About fifteen years ago, I had a unique opportunity to visit
the hermitage of a Catholic priest-monk and theologian in the
mountains of Switzerland. He was well known for his writings on
the holy fathers of the early Christian Church, and no less well
known for his unusual—from the modern, Western point of
view—monastic lifestyle. Somewhat familiar with how Catholic
monasteries generally look today, I was not expecting to feel so
at home as an Orthodox monastic in his Catholic hermitage.
After ascending a wooded mountain path to a small dwelling
among the trees, we were greeted by an austere looking, elderly
man, his gray beard flowing over black robes. His head was
covered by a hood bearing a red cross embroidered over the
forehead. It was as if we had been transported to the Egyptian
desert, to behold St. Anthony the Great. As he and his
co-struggler Fr. Raphael treated us to tea, we talked about the
Church, East and West, and about the Russian Orthodox Church.
But there was no talk of them joining that Church—it would have
been uncomfortable to even mention it.
We felt that we had come into brief contact with a monk who
was one with us in spirit, although he was not in our Church,
and we parted with joy at this pleasant revelation while Fr.
Gabriel made the sign of the cross over us in the Orthodox
Fr. Gabriel never had and still does not have electronic
communication with the outside world, and we heard very little
from or about him after our visit. Nevertheless we did not
forget him, and in the intervening time we never ceased to think
how good it would be if he were in communion with us, the
Orthodox. But never would we have tried to approach this subject
with him—we somehow felt that God was guiding him as He sees
Fr. Raphael, a Swiss, has since passed away, and Fr. Gabriel
is the abbot and sole monk of what is now the Monastery of the
Holy Cross, part of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was baptized
Orthodox on the eve of the Dormition of the Theotokos in Moscow,
August 2010. He is now Schema-Archimandrite Gabriel.
Recently in Moscow on a very demanding schedule, Fr. Gabriel
still took the time to talk with us.
The Monastery of the Holy
Cross, Roveredo, Switzerland.
—Fr. Gabriel, although you have talked about your life in
other interviews, tell us again a little about yourself.
—I live in Roveredo, a tiny village of about 100 inhabitants. My
monastery is above the village in the woods, in the mountains of
the Lugano region, the Italian part of Switzerland.
—You had been Catholic from childhood?
—Yes, but not a practicing Catholic all my life. My father was
Lutheran, and my mother Catholic, and I was baptized Catholic.
But as it often happens in these cases, neither of my parents
practiced their religions. Neither my father nor mother went to
church. And so neither did I. But as young people always go
their own way, I rediscovered the faith of my Baptism. At first
I went to the Catholic Church, by myself. My parents did not
encourage me, they only tolerated this.
—Even your mother?
—I was born in Köln, but we left that city when I was two years old
because of the war. That town, almost 2,000 years old, was almost
razed to the ground. It was like Hiroshima. About eighty percent was
destroyed, and the Americans even suggested that it be reconstructed
elsewhere—it seemed to be useless to try and reconstruct those
ashes. But people were extremely attached to their town; the great
cathedral was still standing, although greatly damaged. The twelve
Romanesque churches were
terribly damaged also. For ten years we did not live in Köln, but in
a little town in the countryside. Only in 1953 was it possible for
us to return. So, I spent my youth in Köln, and went to gymnasium
there. I still love that town very much. The Gothic cathedral, a
wonder of Gothic architecture, was built on the place where all the
cathedrals had been from early Christian times. One of the first
bishops of Köln was a close collaborator of Emperor Constantine.
Under the north tower is a baptistry from the fourth century. There
is a church of St. Gereon in Köln, where the octagon is up to five
or six meters. It is a Romanesque church, from the fourth century,
and has relics of the Roman martyrs. There are so many traces of the
undivided Church, the beginnings of Christianity, and by these very
archeological facts, I was “pushed” to dig deeper into the
foundations of the Church. I am a historian by formation, a
—She was a believing Catholic, but because of her marriage to a
Lutheran, she lost her practice. Only much later, when I was
already a monk, she went back to church and began to practice
her Catholic faith. My father grudgingly went with her, at least
on Easter or Christmas, because he did not want to spend the
—Where were you born?
—Did these memories make you feel the desire to “fuse” Europe
back together with the Church of early Christianity?
