Day Three: Interview with Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz

Interview with Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk-Mohilev, Belarus
November 24, 2007

Ecumenism has been a central theme during this week’s consistory, dominating Friday’s business meeting of the cardinals with the pope, and surfacing again in Benedict XVI’s homily at Sunday’s Ring Mass. Few figures on the Catholic landscape have a more direct experience of the promise and perils of ecumenism, especially as it involves the Orthodox, than Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk in Belarus. From 1991 to 2007, Kondrusiewicz served as the top Catholic official in Russia; in 2002, he became the archbishop of the “Archdiocese of the Mother of God of Moscow,” so named to avoid calling him the “Archbishop of Moscow” – a title that would have offended the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, which considers Russia the heart of its “canonical territory.” Today Kondrusiewicz finds himself the leader of a small Catholic community in another overwhelmingly Orthodox nation, one that moves to a great extent in Russia’s orbit. Kondrusiewicz was in Rome this week for a conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and on Saturday, Nov. 25, he sat down with NCR for an interview at the Pontifical Russian College, known colloquially as the “Russicum.”

You’ve had a remarkable, and in many ways unique, experience of ecumenism on the ground. From your point of view, where do things stand in our relationship with the Orthodox?

First of all, it’s very important that the Holy Father pays such great attention to ecumenical developments. In his first speech after his election as pope, he said that one of the goals of his pontificate would be to reach visible unity. Later on he’s pursued other initiatives, and in this consistory he’s once again talking to the cardinals, those who are closest to the pope, his helpers, about how to go forward.

We have some good signs at the present time. First of all, the theological dialogue [with the Orthodox churches] was resumed last year. That’s so important, because it was stopped for almost six years. It’s also important that it took up again last year in Belgrade, because Serbia is an Orthodox country. If we are speaking to each other, if we’re dealing with issues, then we have some goal. Everybody who is around the table has a goal, and an intention to reach this goal. If you’re not talking to each other, it’s very bad. The mere fact that we’ve started to speak to each other again is the greatest achievement.

Now, we have had the meeting in Ravenna. [Note: the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church met in Ravenna, Italy, Oct. 8-14, publishing a document calling for study of the functions of the bishop of Rome, how his primacy is to be exercised, and the scriptural and theological foundations of the primacy. The Patriarchate of Moscow, however, refused to participate in the meeting because of tensions with the Patriarchate of Constantinople over the recognition of the independence of the Orthodox church in Estonia.]

The document from Ravenna, I would say, is a very small step forward. It’s a very, very small step on a long journey in front of us, but every long journey starts with a first step. It can be very small, but it’s the first step. You can’t go a long way without a first step. Unfortunately, there were some problems inside the Orthdox churches … well, not “there were,” there are some problems. What we can do about that as Catholics isn’t clear. I’m not in the position of Cardinal Kasper, but we can pray. Maybe we can be some kind of moderator to help solve the problems inside the Orthodox churches … that’s a role we can reflect on, if it would be helpful to the Orthodox.

The discussion at Ravenna was important, and it’s not good that the Moscow Patriarchate was absent. There are 15 independent Orthodox churches, but the reality is that the Moscow Patriarchate is the biggest. We have to consider these things. They’re the biggest and the most powerful. It’s not just because of the number of believers, but also the Moscow Patriarchate is spread all over the world today, in part because of Russians living in different countries. They’re living in Italy, in the United States, in France, and so on. They certainly have a right to take care of their people.

As far as I know, the Orthodox churches are studying this document to evaluate it. It’s good that Ravenna took place, but it’s unfortunate that the Russian Orthodox were not able to participate. I understand why it happened, and why not everyone was able to share the position of the Russian Orthodox church. Now they are studying this document, and we have to pray that the problems within the Orthodox churches will be solved. We’re on the way, but without the Moscow Patriarchate, I don’t believe we can make real progress.

What is your reaction to the Ravenna document itself?

It’s a start. I like that they took this step. They didn’t solve any problems, but there is at least some direction. We have to follow this up, figure out how to go forward. If we are speaking about the position of the Successor of Peter here in Rome, we know how we see his role in the universal church. But that’s so difficult for other churches to accept, and we have to speak not only with the Orthodox churches, but also with Protestant churches and communities. Maybe this will be the next step, though I don’t know when. Anyway, what’s important is to take the first step, and that has now been done.

