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from issue no. 12 - 2007


“Your Resurrection, O Christ, has saved us”

30Days met Patriarch Alexis II in Moscow. His first steps in the faith and the priestly life, the rebirth of the Russian Orthodox Church after the Soviet period, his friendship with President Vladimir V. Putin and the relations with the Catholic Church

Interview with the Patriarch Alexis II by Giovanni Cubeddu and Fabio Petito

Alexis II, baptized Alexei Michailovich Ridiger, born in Tallinn, in Estonia, in 1929, took the patriarchal throne of Moscow on 10 June 1990, three days after his election. The Soviet Union still existed at the time, and what has happened since then we all know. But the present is restoring a sense of its proper status to Russia and a strong role to play in the international community. Something clearly echoed in the words that Patriarch Alexis II addressed to us. Furthermore at every important shift in the conversation the Patriarch took occasion to remind 30Days of the harmony reigning in Russia today between Church and State, thanks to President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
30Days met Alexis II in the small monastery of the Mercy of Saints Martha and Mary, an old hospice for the poor close to the Kremlin, the day after his visit to the lavra of the Holy Trinity and Saint Sergei of Radonezh, the splendid ancient monastery, spiritual heart of the Russian Orthodox Church.
These are the answers that Alexis II gave us, in an exclusive interview with 30Days, done in collaboration with the World Public Forum of Moscow, whom we sincerely thank.

Patriarch Alexis II in the Cathedral of Christ Our Saviour in Moscow, 17 May 2007

Patriarch Alexis II in the Cathedral of Christ Our Saviour in Moscow, 17 May 2007

