Metropolitan Nikodim (secular name Boris Georgiyevich Rotov, Russian: Борис Георгиевич Ротов, October 15, 1929-September 5, 1978 — he died in Rome at the young age of 48), was the Russian Orthodox metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod from 1963 until his death. Photo Credit
“Three days ago the Orthodox Metropolitan of Leningrad passed away in my arms. What wonderful things he (inaudible) told me. Things that were unknown to me. About his life, (inaudible) in his own words. He convinced Us that the Russian Church deserved love and understanding. That of course the Communists do not give even (inaudible), but that we should help, and we would all (inaudible). And so Nikodim inspired that love, the love for Orthodoxy.”— The late Jesuit scholar Fr. Michael Arranz, a Spaniard who died in 2008, recalling shortly before his death the words that he says Pope John Paul I spoke to the priests Rome on September 7, 1978, when the Pope met with them, three days after the death of Nikodim
Letter #59, Tuesday, March 29, 2022: The Death of Nikodim in the Arms of Pope John Paul I in 1978
Something extraordinary happened in 1978, a few days after the election of Pope John Paul I — the Pope who succeeded Paul VI, and who died after only 33 days, and then was followed by the first non-Italian Pope in centuries, John Paul II, from Poland.
During the brief weeks of his new pontificate, one of the most remarkable events involved a leading Russian Orthodox bishop, Metropolitan Nikodim (link), who came to Rome to observe the papal conclave, and who died in Rome on September 5, just a week after John Paul I was elected on August 28.
Most remarkable of all, Nikodim collapsed and then died at the feet of John Paul I.
Nikodim died after engaging in a 15-minute conversation, then turning pale, and falling to the floor at the new Pope’s feet.
And, according to eyewitness — Nikodim’s secretary for several years, Metropolitan Lev (Leo) Tserpitsky (link), and Fr. Michael Arranz, S.J., a Spanish Jesuit who spoke Russian fluently — Nikodim whispered some words to Pope John Paul I, and then Pope John Paul I gave the last rites to the Russian bishop, absolving him of his sins.
Here is one account of Nikodim’s death:
“The circumstances of the sudden repose of Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) are set out in great detail in the “Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate,” no. 11, in 1978.
“Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) had travelled to the Vatican at the head of the delegation of the Russian Church on the occasion of the enthronement of Pope John Paul I on 3 September, 1978.
“On 5 September, 1978, at 10 o’clock in the morning while he was in the papal office at an audience with Pope John Paul I in the Vatican, Metropolitan Nikodim suddenly fell asleep in the Lord when he suffered a heart attack. According to eyewitnesses, he looked very weary, and he suffered from an instantaneous cardiac arrest. It occurred while he was introducing Archimandrite Leo (Tserpitsky). This sudden repose was a great shock to all. Nevertheless, the Pope and Cardinal Jean-Marie Villaud both immediately prayed for him. This new pope would himself die 22 days later, also from a heart attack.
“Metropolitan Nikodim was 48 years old at that time.
“Until the time for the transfer to Leningrad, after his body was duly prepared, Metropolitan Nikodim lay in repose in the Church of Saint Anne in the Vatican.” (link)
Here is more information about Nikodim:
“Nikodim was born in Frolovo in southwest Russia. Ordained in 1960 at the age of 31, the youngest bishop in the Christian world at the time, he would go on to become one of the six presidents of the World Council of Churches.
“According to the Mitrokhin Archive, which claimed deep Communist penetration of the Russian Orthodox Church, Nikodim was a KGB agent whose ecumenical activity with the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC served to further Soviet goals. The KGB assigned Nikodim the codename “Svyatoslav”.
“Nikodim is said to have participated in negotiating a secret 1960s agreement between Soviet and Vatican officials that authorized Eastern Orthodox participation in the Second Vatican Council in exchange for non-condemnation of atheistic communism during the conciliar assemblies.
