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from issue no. 08 - 2009

MOSCOW. Tradition and ecumenism

Praise of the essential and of dialogue


An interview with Vsevolod Chaplin, Chairman of the Synodal Department for Relations between the Church and society


Interview with Vsevolod Chaplin by Giovanni Cubeddu and Fabio Petito


Vsevolod Chaplin [© Afp/Grazia Neri]

Vsevolod Chaplin [© Afp/Grazia Neri]

We are at the beginning of a new period. The Synod elected the new Patriarch very quickly. What image of the Russian Orthodox Church has emerged from your Assembly? What message is being sent to the Christian world around you and what have the faithful of Russian Orthodoxy understood?
VSEVOLOD CHAPLIN: First of all, the Church manifested its unity. Notwithstanding the different preferences expressed on the occasion of the election of the Patriarch – during the Council a certain number of votes went to a variety of people – he was supported by the overwhelming majority of votes and the Council clearly perceived its own unity. After the election the Most Holy Patriarch received the active support of the entire hierarchy, including those whose names were among the candidates for the patriarchal throne. Also, personally, as a participant in the Council, I felt a real sense of the mystical unity of the Church. They were all really one body in choosing, in praying, in rejoicing in the fact that the Church had elected a new patriarch. And similarly, with wonderful unanimity, the final resolutions of the Council were approved, resolutions that place a particular emphasis on the activity of the Church among young people, on missionary commitment and the apostolate, in order to make the tens of millions of people who today profess themselves Orthodox, but are often far from a real church life, from knowledge of the Orthodox faith, from life according to the commandments of Christ, become truly Christian. I believe that even before this local Council the idea was already being acknowledged in the Church that today we must build not just places of worship, already constructed or repaired in goodly numbers, but rather people’s souls. It was precisely of this that increasingly over the last years of his life the deceased Most Holy Patriarch Alexis II spoke.
The election of a new patriarch is always surrounded by many expectations. What do you look forward to for the Russian Church?
CHAPLIN: I anticipate all that was affirmed in the resolutions of the local Council and the speech of the Most Holy Patriarch after his enthronement: impetus to missionary activity and the apostolate, commitment to educational training by the Church, dialogue with the various social forces and with the State. I expect that ours will become a Church totally of the people, that it will know what the expectations of the people are, that it will have what it takes to satisfy those expectations and that it will be capable of making the prophetic voice of truth reach those in power, the elite, those in society who make the decisions.
Patriarch Kirill said he did not want to be considered a “reformer”. What do terms such as “unity” and “plurality”, “tradition” and “modernity” mean in today’s Russian Orthodox Church? And, what souls is the Russian Orthodox Church composed of today?
CHAPLIN: The Orthodox Church is by definition the custodian of traditions. Not because she likes everything that is old, but because she knows that the eternal truths are immutable, precisely because God is unchangeable. The real tradition is the ability to safeguard the truth that is always only one, regardless of the changing historical circumstances. When this truth is lived, when there is consciousness of it, when we remain faithful to it, it is easy to understand that the cultural forms that express that truth can change unexpectedly, without invalidating it. So, certainly in our Church, as regards the unity of faith, the idea of a God who is eternal and unchanging, of His relationship with the world and man, there exist a great many specific forms and modes of human expression. In our Church there are indeed adherents in dozens of countries spread over all the continents, people of different ages, of different political convictions, sometimes diametrically opposed. Among our faithful I have come across people of the most diverse inclinations, from ultra-monarchists to radical communists, from those who only listen to classical music and those who listen exclusively to rock. Within this diversity – which really exists – the Church will always continue to be there, because it represents a vast community of very diverse people, and within this multiplicity it is important not to lose that truth thanks to which we live.
At the last Council that elected Patriarch Kirill, the presence of delegates of the Russian eparchies was less than fifty percent of the total. The others came from beyond the borders of Russia. What does it represent and what perception of itself does Russian Orthodoxy have today? What are the issues that concern it?
CHAPLIN: Your questions are multiple ... and it’s difficult to highlight one in particular. If one considers the cooperation between Church and society – which is what occupies me at the moment – we must address dozens of issues every day including the most varied, each of which is the most important for a certain group of people. For example, recently I and the Russian ombudsman [defender of civic rights, ed.] Vladimir Lukin acted as mediators in a meeting between representatives of some Ministries and government departments and the Orthodox antiglobal activists protesting against the system of electronic global data banks accumulating sensitive personal information, who claim – in large measure rightly – that the gathering of information on everything one does in the course of one’s life gives the State and supranational bodies excessive power. It is clear that the issue raised is of utmost importance for that group. The same day, in a Russian-German conference, we addressed the question of the setting up of Church-State relations in Europe and the world. Afterwards I met with representatives of the Ministry of Justice responsible for managing social concerns about the activities of foreign missionaries, another weighty matter. A few days ago, then, I had a meeting with the people who are working out the new state model for education. Naturally, many are waiting to see what place there will be for the positive teaching of religion within the model. As you can see, the tasks are many. And naturally this happens because we are a Church made up of different people. We have thousands of parishes in countries like the Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, where, of course, they live their own “daily actuality”, their own political reality. We have several parishes in the Baltic countries and Central Asia, where the political situations are very varied. And in each of these, the faithful have their anxieties, their requests. So the questions to be addressed today are endless.
A view of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

