Rome (AsiaNews) – Metropolitan Kirill, head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, might accompany Russian President Vladimir Putin in his visit to see the Pope on March 13, this according to the Russian Orthodox Bishop of Vienna and Austria, Hilarion (Alfeeev), who is in Rome these days to prepare the meeting of the Joint Theological Commission scheduled for next October in Ravenna (Italy). For the bishop, who is also the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Union, Benedict XVI and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I are not likely to take part in that meeting together because such a tête-à-tête would go against Orthodoxy’s hierarchy, which, unlike the Catholic Church, has more than one head. Conversely, relations between the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate are developing well with both sides engaged in bearing a “joint Christian witness to Europe and the world” and in asserting the values of life and family against a growing secularism.
Bishop Hilarion, on what topics is the Russian Orthodox Church interested in working with the Catholic Church?
First of all the Patriarchate is interested in developing a joint Christian witness to Europe and the world. We must come to understand that as far as mission is concerned we are not competitors but allies. And we should behave accordingly without proselytising against one another. By that I mean there should be no proselytising in predominantly Orthodox countries by Catholics and vice-versa.
As for the rest, there are historical disagreements between the two Churches on theological matters but in terms of social doctrine and morality we hold the same views. The Orthodox Church is very worried by secularism in Europe and in a wider sense in the West. We especially view the demographic decline we are experiencing as tragic. This phenomenon is rooted above all in a spiritual crisis, in the loss of the values of the Christian tradition. Saving the family has become a key point that unites us. The view that the family is out of fashion, outdated, has become a dominant idea. People today are more interested in free love and not in stable ties, in a family with children. In Russia the demographic decline has reached catastrophic levels, a million fewer people every year. The causes are many: abortions, contraceptives.
In Russia the state relies on the Church to address the country’s acute social ills. Unlike Europe, that is . . .
In Russia the Church is separate from the State, which does not mean there is no cooperation. One example for instance involves the problem of demographic decline on which we can and must work together, each with its own means. The state can increase transfers to families, adopt a wiser immigration policy, support children’s education. The Church can instead transmit moral values and in their right order. In this day and age one’s career, money, pleasure have become the priority; the family comes in last place. But the Church teaches that the first value is the soul’s salvation, followed by the family in which one can have children and raise them in the faith. I find it quite artificial that in some European countries politicians claim that the Church should not intervene in society’s problems, relegating it to the four walls of religious buildings, or considering it a hobby, a private thing. Christ did not create the Church for private use but with a missionary vocation and for this reason it must be present in society as well and have the possibility to influence social life—naturally without getting directly involved in any political battle or campaign.
You are here in Rome as a member of the Joint Theological Commission. What progress has there been so far?
Today’s meeting of the Joint Commission saw a small group of three Catholics and three Orthodox work on a text to bring to Ravenna this fall. The main topic was conciliarity and the role of the Council in the Universal Church. Discussing this we are moving onto the most delicate issue in our relations on a theological level, namely that of the Petrine Primacy. It is still difficult to foresee what the outcome of this discussion will be, but the fact that it started and continues ought to be seen as a positive sign.
You will be the top ranking representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ravenna where there is talk of a joint intervention by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch.
It is true. There is a possibility that Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, and Benedict XVI might attend this event together. But I doubt the Pope will travel to Ravenna because it would cause more trouble than it is worth. The other members of the Commission are likely to feel under too much pressure with both present. Having Benedict and Bartholomew, not to mention the other patriarchs, would give the wrong impression that they are head of their Church. In fact, the Orthodox Church is structured differently from the Catholic Church. It consists of autocephalous Churches, each with its own primate and all equal. There is a certain order of importance but none is subordinate to any of the others. We respect Bartholomew I’s supremacy as Ecumenical Patriarch, coordinator of the various Churches, but he has no legal or administrative supremacy. If there is a meeting it must be seen as a meeting between the leader of the Church of Rome and that of Constantinople, not between the head of the Catholic Church and that of the Orthodox Church.
What sense can we give to the Russian President’s visit to the Vatican next March 13? Will there be official Orthodox representatives?
Vladimir Putin is on a state visit. The president will meet Benedict XVI as the head of the Vatican state. The presence of Metropolitan Kirill in the delegation that will accompany Putin in Italy cannot be excluded even though he is involved in a seminar at UNESCO. Usually during official visits by the president, especially if they have a religious component or touch upon the Church, there are always members of the Patriarchate. It is very likely it will be also be the case this time.
Isn’t the official rapprochement between the two Churches reflected in a greater dialogue at the local level between the laity and the religious from the two communities?
In Russia there is greater mutual understanding between the nuncio, Mgr Antonio Mennini, and the leadership of the Orthodox Church, between the bishop of the Mother of God Church, Mgr Kondrusiewicz, and the Orthodox authorities. On a daily basis relations are however difficult because Catholics missionaries and priests are still engaged in proselytising. We don’t need Orthodox to convert to Catholicism or vice-versa. We need to convert to Christianity those with no faith. We must develop a strategy to reach this goal together without harming one another. I think that at the official level, that of the leaders, progress in relations are most visible, but at the base it is not the same thing and this often creates problems. The faithful do not understand our overture to Catholics. The Orthodox Church has a duty to explain the reasons behind the dialogue. And Catholics must show their good intentions. What we need is greater knowledge beyond any prejudices. In Russia ecumenical meetings are being organised, not only with Catholics but also with other religions. But we don’t need only an official ecumenism; we need something more concrete, based on facts and mutual respect. Only this way can we reach real rapprochement. But the journey is long.