—Of course, I did not know about the Orthodox Church for a long
time. I only discovered the existence of Orthodoxy
little-by-little. Some of my Orthodox friends of today have told
me that Catholics know that we “exist”, and nothing more. Simple
people even ask, “Do you venerate the Mother of God, too?” This
is even fifty years after Vatican II, which seemed to “open the
windows” of what was the very closed Catholic Church, and their
knowledge of Orthodoxy is still very poor. I had to discover
this little-by-little for myself. I did not know about any
Orthodox communities; there were no Orthodox churches in the
cities, because the Russians, at least, celebrated in Protestant
churches given them to use for a couple of hours on Sunday, as
is often the case even today. In Lugano, the Russian Orthodox
have bought a small Protestant church that was empty and unused.
All the other Orthodox communities, such as the Romanians,
celebrate in Catholic churches given them to use. But now we
have a little church, which must be paid for. It is gradually
being transformed into an Orthodox church, with an iconostasis
So, I had to discover Orthodoxy little-by-little. When I was
about nineteen years old, after gymnasium, I
went with a friend to Rome, and there I discovered the early
Christian period: the catacombs, the old churches, those founded
by Sts. Constantine and Helen, and so on. It was very
impressive. I must confess that this strengthened my
consciousness of myself as a Catholic. Rome is apostolic
ground—here is the tomb of St. Peter, there of St. Paul, Santa
Maria Maggiore, Santa Croce, San Giovanni Laterana … all these
paleo-Christian churches, this incredible archeological
continuity. But it was much later that I discovered that
although there is continuity on the level of architecture, there
was no continuity on the level of the Apostolic Church, the
I discovered only later that Santa Maria Maggiore and the other
churches have always been the same, but this continuity does not
exist on other levels, the more essential levels. It is the same
with the Anglicans. They have the Cathedral of St. Augustine in
Canterbury on one level, but on the theological level there is
no continuity, there is a break. However, at the time I was too
young to be aware that there are so many breaks and
interruptions in the history of the Western Church. I had to
discover this for myself, gradually.
People often ask me why I became Orthodox, and whether there was
a crucial moment or event in this evolution. There was a crucial
moment, and though I have said this before, I will repeat it. I
had to discover it—first on the literary level, through books,
music, etc. It is same for monasticism—I had to discover its
spirit through the writings of the desert fathers. But I
discovered real, living Orthodoxy at the age of twenty-one, when
I was in Greece. I was a student, not yet a monk. I could not
yet enter the monastery because my father wouldn’t allow it. I
was too young. I thank heaven that he did not allow it, because
that way I had an opportunity to travel to Greece with other
students, and to discover living Orthodoxy there. I saw holy
monasteries, and even met a holy monk. I went to the Liturgy.
This was before Vatican II. The Greeks were extremely kind and
friendly to me as a Catholic. Today that would probably be
different, because the Catholics have changed completely towards
—For the better, or for the worse?
—From the worst to the best. But now the Orthodox keep their
distance because they feel invaded.
I visited the seminaries and monasteries in Greece, and at one
time said to the monks and students, “Everything is fine here,
and I like it, but… it is a pity that you are separated from
us.” The immediate reply was, “You are wrong, it is you who
separated from us.” And so I was confronted for the first time
(I was only twenty-one years old) with this fundamental problem
of separation which is seen in a different way in the East and
West. Who is right? At twenty-one I didn’t have the means to
check the answer. Only little-by-little did I obtain them, and
so discovered that in fact it is the West that separated from
the common foundation. There is the archeological continuity, in
the famous churches from the time of Constantine and Helena for
example, but at the essential level— theology, Liturgics, and
everything else—there is not. My little book, Earthen
about one little aspect that is very essential: that there was
—You mentioned before that you have read the book by the
German historian Johannes Haller about
the history of the Church up to the 1500s, as well as
books about the papacy, such as the one by Abbé Guettée.
—Yes, in fact I am reading the book by Haller now. It is purely
a history book, while the book by Guettée is polemics. You see,
Haller was impartial, very quiet, and he had free access to the
Vatican library. It is an objective history book, has very quiet
spirit, but is very powerful. The facts are overwhelming.
