During the patriarchal ministry of Patriarch Alexey II a completely new task stood before the Church: to learn to be self-sufficient and be independent in relationship to the government. According to Archpriest Vladimir Vorobyov, the rector of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Humanitarian University, not one patriarch of Russia had so much work to do. Until Patriarch Alexey’s time, the Russian Church had long been called the “Church of silence” in the West. In his time the Church began to speak with its full voice.
– What role does the patriarch have in the Orthodox Church? There were, as you know, times when there was no patriarch.
– The Church is a living organism, and, just as every organism, it goes through historical periods in its development: infancy, childhood, adolescence, and maturity. In the first centuries of Christianity, when the Church had only just coming out of its cradle in Jerusalem, there was not such a developed structure as there is now. The first Local Churches, in essence, were diocesan in our understanding or simply communities: the community of Ephesus, of Antioch, of Corinth, etc. All of those communities had their own bishops. The Revelation of St. John the Theologian has a greeting to the seven churches of Asia Minor; it is written, “unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write… Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write…” (Rev. 2:18, 2:1). The “angel of the church” here is the bishop, the head of the city’s Christian community. The bishop served one liturgy for the whole city, and all the Christians of the city communed at one eucharistic gathering.
The Church is a living organism, and, just as every organism, it goes through historical periods in its development: infancy, childhood, adolescence, and maturity. In the first centuries of Christianity, when the Church had only just coming out of its cradle in Jerusalem, there was not such a developed structure as there is now. The first Local Churches, in essence, were diocesan in our understanding or simply communities: the community of Ephesus, of Antioch, of Corinth, etc. All of those communities had their own bishops. The Revelation of St. John the Theologian has a greeting to the seven churches of Asia Minor; it is written, “unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write… Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write…” (Rev. 2:18, 2:1). The “angel of the church” here is the bishop, the head of the city’s Christian community. The bishop served one liturgy for the whole city, and all the Christians of the city communed at one eucharistic gathering.
But when the times of persecution were over and masses of people and whole states turned to Christianity, the church structure, which to a certain degree copied the governmental structure, came into existence. This imitation was reflected in many ways, for example in the garments of bishops and priests; episcopal and priestly vestments contain elements of royal vestments; for example, a mitre is a crown. Canons appeared according to which bishops of different dioceses were called to be subordinate to each other, and to have the first among them without whose agreement nothing could be done. That is, a “vertical power,” as they would say today, appeared but with the following reservation: that power in the Church is a power of love and not force. Although, even Apostle Paul says to his disciple the Apostle Timothy, “preach the word, Be ready… Reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:2), that is insist. It turns out that the bishop does have a few elements of the power of force (insist, rebuke) because the Church has a divine nature while at the same time having both a divine and a human element. The human nature of the Church needed a hierarchical structure of power and so it was gradually developing: the so-called Local Churches arose which are connected to a particular territory. Every Church today functions in this way whether it is headed by an Archbishop, Metropolitan, or Patriarch, to whom are subjected bishops, to whom are subjected communities headed by priests.
There was a period in the history of the Russian Church when there was not a patriarch. In the beginning of the 18th century, Peter I did not allow for a new patriarch to be chosen in place of Patriarch Adrian, who died in 1700, and put in his place the Holy Synod (a collective agency of bishops and an ober-procurator-the representative of the government) as some sort of “ministry of Orthodoxy.” In effect, the tsar himself stood in the place of the Patriarch: that which he directed, through the ober-procurator, the Synod to do, they were obliged to carry out.
The Church needs a head just as does every organism: in every family there must be a head, in every organization there must be a director, and even at every gathering there must be a chairman. A head is needed for management and coordination so that an organism can carry out a normal life. When the head is changed for an impersonal institution, it may lose initiative, independence, and, to a considerable extent, responsibility, because responsibility is spread out over a certain “collective.” But, as you know, every bishop and, even more so, every patriarch is burdened with immense responsibility and always acts according to his conscience. Conscience is the voice of God in man’s heart. It is possible, of course, to speak of a conciliar hierarchical conscience. When there are councils of bishops and they sing together “the grace of the Holy Spirit today has assembled us” we believe and hope that the voice of God will sound in the heart of every bishop and that they together will be able to proclaim the Truth, pronounced to them by God. But arranging such a council is not easy, and it is the council’s decision that choses a patriarch or primate of the Church for the time between the councils to govern church life, so to say, “not leave the helm unmanned,” for, as history shows, even for the most mobile synod it is impossible. In essence, during the time of the Holy Synod, it was the ober-procurator who turned out to be at the helm.
