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from issue no. 04 - 2004

«At least once a day one should repeat: Resurrexit sicut dixit!»

Sergej Averintsev, Orthodox, member of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, addressed the words to a friend as they looked at the dome of Saint Peter’s. A memoir of the work and life of the recently deceased scholar

by Pierluca Azzaro

Burial and resurrection of Jesus, detail from a double-sided icon panel with scenes of the passion of Christ, late 15th - early 16th century, Tret'jakov Gallery, Moscow

Burial and resurrection of Jesus, detail from a double-sided icon panel with scenes of the passion of Christ, late 15th - early 16th century, Tret'jakov Gallery, Moscow

He was the prophet of ecumenic dialogue», the «champion of East-West dialogue». Such was the tone of comments in the European press after the news of the death on 21 February in Vienna, of Sergej Averintsev, member though Orthodox, of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. It was a leitmotiv that found effective confirmation in primis in the messages of condolence delivered contemporaneously to his widow Natalia from the Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, on behalf of the Holy Father, and from the Patriarch of Moscow and of all the Russias, Alexis II. This consensus was then also confirmed by an unusual circumstance: both the Christian-Orthodox archbishop of Vienna, S.G. Hilarion Alfeyev, and Cardinal Paul Poupard wanted to speak in praise of a man who had always, and before anything else, served the universal Church; the former at the funeral prayer (panichida) on 4 March in Vienna, the latter by letter received by Mrs Averintseva some days after the death of her husband.
And, as Cardinal Tomas Spidlik stressed, «to breathe with two lungs, the eastern and the western, was not for Averintsev a “program” he sought to achieve, but rather a normal attitude in life». A brief look at his life and work confirms that judgment.
Sergej Averintsev was born in 1937 in Moscow «of cultured parents and – as he later recalled – not so much communist or atheist but rather leaning to that agnosticism and to that deism of Enlightenment stamp that had marked the previous century». And so he came to the Christian faith not so much out of family tradition, as through «that possibility that the terrible reality of Stalin’s dictatorship» paradoxically offered, that «of being led back, constrained to confront the primary truth of faith: Ecclesia Christi, the Church of Jesus Christ». Out of the many circumstances that testify to it and that he experienced at first hand, there is an image he often later recalled, something that happened shortly after the war in a village in Soviet Russia and reported at the time to the young boy by an old countrywoman who had witnessed it personally: a procession of believers enters a church to be consecrated, and the local communist youth, hiding up in the belltower, urinate on them: «Everything of the Christian legacy that it was possible to destroy, was scrupulously destroyed before our eyes – the scholar remarked later – in a programmed way, in great style…». «The illusion of a “Christian” nation, of an “Orthodox” nation» vanished, the Church primarily understood as establishment, as institutional order collapsed; what remained, «together with the obvious harmlessness of an old countrywoman who had not lost her faith and of that young boy who listened to her», was that procession, hence the Church as «bodiliness», «founded by Jesus Christ himself», «the physicality of the Word of God and of the people of God, the physicality of the Church despised and persecuted as locus of fidelity, that was demonstrated even physically».
Paradoxically, the possibility was thus provided of «getting back on the path of the essential, on the fact in itself and of finding again, in that way, the way of lost unity» (Averintsev 1996, pp. 1-5).
Sergej Averintsev, in sub-deacon’s vestments, during a recent Christian-Orthodox liturgical celebration

Sergej Averintsev, in sub-deacon’s vestments, during a recent Christian-Orthodox liturgical celebration

