07/28/2018, 17.05
RUSSIA
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'On Your Roads’: biker priest on long road trip to highlight the poverty of Russia’s rural churches

by Vladimir Rozanskij

Fr Ioann Karabidovich, 36, who took off on an 8,000-km bike ride on 16 July, is already halfway, set to reach Moscow in the evening of 31 July where he will tour abandoned provincial churches with other Orthodox bikers. A 2019 ‘On Your Roads’ calendar is in the making, with sales to go to support poor families and an Orthodox mission in Pakistan.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Father Ioann Karabidovich is a 36-year-old Orthodox priest in Chelyabinsk, a city in the Urals, who has decided to organise an 8,000-km motorcycle trip to draw attention to the problems of the Church and its priests in Russia’s vast provinces.

Titled ‘On your roads’, the trip will see the ‘biker priest’, as he likes to call himself on social media, travel through European Russia along with a large group of fellow Orthodox bikers.

The first goal of the initiative is to visit and show the public, thanks to the group's video coverage, the desolation of many rural and village churches, destroyed or desecrated by the communists during the Soviet era, and never restored or returned to the faithful.

Father Ioann also wants to tell and document the stories of Orthodox parishes in the “real Russia", which is so different and challenging compared to those in big cities.

An On-the-road calendar

Without sponsors and despite the scepticism of Church leaders, the biker priest wants to make a documentary of the “lost shrines” relying only on his own resources and on the help of friends, to be released as soon as possible.

The trip began in Chelyabinsk on 16 July and is already through the halfway point after going from Chelyabinsk to Voronezh, Sevastopol, Simferopol and Belgorod, before coming to the capital.

Fr Ioann should reach Moscow on the evening of 31 July. Afterwards he is expected to tour the Moscow (Podmoskovye) Oblast (province) to visit abandoned churches along with scores of other Orthodox bikers and a car and crew video-taping the trip.

Pictures from the trip will be included in a 2019 On Your Roads calendar, a repeat of this year’s calendar with sales earmarked for poor families, especially those of poor priests. Some will go to a Russian Orthodox mission in Pakistan.

Mission on a Honda Gold Wind GL 1500 SE

Fr Ioann has loved motorcycles since he was a teenager in Kazakhstan, and his religious vocation did not weaken it. On the back of a Honda Gold Wind GL 1500 SE, he travels the countryside visiting his most isolated parishioners, often unreachable by car. His bike’s front bumper sports a skull, a reminder that life is short, something, Fr Ioann believers, Christians should never forget.

Bikers come from across Russia travel to see the “Pastor”, to be blessed in his parish, dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky. They also turn to him for spiritual advice and instruction, and "confessions on two wheels" are not unusual. When he drives the car, or rides his bike, Fr Ioann also holds popular video-catechesis on social media.

The labours of a married priest

Following Orthodox tradition, the priest from Chelyabinsk is married, with Tatiana, and has three daughters: Elena, Marta and Sofia (picture 3). His daughters are into sports and love music, and their parents do not force them to go to church. Fr Ioann is indeed unconventional, especially in the countryside where priests’ families are “drafted” into performing liturgical songs, reading psalms and cleaning the church.

The biker priest wants to call attention to the conditions in which priests and their families live, so that they not be reduced to a "closed caste", often forgotten by Church leaders, in which children are forced to become priests or priests' wives to continue the “family business" and hardly make ends meet.

In the Orthodox Church the "white" or diocesan clergy is obligatorily married, whilst the "black clergy", formed by monks, is the only one whose members can rise to episcopal offices and the Church government. Misunderstandings between married parish priests and monastic bishops are frequent as a result of the latter’s insensitivity to their subordinates’ practical needs.

Parish priests are often forced to look for a second job, which is almost invariably farming in the countryside. By contrast, Fr Ioann has broken the mould thanks to his love for motorcycles, something that is barely tolerated by the metropolitan curia in Chelyabinsk.

The city where his parish is located has a population of two million people. For the biker priest, taking off on a motorbike to more open spaces is a way of recharging his spiritual batteries, like the rider of the famous horse-drawn troika sleigh in Gogol’s Dead Souls, who sets off in search of Russia’s soul in the endless vastness of its fields and forests.

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