You know very well that there are some people who would look at all the energy Catholicism has invested since the Second Vatican Council in relations with the Orthodox, without a great deal to show for it in terms of movement towards visible unity, and wonder if it’s really worth it. How do you react to that?

There’s a very good Russian expression, which roughly means that “to build is very difficult, to destroy is very easy.” In this case, things were destroyed almost 1,000 years ago, in 1054. Look, in any case, there are some good signs … Ravenna, the resumption of the theological dialogue, and so on. Also, we have to admit that before the Second Vatican Council, also our position as Catholics towards the Orthodox was not very friendly, frankly. Now we call each other brothers. Now we are ready to work together, to cooperate, facing the challenges of the modern society, especially secularization and moral relativism. In this sense, we are absolutely speaking the same language, Catholics and Orthodox. We are ready to go forward together, because we both see that the chief danger for the Christian world is this process of secularization. The time to throw stones is past. Now we have to collect the stones and build something together.

I want to come back to secularization in a minute, but first I want to ask something else about primacy, which you mentioned a moment ago. Having lived among the Orthodox for so long, especially in Russia, do you believe it’s truly possible that they will accept at some future point a role for the Bishop of Rome as primate of the universal church?

That’s a question almost impossible to answer. We have to work, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, to stress that the role of Peter is as a servant to all Christians. Maybe we have to focus our efforts on this. We can’t just say, ‘Everything will be very nice under the pope,’ and so on. I explained many, many times that inside the Catholic church, we have a lot of Byzantine rite churches, Oriental rite churches, sui iuris churches [churches “under their own law”]. This probably is the way, because they’re absolutely independent.

Realistically, do you believe the Orthodox will ever accept that?

(laughs) We have to work.

Returning to secularization, two of the cardinals from Eastern Europe in the meeting with the pope on Friday said that one promising area of ecumenical work between Catholics and Orthodox is common efforts against secularization. Can you tell me concretely what that means?

Next Tuesday, I’m going to sign a common declaration together with Metropolitan Filaret in Minsk, along with the Baptists and Lutherans, to outline a common strategy against AIDS. We are going to sign this document at the Academy of Science in Minsk. It’s a good sign that we who represent different Christian churches nevertheless can stay together on this issue, can sign this document. The problem is a very important one all around the world, and when people will see this on TV, they’ll see that we can speak together.

Very often I met a lot of people in Russia who were very upset that we don’t speak together defending Christian values, peace, and so on. Often we speak in the same voice, but we speak separately. Now common declarations are one way to cooperate – on euthanasia, for example, or abortion or divorce. In Moscow, we have a very powerful family center. They organize a lot of conferences together with the Orthodox church, and people know this. Recently, government officials have been coming to us to ask us to organize lectures – they ask the Catholics and the Protestants together with the Orthodox.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the name of Fyodor Petrovich Gaaz, who was a German physician, a medical doctor, who was born in Germany but who spent practically all his life in Russia as a doctor. He took care of prisoners, and he was widely admired. He enjoyed what we traditionally call fama santitatis, or the “fame of sainthood.” Even today, you can find flowers on his grave not only from Catholics but also from Orthodox. He was Catholic, but many Orthodox also call him a saint. (His name was “Friedrich-Joseph Haass” in German, but everyone knows him by his Russian name.) There are streets named after him, a hospital dedicated to him, in Moscow. Last April, I organized a conference dedicated to him, and Metropolitan Sergei from the Moscow Patriarchate came. There were also lots of other Orthodox people who came to the lectures, including people from government offices and so on. But people were talking about it … ‘the Orthodox Metropolitan came!’ He was friendly, and it was very important.

Such things, which are small in themselves probably, are nevertheless very, very significant.

By the way, what does your common declaration on AIDS say?

Well, that we have to join our forces. We have a common obligation to educate people in a moral sense, and to participate in different efforts organized as churches, and also those put together by the state. I’m thinking about conferences and so. In terms of education, we need something different than what we have today, which is generally the idea of ‘safe sex.’ We need to talk about a moral dimension, especially chastity.

Also yesterday in the conversation with the cardinals and the Holy Father, there was talk once again about a meeting between Pope Benedict and Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow. Do you believe such a meeting is possible?

Yes, I do believe that, though I don’t know when. God knows.