– During the time of Patriarch Alexey, the Church acquired influence on society. At the same time people have misgivings that the Church became dangerously close to the state. How did Patriarch Alexey see the relationship between the Church and the state?
– The phrase “became dangerously close to the state” is blurted out by people who still live with the psychology of the Soviet man. If one considers that the state is atheist, it wittingly is an enemy of the Church, and that every approach to such a state means that the KGB will penetrate into the Church, then, of course, any kind of cooperation is dangerous. But in our state atheism has already for a long time not been the official state ideology, and we see that representatives of the highest administrations are often believers; the security agencies do not interfere in Church business. Furthermore, the Church itself even as the early as 1990s refused to take part in the organs of power; clergy, for example, cannot be elected to the Duma. Where is this dangerous approach to the state? What does it consist of?
When the Church collaborates with the state in spying, politics, and military projects it is truly dangerous for the Church. But if the Church has a common interest with the state in the fields of charity, health-care, education, and peace-making how can collaboration be bad? Why not use the enormous potential of the Church for good deeds, why should we not help care for the elderly and orphans and help the poor? For example, there is the Hospital of St. Alexey of Moscow which was given to the Church by the state, which also partially finances its activity. Is this collaboration of the Church and state? Without a doubt it is. But what is bad in this type of collaboration? The state has allowed for the building of private Orthodox schools and gymnasiums and, if they are accredited, then, in Moscow, the government will give money to those schools just as to regular schools. What is bad in this? Where is the danger here? Today the state does not interfere in the inner life of the Church, in its direction. As a priest I can say that with complete responsibility. An enormous deed of the deceased Patriarch Alexey is that new relationship, in which we live, between the Church and the state, which he constantly built and improved and left us as an inheritance the ability to further work in that direction and to further perfect this relationship.
– Patriarch Alexey considered the dialogue with society to be one of his most important tasks. What in that dialogue was most important to him?
– In his public activity, Patriarch Alexey, after decades of silence of the Church during persecution, showed again that the Church brings to the people good news of God, love, goodness, and salvation and proclaims the moral law instituted by God. People’s salvation in eternal life and help in this earthly life is the activity of the Church. For this purpose, it is necessary that the voice of the Church be heard so that society would know about the Church, so that the Church would not be isolated, and so that the Church would be, to use juridical language, a completely public institution, which fully has the capability to express its opinion, to speak out, and to witness to truth and goodness.
Patriarch Alexey encouraged all of the bishops and clergy to have “a good report of them which are without,” as the Apostle Paul says (I Tim. 3:7). That does not mean that we have to be somehow insincere or curry favor before those without. At the liturgy, the bishop proclaims the words of the Savior, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Patriarch Alexey lived just that way and called his whole Russian flock to live that way. The duty of the Church is to witness to the truth. Christ commanded this duty to the Church, and this is its mission. In and of itself witness to the truth has an immense significance for this world because the world lays in evil and evil is the devil, about whom it says in the Gospel that he is “a liar, and the father of it” (John 8:44). Evil always acts through lying. Therefore, to speak the truth is the first duty of the Church.
The Church must condemn sin and not indifferently observe as people drink, steal, and kill each other, destroy themselves with narcotics, break up families with infidelity, and so on. As one of the worst sins, Christ named indifference, lukewarmness. Can a father not care when his children are taught evil? If he does not care, it means that he does not love his children. If he loves them, he will not allow someone to teach them to steal or drink. Patriarch Alexey, as a loving father, bitterly suffered over the degradation of the Russian people and constantly spoke out against the corruption of the youth, bacchanalian sins, the commercial exploitation of vices in our country, and the worldwide freedom for evil, which now so often is hidden under the cover of “human rights.” I remind you of his presentation in Strasbourg in October 2007 at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly.