In this respect the case of the Russian-Orthodox philosopher Leo Karsavin took on for Averintsev paradigmatic value. Karsavin, though never reneging on his bitter criticism of Catholicism, on the point of death agreed with joy to receive the Eucharist from a Catholic priest, imprisoned like himself in a Soviet gulag; but also that, less well-known, of which the scholar himself, then a young university student at the faculty of Classical Philology in Moscow, was a witness: that of a Catholic Polish girl who engaged in discreet missionary activity among her Soviet atheist classmates, spreading the Orthodox faith (cf. Averintsev 2003, p. 5).
These are just a couple out the many such episodes quoted by him that are part of the history of the Catholic-Orthodox encounter under the Soviet regime, the common denominator of which he didn’t attribute to a certain “liberal” attitude nor even to a more or less ecumenic “feeling”, but to the «faith nude and crude (and with it the humanity proper to it)» (Averintsev 1996, p. 4).
His faith, known de usu, formed the basis both of his teaching work and public commitment, and of his more properly scholarly-literary task. Among the many endeavours included in the former were the lectures he gave in 1970 and 1971 in the faculty of history at Moscow University. «He announced them as a series of lectures on Byzantine aesthetics – his wife remembers today - but in reality, in a soft calm way, he spoke about Christianity». Attended by hundreds of students, the Soviet authorities at first tolerated the lectures with mute unease – «the thing was so inconceivable », Professor Averintseva recalls again, «that the authorities thought my husband enjoyed special authorization». Later they prohibited them. At that time Averintsev also became one of the leading authors of the Philosophical Encyclopedia, for which he wrote such controversial entries as «Conversion», «Christianity», «Salvation».
Finally in 1989, thanks to the changed political climate of the Gorbacev era, he agreed to stand as «deputy of the people» and, as one of the group led by Andrej Sacharov, he devoted himself mainly to the drafting of «just and democratic» legislation for freedom of conscience: «Freedom of conscience is a principle that democracy cannot put aside without ceasing to be democracy», he affirmed in an speech prepared for Congress (Averintsev 1989, p. 113).
To those who over the years suggested in friendly fashion that it was better «not to try», that «it wouldn’t get through», Averintsev, with the humor proper to him, replied that as far as he was concerned it was a matter in reality «of normal behavior from the purely biological point of sight. The behavior of those who are alive, as opposed to those who are not» (Averintsev, Milan 2001, p. 13).
Sergej Averintsev with John Paul II at the audience for the participants at the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, 2 May 2003

Sergej Averintsev with John Paul II at the audience for the participants at the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, 2 May 2003

His way was that of «speaking without previous authorization», which, as he later stressed, was neither «daring», even less «heroism», but rather – paraphrasing his beloved Chesterton – «walking cheerfully in the dark». «One can be sure of oneself and one’s success, and that is repugnant and foolish; one can be bewitched by the danger of failure, and that is for cowards; one can shuttle between thirst for success and fear of fiasco, and that is empty and mean; one can be heedless of the future, and that is death. Nobility of mind and joy coincide in going beyond the bounds of those four variations, in walking cheerfully in the dark, investing with absolute seriousness, “like innocent children playing”, all one’s strength, remaining at the same time free of the outcome, fully ready to be defeated and ridiculed…» (Averintsev 1989, pp. 12-13).
In 1977 came the publication of the work that sealed his scholarly reputation at international level: The Poetics of early Byzantine Literature, a study devoted to the artistic and literary forms of Greek civilization in the medieval period, Byzantine civilization, and in first place to the icon, considered its highest visual expression. The comparative study of Orthodox and Catholic civilization - from then on ever more at the center of his research – is never an end in itself however. The leading thread of Averintsev’s comparative work consists instead of those moments of influence and mutual comprehension that characterized the relationship over the centuries, even during periods of maximum clash between the confessions. So, for example, he recalls that it was Saint Dimitrij, Bishop of Rostov (1651-1709), who decided to translate the prayer Anima Christi, so dear to Catholicism, into Russian and probably to make use of it in the Orthodox liturgy. And it was the great poet and Russian thinker of the Symbolist period Vjaceslav Ivanov (1866-1949) who coined the expression – more than once quoted by John Paul II – of the East and West as the “two lungs” of the universal Church, when during his stay in Rome in 1926 he asked and obtained permission to approach the Catholic Church «though without taking the “definitive step”, i.e. formal abjuration of the Orthodox Church and his own identity as Orthodox believer».
«I think it is clear to you that my greatest desire, despite my lack of strength, is to continue to do my utmost for this effort of mutual understanding», Averintsev said in his acceptance speech for the “Senatore Giovanni Agnelli” Prize, awarded him in February 2001. To him mutual understanding did not mean “uniformity”, on the contrary it meant “unity in diversity”. And he spoke again about the center of that unity at the opening of the 1199 exhibition of early Russian icons in the Vatican, Sophia. The Wisdom of God, in front of the Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies gathered for the occasion: «The more seriously we observe the reality of our time, the more evident become our duty to confess the truth of the Cross together, to use the words of the encyclical Ut unum sint» (Averintsev 1999, p. 7).
The greatest threat for our time, in fact, he saw in the danger of a «religious totalitarianism» that – differently from the self-declared atheistic sort – does not so much oppose the faith openly as transform it into “ideology”, into an instrument of power, so denying the “primary identity” proper to it. «It is essential that the faith not be understood as a means to achieve projects of salvation. . . projects of world civilization and so forth… The faith can save us and our world only if it is genuine faith, and not an unknown source of energy at the service an nth utopian project» (Averintsev 1989, p. 109).
It was also out of that perspective that his renewed interest in the defining features of European culture arose. At its basis, according to Averintsev, lies the idea of the “person”, as that concept central to the European value-system – and without which it cannot survive – that has matured out of the synthesis of the “sources”: Athens, Jerusalem, Rome; «Jerusalem» standing for faith, «Athens» for the secular and rational culture of Greek civilization, and «Rome» for respect of state order and of law. Affirming the essentially Christian origins of Europe meant for him the rediscovery of the idea of the “person”, and to do that it is necessary to relive the memory of the “sources” out of the synthesis of which it arose.
Looking at the dome of Saint Peter’s he said: «At least once a day one should repeat: Resurrexit sicut dixit!» - this to Herbert Schambeck, a colleague at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences whom he bumped into in front of the Santa Marta House, shortly before the last session at which he participated. Out of all the many obituaries what particularly struck Victor Gaiduk, an eminent representative of the Russian intelligentsia and the translator of Averintsev’s first contributions in Italian, was the first memorial piece published for his dead friend in Novye Izvestia on 25 February - so much so that he decided to translate it into Italian. In rendering homage to the philologist the author points out the etymology of Averintsev indicates «the man. . . of a different faith. . . It is the faith that only our children can have». In paradisum deducant te angeli, Sergej Sergejevic! as Michail Pozdnyaev entitled his obituary of the great Russian thinker.