A view of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Can you give us an overview.
CHAPLIN: We are a rather extensive and substantial community. We count, in various countries and in very diverse situations, almost 30,000 parishes, and sometimes at a social level there is a difference of light-years between them. Take, for example, a church in central Moscow, surrounded by the offices of major companies, and a small church in deepest Russia, completely deserted by young people, where ten or fifteen old women live in poverty. Only one phone in the village, a bus that comes there only once a week, not even a shop, not even a cell phone. The difference is enormous. And take again, for example, our church of Saint Catherine in Rome – attended by many Russians who are quite well off, who work, study or just live in Rome with pretty good prospects in life – and the small church of a town in Central Asia where, unfortunately, the Orthodox often see no future ahead and think only of emigrating to Russia some day. We have over eight hundred monasteries, different among themselves: large complexes such as the Monastery of the Trinity of Saint Sergius and small convents where five, six nuns live and work. There also exists a huge variety of Orthodox social organizations: patriotic-military associations, youth groups involved in the repair of churches and monasteries, charity groups, special communities of women religious, Orthodox newspapers and magazines, television and radio stations, theaters – professional and amateur – film clubs, motorbike groups (many of whom currently maintain active contacts with the parishes), publishing houses that publish a growing number of literary works. In the last two or three years we have been witnessing an explosion of literary activity from priests and faithful among us, and interesting books are published – both for children and dealing with philosophy and political science. And I think the circumstances of our Church, presently quite varied, will become even more diversified.
The Church and culture. One of the bargaining chips often used in today’s debate with the world is the notion of “value”. Isn’t there the danger of thereby relying on an idealization and crystallization of the evangelical life, or of speaking of an abstract humanity?
CHAPLIN: It’s a very interesting question. However I think the project for creating a universal system of values has not materialized. Just as that of creating a State religion. Perhaps the project may be able to achieve a precarious realization while a society is experiencing peace and relative wellbeing and stability. But when humans are asked to sacrifice their own comfort, welfare and even life, or at least, to seriously limit their material needs, their whims, habits, comforts and egotistic attitudes, in such conditions a system of values without faith works very badly. In the cultural clash between the Western and Islamic world we see, for example, that religious and secular visions come into headlong confrontation, a clash between freedom and power. The proponents of secularism, understood as a social model that offers, in a sense, more prospects, run out of arguments. And today even their latest slogan has begun to fail, which is that the more secularized countries live in a more prosperous and peaceful manner than those with a high level of religiosity. We are witnessing more and more the fact that this does not last forever. I believe that a secularized vision of the world, without religion, can’t be considered the best platform to reconcile religions and establish dialogue between world-views. This conception of the world, the secular, must remain one among many, having equal weight with the others in the dialogue. Not less than the others, but not more either. And I’m convinced – as is often repeated at the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” – that it will be possible to build the best possible future for the world only when the different supporters of the models of social and political organization and the proponents of different theories on the role of religion in society become capable of dialogue without preconceptions about their interlocutor. That is, without attempting to change the others, recognizing to all world-views the right to shape a particular part of the national and the world community.
With the State we continue dialogue, we try to cooperate... in one way or another we strive to do the same thing: to serve the people together. And this is the ideal Orthodox model, “harmony”
You were the first Russian Church leader to visit Saudi Arabia officially. What idea of the “dialogue of civilizations”, which you just mentioned, does the Patriarchate have and how do you think it should it be carried on?
CHAPLIN: The dialogue of civilizations and religions is a line of action of great importance for the world today. It is no accident that in Russia, as well as in Central Asia and Azerbaijan, there has been a centuries-long dialogue, between Orthodox, Christians and Muslims. We also have good relations with Jews and Buddhists. It is necessary to know each other better, to remember that we have much in common and to seek together, where possible, to speak of the eternal laws of life and the moral dimension of existence to those who are heading for the umpteenth time toward destruction and disaster. They, unfortunately, are trying to set aside the moral and spiritual dimension of life, as if it were something now obsolete and no longer necessary for anyone. Here, surely, is one of the reasons why we are trying to develop interfaith relations, both within our Inter-religious Council of Russia, as in the concrete dealings of every day. I am convinced that these relations will continue, we have no way out, given we have lived together for many centuries.
Russian society. The Lord Jesus said the poor will always be with us. Your Church cooperates fully in the economic development of the country. A few years ago Metropolitan Kirill promoted a code of economic behavior based on the biblical Ten Commandments, understood as essential language, as the basis of an agreement on the indispensable minimum and as a proposal for a possible compromise for all social agents. Is that so?
CHAPLIN: A document was approved in 2004 by the Second World Russian People’s Council and it is not a purely religious document. Certainly, Metropolitan Kirill was its initiator, but a group of very diverse people was involved in its preparation, especially economists of the “right”, the “left” and the “center”. And it was not written as a religious document, there is not a single distinctly theological expression to be found there. Its purpose was to propose to the State, to the business world and traders a certain set of rules to do with keeping promises, rejection of corruption, renouncing of excessive economic influence on politics and the media, things very much on people’s minds in Russia at that time. It also proposed patterns of behavior to be followed in business, involving the rejection of vulgarity in speech, of cheating, of sexual harassment etc. This document was proposed to the leaders of the economy and society in general and it must be admitted that it stirred up quite an animated debate. I even know of a region where it was adopted as a guiding text by the governor, the union of entrepreneurs and by the local business associations, also involving the local eparchy. Of course, some people said it was not the business of the Church to get involved in economic matters, which was an area exclusively reserved for experts, but I don’t in fact agree with that, if only because the economic sphere directly affects the everyday life of people. And all that is of concern to the people is also of concern to the Church.
You mentioned before some worries about the teaching of religion in Russian schools. Would it not be a good idea to look at international experience in the field?
CHAPLIN: The time has come for that too. Here, in the field of education, inertia “of the Soviet type” dominates. The Church proposes instead what has already been tried in most European countries, namely, to include in the school curriculum a compulsory hour in which one can choose between teaching the basics of a religion or, let’s say, a secular ethic. Or a comparative course on all religions jointly. In my opinion, it is absolutely necessary to ensure the possibility of choice. There are different groups in our society, each with its own vision of the world: Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, non-believers. The school should not attempt to “lump them together”, and at the same time it should create the conditions for students to receive a moral education according to the belief of their families.
How will you get to grips with your new post in the Patriarchate of Moscow, that of directing the Synodal Department for Relations between the Church and society?
CHAPLIN: Like anyone who is faced daily with an enormous amount of issues to resolve, by dexterous maneuvering, literally like a juggler. The Department has two main spheres of action. One is the participation in the debates during the legislative process, dialogue with the bodies holding legislative power in Russia and the other countries in the canonical territory of our Church. The other is relations with a whole series of social organizations, Orthodox and secular, be they cultural associations, political parties, professional organizations, employers’ unions, clubs of various kinds according to specific interests. Many are turning to the Most Holy Patriarch with requests for which replies must be prepared. I hope we can develop a strategic system of interaction in which both the Church’s expectations and those of secular society find a place, so as to be able to respond not only to each other’s input, but also design a common life and action for the immediate future.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow greeting the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, during the Easter liturgy in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in Moscow 19 April 2009 <BR>[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow greeting the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, during the Easter liturgy in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in Moscow 19 April 2009
[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

