Another meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill is not on the agenda of the two Churches. In the meantime, “there are many things that can be done together” and “if our Churches speak with a single voice their message will be certainly stronger and it will have a greater impact.” The Metropolitan bishop of Volokolamsk, Hilarion, head of the Department for External Relations of Moscow’s Patriarchate, provided an overview of the current state of the relations of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches during an interview to SIR in Paris, and with Jean-Marie Dumont for Famille Chrétienne, in the framework of the Fifth European Catholic-Orthodox Forum.
Your Eminence, you met Pope Francis past December 16. Could you tell us more about that meeting? Which topics did you address?
I met the Pope six times since his election. In December I came to extend my wishes to the Pope for his 80th birthday. Moreover, a few weeks earlier the Pope had sent his representative, Cardinal Koch, to convey his wishes to Patriarch Kirill upon the latter’s 70th birthday, who is ten years younger. For me it was an occasion to discuss also other common themes of mutual interest with the Pope.
What is your impression of Pope Francis?
He is a very humble person. And he is always well informed. I never had to give him details on a given issue because he is knowledgeable of many things.
He is very easy to talk to.
I noticed it immediately after the Papal inauguration, during our first meeting.
In the wake of the meeting in Cuba, do you envision the possibility of another meeting between the Patriarch and the Pope?
It might be possible. But at present we are not working for such a meeting. It is not envisaged as one of our current projects.
And what about the Pope’s visit to Russia?
It’s not on the agenda.
What is the state of the ecumenical relations between Moscow and Rome?
Our mutual relations are very good and constructive. The dialogue is uninterrupted and the debate is articulated on different levels according to the theme. Then there was the meeting between the Patriarch and the Pope in Cuba in February 2016. I personally have regular meetings with cardinal Koch (President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity (ed.’s note). And in other venues we discuss issues that involve us both.
Joint projects were developed after the meeting in Cuba in support of Christians and people in difficulty worldwide, especially in Syria. Could you tell us more about this, and why Syria?
We chose Syria because people are in a situation of deep suffering in that Country. It’s a Country afflicted by war, victims, refugees, in need of our help. We have organized join humanitarian missions. The representatives of our Churches have visited various communities, cities and villages to analyse the situation and identify the needs on the ground.
Indeed, all that we can do is not enough to solve the problems of the Country. Political solutions are needed. Nonetheless we continue to carry out our commitment.
Pope Francis has discussed the situation in Syria with several representatives of world Countries. Patriarch Kirill is doing the same.
Do you consider it important to strengthen the relations with the Catholic Church?
Of course! I think there is a lot that can be done together, even without having reached full unity. We are facing the same transformations and I do believe that our cooperation can be intensified.
However, on many occasions we act separately. For example, the Pope makes a statement and the Patriarch on his part says the same things, but they do so separately. I firmly believe that the message they convey could be more powerful if they both spoke with a single voice.
It’s what happened in Havana. On that occasion the Pope and the Patriarch did not make revolutionary statements, they said nothing they hadn’t already said before. But they were together; and that was important.
It was important that they spoke with a single voice, that they spoke together and undertook joint initiatives. I firmly believe that we will be ever more incisive by acting in this way.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will be held throughout Europe January 18-25 on the theme: “Reconciliation – the love of Christ compels us.” In your opinion, what does it mean to be witnesses of reconciliation in the world?
I think that Christ reconciles us. If we live in Christ we can face world challenges and bear witness to our unity in the world.”
The issue of a Christian religion that ignore Christ is being debated across Western Europe. Does it happen also in Russia?
In his book “Jesus of Nazareth” Benedict XVI highlighted the fact that on many occasions the Church has been centred on herself rather than on Jesus Christ. This can happen also in popular devoutness: people look for extraordinary signs but they forget the centrality of Christianity that is Jesus Christ. I admire pope Benedict XVI for his ability to donate Christ to others through his books, in particular with the book “Jesus of Nazareth.”
That book was a great source of inspiration for me
In Europe it is still said that secularization has made room for Islamic fundamentalisms. How could Christians address this issue together?
I would like to recall the words of Cardinal Koch during his years as bishop in Swizerland, namely:
we should not fear a strong Islam but a weak Christianity.
I believe that if we are steadfast Christians we have nothing to fear, because our Christian identity gives us the strength that stems directly from God and from Christ. Secularized societies, typical of many European societies, can be described as weak societies, in spiritual terms. The values for which a person sacrificed his life today no longer exist. Secularised values are not worthy of laying down one’s life. And if we’re not willing to sacrifice our life then the battle is lost.
Only if we acknowledge our Christian roots and our Christian identity will we be strong enough to face the challenges of our times.