– How, in your opinion, did Patriarch Alexey manage to maintain a benevolent relationship with the authorities?
– Patriarch Alexey was a good, loving, and wise man. When he saw good in people, he always appreciated it. But if he saw evil, he never assented to it. In order to speak the truth courage is necessary, and the governmental officials respected this courage in the patriarch. Here is a very vivid example. During the war with Georgia, our patriarch was abroad, and, having learned what was happening, he at once called the warring sides to, without any conditions, immediately lay down their arms and cease shedding blood. He told both sides, not entering into the political problems of his government.
Patriarch Alexey, with great dignity, represented the Church, not entering into any compromising relationships, but formed his relationships with the state so that there was no damage to the authority of the Church. That, I think, is one of his greatest deeds.
– Today, thanks to documentaries about the patriarch, we have found out more than we expected: it turns out that Patriarch Alexey loved animals and to collect mushrooms. These details allow both the faithful as well as society more thoroughly and less officially to imagine the personality of the primate of our Church. What is your opinion as to what extent, in general, that the patriarch should be known by society, that is, his private life, to what extent should he be a figure open to the public?
– I think that it is good when a patriarch is open to people and society. But there is a particular difficulty here: a patriarch is a man who is vested with much authority; he is a spiritual leader and a father, and to him are directed a large amount of people’s requests, complaints, and sorrows. If we “give the patriarch to the people,” what will happen? Therefore, we have to guard him, and sometimes also bishops and priests, especially elderly ones, who have much authority, because a man can simply not endure such a burden. This is not because he is fleeing his people; he was always turned to the people with love and preached, and, when he could, always tried to comfort, respond to, and receive them. He worked without rest, as long as he had the strength; he mercilessly treated himself but strength runs out; there are [only] 24 hours in a day. Even Christ, as the Gospels witness to, sometimes went to a mountain to pray in solitude.
– A patriarch is a pastor but also an administrator, directing the Church. To what degree is a patriarch required to be a manager?
– A patriarch directing the Church must, of course, have corresponding capabilities and talent. But he is also given divine help. To be an administrator is very difficult and one tires from such work-I know from experience. One time at one of our meetings he asked me, “How are you doing?” I answered, “Your Holiness, it is so difficult to manage. Administrative work is something without grace, it takes away all ones strength.” The patriarch smiled and very tenderly said, “No, Fr. Vladimir, to manage people is also a charisma.” That is, it is a grace-filled gift. And that grace-filled gift is given to the patriarch, by the prayers of the Church, when he is enthroned. I think such an explanation is more fitting of a patriarch than the concept of a manager.
– In your opinion, what traits must a first hierarch have? What qualities are most important for the service of a patriarch?
– The most important quality is holiness, that is, faith, love, and selflessness. If a patriarch has devotion to God and the Church, selfless love, and the readiness to give himself over to the service of God and the Church, then the Lord with his grace will supply that which is missing. Our patriarch clearly displayed this!
– What was the particular mission of Patriarch Alexey, considering that the Church acquired a new status, it became free, during his primacy? And what struck you the most in Patriarch Alexey?
– He was truly a great patriarch-great in his personal spiritual scale. He was a man with an acute mind, high culture, noble Orthodox education, and a huge experience of archpastoral activity. In his personality, we see the combination of a great office, a great podvig, and a great soul. His personal traits were love, openness towards people, and joyfulness.
The Lord, through the patriarch’s hands, re-established our Church in its magnificence. He restored the religious life of our people and returned their faith to them. Of course, however, not yet completely. We would like that our people believed more [fervently]. But this is certainly not that same time as it was upon the arrival of Patriarch Alexey on the patriarchal throne.
The most important thing in a man’s life, as it seems to me, is to come across someone holy in their life. My spiritual father said, “Christianity should not be spoken about or proved but shown.” If the Lord allows one to see a holy person, then everything immediately becomes understandable and evident. Patriarch Alexey was a person who showed faith in God to the people. And the people returned to the faith, they started to go to Church. Not one patriarch in the history of the Russian Church did as much as Patriarch Alexey. He traveled around so many dioceses, blessed so many churches and monasteries, ordained so many bishops priests and deacons… And thus, having traveled around the whole country, he turned it to be able to see the Church. “We need to find a path to the church” were his favorite words. And he was showing this path to the people. Looking at him and loving him, the people went to church.
Patriarch Alexey headed the restoration and building of churches and monasteries, seminaries and Orthodox education in general, the re-building of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the canonization of new martyrs and confessors of Russia at the jubilee council of the Russian Orthodox Church [2000 A.D.], and, last of all, the unification of the two parts of the Russian Church which had separated for many decades. All of that together would seem to be inconceivable, absolutely beyond one’s strength, and unfeasible. But the grace of God, which was acting so evidently through Patriarch Alexey, was giving him the strength and worked a miracle.
It is necessary also to mention another extremely important deed of Patriarch Alexey, which is often unjustly ignored: he firmly directed a course towards a eucharistic revival in the Russian Orthodox Church. Up to Patriarch Alexey’s time, it was common almost everywhere to partake of the Holy Mysteries of Christ very rarely, and people were not given communion on Nativity, Theophany, and Pascha at all. Patriarch Alexey, from the first day of his patriarchal ministry to the last, whenever he had the strength, himself communed everyone who strived to come to him to the very last person. He blessed people to commune often as well as on the feasts, and during the celebration of the divine liturgy he recited all prayers aloud. At some point, probably from over tiredness, he started to have problems with his voice and microphones began to be used. Due to that, probably not without God’s Providence, everyone who was standing in the church could hear the patriarch reading the priestly prayers in the altar and he was reading them in an absolutely marvelous way: with unusual simplicity, magnificence, and with some sort of inexpressibly beautiful intonation. Thus, the patriarchal liturgy became accessible, in much more fullness, to all the worshippers.
Of course, the most wonderful and unforgettable image, which will remain in my heart forever, is the way he celebrated the liturgy. In his every word was a prayer. He said nothing for appearances, as often happens with the clergy. He put his heart in the the words of his prayer. And the service became wonderfully exalted, moving, spiritual, noble, and lofty. It is impossible to express in words. Patriarch Alexey is an example of how we should celebrate the liturgy. As a whole, he struck everyone with his genuine magnificence; in him were shown the greatness and dignity of the Russian Church. Yet, Patriarch Alexey conversed with anyone in such a simple, natural, tender, friendly, and respectful manner that it seemed as if he was raising up the person to himself, not putting them down but elevating them. When I would come into his office feeling, naturally, nervous, the next moment everything would become so simple and easy, and I would talk to him as to my father, sincerely and without fear. He was very glad when someone asked him pastoral questions.
In many cases, Patriarch Alexey had to look at some problem in a new way and it was not easy when there was already some conventional understanding of the issue. To do that, one has to be open-minded, to refuse the already established view, and to sense the will of God. All of this is possible only for a spiritual person.
The Church also has its own problems which must be solved. Patriarch Alexey did very much so that such problematic issues were raised, so that they were not suppressed. It was difficult sometimes. I remember when we started our institute , we wanted to name one of the departments as missionary. We were told, “It is forbidden to pronounce the word ‘mission’!” And this was already the 1990s. “Name the department ‘catechetical’ as this word is not understandable.” And presently this is allowed, we now have a missionary department. This seems funny now but such a reality was truly the case. Our Church had long been called the “Church of silence” in the West. After decades of persecution we lost the habit of speaking, we were afraid. But Patriarch Alexey was not afraid. He removed those bans, and the Church began to talk, under him, with her full voice.
Dmitry Rebrov and Maria Abushkina
[1. The Slavonic and Russian Synodal Bibles have “insist in season and out of season.”]
[2. From the verses on Lord I Have Cried for Vespers of Palm Sunday.]
[4. St. Tikhon’s University was raised from the status of institute to university in 2005.]