Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: “An inter-orthodox problem”

Interview by Robert Moynihan, “Inside the Vatican”

Inside the Vatican: Bishop Hilarion, everyone wants to know why you walked out of the Ravenna meaning. How could this have happened at the last minute like this? Was the presence of the Estonian delegation something you did not know about before you arrived?

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: First, it was not only I who walked out. It was the entire delegation, which consisted of myself and Father Igor Vyzhanov. It was not my decision to walk out. It was the decision of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Bishops’ Council in the year 2000, which I could not disobey. Moreover, at the request of Metropolitan John (Zizioulas), I phoned Metropolitan Kirill to ask what I was supposed to do, and he said that both I and Father Igor had to leave. So, it was not my decision; it was the official decision. And it was not my ultimatum; it was that of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is very important to say this clearly. I do not think I was in any way responsible for the decision, which was not mine. But each of us represents our Churches.

Second, no, the list of participants was not known before we arrived. In fact, from the very beginning of the official Catholic-Orthodox dialogue in 1980 until 2007 the list of participants remained unchanged, and Ravenna was the first time when the Patriarchate of Constantinople unilaterally decided to invite the representatives of the so-called Estonian Autonomous Church. This came as an unpleasant surprise, especially because the Patriarchate of Constantinople had been aware of the position of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted at its Bishops’ Council of 2000. This Council decided that we cannot participate in an official meeting where the representatives of the so-called Estonian Autonomous Church are present.

There are a number of autonomous and autocephalous Churches which, for various reasons, are not universally recognized in the Orthodox world. For example, there is the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America and the autonomous Orthodox Church of Japan: they were never invited to such dialogues because the Patriarchate of Constantinople does not recognize their current status. If the so-called Church of Estonia, which is an autonomous structure under the Patriarchate of Constantinople, should be invited, why not invite these other churches? Why, then, not invite the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has an autonomous status under the Moscow Patiarchate? What about the autonomous Orthodox Church of Latvia? What about the Orthodox Church of Estonia that belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate and also has an autonomous status?

If the composition of the Orthodox half of the Mixed Commission should be changed, this must be done with the consent of all Orthodox Churches. If, however, there is no such consent, it is safer to preserve the composition of the Orthodox group as it was from the beginning – until the matter is resolved at a Pan-Orthodox Council.

ITV: What is the role of the “Petrine office” in Orthodox theology and practice?

Bishop Hilarion: We do not have any theology of the Petrine office on the level of the Universal Church. Our ecclesiology does not have room for such a concept. This is why the Orthodox Church has for centuries opposed the idea of the universal jurisdiction of any bishop, including the Bishop of Rome.

We recognize that there is a certain order in which the primates of the Local Churches should be mentioned. In this order the Bishop of Rome occupied the first place until 1054, and then the primacy of order in the Orthodox Church was shifted to the Patriarch of Constantinople, who until the schism had been the second in order. But we believe that all primates of the Local Churches are equal to one another, and none of them has jurisdiction over any other…

ITV: Was there something you intended or planned to say at Ravenna?

Bishop Hilarion: My intention was to work hard in Ravenna both as a member of the Mixed Commission and as a member of its Drafting Committee. In the spring of this year, the Drafting Committee met in Rome, and we successfully resolved the problems that had been created during the plenary meeting of the Commission in Belgrade in 2006. I had every reason to believe that, if our proposals were accepted in Ravenna, we would have moved forward and finished the document. Apparently, the document is now finished, but since I did not take part in the discussions I am not qualified to say whether its conclusions will be acceptable for my Church.

The absence of the Moscow Patriarchate from this stage of the work of the Mixed Commission, in my opinion, makes the whole work of the Commission problematic. I know that the Patriarchate of Constantinople does not share this opinion. Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) said very clearly to me in front of all other Orthodox delegates: ‘If one Orthodox Church leaves, the others will continue the dialogue’. But the Moscow Patriarchate represents more than a half of world Orthodox Christianity. Without it, the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue will in fact be a dialogue of the Catholic Church with less than a half of the Orthodox Church.

I am aware that the Catholics regard the whole situation as an ‘inter-Orthodox problem.’ This is a comfortable position. I believe, however, that the situation should be a matter of concern also for our Catholic partners, if they want this dialogue to be truly legitimate and inclusive. Some common efforts should be made in order to avoid similar situations in the future.

ITV: What might the future hold? Will there be another meeting? Is there any chance for Christians to be in communion with one another, or will the divisions continue – perhaps another thousand years, perhaps forever?

Bishop Hilarion: I hope that by the next meeting of the Mixed Commission, which will take place probably in two years, some solution will be found which will allow the Orthodox Churches to work together in harmony and solidarity, as was the case before Ravenna. In the meantime the Russian Orthodox Church will study the whole question of primacy in the Universal Church from a theological point of view. By the decision of the Holy Synod, the Theological Commission of the Moscow Patriarchate is given the mandate to examine this question and to produce a relevant paper. This paper will form the basis of the Moscow Patriarchate’s position in the future discussion on the issue of primacy within the Mixed Commission, if we return to it. I say ‘if’, because our ability to join the Commission will largely depend on the position of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Only God knows whether or when the division between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches will be overcome. But I believe that we must work for it. And I am deeply saddened that ‘church politics’ undermines our work. In the time when we urgently need to find new ways for coming closer to each other we demonstrate disunity and discord.

I am glad, however, that apart from the Mixed Commission there are other mechanisms of Catholic-Orthodox collaboration, and I am sure that more such mechanisms will be created in the future. There is, for example, the whole area of bilateral relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. There is an ongoing cultural exchange, there is an exchange on the scholarly level, and there are many other examples of cooperation. This gives us hope for a major breakthrough in our relationship in the near future. Such a breakthrough would be most timely and most welcome.


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