How do you see relations between Church and State in Russia?
CHAPLIN: Here the Church is separate from the State not only formally but also in substance. The State does not fund the religious activities of church organizations. Certain funds, although far from adequate, are allocated to the reconstruction of architectural monuments that are State owned but are operated by religious communities. In the army there are no regular chaplains, religion is not taught in most schools, so that the separation of Church and State is much clearer for us than in most European countries. And according to certain parameters, is even more striking than in the United States. With the State we continue dialogue, we try to cooperate. We discuss a lot. I’m one of those who often manages to lose his voice during meetings with the representatives of government bodies. There are many points of disagreement, whether it’s teaching religion in schools, the restitution of Church property, the state of communal morality, advertising verging on pornography, the sale of alcohol, sexual abuse of children. On all these issues quite complex discussions are ongoing, but in one way or another we strive to do the same thing: to serve the people together. And that is the ideal Orthodox model, “harmony,” where both Church and State, although they remain separate and not afraid to tackle complex issues, must act together for the good of the people, complementing each other wherever possible.
An ideal model, but in an era of great economic and political crisis in the world order. How does the Patriarchate see it?
CHAPLIN: First of all, as I said, we must begin to respect the traditions, the State institutions, the laws and the rules by which different societies live, even where such rules, laws and traditions are diametrically opposed to those accepted in the West – that sometimes, unfortunately, tends to consider itself the only model of political and normative tendencies worldwide. Money symbolizes man’s work and the values established by him. In the economic field then it is necessary to re-establish the link between money, the values mentioned and the work of man. When the market, from method and means of the exchange of the fruits of work, becomes an exchange of numbers that symbolize guarantees of guarantees through bills of loan etc, the crack arrives inevitably. The whole history of man and also the present moment speaks of this.
We know that you have the gift of recounting reality through amusing anecdotes.
CHAPLIN: Here is the latest: “It is said that there will soon be a new computer virus called ‘Inquisitor’. It will monitor the theological irreproachableness of the web pages and eventually bring up the warning: ‘Warning! Heresy found on the site! Close down immediately, and then turn the computer back on and have it blessed again’”.


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