Interview: A Mission in the World

The Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate distributed “A Mission in the World,” an interview of Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk by Expert Magazine (Issue No. 23 (661) June 15, 2009).

Expert Magazine Your Eminence, one hundred days have passed since the enthronement of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. What has changed in church-society relations since? Have any new tendencies emerged?

Archbishop Hilarion The man who ascended to the throne of the Moscow Patriarchate is one who has been known for many years for his focus on mission and his capacity to shed light on matters. He has long been in active co-operation with all parts of the society, hosting a TV programme of his own and making regular appearances in the print media. Even before he was elected Patriarch, he was known and loved by millions of Russian Orthodox faithful throughout the world. He has gained authority in broad public circles. Metropolitan Kirill accumulated a unique experience during his work at the Department for External Church Relations and through his close cooperation with the late Patriarch Alexy II. This has fully prepared him for the new role he assumed upon his election to the Moscow Patriarchal throne. But the most important thing is that he is a man who is absolutely committed to the Church; there is no private agenda for him. He has deposited all his abilities and talents at the feet of Christ, as St. Gregory the Theologian put it.

Patriarch Kirill’s enthronement has given a new impetus to the entire complex of relations between the Church and the world external to it. Patriarch Kirill tends to issue challenges to the clergy and the whole Church in a very tough and clear way. At the same time, he is a church leader not only because of his position but also by virtue of his personality. He can inspire people, mobilizing them to a more pro-active missionary and educational work.

EM In your view, what are essentially the changes introduced by the Patriarch?

Hilarion Our problem is that we are still lacking in bridges linking Orthodox parishes to the outside world.

Currently what happens to a person who enters an Orthodox church for the first time out of curiosity or inner dissatisfaction or in search for the truth? At best no one will say anything to him. He will be given an opportunity to stand and listen to the service, to look around, etc. But, coming in touch with God’s grace through the atmosphere of the church, he may come to feel something. And he will come again and, later, again. Then he will begin searching for books. In this way, gradually, through self-education, he will get involved in the life of the Church. It is a very long and not easy way. A person will have to surmount his own numerous barriers separating him from the church world – barriers psychological, cultural and linguistic.

At worst a newcomer coming to a church from the street will encounter just plain rudeness. He could be scolded by the babushka who serves behind the candle box. She might condemn him for making the sign of the cross in a wrong way, for standing at a wrong place, for wearing wrong clothes, etc. And after coming to church two or three times, the person will lose any interest in coming back.

We have to break this mechanism of alienating people from the Church or merely expecting that they will turn up and surmount all the barriers on their own. We should create a system that helps people without much church experience to get involved in church life gradually. The resources of clergy alone are insufficient to do it. We need active lay people. Our task is to mobilize the laity for proactive missionary and educational work. It is not that nothing is being done.There are people who do things. There are many who work in this area, helping the clergy to bring people to God. But we need a completely different scale of welcome.

EM Is there a gap emerging now between the Patriarch’s rhetoric and the real work of parish priests?

Hilarion Much depends here on the personality of the priest and the ruling bishop. If the missionary spirit coming from the Patriarch is not taken up properly, if lay people and clergy rely on the proposition that ‘we bear witness to the truth of Orthodoxy by the very fact of our existence’, then I believe the task of bringing new people to the Church will be unfeasible. This proposition is usually put forward to counterbalance Protestant and sectarian preachers. Indeed, we do not go from door to door inviting people persistently to come to church. That is to say, we do not use aggressive and importunate methods of mission. But it does not mean that we must simply sit and wait doing nothing until people themselves come to us. If the apostles had settled down in the Cenacle after the Resurrection of Christ in the belief that they ‘bore witness to Christ by the very fact of their existence’, I am afraid Christianity would have died in the first generation. But the Saviour’s disciples went out to the world and this led inevitably to the universal triumph of Christianity in the world.

EM The Patriarch’s recent meetings with young people – is it an attempt to point to new ways of developing church-society relations?

Hilarion The Patriarch sets an example to the whole Church. But a single person is not sufficient to carry out the truly titanic work that is necessary for a real drawing closer of society to the Church. It is very important that the missionary imperative be felt deeply and accepted on other levels, those of bishops, priests, lay people and monastics. The Patriarch’s call to a proactive stance and to a dynamic preaching of Christ and Christian moral values should inspire all members of the Church.

