WARSAW—A leading Russian Orthodox theologian has praised the “universalism” achieved by the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II.
He added that more and more Russian priests believed an encounter with Western Christianity could help the Orthodox world meet contemporary challenges.
“The Catholic Church has preserved its universal character, even though there were moments when it forgot it,” said Father Georgi Chistiakov, a Moscow University professor.
“I'm amazed and fascinated by its current dynamism, its courage in asking old questions while seeking new answers. I'm impressed by the path the Church has taken over the 30 years since Vatican II.”
In an interview with Poland's Tygodnik Powszechny Catholic weekly, Father Chistiakov said Western Christians had responded successfully to new problems at a time when Orthodox counterparts were convinced their main task was to restore Church life and theology “in a 19th-century form.”
“Seeking out new theology isn't a Russian tradition — Orthodox Russia needs to be shown that new horizons are possible,” the priest continued.
“We must be conscious that Christianity isn't only a repetition of old revealed truths, but an endless search and discovery, an eternal spring. This is visible in the contemporary theology and life of Western Churches.”
Father Chistiakov said views of Catholicism in Russia were outdated, adding that few Orthodox Christians were aware of key papal texts such as Orientale Lumen and Ut Unum Sint.
However, he stressed that traditional attitudes were being questioned increasingly by “theological daredevils,” who believed the Church's authorities should be open to criticism.
“Orthodox theology is dominated by a fear of taking new steps — many are convinced all such steps will amount to a betrayal of Orthodox tradition,” the theologian said.
“In reality, traditions shouldn't divide us, but allow us to see the variety and richness of Christianity. A Catholic can be fascinated by St. Serafin of Sarov, just as an Orthodox Christian can revere St. Francis of Assisi.”
Disputes over ties with the Catholic Church, whose million Russian members face tough curbs under a 1997 religious law, have intensified in the past two years, with many Orthodox clergy demanding a cutback in ecumenical contacts in response to alleged Catholic proselytism.
Among recent incidents, an Italian priest was dismissed from Altai State University at Orthodox insistence, while Jozef Cardinal Glemp of Poland was reported by Church sources to have emerged “depressed” from a June meeting with Metropolitan Vladimir of St. Petersburg.
However, in his interview, Father Chistiakov said Orthodox anti-ecumenists had failed to enlist their Patriarch's support against proponents of change.
“Alexei II finds himself between the hammer and the anvil,” the theologian added. “But he is not our opponent. He always says he has nothing against us, but only believes there's too much noise around us.”
Father Chistiakov said he had met the Pope several times, and believed John Paul II embodied an “unusual mixture” of “fundamentalism and openness.”
“The Church elected him knowing he could harmoniously combine faithfulness to tradition with a courageous acceptance of contemporary challenges,” the priest said.
“He is able to take new and unexpected steps, while remaining deeply rooted in Polish spirituality.”
The theologian, a former close associate of the murdered Orthodox ecumenist Father Alexander Men, said he saw himself as belonging to a “universal Church,” adding that he hoped to bring other Russian Christians closer to Western traditions while remaining loyal to his Orthodox priesthood. (Jonathan Luxmoore)------- EXCERPT: