous discovery eighty years earlier of the wonder-working icon of the Mother of God “Sovereign.” With the new name, the church appropriated an important national religious symbol; the icon, which portrayed the Virgin Mary holding an orb and scepter, had been found in 1917 in a parish church by a peasant woman whose search had been directed by Mary herself. Moreover, the discovery took place on the very day that Emperor Nicholas II abdicated from his throne; pious Orthodox believers interpreted the appearance of the icon as a sign that the Mother of God had become the spiritual ruler of Russia after Nicholas’s abdication ( Kazakevich 2004; Shchennikov et al. 2010 ) .
The church also claimed a direct link to the Romanov dynasty. Archbishop John began receiving revelations not only from Marybut also from “Patriarch” Serafim (Mikhail Alekseevich Pozdeev) (d. 1971) a semi-legendary figure who supposedly had presided over the underground True Orthodox Church during most of the Soviet period. Significantly, John identifies Serafim with Grand Duke Mikhail Romanov (1878-1918), the brother of the last Russian emperor, who allegedly escaped execution, took monastic vows, and was consecrated by Patriarch Tikhon (d. 1925). In several books published in the early 2000s, Archbishop John retold the history of the underground church using Serafim’s miraculous revelations as his primary source (Alekseev and Nechaeva 2000; Ioann [Veniamin Iakovlevich Bereslavskii] 2003a, 2003b, 2004). The church organized pilgrimages to the famous Solovetsky monastery in the White Sea, which the Soviet authorities had turned into a prison camp in 1923. The church also organized exhibits across the Russian Federation that illustrated the suffering of Christian martyrs in the Soviet Gulag.
By 2002, the church had successfully registered 30 religious associations (including one monastery and the church headquarters) with the Ministry of Justice; this network stretched from Moscow to Ulan-Ude near Lake Baikal (Federal’naia sluzhba gosudarstvennoi statistiki 2002). Registration gave these associations juridical personhood so that they could rent buildings, print and distribute religious publications, and produce films. The vast majority of church parishes, however, were refused registration by the local authorities, and as the decade wore on, the church faced increasing persecution and pressure from both society and the state. In 2005, a group of thugs, who claimed to be part of an Orthodox brotherhood, ransacked the OCSMG Center for Russian Spirituality (Falikov 2005). In December, 2006, in the provincial city of Lipetsk, federal agents arrested several church members who had organized an exhibit, entitled “Solovki—The Second Golgotha.” A local teacher, who was a member of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, had accused the church members of causing psychological harm to her students who had visited the exhibit. The case dragged on for several months and was widely reported on state-run television (Pervyi kanal 2007). The lurid charges were never proven, and a local court ultimately exacted only a small fine ( Afanasii [Kalinkin] 2006; Popov 2007) . Nevertheless, the state began gradually revoking many of the registrations that had been granted to the church’s local congregations ( SOVA Informatsionno-analiticheskii tsentr 2006) . By 2012, only 18 OCSMG parishes had maintained their registration (Federal’naia sluzhba gosudarstvennoi statistiki 2012).
Under this pressure, Archbishop John began spending more time abroad, traveling to various countries, including Turkey and Spain. In 2009, he resigned from his administrative role as the head of the church’s council of bishops and moved with a small band of followers to Spain. Calling himself Blessed Father John of the Holy Grail, he announced a new revelation from the ascended Cathar perfects, the adepts of a dualistic medieval movement that flourished in southern France but was violently suppressed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Cathar Immortals are the guardians of the Holy Grail and, through their connection to the Bulgarian Bogomils (another medieval dualist religious movement), are intimately linked to the earliest history of Christianity in Russia. In his latest revelations, Father John has emphasized the spiritual significance of the ruins of the Cathar castles; he fully embraces their dualism and condemns the God of the Old Testament as the “Chastiser,” a vengeful god who is different from the Father revealed by Jesus Christ (Blessed John of the Holy Grail 2010). From his new base in Spain, John has continued to use media effectively by publishing books, creating multiple web sites, designing Facebook event pages, and even producing feature length documentaries (Dorokhov 2010).
The OCSMG affirms the charismatic authority of its prophet and spiritual leader John (Bereslavsky). Because John is in constant
contact with heavenly beings, including the Virgin Mary, the martyrs of the Orthodox Church, and the Cathar perfects, he is continually receiving new revelations that alter or abrogate older ones. John has consistently criticized ecclesiastical institutions for abandoning the original source of their spiritual vitality and developing rigid rules and structures. In the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, John claims to have revived the meek spirit of St. Nil of Sora (ca. 1433-1508), who argued that monastics should not own property but should spend their lives in constant prayer, over against that of his contemporary rival, St. Joseph of Volokolamsk (ca. 1440-1515), who believed in a strong autocracy, strict punishment of heretics, and a wealthy and powerful church. Much to John’s chagrin, Joseph was victorious in the church council of 1505; since that time, legalism, pharisaism, and hypocrisy have infected Russian Orthodoxy. Charismatic authority derived from direct contact with the divine is the cure for the sickness of “Josephism” (Popov and Ioann 1997).
