(Video: Archbishop Hilarion holds a news conference in French during his Paris visit, 13 Nov 2009/courtesy of Orthodoxie.com)
Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the Russian Orthodox Church’s top official for relations with other churches, has been busy this past week putting his revived church’s stamp on the world Christian scene. Over the weekend, he urged Catholics and Orthodox to join forces to defend their traditional version of Christianity. His comments, made during a visit to Paris to inaugurate his Church’s first seminary outside of Russia, come only days after positive remarks he made last week about how the Vatican and Moscow were slowly moving towards a meeting between Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill and Pope Benedict. Also last week, Hilarion indicated the Russian Orthodox might end their ecumenical dialogue with Lutherans after Germany’s Protestants elected a divorced woman, Bishop Margot Kässmann, as the new head of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). After all this, he planned to take off for a visit to China. (Photo: Saint Seraphin Russian Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate) in a courtyard in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, 27 Sept 2009/Tom Heneghan)
At his news conference, the 43-year-old archbishop said the Catholic and Orthodox churches were “already working together in many areas. Their views are almost identical in matters of doctrine and social ethics. They could show all these values in secular society, nationally or internationally, for example regarding the concept of family, environment, economy, education etc.. Orthodox and Catholics should find a common language and speak with one voice to defend the values that derive from their faith. They could also work effectively in many areas of social and charitable work. This testimony and cooperation, I am sure, could help us take a different approach to the theological issues that divide us. They could make the question of unity more interesting to a wider audience, which is little concerned with theological issues such as the Filioque or primacy issues, but sensitive to questions that concern everyday life. I had the honour to raise these issues with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI last September, during my visit to Rome.”
He also evoked this theme at the opening of the Russian Orthodox seminary in a former 17th-century Catholic convent in Epinay-sous-Sénart outside of Paris. “The opening of an Orthodox seminary of the Moscow Patriarchate in Paris is an unprecedented event,” he said. “The seminary is called among other things to become an important center of rapprochement between traditional Christian Churches in Europe … The primary task of Paris Seminary is to offer high-quality theological education. The seminary is also to become a link between the Russian Orthodox Church and Christians in France.”
Hilarion said Catholics and Orthodox were making progress in theological discussions on issues that split them in the Great Schism over a millennium ago. But he said the Moscow Patriarchate took a “prudent” approach to the “uncertain and distant results of theological dialogue … it knows that such a dialogue will probably take decades to come to a result.”
On that dialogue with German Protestants, Hilarion was quoted last week as citing protocol problems arising from Kässmann’s election. “We can develop the dialogue, but there are lots of simple protocol questions. How will the Patriarch address her or meet with her?” the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying. This elicited a sharp reaction from Kässman and Bishop Martin Schindehütte, Hilarion’s counterpart in the EKD. In a joint letter to Patriarch Kirill, they expressed their “great surprise and incomprehension” at his “unsuitable” remarks on her election. They said there was a Christian commandment of mutual respect “im geschwisterlichen Umgang” (in brotherly and sisterly interchange) among churches despite theological differences and regretted that a planned ceremony on November 30 to mark 50 years of EKD-Russian Orthodox dialogue had to be called off.