Your Holiness, the Lord asked his followers to be a single entity. At what point are we, as you see it, on the historic path towards unity, after the recent session of talks between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches held in Ravenna?
ALEXIS II: Undoubtedly the Lord’s exhortation “That they may all be one” (John 17, 21) remains relevant for us also. However, one should not forget that every division in the ecclesial sphere is product of the sinful human will, while unity is the gift of the Holy Spirit. As experience of life shows, the process of reconstruction of unity requires a long span of time and serious commitment, and that is true also for those who share the same faith, as in the case of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad, reunited with us after more than eighty years of separation. In the case you are referring to, the division has been a thousand years long...
The living testimony of the Fathers of the Church links Moscow and Rome. To what extent, and how, can Tradition, which Moscow has at heart as much as Rome, confront modernity today?
ALEXIS II: I am profoundly convinced that fidelity to the ancient apostolic tradition and to the patristic inheritance can become the foundation of collaboration between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches in their testimony to the values of the Gospel to the contemporary world. That it is necessary is obvious, in so far as the culture of moral relativism imposed on society, consumerism, the unbridled pursuit of well-being and pleasure are incapable of slaking the spiritual thirst that is always present in mankind. Unfortunately, the perverse pursuit of such system of “advanced” values manifests itself more and more often even in some Christian Confessions. For that reason the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, having common roots in apostolic Christianity, should join forces in following without compromises the commandments of Christ, and not, instead, of continuously adapting to the secular world that is in continuous change.
In a meeting last August with Cardinal Etchegaray, you enumerated the various endeavours that Catholics and Orthodox have been engaged in together for a long time now in Russia. How much is this practical “grass-roots” ecumenism helping the Sister Churches to get to love each other and how much is it helping those who don’t know the Church at all?
ALEXIS II: I think that the personal contacts and the initiatives shared by the representatives of our Churches are very significant for the construction of an ample and genuine dialogue, that is not limited to the official level only. We are in any case favourable to the development of the most varied contacts with the Catholic Church. For now I have to say that the “grass-roots” dialogue is taking place more actively between us and Catholics who live abroad. This is largely helped by the exchanges of pilgrims and common cultural and publishing projects. We very much appreciate the enormous role that the Catholic Church plays in the Western world.
The nature of Orthodox-Catholic contacts in Russia is a bit different. Here the Catholics represent a very small minority, mostly consisting of foreigners, especially among the clergy. The Russian Orthodox Church, to which the overwhelming majority of the population belongs, is most careful to respect the right of Catholics to their own ecclesiastical life in Russia, and that is why it is in favor of building cordial relations and mutual respect with the Russian Catholic community. The “grass-roots” dialogue is simply irreplaceable in that direction. And if both sides share this wish, then such dialogue must help to eliminate the remains of past misunderstandings and avoid new ones in our relations.
Your Holiness, when you were small your father Michail accompanied you to the monastery of Valaam on Lake Ladoga. What was the significance of those trips in the eyes of a child? Can you share some special memory of your childhood with us? And what do you remember of your spiritual father, who then became Bishop of Tallinn, Father Ioann Bogojavlenskij?
ALEXIS II: At the end of the ’thirties I twice went with my parents to the Valaam monastery of the Transfiguration, on Lake Ladoga. An experience that had a lot of influence on my spiritual life. Those trips, like visiting the Convent of the Dormition in Pjuchtitsa and the Monastery of the Dormition at the Pskov Caves, left an enormous impression in me. An indelible memory was left in my child’s mind of the encounter with the monks of Valaam, men of living faith, who testified visibly to asceticism and who preserved the traditions of Russian monasticism. I am thankful to God for those encounters, the memory of which has warmed my heart throughout my life.
The moments linked to the beginning of my ecclesial ministry are the more luminous memories of my childhood. I cannot forget that my first task in church was distributing holy water to the parishioners on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. I was six years old. I still remember the Easter procession, when in a child’s voice I responded to the cantors: “Your Resurrection, O Christ, has saved us...”.