—You have said that you are glad you are reading about Church
history now, and not earlier, because it could have caused you
to lose your faith. Could you elaborate on that? You think you
needed to be stronger in order to face the facts. Is that
—I feel that faith in young people needs to be preserved,
protected. When you have a solid foundation, sufficient criteria
in your mind, and stronger faith, you will be able to judge.
—You mean a strong foundation in the Christian faith, and not
necessarily in the Roman Catholic faith? —Yes, then you can confront yourself with this mass of
—Because you feel that these facts taken by themselves may be
too devastating or scandalous for people?
—Yes, of course. You see, history is not theology. History is
just the facts—what happened. Haller’s work describes all the
ups and downs... it is fascinating, but it is true history. It
makes you wonder...
—History, warts and all?
—Yes, with all the warts; and the Pope’s claim of priority, of
being the head of the Church. It is very odd. In as early as the
fourth century, Pope Damasus claimed that the Roman Church (not
the Pope—yet) has primacy over all the other Churches, because
of what Jesus Christ said to Peter: “You are a rock, and upon
this rock I will build my Church” (cf. Mt. 16:8) So they, Rome,
have very much identified this rock with an institution, with
something visible—the Roman Church. Although very many fathers
of the Church, both East and West, identify this rock - as St.
Ambrose of Milan did in the year 382 - with the faith of the
people. It is the confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of the
Living God. It was not Peter’s personal faith; he was not a
better theologian or apostle than the other Apostles. It was
revealed to him by the Father. This is the rock which cannot be
destroyed. Peter shortly afterwards proves that he did not
understand anything of this confession. He is called a “devil”.
The Lord says, “Get thee behind me, satan” (cf. Mt. 16:23), and
so on. Not only St. Ambrose, but the most important fathers of
both the East and West also say the same thing. For the Roman
Catholic, it is absolutely obvious that this rock is the person
of Peter. And Peter
(according to tradition) died in Rome, and
therefore it must be the Roman Church, and his successor, the
bishop of Rome, who is this rock. But Peter was in many places.
Why does it only have to be the place where he died? Many people
could claim to have his tomb... but he died in Rome, as did St.
Paul. But is this sufficient reason for this city, which was the
capital of the Roman Empire at the time, to become the head of
all the Churches, too? If there is any city that could lay claim
to that title it would be Jerusalem, the city where our Lord
died, and not Peter. In Jerusalem is the tomb of our Lord, and
there He resurrected. The head of the Church is in any case our
—This always seemed to me to be a devastating example of what
is called in Russian плотское мудрование—fleshly
mindedness, a purely earthly way of thinking.
—Yes, and it immediately took hold. And what is so shocking in
this history of the papacy by Haller is precisely this worldly
aspect—how the spiritual means, such as excommunication and
interdict, have been used continuously, for hundreds of years,
just for political reasons. And what is even more shocking is
that people didn’t even bother to obey these interdicts. Whole
countries were under interdict; that means no Mass, no
Sacraments, no bells—nothing.
—Why? Because the king would not give in to the Pope’s
territorial pretenses. The Pope was always fighting for his own
state, which became larger and larger, then smaller and smaller,
and still exists, as is the function in the Vatican City. It was
always for these political, territorial reasons. But most of
these countries, hundreds of kings, even bishops, simply didn’t
bother. They continued to celebrate mass, dispense the
Sacraments, and so on.
—So they were technically in “disobedience” to the Pope?
—Perfectly. To me, this was shocking. Even today it is shocking.
It is shocking that these spiritual means are used for purely
material, political reasons, and those who were hit by these
interdicts did not bother. So, you can imagine that this would
gradually destroy the Church from within. You understand much
better why Western Christianity destroyed and continues to
destroy itself from within. Not from outside. It is horrible, I
must say. It is what I call “secularization”. There are Popes
who themselves fought in battles. In was an ordinary thing for
Cardinals to have armies, and so on. This is secularization. It
means that the Church was closing its own horizon in on itself
to include increasingly secular interests. The Popes were
defending (understandably) their own independency—from the
Emperor, who they in fact needed, because without the Emperor
they would have no longer been independent of the dukes, the
king of Sicily, etc., whatsoever. You begin to understand a lot
—I assume you are reading this book in the original German.
Are there translations?
