‘We should not pretend we are close to solving this problem’
BY JOHN BURGER
National Catholic Register
Monday, February 07, 2011
(Emphasis and [my comments] added)
There’s been encouraging — sometimes tantalizing — news in recent years about the growing potential for Catholic-Orthodox unification. Pope Benedict XVI is said to be viewed more favorably by the Orthodox than his predecessor. The Catholic Archbishop of Moscow exclaimed in 2009 that unity with the Orthodox could be achieved “within months.” And the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation issued a document last October that envisions practical steps each Church can begin taking to begin the process of reunification.
But Russian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev is a lot more cautious about any predictions of imminent unity between East and West. Archbishop Hilarion heads the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, a position that was held by now-Patriarch Kirill before Patriarch Alexei died in 2008.
At 44, Hilarion has experienced a meteoric rise in the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church. A brilliant theologian and author, he was elected bishop at age 35, has served as bishop of Vienna and head of the Representation of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions in Brussels. He is deeply involved in ecumenical dialogues with the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.
He’s also an accomplished composer and is in New York for the U.S. English-language premiere of his St. Matthew Passion oratorio this evening. He also delivered the annual Father Alexander Schmemann lecture at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., on Saturday, where he spoke about the meaning of icons in the Orthodox Church.
Thanks to Father John Behr and Deborah Belonick of St. Vladimir’s, I was able to sit down with Archbishop Hilarion for a chat after the lecture. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.
How important is Christian unity to the Orthodox Church?
The notion of Christian unity is essentially linked to the last words of Jesus Christ, which he pronounced at the Last Supper and, notably, those which were addressed to his father, when he preached about the unity of his disciples. It is a tragedy that Christ’s disciples throughout the world were unable to preserve this unity and that many schisms and divisions arose in the Church, and the call to Christian unity is the ultimate goal of our exposure to inter-Christian activities and to various dialogues which we lead with the Roman Catholic Church and with other Christian traditions.
So I think for an Orthodox Christian, it is essential to participate in inter-Christian exchanges in order to bring different Christian traditions closer to mutual understanding in order to overcome centuries of prejudices with the ultimate goal of the restoration of the full Eucharistic communion between various Christian denominations.
Of course, the Orthodox and the Catholic are the closest ones. We have certain differences in dogma, certain differences in ecclesiology, but we have the same teaching on the apostolic succession of the hierarchy, on the sacraments and on the Church in general.
Therefore, though there are obstacles to unity, they are, I believe, in no way insurmountable.