Andrei Zolotov interview w/+Hilarion Alfeyev
- [The interview took place a month ago, but hasn't been posted anywhere. In it +Hilarion speaks on the importance of the post-grad program, a new catechism, etc.]
February 5, 2010
Openness without Conformity
Interview by Andrei Zolotov, Jr.
On February 1, the first anniversary of Patriarch Kirill’s enthronement, his right-hand man and the youngest member of the Holy Synod was elevated to the rank of Metropolitan. A theologian and composer with an Oxford degree, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department of External Church Relations, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk has chosen to give his first interview in this new position to Russia Profile.
R.P.: We are not used to seeing a 43-year-old Metropolitan, though there are instances of even younger men being elevated to this height within the Church in the Russian Orthodox Church’s recent history. How has it changed your life and ministry?
M.H.: I regard my elevation as a huge advance by His Holiness the Patriarch to make me ever more diligent as the head of the Department of External Church Relations. That is a very high position, which implies a corresponding position in Church hierarchy. But then, one’s work is judged not by ranks and awards, but by efficiency and dedication to the Church.
As St. Paul says, of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. I can say only one thing for sure: I have never been lazy. I have always been eager to work, and my life gains intensity with every new appointment. It would never have occurred to me, say, eighteen months ago, that I would ever have so much work, or that I would bear such great responsibility for every word I utter and every decision I make.
R.P.: How do you divide your time between your numerous duties at the Department, the Church Postgraduate and Doctoral School, of which you are Rector, the catechism compiling commission, which you head, and the Inter-Conciliar Assembly, of which you are member, to say nothing of writing theological works and music?
M.H.: I have not written music since I became head of the Department of External Church Relations. Now, I have to postpone theological work indefinitely to my profound regret. I attend to my duties at the Department and other Church offices. I make a point of visiting the Department regularly and meeting everyone who wants to see me, which really is a lot of people. I also feel obliged to meet postgraduate students regularly, so I get to know everyone in person. This morning, for instance, I attended a meeting of doctoral students, and had lunch with them afterwards.
The Church of Our Lady the Joy of all who Sorrow, on Moscow’s Ordynka Street, is very important to me. I am its senior priest. In short, I am a very busy man. I sometimes finish work at 10 or 11 p.m., and then when I get home, I start on the paperwork.
R.P.: You were recently appointed to lead the commission compiling the Orthodox Catechism. Why is it necessary, and what is the meaning of this work?
M.H.: At present, the Russian Orthodox Church has no official presentation of its doctrine, moral theology, asceticism, and devotion. There is vast literature on all that but there is no modern official catechism, endorsed by the supreme ecclesiastical authority. True, there is the Catechism of St. Philaret (Drozdov). It has been in use for almost 200 years now: but then, its language and thematic range are outdated. For instance, it states that duels are inadmissible, while omitting matters essential to today’s Christians. We intend to compile a thematically comprehensive book, similar to an encyclopedia, which would present the doctrine of the Orthodox Church in the greatest possible detail.
R.P.: Your Eminence, in a sense, you are at the center of Patriarch Kirill’s efforts to consolidate the Church’s present-day intellectual capital. What should we expect from the second year of his patriarchate?
M.H.: I think its first year has clearly indicated the Church’s priorities for the years to come. They are, above all, its missionary activities and its focus on the person. All too often, our public regards the Church as an institution and thinks it exists to build churches and arrange all kinds of events. A person is sidelined or forgotten altogether by the Church’s vibrant activities.
For instance, our Church has no homes to offer retired priests and bishops to ensure that they have a dignified life in their final years. People who have given their all to the Church sometimes die in utter poverty and solitude. There are many other situations in which the Church should take care of people – not necessarily the clergy. The Church could assume the care of retirement homes and do a great deal for orphans and homeless children. Certainly, the Church needs resources for all that, while it has none now. I think the work of His Holiness the Patriarch for the restitution of Church property is born of his desire to ensure the Church serves men, and to expand the opportunities for charity.
R.P.: You studied at Oxford, and the postgraduate school of which you are the Rector is focused on integration with the Western education system. What does a comparison of the contemporary Russian and Western ecclesiastical educational systems show?
M.H.: First of all, we should integrate our church education into the Bologna process, which concerns the format of education and academic degrees. Russian degrees should be brought into conformity with ones from Western universities.
We should instill the academic approach in our students, and train them in independent research. That is very important. Our seminaries do not currently do that, and I am not sure theological academies do. To this day ecclesiastical schooling is based on tedious details that have to be learned by heart. That is one great weakness of our theological education. Men who have studied at the seminary for five years and another three years at the academy are all too often incapable of independent research. Compilation is the best they can do.
Research forces the student to develop the ability to formulate the subject of his work and investigate it. The scientific method supposes that all research, especially a doctoral dissertation, should make a discovery in the author’s field of knowledge. The experience of Western universities and theological schools is indispensable here. So we should not only teach our postgraduates in Russia, but also send them or some of them, at least, to study abroad.
R.P.: What is the ultimate task of the Russian Orthodox Church’s external policy?
M.H.: It is extremely important for our Church not to wall itself off. The Orthodox Church possesses vast treasures, among them a cultural heritage that can serve all of mankind. There are Russian icons in many non-Orthodox Christian churches in the West today, which means that at least some aspects of Orthodoxy are open, accessible and acceptable to Christians of other denominations, and it attracts them. This is, essentially, a silent Orthodox mission in the non-Orthodox West. Should we give up this mission?
That is why Orthodox Christianity should adapt to become part of the religious and cultural environment of the Western civilization. But then, Orthodox Christianity has its own identity, and it is very important for representatives of the European, Western civilization to perceive and understand us correctly. To that end, we in our turn should learn to present our tradition so as to make it accessible and attractive to people of the West. This is one of the duties of the Department of External Church Relations.
R.P.: But there is a very strong isolationist trend in the Orthodox Church, and many will vigorously oppose what you have said about this move toward Western culture.
M.H.: We should by no means try to conform to Western standards. We should not repeat the error of many Protestant communities which obediently adopted liberal standards, adapting their religion to suit. That would be suicidal for the Church. We can, however, become more open without making doctrinal and ethical concessions, and without lowering the supreme intellectual and theological level that is characteristic of the Orthodox liturgy. We can make our tradition more accessible and acceptable to a wide range of people. This is a great and holy missionary duty for the entire Church.
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