—This is a classic, but I don’t know—there are dozens of books
of this kind. I only quoted this book to tell you that even now,
afterwards, I am still interested in these questions, in reading
books that during my time of searching I was forbidden to read.
I don’t think that it would have been very useful to me then
anyway, because I would have completely lost my faith.
—Forbidden by whom?
—By my professors in the Catholic faculty in the university. In
Germany theology is taught by the state, and so I received my
theological education from a state university.
So, I continue to study just to deepen my understanding of the
reasons for the separation between East and West. Of course, you
can understand quite a lot from this, but there is still one big
mystery that I am still unable to understand: Why did God allow
You can say that it was all the mistake of the Pope, but the
faithful had no choice. That is what I say to my friends now. I
say, “Look, you shouldn’t criticize or condemn Catholics. They
are just born on the wrong side of the street. It is not their
mistake. They have no choice. They never had any choice. The
whole West belonged to the Roman Patriarchate, which gradually
became larger and larger; they were not part of other
patriarchates. In any case, they are not today. That is their
mistake—they were just born there.
Fr. Gabriel Bunge in his
monastery in Switzerland.
—This, however, brings to mind a question I always have. I
myself am a Westerner, a convert to Orthodoxy, I have no Eastern
Orthodox roots, and so my question is not intended to be
anti-Western. However, why are we apparently so prone to
earthly, secular thinking in the realm of religion—more than the
Christian East? Theoretically, the same process could have
—Theoretically, yes, but in practice, it did not. I think it is
because secularization is a very long process, and its clearest
expression is Protestantism, which is an inner-Catholic
phenomenon. It is an inner-Catholic phenomenon in the Western
Church which occurred after its separation from the Eastern part
of the Church. It could not develop before. I will tell you
about a most terrible experience. I am speaking about history,
but perhaps it is better to speak about my own “little history”
of seventy-three years. I entered the monastery at age
twenty-two in exactly the year that the Second Vatican Council
was opened. With my Greek Orthodox experience and so on, I
became a monk at Chevetogne, and
we were really full of hope that now the Roman Church would turn
back on its path, and there were many signs that this is how it
would happen. Paul VI had a very strong and deep desire for
reconciliation with the Orthodox Church. He was the incarnation
of this Janus-face (double-face) of the Western Church. On one
side, he wanted to concelebrate the Liturgy with Patriarch
Athenagoras when they met in Jerusalem, and he brought a golden
chalice to do so. But the ecumenists (thank God) separated these
two old men, because after such an act it would have become
worse than it was before. So, they did not serve together. He
offered to give the Patriarch that chalice. But it is well
proved that he wanted, through Liturgical reforms, to make the
Latin mass become acceptable to Protestants, not thinking, not
aware that it would in the same moment become completely
unacceptable to the Orthodox. You can see that the Catholic
Church is between these opposite positions—the Orthodox East and
the Protestant West. But then the general evolution did not go
towards the east, but towards the west. It became a slow self-Protestantization
of the Roman Church—a self-secularization, with all the
destruction, both physical and spiritual, that we have seen.
This was a real historical disaster of unseen dimensions. You
see, Protestantism is an inner-Catholic virus. And the Roman
Catholic Church has no antibody against that virus. The antibody
is Orthodoxy, which has never been, for five hundred years,
tempted by Protestantism. Even if there be an Ecumenical
Patriarch who has sympathies with Calvinism (as there once was),
this is local. It has no influence on the Orthodox
consciousness. It is just limited, and that is all. The Orthodox
Church had plenty of opportunities to be infected with
Protestantism and secularism, but they did not succumb—only on
—A cold, rather than a cancer?
—Yes, a cold, not a cancer. This
is really a tragedy of historical dimensions.
Many Catholics are aware of this now, because they no longer
consider the Orthodox Church to be a competitor or adversary.
That is why they help them in any way to establish their
parishes in the West. They give them their churches so that they
can serve the Liturgies on Catholic altars, which would have
been unimaginable before.
—Just as an aside, last spring there was a delegation from
Russia present at a celebration in Sicily commemorating the aid
given by Russian soldiers to victims of the great Messina
earthquake in 1908. The Russian clergy present were invited to
serve the Liturgy for the local Orthodox congregation in the
Capella Palatina in Palermo.