I spent my youth in preparation to serve God in priestly dignity. This desire arose in me in childhood. I had before me the numerous examples of generous service to God and the Church of the monks of Valaam, of my parents, of my spiritual father, and the steadfast decision to follow that example was born in me. I was supported on the chosen road by my spiritual father, the protoierej [archpriest, an Orthodox honorary post, corresponding to the western monsignor, ed.] Ioann Bogojavlenskij, later first Rector of the renascent Theological Academy of Leningrad. I recall with gratitude his zealous pastoral ministry and the flame of his burning faith in the Lord kindled my spirit. I am bound to protoierej Ioann by many things. He taught catechism in the Russian school where I studied. no longer does. How did Russia and the Church appear to your eyes then, and how instead do they appear today?
ALEXIS II: The disappearance of the Soviet Union opened a new era in the life of the Church. Up to then, the hierarchy and the laity were mostly concerned to avoid the definitive distancing of our people from the Church and the total destruction of the Church itself. The Soviet period was for us a period of struggle for survival. However the USSR was not a species of “empire of evil”. With the sacrifice of the work of its citizens, the Soviet Union achieved great results in some spheres of the working-class economy and the construction of society. Moreover our country played an important role in world politics. However, the inevitability of the collapse of the regime was clear from the moment of its birth, since at base lay the desire to build “paradise” on earth, against the will of God.
On becoming Patriarch in the Soviet era, during perestroika, it was clear to me that the future of our people would be impossible without Orthodoxy, which can’t be artificially confined within ecclesiastical boundaries or between the walls of museums, but determines the life of the individual, the people and the State. With the system then existing that was impossible. That is why we took sides in favor of reforms that were to lead to a natural refusal of the dominion of an ideology ill-omened from its very foundation. But anti-Soviet radicalism, incapable of distinguishing the bad from the good, has provoked the senseless destruction of the State, and along with that also useless suffering for our people.
And what I believed yesterday I still believe today. I am equally convinced that without Orthodoxy the well-being of our people and its future growth is unthinkable. In the post-Soviet period ecclesial life in Russia has been transformed, we have been witness to a true spiritual rebirth. The number of churches, the monasteries, the ecclesial training institutes have increased. This is reflected positively in all the aspects of people’s lives. The return to the religious culture of our ancestors has shown how ephemeral and without foundations in our country was the ideology that opposed itself to God.
On the other hand, still today there is no lack of attempts to set artificial obstacles in the way of collaboration between Church and State. Under the aegis of secularism some political forces are seeking to deprive religion of its public dimension. I think that such an approach must remain once and for all a feature of the age of militant atheism.
Famously you are striving to build relations of mutual collaboration between State and Church, while maintaining the separation. How is the Gospel saying: “render to Cesar that which is Cesar’s, and to God that which is God’s” interpreted here? You meet with President Vladimir V. Putin several times a year. What sort of man is the president and what is it like working with him? In short, You, Your Holiness, have not failed to remind the faithful, in your last messages for Christmas and Easter, that the positive reconstruction of the Russian Orthodox Church is going ahead.
ALEXIS II: The current model of the relations between the Russian Church and the State has been formed heeding on the one hand the experience of the way the Russian Church lived in the atheist Soviet State, and on the other the influence of the changes that occurred in Russia in the early ’nineties. In the Soviet period one couldn’t even speak about constructive relations between ecclesiastical state authorities; the State subjected the Church to its own authority, and a place on the margins of public life was reserved to believers. A softening in the State position towards the Church was noticed during the festivities for the millennium of the “Baptism of Rus’”. And after the fall of the atheist power, our Church was given the possibility of freely fulfilling its mission in society. The few churches that existed at that time filled up with persons who desired to meet God. Priests began to be invited onto radio and television programs. The doors of schools, higher institutes, hospitals, jails, barracks were thrown open to the Church. Missionary and training works in the parishes and monasteries of the Russian Orthodox Church were reactivated. In the changed historical conditions a new system of relations between Church and State began to take shape, at the base of which lies the principle, rooted in the ecclesial tradition, of harmony between ecclesiastic and temporal power.
Today relations of constructive collaboration and mutual social support have been established between our Church and the State, in respect and without interference in each other’s internal affairs. President Vladimir V. Putin has personally given a decisive contribution to the process of stabilization and the development of such relations. His interest in the current needs of the Church and the tasks of its mission in society testifies to the willingness of the Head of State to strengthen traditional, cultural and religious values in public life. I hope that our good relations with the current President are also maintained in future.
The Monastery of the Transfiguration in Valaam on the Lake of Ladoga in Karelia, Russia

