Russia’s Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev and Pope Francis met last Tuesday morning on the occasion of the presentation of the late Sergei Averintsev’s book “Word of God and word of man”.
The high representative of the Patriarchate of Moscow confirmed how quickly Orthodox faithful in Russia are picking up and interpreting the signals that are being sent out by the current Bishop of Rome. The presentation of Averintsev’s book took place at the Russian centre for science and culture in Rome.
The Patriarchate of Moscow’s “foreign affairs minister” spoke about the great Russian philosopher who died in Vienna in February 2004 and looked into ways in which ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches could be re-tuned in the years to come.
In the post-Soviet years, the great Christian scholar Averincev had already foreseen the fatal failure of an idea of Christian unity which he defined as “political” or “ideological”. That is, unity in Christianity described by many adjectives - conservative, liberal and so on – a unity that follows world rules and tends to grow out of an opposition towards someone or something, the unity of a “religion without faith, without belief”,” Hilarion explained.
The Metropolitan quoted Averintsev to stress that common paths are only possible if there is unity in “Christian Christianity”. This unity is possible when one remains faithful to the Sacraments and the dynamics of the Christians faith, despite all differences. The unity of those who see every word of the Creed as an expression of their own faith.”
This is just as valid today. Real Christian unity cannot be distorted, with unity being formed out of opposition or motivated by “ideological, pragmatic or propagandistic” elements. Eastern and Western Churches “which have their roots in Apostolic Christianity” “have the very special mission of testifying “Christian Christianity” together, “professing the truth of the Cross together.”
But his joint confession will only be fruitful if we learn to see one another not as adversaries, as we did during the crusades, nor as rivals, as often happens today, but as workers who work together in the Lord’s vineyard.”
When “we can learn to value the differences that distinguish our various religious traditions and stop looking for external uniformity.”
In his message, Hilarion sees the basic element of shared apostolic faith as a propelling factor of today’s and tomorrow’s ecumenical path. It is a “return to the sources” which can be developed also thanks to Pope Francis’ work.
The Russian Metropolitan eloquently concluded his speech by extensively quoting two points made by the current Bishop of Rome.
The first quotation was of the words pronounced by Pope Francis on the return flight from Rio after World Youth Day, referring to Dostoevskij and the Orthodox Churches: “In the Orthodox Churches, they have retained that pristine liturgy, which is so beautiful. We have lost some of the sense of adoration. The Orthodox preserved it; they praise God, they adore God, they sing, time does not matter.”
The second quotation by Francis which Hilarion referred to and emphasised, was a passage from the Pope’s interview with Italian Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica. Hilarion quoted the bit where the Bishop of Rome wanted “to learn” from the Orthodox Church about “the meaning of Episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality.”
A shared reflection on how the Church was governed in the early centuries “will bear fruit in due time,” Pope Francis said in the interview quoted by Hilarion. “In ecumenical relations it is important not only to know each other better, but also to recognize what the Spirit has sown in the other as a gift for us,” the Pope said.
The extensive review of the institute of the Synod of Bishops, which Francis ordered, is a concrete sign of his willingness to recognise what the Holy Spirit sewed along the path of the Orthodox Churches as a gift for the Catholic Church.
This means ecumenical dialogue can venture down new and unknown paths, away from the tedious ritualistic ceremonies between the two Churches.