—Ah, beautiful. The Russians continually celebrate solemn
Liturgies in the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Bari. I have seen one
Liturgy there celebrated by a Russian Metropolitan, about 20
priests, with a large choir. And I thought, “That is the Liturgy
required by this beautiful cathedral. But when it was over, the
Latin mass started… and you want to cry. You want to ask, “What
are you doing here?”
In a way, this is something out of the ordinary, but it shows
that many Catholics are not sure any more that they are right.
—Of those who are wavering—do you think they could go in the
direction of Orthodoxy, or might they instead give up everything?
—The only way I see it happening is if they turn to their own
Orthodoxy, because unless God works an unprecedented miracle
that turns everyone to Byzantine Orthodoxy, there is a whole
culture at work to prevent it. It is not just a matter of texts,
or formulas. But they must turn back to their own Orthodoxy,
their own traditions. For all these years, when I wrote my
little books, my aim was this: as a monk, to help people have a
spiritual life, to rediscover, reintegrate their own spiritual
heritage, which is of course the same as ours; because we have
the same roots. But the success of my endeavor, at least among
monks, is close to zero. Especially among monks. The books are
read mostly by laypeople, not by priests and monks. The monks
are the ones who practice yoga, Zen, reiki, and so on. When you
tell this to Russian monks they are shocked, they can’t imagine
this is happening. I do not judge them; thank God, it is our
Lord Who will judge the world and not me. But it means that
people are not looking for a solution, an answer within their
own tradition. They are looking outside of it, in non-Christian
religions. To me, Catholic monks practicing Zen meditation is
like Zen monks praying the Stations of the Cross. It is
completely absurd. In Buddhism, suffering has a different
origin; it is overcome in a different way from in Christianity.
There is no crucified Savior. Why should they meditate on the
Stations of the Cross? Of course, they do not.
—And how could a Christian monk, who believes in a personal
God, pray to the impersonal universe of Zen?
—In those monasteries they have Zen gardens... But could you
imagine the Stations of the Cross in a Zen monastery? Buddhist
monks kneeling before the Stations? It’s unimaginable.
—They have as if lost their self-identity.
—But what is so striking is they do not even try to dig in their
own ground, to find their own roots—the source, which has been
filled up by trash. They seem to be convinced that there is
nothing there, and never has been.
So we have to look for this source as well. I remember quite
well my monastic youth—there were those in the monastery who
felt that there was nothing there, that everything was dry. Then
came a Zen master, a Jesuit (very well-known; he died a long
time ago), and it was a revelation. At least it was something
spiritual... They had only seen formalism. Thanks to God, I had
discovered the holy fathers and the primitive monastic
literature before I came to the monastery. It was not the
monastery that taught me. I continued my search in the
—Yes. I went there because it seemed closer to what I discovered
in Greece. To tell the truth, I was sent there. I had entered a
Benedictine Abbey in Germany. My novice master, the abbot, a
holy man, loved me very much, and he could see that I was not in
the right place. He sacrificed his promising novice and sent him
to Chevetogne, to see if this was more fitting. When I made my
monastic profession he came himself to visit me. He was a holy
man. My confessor, a Trappist monk, was also a holy man. I had
the chance to meet more than one holy man, even in the West.
They still exist.
I feel that my own path is to prove, even to the Orthodox, that
it is possible, even within the Western tradition, to rediscover
the common ground, and to live out of this. You can do this—not
by yourself, of course, but only with God’s grace. But then I
reached a point where I could no longer support being in only
spiritual communion with the Orthodox Church so close to my
heart. I wanted real, sacramental communion. Therefore, I asked
—Do you believe that on this path of digging down to the
roots of one’s own Western tradition, some would inevitably feel
compelled to take the step that you took?
—It is difficult to say, because it may not be technically
possible for everyone to do so. In the West, the Orthodox Church
had not been so well represented. Now it is changing. I have a
lot of friends who are following the same path, they are
“orthodox” but not in a confessional way. I do not know whether
they ever will become Orthodox. My own experience teaches me
that you will not always find help from the Orthodox side.