The Monastery of the Transfiguration in Valaam on the Lake of Ladoga in Karelia, Russia

Which is the present social framework in which the Russian Orthodox Church deals with the necessary charity demanded for the poor? In a previous interview with 30Days you explained that in Russia the faithful well know that “one goes to Paradise with holy almsgiving”.
ALEXIS II: The Orthodox Church does not propose concrete methods for the redistribution of surplus material resources. How much of the fruits of labor is to be assigned to the development of production and to the payment of wages, and how much instead to needy citizens and to programs with social impact, is a matter of conscience for every individual, and is a matter of regulation by social processes. However it is not possible to think the situation that has created itself in the social sphere as normal, despite the positive changes in recent times achieved thanks to the efforts of President Vladimir V. Putin. The stagnation in the social sphere, that we still see today, threatens to lead to seriously negative consequences both for the structure of society and for political stability. The enormous difference between the incomes of the rich and those of the poor is a direct consequence of the situation of domination existing in the economic system of the raw materials sector, and the unjust distribution of the revenues from the sale of the natural resources. It is important to realize that in the last fifteen years an abyss between the rich and the poor has been created in Russia, and that for several reasons a middle-class has still not completely formed. A State made in this way cannot remain stable for long. The State and the business community must take a responsible attitude towards sectors of the population that, because of age or social condition, are not involved in economic activities. Charity from business is not itself enough to resolve the problem. Structural reform of the economy on the basis of modern technology and State support for the priorities of strategic interest for the country is urgently needed. Industrial progress that offers new jobs is necessary, and if that is achieved we will be able to give people the possibility of working in a creative way, according to their skills, and enable them to assure a dignified life for themselves and their loved ones.
The unity re-established in 2007 between the Church you lead and the “Russian Orthodox Church abroad” is an important good omen. President Vladimir V. Putin congratulated you publicly, who in your turn publicly thanked the President for the efforts that he had made. In the charter of canonical communion it says that “humble Alexis” and “humble Lavr”, the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad, have healed the historical division. Can you tell us how and why this fine conclusion was arrived at? What was at stake for the Church and Russia?
ALEXIS II: I thank you for the question. Effectively the return to ecclesial unity achieved on 17 May 2007 was an event of epochal importance in the life of our Church and in that of the Russian people in general. The split, that had lasted eighty years, was due to the historical cataclysms of which Russia was the theatre at the beginning of the 20th century. Many were fated to drink the bitter cup of exile, while those who remained in their native land had to suffer the still more terrible persecution of the Church. The civil war was by now a memory of the past, the Church had finally obtained its freedom again, but the effects of the catastrophe that had struck us remained: there was no ecclesial communion between those who lived in Russia and a part of those who had gone abroad and their descendants. What would it take to heal the division? Everybody needed to grasp in depth what had happened in the 20th century and draw a very precise lesson from what the Church had had to endure. On this plane, the document “Foundations of the Social Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church”, approved by the Synod of bishops in 2000, had a decisive importance for the Patriarchy of Moscow. Numerous 20th century confessors of the faith who suffered martyrdom for their faith in Christ in Russia were glorified on that occasion. The Synod documents gained a positive response in the Russian Orthodox Church abroad and the first signs of a rapprochement were seen. The brethren became ever more interested in life in the homeland. They came ever more often to Russia and here witnessed the spectacle of an effective rebirth of religious life, not only outside the Church, but also within it, with its spiritual awakening and the growth in missionary and doctrinal activity. And the ice of distrust began to melt.
Apart from that, witnessing the current quality of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and State authorities in Russia was decisive for the Orthodox Church abroad. In its charter in fact it said that the Russian Church abroad separated only temporarily from the Church in the homeland, “until the regime that is enemy of God passes away in Russia”. And here the first personal encounter with Vladimir V. Putin was of fundamental importance to the leaders of the Russian Church abroad. Our brethren hence had the possibility of personally convincing themselves that they were not dealing with a representative of the “regime that is enemy of God”, but a devout Russian Orthodox. An impression that was strengthened further in the course of more recent contacts. That was why I was concerned to thank the President of our country in particular fashion on the day of the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion in the Cathedral of Christ Our Saviour.
Obviously, after such a long division a long road had to be taken to turn it into a reality. The committees that had the task of conducting talks, lasting three years, performed a remarkable job towards attaining the plenary unity of the Russian Orthodox Church, step by step untying all the tangled knots. However all are convinced, I believe, that the decisive element was not so much the preparation of the documents, however important, as the gradual, mutual acquaintance through the experience of prayer and the Christian life. It was the Spirit of God who led us to unity, that is what those who participated in the talks felt. And where the Holy Spirit works the transient human offenses, the misunderstandings and the partiality that for long years made the gap wider, vanish. The love and joy in the Lord conquer.
The Ascension of the Lord has thus become for us the day of the triumph of love, forgiveness, the restoration of broken ties, the renewal of the succession between the old and the new Russia, of festivities for the unity of the Russians, “at home and scattered”. The Russian Church has shown itself to all the Russian community, and the people of all the world, as an edifying example of union, at the base of which is Christ, and that is testified by the martyrs for Christ.
The Patriarch of Moscow Alexis II and Metropolitan Lavr, Head of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad, in the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior in Moscow, 17 May 2007, during the ceremony that put an end to the division between the two Churches that had lasted more than eighty years

