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A Russian Orthodox View of Papacy, and More (Part 1)

11/8/2006 - 6:00 AM PST

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Interview With Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

VIENNA, Austria, NOV. 8, 2006 (Zenit) - Dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox can be fruitful, though many hurdles still exist on the road to Eucharistic communion, says a leading prelate.

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria, representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, commented in this interview on Benedict XVI's forthcoming visit to Turkey, as well as on other topics.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Thursday.

Q: Soon Pope Benedict XVI will visit Turkey, because he wants to strengthen the bonds between Rome and Constantinople. What is the significance of this journey as to the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue?

Bishop Alfeyev: It is to be hoped that this visit will further improve the relations between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople. These two churches broke communion with one another in 1054, therefore it makes them especially responsible to restore unity.

In speaking about the possible impact of this meeting on Orthodox-Catholic relations as a whole, one should remember that the Orthodox Church, insofar as its structure is concerned, is significantly different from the Roman Catholic Church.

The Orthodox Church has no single primate. It consists of 15 autocephalous churches, each headed by its own patriarch, archbishop or metropolitan.

In this family of Churches the patriarch of Constantinople is "primus inter pares," but his primacy is that of honor, not of jurisdiction, since he has no ecclesial authority over the other Churches. When, therefore, he is presented as the "head" of the Orthodox Church worldwide, it is misleading. It is equally misleading when his meeting with the Pope of Rome is considered to be a meeting of the heads of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

Historically, until the schism of 1054, it was the Bishop of Rome who enjoyed a position of primacy among the heads of the Christian Churches. The canons of the Eastern Church -- in particular, the famous 28th canon of the Council of Chalcedon -- ascribe the second, not the first place, to the patriarch of Constantinople.

Moreover, the ground on which this second place was granted to the patriarch of Constantinople was purely political: Once Constantinople became "the second Rome," capital of the Roman -- Byzantine -- Empire, it was considered that the bishop of Constantinople should occupy the second seat after the Bishop of Rome.

After the breach of communion between Rome and Constantinople, the primacy in the Eastern Orthodox family was shifted to the "second in line," i.e., the patriarch of Constantinople. Thus it was by historical accident that he became "primus inter pares" for the Eastern part of the world Christendom.

I believe that, alongside with contacts with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, it is equally important for the Roman Catholic Church to develop bilateral relations with other Orthodox Churches, notably with the Russian Orthodox Church. The latter, being the second largest Christian Church in the world -- its membership comprises some 160 million believers worldwide -- is eager to develop such relations, especially in the field of common Christian witness to secularized society.

Q: Do you think that this journey will open new horizons for the talks between the Christian and the Muslim worlds?

Bishop Alfeyev: Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is necessary and timely. It is quite unfortunate that some attempts by Christian leaders to encourage this dialogue have been misinterpreted by certain representatives of the Muslim world.

The recent controversy over Pope Benedict XVI's academic lecture in Regensburg is a vivid example of such a misinterpretation. The aggressive reaction of a number of Muslim politicians, as well as of many ordinary followers of Islam, has been regarded by some observers as overly exaggerated.

Some analysts asked: Are we not moving toward a world dictatorship of Muslim ideology, when every critical observation of Islam -- even within the framework of an academic lecture -- is brutally and aggressively opposed, while criticism of other religions, especially Christianity, is permitted and encouraged?

I should add, perhaps, that several theologians of the Russian Orthodox Church, even those normally critical of the Roman Catholic Church, expressed their support for Pope Benedict XVI when the controversy over his Regensburg lecture broke out. They felt that what he said was important, although, indeed, it was not quite in tune with modern unwritten rules of political correctness.

Q: The Pope did away with the title "Patriarch of the Occident." What does this gesture mean? Is there any ecumenical meaning to it?

Bishop Alfeyev: Well, I was the first Orthodox hierarch that happened to ...

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