Proselytism is not normally Orthodox, and you will at times not
even find concrete help. I was even discouraged. There was a
well-known theologian (I will not say who)… I was a young
student, and he literally prohibited me and other monks from
Chevetogne to become Orthodox. He said, no! You shall not become
Orthodox! You must suffer in your flesh the tragedy of
separation. I did, because I had no other way. I addressed
another Russian Orthodox Metropolitan for help—he did not help
me. He just turned me away. And this was God’s will. In the
right moment, it truly went smoothly. Really. Like a letter in
the Swiss Post. But before, it seemed impossible.
—I am sure that everything happens according to God’s will
and plan, but do you feel that perhaps Orthodox people should
provide more encouragement to those people who are searching,
wavering? Who are digging deeply but not getting to the roots?
—They should know their own faith better, and be capable of
answering questions. They should not criticize everything and
—As many converts are prone to do.
—Yes, the converts are the most severe judges. But, yes, they
should be able to answer essential questions. However, I am
speaking of my own experience, in Switzerland. I would suppose
that it is different in America, where there are hundreds of
different churches, Protestant denominations, and they are all
equal, so to say. There are dozens, unfortunately, of Orthodox
—Yes, America has the opposite problem: too much to choose
—It is confusing.
—Even so, it is still hard for some Orthodox Americans to
come forth and say, “This is the true Church.”
—Nevertheless, it is easier in America because there is no
“dominant” Church. It is not as in Italy, Spain, or even in
Germany, where there are two dominant Churches, the Catholic and
the Protestant. Side-by-side, or one over the other, depending
upon how you see it, the Catholic Church is a dominant
confession. Any Orthodox activity would be received badly, I
suppose—all the more since they depend upon the good will of the
Catholic Church. To get a church, to celebrate, when you are too
poor to build your own church, you need the good will of the
Catholic bishops. But I think the situation in America is
—Of course the Catholic Church is powerful in America, but in
North America they were initially entering into a Protestant,
Anglo-Saxon milieu. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church brought
many charitable works, hospitals, and schools to America,
although many people forget about this.
—Yes, but they should not.
Anyway, I am against any kind of proselytism, but we have to
answer questions, to say how things are, if people want to know.
God calls everybody to this, let’s say, “right place”.
Fr. Gabriel Bunge. Tonsure into the Great Schema.
—One last question. Do the local people who are not Orthodox
ever wander into your monastery and ask you about it?
—The local population has known me for thirty years, but mine
was always a very specific monastic life; and because they do
not know monks, there are no
monks (there were Franciscan brothers there, who are not monks),
they always wondered what sort of brothers we were. We wore
black, we had beards, we used to wear hoods, and looked quite
old fashioned. Their own local saint from the fifth century also
dressed just as we did, but they do not know this anymore. They
knew that we were very close to the Christian Orient, the holy
fathers, and that what I am saying today is no different from
what I have always said. That is one thing that people noticed
when I became Orthodox. One lady, a simple housewife with no
university education, who knew that we became Orthodox, said, “I
just want you to know that you will always be our Father
Gabriel, and you are doing what you have always taught us to
do—to go back to our roots. The Orthodox Church is just as it
was in the beginning.” So, a simple person without any
theological studies can catch the sense of it. They were not
shocked. There was no opposition against us. It sometimes
happens, as we are walking in the streets, people will say,
“Father, may I ask you a question?” I say, okay. “Are you an
Orthodox monk?” I say, yes. “Bravo!”
They are not used to seeing monks anymore. The only monks they
see are Orthodox monks. The Franciscan friars wore lay clothing,
so unless you knew them personally, you would not know that they
were friars. But Orthodox monks are always to be identified as
such. And for these people, it isn’t a provocation. They feel
strengthened. They say, fine! Bravo!
I must say, I didn’t expect that reaction. When I was enthroned
as abbot of my monastery (a big word for a small reality), there
were several Catholics present, many of them Benedictine monks.
They asked if they could come; they wanted to be there. They
were present at the Orthodox Liturgy, and I presented them to
the Bishop, who received them amiably. It was not perceived as a
hostile act against them or against the Catholic Church, but
rather as the final consequence of what I had always taught.
—They could see your integrity in this.
—Many of them would even like to do the same thing, but they are
too bound to the world in which they live; or, their knowledge
of Orthodoxy, of the Apostolic tradition, is too poor.
So, we have to return to our roots.