EM Today there is a lot of youth movements who march streets with slogans calling, say, ‘to rebuff’ homosexuals. Participants in such actions claim to be Orthodox. Are they ‘those active lay people’ whom the Church needs?

Hilarion No. Active does not mean aggressive. Active is a person for whom faith in Christ stands first and who builds his life on the basis of Christian values. An active lay person is inspired by the religious ideal not only within church walls but also in everyday life and seeks to build it in accordance with the gospel’s law. He should not be necessarily a missionary in the purely technical sense, going around and preaching. He must first of all bear witness to Christ by his way of life, his actions and his good works. ‘In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Mt. 5:16) – these words of Christ were addressed to all Christians, who are called to become the salt of the earth and the light of the world (cf. Mt. 5:13-14).

An aggressive stance, however, is completely inappropriate for the Church. We should struggle with sin in all its manifestations, but first of all in ourselves and only after that in people around us. It is certainly easier to struggle with sin in others than in ourselves. We can and must help our neighbours and generally people around us, doing it in the first place through our own example and way of life.

The Church states very clearly that sin is sin. The Church is against accepting sin as a norm. But we should not be hostile to people leading sinful life, because sin, from the Christian point of view, is an illness. And we should treat such people as ill, that is, be compassionate and tolerant towards them. We should struggle with sin but be compassionate to a sinner. Compassion does not consist in saying to a sick person that he is healthy and needs neither treatment nor medicines. On the contrary, compassion consists precisely in calling an illness and illness, in making the right diagnosis and proposing medical assistance. In this lies the mission of the Church. John Chrysostom described the Church as a spiritual hospital. The Church is a place to which people come for healing. Our task is to heal the spiritual illnesses of individuals and society, doing it by no means in an aggressive way.

EM How do you plan to develop a system of church education? Especially with regard to the need to make it possible to train clergy capable of carrying out a more active work with the world, on the one hand, while, on the other hand, secular and religious education come into little contact professionally…

Hilarion There was a hot debate in the Church about whether theological schools should be accredited to ensure that their graduation certificates are recognized by the state. The opponents of accreditation made this case: if our diplomas are recognized by the state, then our seminarians will not join the clergy but upon graduation will rather go into the world. I would give this response to this: if a person does not want to join the clergy, he will not do it anyway, be his diploma recognized or not. But if a person is a theological graduate, say, from St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Humanitarian Institute, and becomes not a priest but an active layman, for instance, a minister or a cultural worker, what’s wrong with it? The Church should enlighten the whole world. And the task of theological education is to cultivate people who should become the salt of the earth – in parishes or in administrative offices. These people ought to be present in various spheres of public life and in all walks of life, and they should be missionaries as the apostles were.

Because of this polemic a decision on the accreditation of theological schools was actually postponed for a few years. It is only now, with the coming of a new Patriarch, that this work has been fully resumed and I hope it will succeed.

It is my conviction that we should expand the framework of church education and should not to be afraid that the people we educate do not become priests standing at the altar but become secular specialists with a good theological education, serving the Church in their own way in their own field. These people will become our, if you will, ‘agents of influence’ in the world and they will help to bring Christian moral values to those sectors of society that may not be directly reached by the preaching and mission of the clergy.

EM What is your view of church-state relations as they were before the 1917 Revolution? Today there is a popular nostalgia for those times as a certain ideal…

Hilarion If it were all so good in the pre-revolution Church, people would not have fallen away from it en masse in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period. Perhaps there would have been no revolution at all. It seems to me that the cause of the spiritual crisis that led to the revolution is very well exposed by Protopresbyter George Shavelsky in his memoirs. He was the leader of the army clergy; he was close to the tsar’s family and met personally with the tsar. He knew the Church very well at its every level. His memoirs represent essentially a selection of facts. They point to an enormous spiritual decay that existed both in the Church and the Russian state. He shows the great distance that separated the tsar’s family from the people in spite of the ardent love they had for the people and the desire to come close to them and understand them. He shows the gap that existed between the Church and its supreme leaders, on the one hand, and the real world, on the other. Certainly, there were many positive things in the pre-revolutionary status of the Church in the state. But on no account should we try to restore the pre-revolution situation today. We should create a new model of church-state relations so as to exclude those negative things in church and public life that led to the revolution.