The church’s doctrine is quite complex; over the past three decades, John has published hundreds of books (many filled with new revelations) that define and redefine the soteriology, Christology, ecclesiology, eschatology, and Mariology of his church. Although a full history of the doctrinal development of the church cannot be given here, that history can be broadly divided into three periods. In the first period, from 1984 to 1997, John portrayed his church as part of a global Marian revival. The Virgin Mary was instituting a new age by revealing her own Third Testament to her followers around the world through her many apparitions. Her messages emphasized an imminent judgment and urged her followers to practice a devout and ascetic piety. During this period, the church adopted many Catholic mariological doctrines (such as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception) and practices (such as praying the rosary). The church looked forward to the union of all humanity under the Virgin Mary’s aegis.
In the second period, from 1997 to 2006, as the Russian state imposed restrictions on new religious movements, John increasingly emphasized the Russian and monarchist roots of his church and the redemptive power of the suffering of the True Orthodox martyrs during the Soviet period. Suffering and dying in Soviet prison camps, these martyrs participated, along with Christ and Mary, in the redemption of the world. In the latest phase, which began around 2006, John has abandoned traditional Christianity in its Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant forms. He has received new revelations from the Cathar perfects (Blazhennyi Ioann 2006; Blessed John of the Holy Grail 2007). He has fully embraced dualism and now has rejected the God of the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments as Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge (Blazhennyi Ioann 2012). Jehovah and Elohim are simply names for the god of this world who resorted to chastisement and fear rather than love. The true God of love was unknown before Jesus, who revealed him to the world. In these latest revelations, John has learned that the Apostle Peter was “the first enemy of Christ” and “the initiator of the anathemas against the true disciples of Christ.” The Cathars, by contrast, created the church of love; they were the keepers of the Holy Grail, and when their enemies tried to burn them, the immortal Cathars simply ascended to heaven, like the Prophet Elijah. The Holy Grail and the Cathar castles mystically inhabit the ruins of Montsegur, the last Cathar fortress to fall to the crusading Catholic Simon de Montfort in 1244 (“The Second Conversion” n.d.; Tainy katarov n.d.). John’s current mission has become to renew and restore the Cathar faith in Western Europe and throughout the world. To this end, he has been conducting lectures, convening congresses, posting videos, and leading seminars on the Cathars. Ultimately, the current, corrupt eighty-fourth civilization will soon come to an end; as a “Hyperborean White Navigator,” John will help shepherd a renewed and purified humanity, the Seraphites, into the eighty-fift civilization. John is “enabling a spiritual army of knights to emerge who will help humanity to awaken and become truly healthy, happy and free” (Cathar Association 2013; John of the Holy Grail 2011).
Over the past thirty years, John has introduced many changes to the rituals of the church in response to his many revelations. Mary’s first revelations urged her followers to fast and pray, and the early years of John’s movement were marked by strict ascetic practices that included celibacy, extended periods of meditation, limited sleep, and a sparse diet. In the mid-1990s, as it came under increasing scrutiny by the anti-cult movement and Orthodox heresiologists, the church relaxed its ascetic rule (Lunkin 2004: 136-58).
In the early 1990s, the church created its own syncretic liturgies by introducing marches, instrumental music, congregational singing, monarchist hymns (including “God Save the Czar”), “Paracletic” (inspired) original musical prayers, and Catholic devotions into the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the traditional Orthodox service ( Krotov 1991; Egortsev 2004; John of the Holy Grail [Veniamin Iakovlevich Bereslavskii] 2011: 43). The church retained some of the traditional parts of the liturgy, such as the Great Litany, the Small Entrance (the solemn procession of the clergy carrying the Gospel to the altar), the Great Entrance (the procession of the clergy carrying the Eucharistic elements to the altar), and the communion of the faithful. Like the Russian Orthodox Church, the OCSMG celebrates the Eucharist with bread and wine (Baklanova 1999: 75-86). The OCSMG has also made significant changes to the Orthodox ritual by conducting much of the service in Russian (rather than in Old Church Slavonic), by replacing the reading of the Gospel by commentary on the passage of the day, and by introducing inspired “plastic prayers” — prayers that include hand and body gestures “which transfer the vibrations of the spiritual heart” (Cataro 2010). Part of the revised OCSMG liturgy also includes a ritual exorcism in which the participants symbolically cast out specific evils (such as war or the killing of animals) as they chant, “We forbid!” In her revelations to John, Mary has directed this liturgical reform and praised him for it; in her words, John ministers “living liturgies” and has “raised the liturgy of John Chrysostom to a new level” (John of the Holy Grail [Veniamin Iakovlevich Bereslavskii] 2011: 48-49). The OCSMG seeks to avoid cold ritual formality and places great value on emotional warmth and spontaneity in worship (Baklanova 1999: 83).
