By Benjamin Mann
Castel Gandolfo, Italy, Sep 30, 2011 / 12:51 am (CNA).- A leading Russian Orthodox official says the Eastern Orthodox churches have yet to resolve the question of authority among themselves, a condition for future progress on the issue of the papacy.
“I would say that there are certain divergences, and there are different positions, of the Orthodox churches on the question of the primacy,” said Metropolitan Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, in a Vatican Radio interview following his Sept. 29 meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo.
“As we discuss the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, within the framework of the next commission, we do not only discuss the primacy of Rome; but we have to touch the issue of the primacy in general,” noted the Orthodox metropolitan, apparently referring to future proceedings of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.
“And here, of course, we have different traditions – not only between the Catholics and the Orthodox, because we never had such a centralized system as the Catholics have – but we also have some difference among the Orthodox, as to what should be the role of the ‘first hierarch’ in the Orthodox Church.” The Patriarch of Constantinople occupies that role, but his prerogatives are not fully defined.
Metropolitan Hilarion was scheduled to participate in the last session of the Catholic-Orthodox commission, held in 2007 to discuss the question of papal primacy. But an internal dispute between Constantinople and Moscow, over an Orthodox group in Estonia, prompted the Russian representative to walk out. The two churches also dispute the status of the Orthodox Church in America.
On Thursday, the metropolitan made an apparent reference to these types of difficulties between the Patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople, saying that “if a particular Orthodox church will want to impose its own vision of this primacy on other churches, then of course we will encounter difficulties. And this is what is happening at the moment.”
Meanwhile, the world’s local self-governing Orthodox churches are also attempting to organize a historic Pan-Orthodox Council, comparable to the Church councils held in the Byzantine empire during the first millennium. The new gathering has been in preparation for 50 years, as the Orthodox world seeks to determine how the Patriarch of Constantinople should exercise his authority.
“We believe that his role should be the primacy of honor, and also he is afforded some coordinating role: for example, he can convene the Pan-Orthodox Council,” said Archbishop Hilarion. “Of course, previously – in the history of the ecumenical councils – it was not the Patriarch of Constantinople, neither was it the Pope of Rome, but it was the (Byzantine) Emperor, who convened the councils.”
“So we have this model (of primacy), which is emerging in the Orthodox tradition. But generally, for centuries we had a very decentalized administration. Each autocephalous church is fully independent from other churches in its self-governance. And therefore we do not have a very clear picture as to what should be the role of the primate in the Orthodox tradition.”
“Without having this clear and unified vision, we cannot easily discuss the issue of how we see the role of the ‘Primus Inter Pares’ (‘first among equals,’ an Orthodox concept of the papacy) in the universal Church,” Metropolitan Hilarion admitted.
The phrase “first among equals” signifies the typical Orthodox view of the Pope as having a primacy of honor but not jurisdiction. In his 2010 book “Light of the World,” Pope Benedict said the “first among equals” view of the Pope was “not exactly the formula that we believe as Catholics,” due to the Pope’s “specific functions and tasks.”
Until Orthodoxy clarifies its own systems of authority, Archbishop Hilarion said, hopes for progress on the question of the papacy between Catholics and Orthodox are “probably not too high.”
“But still, there is hope, because if there is willingness to accommodate different positions and to produce a paper – or several papers, maybe – which would clearly state the differences, which would outline the way forward, then we can progress.”
The Moscow Patriarchate’s ecumenical representative also expressed hesitation about a possible meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow, which has never occurred in the centuries since Moscow’s elevation to patriarchal status in 1589.
There are hopes that such a meeting could take place in 2013, on the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity’s legalization by the Emperor Constantine. But Archbishop Hilarion said Catholics and Russian Orthodox believers should not jump to conclusions about when a meeting may occur between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow.
“We believe that such a meeting will take place at some time in the future. We are not yet ready to discuss the date, or the place, or the protocol of such a meeting – because what matters for us, primarily, is the content of this meeting.”
“As soon as we agree on the content, on the points on which we still disagree or have divergent opinions, then I believe we can have this meeting. But it requires a very careful preparation, and we should not be hurrying up, and we should not be pressed to have this meeting at a particular point of time.”
Despite his cautious attitude toward this meeting and other ecumenical matters, Metropolitan Hilarion spoke warmly of Pope Benedict XVI himself. During his recent trip to Germany, the Pope met with representatives of the Orthodox churches in the country, and spoke of a “common engagement” among Christians to ensure that “the human person is given the respect which is his due.”
“His Holiness is a man of faith and whenever I meet with him I’m encouraged by his spirit, his courage and his dedication to the life of the Church worldwide,” Metropolitan Hilarion said after his meeting with the Pope on Thursday.
“Of course I’m very impressed by his knowledge of the Orthodox tradition and the attention he pays to the dialogue between the Catholics and the Orthodox … I believe that this attitude of the Primate of the Roman Catholic Church will greatly help us in our way towards better mutual understanding.”