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"Extremism Is Always a Source of Evil”

In an interview granted by His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, to Igor Smykov, Head of Social Programs at Russia’s Military Orthodox Mission, he discusses some of the more pressing problems facing the Church in our difficult times: support for parishioners in their spiritual and daily lives, relationships with other confessions and the position of the Church on issues in the world today.

Your Eminence, what was your reaction to your election as First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 2008?

This has been a difficult obedience for me. In no way did I desire such a heavy cross, to be a Primate, the President of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, for my predecessors were men of a lofty spiritual life—Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), Metropolitan Anastassy (Gribanovsky), Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky), Metroplitan Vitaly (Oustinov), and my immediate predecessor, Metropolitan Laurus (Shkurla). For this reason it was with fear and trembling that I took up my responsibilities, but I sensed that I could not be disobedient to the Church, and that someone must bear this cross. That is why I submitted to my election, wholly relying on Divine help and the prayers of all Orthodox faithful.

Besides the canonical ones, which traditions of your predecessor Metropolitan Laurus do you feel you should assume? What are the biggest problems facing the ROCOR you inherited?

Vladyka Metropolitan Laurus was a man of peace, love and humility. He always addressed situations calmly and thoughtfully, and did not rush to judgment or make rash decisions. I believe he made decisions with God’s help, with fervent prayer, that is, he made decisions carefully. I think one can learn from him that everything should be done calmly, in peace. Of course, we are mortals. The main thing is to recognize one’s own failings and to correct them.

There are differing kinds of problems in our Church. First of all, we suffer from a lack of clergymen. Our dioceses abroad are located on various continents. Some countries are very poor, for instance, those in South America, and the Church cannot properly minister to the people there. Secondly, there is the problem of assimilation. People who live outside of their Homeland are under the influence of the local cultures and languages. First of all we must preserve the Orthodox faith. If we do not lose our faith, then we will preserve the Russian language and culture. Otherwise, death and dissolution await us in the local culture—un-Christian, un-Orthodox and non-Russian. Three entire generations of our people, the descendants of the first emigres, live in Orthodoxy, and it is very important that their bond with the Church is not broken. Those of us who live abroad must represent our faith and our traditions in various languages. This is a difficult challenge, but with God’s help, we prevail.

What is the specific character of ROCOR today? In what way is Orthodox life in Russia and abroad different? Is the difference in the mentality of the parishioners of the Local Russian Orthodox Church of different parts of the world different?

I already partially answered that question. In Russia, the number of believers is so great that it is difficult for priests to maintain personal contact with their parishioners. Priests--and even bishops--abroad, are pretty closely acquainted with their flock. True, in smaller villages in Russia, priests do know their parishioners. This is very good for the faithful themselves, because in the priest they have a father, a teacher, a spiritual guide who can always come to their aid. In the same way, the priests of the Local Russian Orthodox Church are eager to help. This is the main difference. In Russia, there are more and more believers, and priests physically cannot be accessible to everyone, especially those who have not yet begun to attend church. That is a parallel missionary task: to bring the un-churched to the Church, acquaint them with faith in God and Orthodoxy. Abroad, where the flock is smaller, one cannot but do missionary work among the heterodox. Often people come to Church themselves and ask to be received. Our Savior taught us to go unto all peoples and preach the Gospel of salvation.

What are your memories the Diocese of Australia and New Zealand?

This is a part of my life, my heart, and memories of it evoke the happiest feelings in me. When I was appointed Archbishop for the Australian and New Zealand Diocese, it was the first time I became a Ruling Bishop. Before that I was only a vicar, that is, an assistant. For a bishop, his diocese is his bride. That is why the Diocese of Australia and New Zealand is still under my authority—I spent 13 years there, and everyone there is dear to me, we feel like a single family. I hope that the Lord helps us to continue our peaceful, calm life, which is salvific for everyone in our diocese.

What are the defining features of the relationship of the Russian Orthodox Church with the state in today’s Russia?

We are very happy that full religious freedom has come to Russia, and that Orthodoxy is the faith of most Russians and plays an important part in the life of society. It is a joy that a good, benevolent relationship has been established between the Church and state. When His Holiness the Patriarch was elected, he correctly said: “There is a symphony in which the Church and state help each other for the good of the people. We welcome this.”

To what degree does ROCOR sense the influence of constantly-changing circumstances in modern life? How does this affect the traditions of divine service? Is the Russian Church Abroad successful in combining a healthy conservatism and the satisfaction of new demands for change?