If it happens, what would its importance be?

It would be very important. It would turn a new page in our relationship, and it can change many things. It would create a new stage, and a new type, of our relationship. It would also help meet the challenges of our secular world.

Some people say it would basically be little more than a photo-op, without much substance.

Sure, some say this. The position of the Moscow Patriarchate is that the patriarch doesn’t like to have meetings only for pictures, but that he wants to achieve some concrete results. It must help us to promote the dialogue, to work together, to respond to the challenges of our societies and the modern world, and to reinforce our efforts to defend Christian values and return to our Christian roots.

Are you saying that in some ways, the future of relations with the Orthodox is less theological dialogue and more cooperation on practical social and cultural issues?

I would like to move in both directions at once. Without the theological base, one day we will stop. In any case, we have to develop these theological relationships. Cooperation on other matters is often easier, but during the absence of this theological dialogue, we felt that something was missing, that things aren’t good.

When the Moscow Patriarchate says it wants concrete results before a meeting between the pope and the patriarch could happen, what do they have in mind?

We have to speak with the Moscow Patriarchate on this theme, but usually we’re accused of proselytism, of invading their canonical territory. So, one thing would be to solve this problem of ‘canonical territory,’ trying to define what it means. As Catholics, we have no such term. In a sense we have it inside dioceses, but nothing more. Also, the theological level must be involved here.

I have declared many times, and I would like to repeat once more through you, that there is no intention of the Roman Catholic Church to proselytize. It’s absolutely nonsense, senseless, especially after the Second Vatican Council when we recognize that our churches have the same means of salvation. On the other hand, we have to leave freedom of choice to people to believe or not to believe, to be Catholics or Orthodox of Protestants, and so on. My own personal position is that if some people are leaving my church and going, for example, to one of the sects, I don’t blame these sectarians for stealing my people. Instead, I need to blame myself – it probably means that I’m working badly.

Of course, you and others have been saying for many years that the Catholic Church has no intention of proselytism in Russia. Are the Orthodox listening?

Since 2004, we have had a mixed commission [to examine charges of proselytism], and there were some concrete problems in a few places. Now you don’t hear so many accusations. It has calmed down a little bit. Probably we can solve this problem. In any event, there is no intention of the Catholic church to take away faithful from the Orthodox. No bishop is inviting priests for this purpose. We have always said we can’t do this.

You know the Orthodox mind very well. How do you think they see Pope Benedict XVI?

They’re very pleased with him. They consider him as the greatest theologian of our time, an open-minded man and pope.

Greatest ‘Catholic theologian’ of our time, or greatest theologian period?

Well, the greatest Catholic theologian, and a great Christian theologian. They appreciate his declarations of respect for the churches of the East, his openness to dialogue, his desire to promote ecumenical unity, and to collaborate to solve the problems of moral relativism and Christian values. They admire him.

How much difference does it make that he’s German instead of Polish?

Well, I don’t know. Pope John Paul II laid the foundations, and now we have to build a little bit more. On the other hand, probably you’re right a little bit … the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t emphasize this question of being Polish vs. German, but on the other hand we have to say that there are some animosities between Russia and Poland, in a historical sense. Of course, we have to overcome all these things.

Is there some practical step Pope Benedict could take right now that would move the relationship with the Orthodox forward?

To continue this dialogue, to promote this dialogue, involving the churches … I think basically he’s doing the right thing. It’s impossible to overcome the legacy of more than 1,000 years immediately. It’s a process, so the key is to stay the course.

One final question about Russia generally. From a distance, we hear a lot these days about a rebirth of Russian nationalism, about Putin’s more aggressive foreign policy driven by the country’s oil revenues, and so on. Should we be worried about a return to the tensions of the Cold War?

No, I don’t think so. I think all that is past. I’m not a politician, but I don’t think that can happen in the present time. Look, Putin is very popular. If the constitution allowed him to be elected for a third time, he would win very easily. The country is growing, and people like him. Plus, when the United States is trying to build this anti-rocket system in Poland and the Czech Republic and so on, sure, Russia is worried about it. If Russia were building something off the coast of Alaska, you would be worried to. It’s only natural. But it doesn’t mean Russia wants to go to war. Lots of Russians these days travel, they live abroad. Many Russians are studying abroad. They don’t want to go back to the past.


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