1. S. Averintsev, Die Solidarität in dem verfemten Gott. Erfahrungen der Sowjetjahre als Mahnung für Gegenwart und Zukunft [Solidarity in the proscribed God. Experiences of the Soviet period as admonition for the present and the future], Tübingen 1996.
2. S. Averintsev, Poetika rannevizantijskoj literatury [The Poetics of Byzantine Literature] Moscow 1977.
3. S. Averintsev, La Russia e la “cristianità europea” [Russia and “European Christendom, Acceptance speech of the “Senatore Giovanni Agnelli” Prize], Turin 2001.
4. S. Averintsev, La Sapienza di Dio ha costruito una casa (Pr 9,1) per la dimora di Dio stesso tra noi: il concetto di Sofia e il significato dell’icona [The Wisdom of God has built a house for the dwelling of God amongst us: the concept of Sophia and the meaning of the icon] in: Sophia. La Sapienza di Dio, edited by Giuseppina Cardillo Azzaro e Pierluca Azzaro, Milan 1999.
5. S. Averintsev, Sophia. La Sapienza di Dio. Speech given at the opening of the exhibition “Sophia. La Sapienza di Dio”, Braccio di Carlo Magno, Vatican City 1999.
6. S. Averintsev, Cose attuali, cose eterne. La Russia d’oggi e la cultura europea [Current things, eternal things. The Russia of today and European culture], Milan 1989.
7. S. Averintsev, Atene e Gerusalemme. Contrapposizione e incontro di due principi creativei [Athens and Jerusalem. Opposition and encounter of two priciples], Rome 1994.
8. S. Averintsev, Poety [Poets] Moscow 1996.
9. G. Mattei, Un respiro a due polmoni [Breathing with two lungs] in: L’Osservatore Romano 7 March 2004.
10. M. Pozdnyaev, In memoriam Serguei Averintsev. In paradisum deducant te angeli, Sergej Sergeejvich [In memorian Serguei Averintsev. In paradisum deducant te angeli, Sergej Sergeejvich], in Novye Izvestia 25 February 2004.
11. La spiritualità dell’Europa orientale e il suo contributo alla formazione della nuova identità europea [Spirituality in Eastern Europe and its contribution to the shaping of the new European idenity], lecture given in the Sala Zuccari of Palazzo Giustiniani, in Rome, 25 March 2003 as part of the series “La filosofia dell’Europa”.

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