Christianity in the West is rapidly disappearing, evaporating, and the faithful sense change. Anti-Christian sentiments are growing, Christians are mocked. This makes the life of the Orthodox Christian difficult, but thank God, there is freedom in the West. A person must be strong in his faith, he must adhere to his traditions, he must observe the laws of Christ. We are most concerned with matters of language: it is very important that believers understand every word in divine services. That is why abroad, if necessary, we conduct services in the vernacular—English, French, German. For many of our parishioners do not speak Russian, and more so Church Slavonic. At the same time, we preserve the traditions of our divine services, there is no need to change them.

Missionary work is most often associated with the widening of the sphere of influence of the Catholic Church. At the same time, Orthodox Christian traditions during all times are glorified by a multitude of holy podvizhnik missionaries. In the epoch of Revolutionary upheavals, thousands of people who accepted baptism suddenly found themselves in the snares of “enlightened heathenism,” remaining Christians only in name. What is your view of the character of the missionary work of ROCOR in Russia and abroad?

When Catholics came to South and North America, they made a big mistake: they forcibly converted people to Christianity. In the end, Christianity mixed with paganism, and today we see how in South America, for instance, there is a great exodus from Catholicism to other religions, especially Protestantism and Pentecostalism. Orthodox Christianity always preached Christ with love and humility, and strived for the people to become convinced in the truth of the faith. Only a person convinced can become a true Christian.

Today, a great challenge faces the Russian Church: to preach Orthodox Christianity among the various peoples of the Russian Federation and the countries of the former Soviet Union. The Orthodox Church Abroad preaches to people outside of Russia’s borders, to those who have Russian or Slavic ancestry, teaching them about the faith in various languages, helping those who wish to adhere to the true Orthodox Church. We must always accept them with an open heart. Today, thank God, there is a great deal of catechistical literature in various languages. In Russia, too, there is an abundance of spiritual literature.

Today, in many developed countries, nationalistic extremism has appeared in the form of ugly patriotism and ethnic self-consciousness. Does this exist on the canonical territory of ROCOR? What do you feel are the paths to overcoming this problem, and what is the role of the Church in this area?

I would say that among Russians living abroad, there is no problem with national division. We live in peace among those of various nationalities and religions. At the same time, one cannot refute that this problem exists in various countries, there are instances of fanaticism, extremism. These are negative phenomena. If the Church has any influence on people she must teach them to treat each other with tolerance and respect. We as Orthodox Christians cannot support extremists.

Today, when the media often takes an aggressively negative attitude towards the institution of the Church, when in the interests of international corporations, the foundations of lawfulness and good order, people are deprived of the opportunity to defend their human rights, the tendency for religious extremism to grow is cause for alarm. How real is this for ROCOR, and in your opinion, what position should the Church take in this regard?

You must be referring to what is written in the newspapers and internet about those who did not accept the unification of the Russian Church Abroad and the Orthodox Church in Russia, those who attempt to besmirch His Holiness the Patriarch, the hierarchy and everything the comprises the Russian Orthodox Church. Of course, this is unavoidable, since we have the freedom of speech. But, as Holy Scripture says, we must discern: is this from God or not, we must examine, and not naively accept, words of derision. That is why extremism is always a source of evil, when not used for the positive but for the negative.

What are your personal impressions from your participation in the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church of January 2009 in Moscow? What were the more important questions resolved? Were your expectations met?  

This Council was very memorable. First of all, such great meetings of the Episcopate of the Church were rarely held in the past. Of course, the most important event was the election of the new Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill. Also, a few important decisions were made. Among them was the establishment of a new mechanism to research various questions relating to church life and morality. It is very important to determine how the Church is to rule on these questions. Thankfully, the Russian Orthodox Church today has the opportunity to thoughtfully, collegially study problems and come to positive decisions.

The sudden death of His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II was received with sorrow by the faithful of the Russian Orthodox Church. How do you view the person and the achievements of the late Patriarch?

I have a great deal of respect for the late Patriarch Alexy II. He served during a truly difficult period—a time which moved from persecution by the godless authorities to the reestablishment of church life. He presided in the Church and was a pacifying figure, helping everyone work together towards rebuilding the Russian Orthodox Church after her former Babylonian enslavement by the godless state, that is, atheism. What he accomplished will enter the history books of the Russian Orthodox Church as the most fruitful in the area of returning churches, reestablishing men’s and women’s monasteries throughout Russia, baptisms, etc. And of course, it was under him that the Act of the reunification into One Russian Church of the formerly divided Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia occurred.