The Patriarch of Moscow Alexis II and Metropolitan Lavr, Head of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad, in the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior in Moscow, 17 May 2007, during the ceremony that put an end to the division between the two Churches that had lasted more than eighty years

At the first large inter-religious meeting held in St Petersburg in 2006 you decided to insert into the final document such phrases as: “We reject double standards in international relations”, or: “What really renders the economy efficient is that it gives benefits to the people”. To what were you referring specifically? And how does your Church look at and judge these last years, since 11 September 2001, experienced by international politics?
ALEXIS II: The world summit of religious leaders was a manifestation of the unitary desire of the religious leaders to oppose attempts to use religion like a factor in opposition and conflict, and it also spoke out on many current problematic issues. In particular, the religious leaders themselves agreed unanimously on the fact that double standards in contemporary international relations have become expressions of injustice, since they enable some countries to judge others arbitrarily and to dictate rules of behavior that they themselves are the first not to keep. In the message of the summit the criterion of efficiency of an economy, shared by the majority of world religions was also pointed out: the efficiency of an economy does not lie in its ability to produce profit, but in that of bringing welfare to people. Otherwise all economic activity loses meaning.
The closing document of the summit became to some extent an answer to the September 11 2001 events, since it contained the rejection of terrorism and extremism, behind which lies a pseudo-religious motivation. I believe that the fight against terrorism must consist in depriving it of the terrain on which it grows; today that terrain is religious ignorance, that manifests itself in a lack of understanding of one’s own religious tradition and the morality tied to it. The offense to religious sentiments, the profanation of sacred things, the propaganda for egoism and the generalized will derive from that. All this together provokes fanaticism. After 11 September many military assaults have been made on the terrorists, but one wonders whether corresponding attention has been paid to the religious convictions of people, and whether in making overall decisions religious traditions have been taken, respectfully, more in consideration. These are the questions that we ask ourselves in assessing world politics over recent years.
At the same time one cannot however but stress that a very promising idea from the summit was taken up in the proposal, launched by Russia at the sixty-second UN General Assembly, that of setting up a UN advisory council on religion. I believe that this initiative, should it succeed, will encourage the establishment of an effective exchange between the different world-views and will lead to the approval of important decisions for the whole planet.
Let us remain with the issue of the Church’s concern for social justice in the world and for the most needy: Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum progressio appeared more than forty years ago. What do you remember of it? Much of it really seems written today.
ALEXIS II: We are obviously aware of the documents of the Roman Catholic Church in which the issue of social justice is dealt with, the war on poverty and the other problems of the contemporary society are spoken about. On many points these thoughts are in line with our own. Many people today understand that the world is not becoming more just, and that the task of Christians today, even more than forty years ago, is to defend in word and deed those who suffer, who are downtrodden, who live in poverty. The Russian Orthodox Church studies and agrees with the precious experience of Christian social service in the West, so necessary also for our activity in this sphere. In fact, in the long years of persecution by the atheist power, our Church was unable to engage in such work: any social activity on its part was ordinarily prohibited by the State. Only a few years ago was our Church given the possibility of renewing its own rich tradition in social and charity work, and of developing it in new forms, using the experience of others to good advantage. Among other things, the results of this rebirth have been startling: practically throughout post-Soviet territory the Orthodox Church has become one of the main agents in the organization and participation in social work, it is the foremost defender of the dispossessed and the neglected, and it has won their trust. I think it a clear sign of the working of the grace of God in the world, that is never exhausted and comes to the help of all.
“Our Church shares the conviction that global conflict could be prevented and local conflicts resolved only if all nations grow freely and if all the historical civilizations can without restriction influence the destiny of the world. Our Church desires to continue to develop dialogue with the Iranian religious leaders”. Your Holiness, you said that at the last session of talks between Russian Orthodoxy and Islam, in Tehran two years ago. It would seem your answer to the notion of the clash of civilizations, but it is also something more. Can you explain to us? As you see it, what contribution could the great Russian religious and cultural tradition make to the progress of the dialogue between civilizations towards the building of a world order more to the measure of man? And how is co-existence progressing today with the Islamic presence on Russian Orthodox territory?
ALEXIS II: Russia is a unique place in the world, where Islam and Christianity have co-existed pacifically for a thousand years. We have never had a religious war, whereas numerous and bloody wars of religion have occurred in the history of other countries. From that one sees that the peoples of Russia have learned to live together, to have mutual respect, to pay due heed to one another, not to give offense. The extraordinary potential of religions for conciliation has never been more obvious than today, above all as regards interethnic relations. I am convinced that the spokesmen of the traditional religions, can and must respond all together to the great number of challenges and burning issues, inviting their own believers to peace and harmony. In fact the position of conciliation of religious leaders can serve to avoid many conflicts, to prevent the transformation of international conflicts into inter-religious conflicts, to set a limit to the spread of dangerous pseudo-religious movements.
The Russian Orthodox Church has always encouraged and encourages the cultivation of an equal and respectful dialogue among religions, cultures and civilizations at national, regional and international level. It is particularly important to join forces to help in the development of international law, participation in ironing out conflict situations, understanding the various models of interaction between religion, state and society without preconceptions.
A procession around the Cathedral 
of the Dormition, in the Monastery of the Holy Trinity and Saint Sergei of Radonezh, at Sergijev Posad, in the Moscow region