“Nikodim collapsed and died in 1978 while in Rome for the installation of Pope John Paul I. The new pope, who would himself die a few weeks later, prayed over him in his final moments. (link)
The following link contains a history of Catholic-OPrthdoox relations from the perspective of a Russian Orthodox scholar: (link)
This study contains these paragraphs — which I cannot confirm or deny — on Nikodim:
“Alexander Soldatov writes: ‘The most vivid supporter of the ‘reunion’ between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in the whole of history was Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) — the spiritual father and protector of the present Patriarch Cyril [Kirill]. In the Moscow Patriarchate it is widely believed that he was a secret cardinal, and also the prophecy of Blessed Pelagia of Ryazan addressed to Nikodim: ‘You will die like a dog at the feet of your pope.’ The metropolitan really did die at the age of 48 during a reception by Pope John-Paul I [in 1978]. In spite of his young age by hierarchical standards, Nikodim did a great deal. He was the first in the history of the Russian Church to serve with the Catholics, absorbed the Catholic mass, practiced spiritual exercises according to the method of Ignatius Loyola, and idolized pontiffs, especially the ‘red pope,’ John XXIII, to whom he devoted his master’s dissertation. He went to the Vatican every year; from 1968 he began to take with him Volodya Gundiaev, the present patriarch [Kirill].
“In 1969, when Patriarch Alexis I was dying, Nikodim was able to push through the Synod the decision to make it obligatory for Orthodox priests to give communion to Catholics ‘in the case of mortal danger.’ This decision was condemned even by the ecumenically-minded Greeks [and condemned as ‘heretical’ by the Russian Church Abroad in 1971]. The Russian emigre and well-known theologian Archbishop Basil (Krivoshein) explained this tendency as follows: ‘Metropolitan Nikodim was drawn to Catholicism above all by the idea he had of it as a powerful, strictly disciplined, single Church. In vain did they tell him many times that such a picture did not correspond to contemporary reality. Metropolitan Nikodim was in no way willing to renounce his conviction! It was the external appearance that worked on him.”
The remarkable scene of Nikodim’s has been often in my mind: A leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Nikodim from Leningrad — the beautiful city on the Neva, the “Paris of the East,” the city named originally for St. Peter, the city whose name was after 200 years changed to “Leningrad” after the Communist ascent to power, the city that is now is called St. Petersburg again — dying after meeting and talking with the new Pope.
But what has really sparked my interest in this event is that Nikodim was the “spiritual father” of… Patriarch Kirill (link), the present Russian Orthodox Patriarch, about whom I wrote in a letter yesterday, who is now being criticized by the West for not openly denouncing the decision of the Russian government to invade Ukraine.
I have just come across a video report reflecting on the death in 1978 of Metropolitan Nikodim, in Russian, here:
Both Metropolitan Lev and Father Arranz are interviewed, and I have now been able to have a transcript and a translation of their testimony.
[Note: I went personally to the Russicum in Rome, where Fr. Arrange lived, to speak with him in the early 2000s (Arranz died in 2008), asking him about his lifetime of work in Catholic-Orthodox relations, and what was wise to do and what not to do, and during our conversation, he spoke eloquently and at some length about what he saw when Nikodim collapsed and died in John Paul I’s arms. However, I did not make a video recording of that conversation, and so I am grateful to have discovered this recording.]
What we learn in these interviews is that John Paul I heard “wonderful things” from Nikodim in the last moment’s of his life, things which convinced Pope John Paul I that “the Russian church deserved love and understanding.” He summed up: “And so Nikodim inspired that love, the love for Orthodoxy.”
I went to look up the words of Pope John Paul I on September 7, 1978. I found his words at the following link.
But at this link, there are no words referring to Nikodim.
So, I am still looking for a website that can confirm these words of John Paul I, attested to by Fr. Arranz.
But in the present circumstances, I find it meaningful that, as the media is filled with criticism and attacks on Russia on general, on the Russian Orthodox Church in particular, and on Patriarch Kirill above all, as the head of that Church — on Kirill, who was the secretary of Nikodim, and is said to have been formed intellectually and spiritually by Nikodim — this old interview with Fr. Arranz should emerge, and the testimony should be made available to the final moments of the life of Nikodim.
Here is the transcript of the 7-minute video in Russian, in our own translation into English:
There is one more item of memorabilia here in this house, connected — very dear to me — connected with the last days of Bishop Nikodim. This is his staff.
On September 5, , when an audience was already scheduled with the newly elected pope [Pope John Paul I, elected August 26, 1978, and died 33 days later, on September 28, 1978], Vladyka Nikodim, in all his special vestments, the white Мetropolitan’s cowl with his cassock and a bishop’s staff, Vladyka arrived at the papal palace… and with this staff he took the last steps of his earthly life.
