The young chappie in this picture is none other than the eminent Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Bishop of Vienna and All Austria. I call him a young chappie, for although he was born in exactly the same year as myself–1966–he still has all his hair and has not been reduced to wearing glasses…
Why am I on about him? Well, because I met him yesterday. He is here in Melbourne for the 3rd Australiasian Orientale Lumen Conference. About twenty of us spent two and half hours with him yesterday in a preliminary conversation. (The small group included several Antiochian priests, a couple of Ukrainian Catholics, the Acting President of the Lutheran Church of Australia and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in Australia Pastor John Henderson, our Russian Catholic host, two eminent leaders of the Uniting Church, an Anglican bishop, Stephen Crittenden of the Religion Report, and numerous staff of the ACU Theology faculty).
He spoke about the situation of the Church in Russia, with booming vocations to both the priesthood and the monastic life. They have gone from 7,000 to 27,000 priests in the last decade. Given that the monastic tradition had almost died out during the years of communism, many of the monasteries have abbots who are 25-30 years of age with communities younger than that. Bishop Hilarion believes it will take a couple of generations to regain the deep grounding in the Russian spiritual tradition, but he seems confident that it will happen.
The young bishop himself appears to have joined the monastery before the fall of communism, which is perhaps why he has been so rapidly advanced–one of the youngest of the old crop.
Most interesting are his ecumenical views. He has a very matter-of-fact attitude toward our own self-understandings:
We humbly acknowledge that we are the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and the same humble acknowledgement obviously comes from the Catholic Church!
But his great proposal–made the day Benedict XVI was enthroned as Successor to Peter–is for an “alliance” of Catholic and Orthodox (not a union) against the forces of liberalism and secularism. He is convinced that it is pointless having ecumenical discussions with Christians who have embraced false morality:
As far as the Catholic Church as such is concerned, I hope that it will continue to preserve its traditional social and moral teaching without surrendering to pressures from the ‘progressive’ groups that demand the ordination of women, the approval of the so-called ‘same-sex marriages,’ abortion, contraception, euthanasia, etc. There is no doubt that Benedict XVI, who has already made his positions on these issues clear, will continue to oppose such groups, which exist both within the Catholic Church and outside it.
Now, here’s the question, my friends: Keeping in mind the fact that the Russian Orthodox are the second largest communion of Christians today, what impact do you think an alliance with this growing, young, vibrant, conservative and traditional Church might have on the Catholic Church?