A procession around the Cathedral of the Dormition, in the Monastery of the Holy Trinity and Saint Sergei of Radonezh, at Sergijev Posad, in the Moscow region

What did you think of the recent text by Pope Benedict on Latin in the liturgy? Is your Church also facing delicate liturgical issues today? Moreover, have you read the recent letter of the Pope to the Chinese Catholics? For the Pope’s eightieth birthday you wrote, among other things, that “what renders your position convincing is that you as theologian are no mere scholar of theoretical thinking, but above all a sincere and deeply devout Christian who speaks out of the fullness of his heart (cf. Mt 12, 34)”. In what do you feel most in harmony with Pope Benedict today?
ALEXIS II: I think that the issue of the liturgical language and relations between the various members of the Roman-Catholic Church are internal issues. For us, who are a Church for which the concept of tradition has great significance, the effort to find effective ways of harmonizing a centuries-long experience with objective truths and contemporary requirements is very comprehensible and familiar. I see in this one of the more valid aspects of the work of the present Pope of Rome Benedict XVI.
Pope Benedict has stated that he thinks it one of his tasks to work for the still unachieved actuation of Vatican Council II, without following the logic of the “break” but that of “continuity”. From Moscow what do you think of his statement?
ALEXIS II: Without doubt we welcome favorably any attempt aimed at getting over divisions as much as possible. What relates to the nature of one or the other division is a different question. Every situation merits particular and scrupulous attention. And understanding of the causes helps to find solutions. With all respect and the safeguarding of differences, a search for what unites, and not for what divides, turns out to be effective in the majority of cases. Without falling into excessive optimism, I would like to say that precisely in that do I see a particular prospect for relations between Orthodox and Catholics.
Your Holiness, various books have recently been published in Italy once again going over the so-called “mystery of Fatima”: given that in one section this mystery concerns the Christian faith in Russia, what overall judgment do you give of the matter?
ALEXIS II: I immediately say that it is difficult for me to evaluate these apparitions. We pay attention to everything that has been said and is said in the West about Russia, all the more so in a context of Christian faith. Nevertheless, here, one needs to note that many truths of the spiritual life of Western Christians belongs solely to their experience, which features sharp differences from the Orthodox tradition. We respect the devotion in the Catholic Church towards the apparitions of Fatima, but it is difficult for us to express a specific opinion on them. It is a spiritual experience particular to the Catholic Church.
Thank you, Your Holiness.

(Fabio Petito is a teacher at Sussex University, Great Britain, and at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”)

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