The OCSMG also observes the other six Orthodox sacraments, although it has introduced some changes in these rituals. Baptism, for example, can be performed by sprinkling (as in the Catholic Church) or by complete immersion (as in the Orthodox) (Aleksandr [A. Z. Dolaberidze] 2003). The church celebrates the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ (Pascha or Easter) and the twelve traditional Orthodox feast days according to the same Julian calendar also used by the Russian Orthodox Church. In addition, the OCSMG has added celebrations for the veneration of Mary. In early March, the church remembers Mary as the Eternal Spring of Future Humanity. In August, the OCSMG observes the Week of the Woman Clothed with the Sun, in which Mary is identified with the apocalyptic woman of Revelation 12. The second week of September commemorates Mary’s names and hypostases; the following week honors her as the New Eve. In December, around the time of Russia’s Constitution Day, the church honors Mary for a week as the Mother of New Holy Russia. The OCSMG credits the Mother of God for defeating the coup-plotters who tried to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, and celebrates her triumph annually on 21 August. The church also commemorates 3 October, the anniversary of President Boris Yeltsin’s 1993 victory over his opposition in the Russian parliament, as the Victory of the Mother of God over the Red Dragon (Baklanova 1999: 75-86).
In the latest period, John has introduced spontaneous liturgical dances, such as the “Dance of the Holy Grail.” Likewise, in January 2006 at the ruins of Montsegur, John performed the Cathar ritual of the consolamentum on an American pilgrim (San Salvador Castle 2006). John has also published several books of prayers for private devotions.
Although he now lives abroad in Spain and has relinquished formal control of his church, John Bereslavsky, or Blessed John of the Holy Grail, remains the spiritual leader and prophet of the OCSMG, which also has an administrative structure. The church’s headquarters are located in Moscow. According to its charter, the OCSMG is led by a council of bishops, whose current president is Bishop Feodosii (Iurii Sergeevich Feoktistov), John’s longtime friend and companion. Three other bishops serve on the council: Martin (Aleksandr Petrovich Kolistratov), Mikhail (Gennadii Nikolaevich Morgun), and Mikhail (Vadim Evgenievich Kazartsev). The day-to-day operations of the church are overseen by the church’s spiritual board, which is subordinate to the council of bishops. Currently chaired by Bishop Mikhail (Kazartsev) of Tver, the board has nine members, including bishops, priests, and nuns. Archpriest Ilia (Mikhail Nikolaevich Popov), who met and became devoted to John in the 1980s, serves as the Executive Secretary of the OCSMG Spiritual Directorate (Popov 2013). In the early 2000s, Ilia was also the rector of the OCSMG Spiritual Academy of St. Simeon the New Theologian, which trained OCSMG leaders, but the academy closed for lack of funds.
In Spain, John has founded the Association for the Study of Cathar Culture that organizes conferences, lectures, concerts, lectures, and pilgrimages to Cathar sites. The Association vigorously supports and disseminates John’s interpretation of Cathar history. John is considered to be a Cathar prophet who is bringing the message of the Immortals and the possibility of deification to his followers.
In Russia, the church faces fierce opposition from nationalist and conservative Orthodox critics who often attack it as a “totalitarian cult.” Many OCSMG communities have lost their legal registration in the Russian Federation. Although by 2002, the OCSMG had 30 registered religious organizations in Russia, ten years later that number had dropped to 19. In 1999, the church was locked out of its Moscow headquarters on the eve of a major council; it ultimately had to move to a new location in the city. Moreover, some of the church’s enemies have resorted to violence. In 2005, five thugs, who claimed to be part of an Orthodox brotherhood, attacked the church’s Center for Russian Spirituality in Moscow late at night and caused extensive damage (Falikov 2005). A year later, someone fired fifteen shots at the church’s monastic community in Glazovo village near Moscow; church officials estimated the damage at 300,000 rubles (about $9000) (Portal Credo.ru 2006). Today the church finds it difficult to rent large venues, such as the Moscow Dinamo stadium, as it did until 2004.
Since Father John’s move to Spain in 2009, the church has been actively seeking converts in Western Europe. It publishes books in Spanish and English as well as Russian and has a vigorous presence on the Internet. Developing and maintaining a transnational community presents a major challenge to John and his close followers. The church’s annual reports of the denomination to the Russian Ministry of Justice suggest that it has suffered a decline in funds since John’s departure; the 2009 budget of 2.4 million rubles decreased to 841,000 rubles by 2011 ( Tsentralizovannaia religioznaia organizatsiia Pravoslavnaia Tserkov’ Bozhiei Materi Derzhavnaia 2010, 2011, 2012) . The eventual death of Father John, who is now in his late sixties, will probably create a crisis for his church, which has depended upon him for its revelations from the divine. The church has no other prophets, nor is there a clear successor to John.
The church also faces the trying task of making sense of the widely varying prophecies that John has received over three decades. The messages of the Cathar Immortals differ radically from the Virgin Mary’s first revelations. Although some of John’s followers have made attempts to develop a coherent theology, new revelations have always been more important than any abstract principle. If those revelations cease, however, the church leaders may face difficult theological questions as they seek to reconcile the different strands of their prophet’s revelations.
In his new home in Spain, Father John faces critiques from the Catholic Church, which will no doubt intensify in proportion to his perceived success.
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J. Eugene Clay
September 3, 2014