Archbishop Hilarion on Christian Unity

‘We should not pretend we are close to solving this problem’

Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk during an interview at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.
Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk during an interview at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. (photo: Mariangeles Burger)

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.

What in the Orthodox view constitutes full Christian unity? What does it look like?

Full Christian unity is the Eucharistic communion. We do not need to reshape our Church administration, our local traditions. We can live with our differences within one Church, participating from one bread and one cup. We need, however, to rediscover what united us and what brought us to disunity, particularly in the 11th century.

So the basis for the restoration of the full communion would be, I believe, the faith of the Church east and west in the first millennium.

And you are quite involved in these talks personally.


Has Catholic-Orthodox unity become more of a possibility in recent years? If so, since when, or because of what?

I think certain feasible positive changes came with the beginning of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. He is a man of the Church. He is very traditional in his understanding of the dogma and of morality and he is very close to the Orthodox Church. He highly respects Orthodox traditions. He knows Orthodox theology, and as he indicated in his latest book, Orthodox concerns are very close to his heart. He speaks very highly about the Ecumenical Patriarch (Bartholomew I). He speaks very highly and also very personally about his encounters with the current Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill. And it is clear that, for him, the relationship with the Orthodox Church is one of the primary tasks on his agenda.

Do you think complete union between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches is a possibility in our lifetime? What do you think would have to happen before it could come about?

I would respond by quoting the Pope: it depends on how long we will live. But I believe that the Eucharistic unity between the Orthodox and the Catholics is not something easily achievable within a few years because even if we look at our theological dialogue, it goes very slowly, and we sometimes are unable to solve even rather insignificant problems which existed in the past for many years.

So we should not anticipate that there will be major breakthroughs in just a few years time. But we should be hopeful, and, what is most important, we should work. We should be honest towards each other. We should not hide our differences. We should discuss them openly.

But I also believe that, without aspiring that solving all theological problems that exist between the Orthodox and the Catholics we can learn how to work together, how to act together. And without being one Church administratively we can act as members of one Christian body.

This is what I call a strategic alliance between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church. This alliance is necessary in order for us to learn how to work together, because the challenges we are facing are the same. One of the challenges is how to re-Christianize a de-Christianized world. This is what Pope Benedict XVI speaks about very often. In particular he speaks about the New Evangelization of Europe. I believe that this is a huge missionary task and even such a grand Church as the Catholic Church cannot accomplish this task alone. And the closest allies for it would be the Orthodox Church. I believe we can do many things together; we can face modern changes together, even without being one Church, even without having full Eucharistic communion.

How would you describe recent dialogue on the issue of primacy? What is each side saying? Has either side shown any sign of possibly changing?

Well, Pope John Paul II called on everybody, particularly on the Orthodox to express their understanding of primacy.

In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint.

Yes. I believe we the Orthodox are ourselves not altogether clear about what we mean by primacy and how this primacy should be exercised. We have, for example, certain differences between the primacy as it is understood by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the primacy as it is understood by the Patriarchate of Moscow.

In any case, we do not believe that there could be a bishop above all other bishops whose decisions would be binding for the entire Church. We believe that the bishop of Rome in the first Millennium was obviously first in honor but he was first among equals. He did not have direct jurisdiction, for example, over the East. Therefore, when we come to the discussion of the primacy we would argue that the universal jurisdiction of the Pope is something that didn’t exist in the first Millennium and that if we restore, for example, Eucharistic communion, we would accept his role as first among equals but not as the universal bishop

So what has some of the dialogue been like in recent months? There’s been a lot of talk about breakthroughs and being on the verge of unity.

I believe that when some people talk about breakthroughs, it was a wishful thinking rather than anything close to reality. We are still at a rather early stage of the discussions. We still discuss the role of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium, and even on this issue we see clear differences between the Orthodox and the Catholics. If we come to the discussion of the second millennium, the differences will become much more obvious. Therefore we should not pretend that we are close to solving this problem.

I think, however, that we should discuss it honestly; we should describe the differences in our positions, and we should see what would be the way out. For us, as I said, the way out would be the return to what we had in the first millennium.

Would you tell me about your background: where you are from originally, what was your family like when you were growing up, what kind of family you come from.

It would be a long story. I wonder whether I should start telling you this story.

I was born in Moscow. I studied music for many years. Then I became a monk in a small monastery in Lithuania. I spent five years there. I did my doctorate at Oxford. And then I became a bishop and served in Austria and Hungary as a Russian Orthodox bishop. And when Metropolitan Kirill became Patriarch Kirill, I inherited his former chair as president of the Department of Foreign Relations.

This is to make a long story short.

How did you discover that you had a vocation to the priesthood?

I cannot quite tell you how I discovered it but I can tell you when I discovered it. It was approximately at the age of 15 when I realized that I really wanted to serve the Church and serve as a priest. For some preceding years, as I was studying music, the choice which I had to make for myself was whether to become a professional musician or to serve the Church. I was even thinking about combining the two by, for example, becoming the choir master.

At the end I decided that I wanted to serve the Church in the full sense, to serve at the altar, i.e., to become a priest. And this was the inner voice that was repeatedly telling me this, and this is what we call a vocation.

How do you find time to write music?

I no longer have time to write music. I didn’t even have it before, but when I was a bishop in Austria, I could somehow organize my agenda in order to have some minutes to write music, but very often I did it on a plane or in the waiting area of an airport. For example, some of the pieces from St. Matthew Passion were composed literally on a plane.