Today we witness a colossal growth in social, political, economic and ecological catastrophes and upheavals. For this reason, among Christians throughout the world, an apocalyptic mood is gaining strength, which is not infrequently exploited by representatives of many sects and heretical groups. Under these circumstances, how is one to give the believers true guidance, without hysterics, in their spiritual and daily lives?

All the catastrophes taking place now are the result of the sin of mankind, of greed, of life without God. We must not despair, but repent. If we repent of our personal sins, if we try to live by Divine law and fulfill the testaments of Christ, then we will be consoled, despite everything that is happening. For our earthly life will end, as will the world we live in. We as Christians must accept this calmly and await the Second Coming of Christ.

Many prognosticators have surfaced now. One must believe in Christ, for no one knows when the End will come, even the Angels of God, only God the Father. But each of us must be prepared to meet the Lord.

As we know, idol worship, and in particular, serving the golden calf, is one of the most widespread sins in the world today. Many entrepreneurs are faced with the challenge of remaining competitive in the dog-eat-dog market economy, while preserving wholeness in one’s personal life. What words does ROCOR speak on this matter in the face of the dissemination of Western values?

I think that these opinions are shared by all Christians, and not only ROCOR. Wealth in and of itself is not evil. Evil is comprised of working only for the sake of wealth, of money. If man works honestly, observing moral laws, then the Lord will allow him to profit. This is not a sin. Sin is living only for oneself, or obtaining riches dishonestly. I am very happy that in Russia, many Orthodox entrepreneurs are involved in philanthropic work. For in the past, wealthy people built churches, almshouses and hospitals. For instance, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna tended to the poor, helped the needy from her personal wealth. Entrepreneurs who have achieved success in their efforts must share with those in need. Then the Lord will bless them and grant them salvation. Not only the wealthy, but the poor can be miserly. That is why neither poverty nor wealth are a sin, nor are they a good. When we sense that our neighbor is in need, we must sympathize and help him.

In your opinion, what is the difference in the understanding of the rights and freedoms of mankind between the Church and the modern world?

A person may live in a free society, but be enslaved by his sins and passions. That is why a truly free person is one who is bound to the Lord, who takes upon himself the burden of Christ, or the yoke of the Faith of Christ, and frees himself from sinful habits and passions through prayer, personal podvigi [spiritual deeds] and strictness with regard to himself. Even in prison, he can be the freest person if he believes in God and his conscience is clear.

In September 2009, the main holy icon of the Russian Diaspora came to Russia for the first time—the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God “of the Sign.” What is your opinion of the significance of this event for the Russian Diaspora and for the Russian Orthodox Church? This is not the first time you are visiting Russia. What made the greatest impression upon you during your visit to our Fatherland?

The visit of the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God for the first time since 1920 is a spiritual symbol of ecclesiastical unity. Before our reunification in 2007, it would have been difficult to imagine that this great holy icon, which nourishes those abroad who suffer spiritually, could visit Russia. But now this has taken place, and we see how great belief and piety are among the Russian people. People come in multitudes, to venerate the icon and pray before her. This warms our hearts. We thank God that He allowed this, and that the Mother of God, in Her holy icon, arrived in Russia for the consolation of the Russian Orthodox people, as it consoles the people in the dioceses, parishes and homes of the Russian emigration.

On May 17, 2007,  the Act of Canonical Communion between ROCOR and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) was signed at Christ the Savior Cathedral was not accepted by a part of the clergy and flock of ROCOR, and also by some “zealots” within the MP. What is your opinion of the reunification of the two parts of the Local Russian Orthodox Church? 

This was a necessary, unavoidable and holy deed. All the obstacles and difficulties had fallen away which before did not give the opportunity for Russian Orthodox Christians abroad to have full mutual Eucharistic communion. Unity existed in the one faith, but in the matter of divine services, in personal service, the forces of evil, for a time, did not allow for unity. But thank God, this has passed. This greatly strengthens the Church. Christ called upon all to be as one, and now, in the spirit of unity, of brotherly love and piety, we can labor together to the glory of God and for the benefit of all believers not only in Russia, but in all the parishes of the Russian Church Abroad. We feel ourselves to be a part of a Great Church, having the joy of communion and mutual support—both in prayer and personally—and the power of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The main stumbling block in the matter of the reunification of the two branches of the Russian Church was the so-called “spirit of Sergianism.” The gist of this is the relegation of the Orthodox Church to the level of a government bureau which serves the interest of the state and is fully dependent upon it. What changed in principle in the ROC since the 1990’s?

Today the question of Sergianism is no longer valid, because the Episcopacy of the ROC is in no way bound to temporal powers, but serves only God and has the opportunity to establish the proper relationship with the government, the state, that is, mutual cooperation for the good of the people, the Church, the Body of Christ. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church possesses the most freedom it has ever enjoyed in its history. We must use this freedom in accordance with the Will of God, laid out in the Gospel of Christ.

In 2008, two important dates were marked: 140 years since the birth of His Highness Emperor Nicholas II, and 90 years since the martyric death of the Royal Family. What is the meaning of the royal reign of Holy Martyr Nicholas, and what is the significance of his spiritual legacy for Russia?

The Russian czars were the anointed of God. Emperor Nicholas II was an Orthodox Christian, a family man and the epitome of the anointed of God. He ended his earthly life with a martyr’s death, obtaining the eternal crown in the Kingdom of Heaven. In his humility, meekness and readiness to remain true to Christ to the end revealed his love for his people. He is an example for all of us, an intercessor before the Divine Throne, before the King of Heaven.

Is general repentance for the sin of regicide necessary, similar to that organized by Holy Patriarchs Job and Germogen during the Time of Troubles?

All repentance is a necessary thing. Every person must repent of his sins and the sins of his people. The Orthodox Christians who are prepared to repent must do so. One must begin with personal repentance, recognition of one’s failings, weaknesses. We must love each other in order to correct ourselves. In my opinion, this is a decision that must be made at a Council.

Recent sociological surveys have shown a growth in monarchist sentiments in Russian society. Is the reestablishment of an Orthodox monarchy in Russia possible? If so, what must be done towards this end?

Everything is in the hands of God. It is felt that Orthodox monarchy, living in concert with the Church, is the ideal form of rule. If the people are prepared for the restoration of an Orthodox monarchy in Russia, it can happen.

What is the key to the concept of the Third Rome? What is the historical mission of Russia?

I think that Russia played an important role in the Orthodox world after the fall of Byzantium: the Greeks and other people of God in the Balkans found themselves under the yoke of an alien faith, of foreign peoples. The Russian Orthodox Church supported them. Today, the renascent Russian Orthodox Church can possess great spiritual strength and be a beacon of light for the world. It can serve the mission—many can come to Christ through the Russian Orthodox Church. And the fact that Russians have spread throughout the diaspora, and many Russians are emigrating to all points of the world, gives the Russian Church the possibility to plant their communities all over, planting the faith everywhere. The faith of Christ can spread throughout the world more than now. That is why a strong Russian Orthodox Church is hope for the entire world.

There was a decision made by the Synod of the Russian Church Abroad to prepare materials towards the canonization of Emperor Paul I. Are further steps going to be taken in this area?

There has not been an official decision in this matter. This is a matter yet to be determined. Many revere Emperor Paul I, they pray for his soul, they claim to receive help from him. If the people of the Church indeed hold such reverence for him, the Church can make a concrete decision. If a person of a saintly life emerges and becomes honored by the people as a saint, the Church can state the fact that this person is in fact righteous before God, and glorifies him.

The events in South Ossetia and Abkhazia once more showed us that there are political, economic and religious circles which fear a burgeoning Russia and strive for her fragmentation. What measures, in your opinion, should be taken to counteract such plans?

Of course, there are forces in the world which try to exploit human weaknesses. This is why such tragedies occur. When people of one Orthodox faith collide, then these conflicts generate hatred, which is a great tragedy for the Church. We earnestly pray that there be no hostility between the faithful, wherever they may be.

Russian today is a multi-confessional country. But two religions hold a special place here—Orthodoxy and Islam. What sort of cooperation between religious figures and believers of these two major faiths do you see that can benefit Russia?

They can cooperate in the sphere of morality. Today in Russia, alcoholism and drug abuse are rampant. I think that to root out these maladies, Islam and Orthodoxy could find common ground for good work. This would help elevate moral standards and would aid the elimination of inter-confessional and inter-national conflicts. All believers—Orthodox Christians and Muslims—must respect each other and try to restrain extremist forces which try to violate the peace.

Do you have a favorite parable or saying?

I think that we must always remember the words of the Savior and His favorite disciple, John the Theologian: “Love each other and forgive each other.” God is Love. To live in love is the most important law in the life of a Christian. 

Ekonomicheskije strategii, No. 8 (74) 2010, Russia