And here begins the last legend of Bishop Nikodim, the legend of his death. Vladyka sometimes said that he would like to die in Jerusalem at the tomb of the Lord, or in Rome at the tomb of the Apostle Peter. Mala (?) says that Metropolitan Nikodim was poisoned at an audience with Pope John Paul the First, and thirty-three days later the pope himself was poisoned. For what? After all, no one knows what the Russian Metropolitan was talking about with the pope, and the one man who was then nearby, the Vatican translator, Father Michael [Arranz], swore to remain silent.
New speaker (Fr. Michael Arranz, S.J., mentioned above; Fr. Arranz died in 2008):
Nikodim went into the Pope’s study and he was all pale. I was talking to him, explaining, “Here is some kind of picture, here” … He was no longer interested in any of it. [Normally] he always wanted to know everything… the artist, where it was from, why it was there. But he wasn’t interested.
He went into the Pope’s study, they sat, and then it was as if life had returned to him. He began to converse (inaudible)… he had very beautiful skin, fair skin. And he started to talk, for ten or fifteen minutes. After that they got up and then they called Nikodim’s secretary and Nikodim introduced his secretary, Lev, to the Pope. And Lev, the secretary, said that he was studying at (inaudible) a Roman university… “Oh, so you speak Italian!” “Yes.” And they started to speak Italian.
And Nikodim was looking at this whole scene with such joy, seeing that this man was already speaking directly with the Pope in the Pope’s native language. And then I (inaudible) Nikodim, and Nikodim sat down in a chair, and this was outside of all protocol; the Pope was standing, so why was he sitting? And suddenly he fell down before the Pope. But he fell down very gracefully, as if he was bowing in reverence. I was thinking, “What is this? Has he gone out of his mind?” And I went as if to bring him up and [gasps], he was already dead.
Did Vladyka fall on his knees before the pope? Archbishop Lev, an eyewitness to this death tells the story.
New speaker (Archbishop Lev, presumably):
So the Pope is here, Father Michael, the translator, is here, and Vladyka was in the chair. And I was on the right-hand side of Vladyka, further away.
And as soon as I came up next to him, Vladyka suddenly just [he collapses and falls towards his left side]. He lurched over to the left and Father Michael picked him up. Then Vladyka, somehow supported on his left side, began once again to fall towards me. So I picked him up, and I myself was confused about what was happening… It was evident that the man was not not well.
And he became – we were holding him up, and he was slipping, as it were.
And the Pope was standing above us, and he was saying, “What happened? What is all this?” He was confused.
And Fr. Mikhail (inaudible) told him that this wasn’t the first heart attack Vladyka had had. And he was saying, “So he could die?” And Fr. Mikhail: “Yes, anything is possible.”
And then he became somehow afraid. And he got down on his knees with us. And Vladyka then, sort of, whispered in someone’s ear. And then as it happened the Pope gave him the final absolution.
And then in the press there appeared, for some reason, stories that a mistake had happened there, that during the audience they mixed up the cups of coffee, that the Pope was supposed to have one cup but it went to Nikodim instead… there was coffee, there was no tea, because it was an official meeting that followed all protocols, and that is how things are done in these cases.
Narrator: …and yet Father Michael reveals the secret of Vladyka Nikodim’s last words.
New speaker (Fr. Michael):
Three days after the death of Nikodim, the Pope spoke to the Roman clergy: “Three days ago the Orthodox Metropolitan of Leningrad passed away in my arms. What wonderful things he (inaudible) told me. Things that were unknown to me. About his life, (inaudible) in his own words.”
He convinced us that the Russian Church deserved love and understanding. That of course the Communists do not give even (inaudible), but that we should help, and we would all (inaudible). And so Nikodim inspired that love, the love for Orthodoxy.
He inspired love for Orthodoxy.
The church of St. Anna in the Vatican, where the body of the deceased Metropolitan Nikodim was laid, turned into an Orthodox Church at the time of the mourning ceremonies. Thousands of people came here to say goodbye to the Russian Vladyka whom they knew, they feared, they loved.
And in the homeland they loved, and feared, Vladyka. When the sealed zinc coffin was brought to Leningrad, some doubted that the coffin held the late Metropolitan. It seemed that he would not return from Rome. But those who knew and loved Vladyka hurried to his coffin to find him still on earth and to mourn his untimely demise.