EM Today the liberal part of society maintains that the state is becoming ecclesiastical and inclined towards Orthodoxy as almost a state religion. But isn’t there a different tendency in operating in which the Orthodox Church is leaning on the state? Don’t you see here a threat to the ability of the Church to have an independent existence and independent policy?

Hilarion In my view, nobody is leaning on anybody today, neither the Church on the state nor the state on the Church. There is separation between church and state, which is reflected both on legal and political levels. The state does not interfere in the internal life of the Church. The Church does not participate in political struggle, nor does it support any particular party. The Church is open to relations with all. Any political figure, whether he supports the governement party or opposes it, can be a member of the Church.

I do not think the state runs the risk of becoming clerical, or that the Church is state-run. But at the same time it should be taken into account that the popular term ‘multiconfessional state’, which is often used in Russia, fails to point to the obvious reality that most of people in Russia belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, even if they are not regular church-goers. About 80 percent of citizens in Russia identify themselves with the Orthodox Church. It means that the Russian Church is a majority religion. At the same time there are millions of people in Russia who belong to other confessions or profess no religion. We should respect and be friends with all. We should create a common cultural space. It should not be forgotten that it was the Orthodox Church that had a decisive influence through the centuries on the formation of the spiritual identity of Russia and the Russian people.

EM But you cannot deny that there are certain solid ties between the Church and the state.

Hilarion The Church and the state have very many common tasks with regard first of all to the spiritual and material welfare of our citizens. There are tasks that cannot be done single-handedly, for instance, the population problem. It cannot be solved only through material benefits or TV public service advertising. What is needed here are joint efforts of the state and the Church. And when I am speaking of the Church here I am referring to the Church in co-operation with other traditional religious confessions. In this regard, the representatives of these traditional religious confessions have very close and sometimes even identical views.

EM Patriarch Kirill’s recent remarks about the victory in the “Great Patriotic War” (the Second World War) have provoked rather harsh criticism, also from people close to the authorities. The Patriarch was criticized for seeing the victory as a miracle, and the hardships of war as retribution for apostasy. The Patriarch was also criticized for underestimating the role of Stalin and the Bolsheviks. To what extent are you willing to disagree with this criticism?

Hilarion I quite am willing to disagree with it, event to the extent of provoking a wave of criticism against myself by stating my own view of Stalin. I believe that Stalin was a monster, a spiritual cripple who created a horrible anti-human system of governance built on lies, violence and terror. He unleashed genocide against his own people and is personally responsible for the death of millions of innocent people. In this respect Stalin is quite like Hitler. Both brought so much grief into this world that no military or political successes can redeem their guilt before humanity. There is no essential difference between the Butovo firing ground and Buchenwald, between the GULAG and Hitler’s system of death camps. And the number of victims of Stalin’s repression is quite comparable with our losses in the Great Patriotic War.

The victory in the Great Patriotic War really was a miracle because Stalin did all that was possible before it to destroy the country. He eliminated the whole of the top leadership of the army and by his mass repression brought a powerful country to the brink of survival. When a census was carried out in 1937, it was found the country was about twelve million people short. Where did these millions vanish? They were eliminated by Stalin. The country entered the war almost bleeding white. But despite all the flagrant repression, the people showed unprecedented heroism. It cannot be called anything other than a miracle. The victory in that war is a victory of the people who showed the greatest will to resist. The miracle of the victory in that war is a tremendous demonstration of our people’s fortitude that could not be crushed by either Stalin or Hitler.


  1. George Michalopulos :

    truly a courageous hierarch. One cannot preach the Gospel unless one is willing to speak the truth. Perhaps that is why the ROC is growing and may soon overtake the environs of Istanbul itself (and all that that implies).


  1. […] polemical attitude. His Eminence, Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk in a recent interview (“A Mission in the World”) offers us an illustration from parish life of how poor human formation might adversely effect […]

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