A visit with the patriarch

A visit with the patriarch   (from a Russian source)
By Serge Schmemann
Published: December 5, 2008

Before my first interview with Patriarch Aleksy II back in the fall
of 1991, I tried to explain to his aides that I would be coming not
as a member of his church, but as a Western correspondent. I would
ask frank questions. I would challenge his answers.

They did not understand – my father had been an Orthodox theologian
well known in the Russian Church – but the patriarch did. He met me
at his Moscow residence – an elegant old townhouse vacated by the
German ambassador at the start of World War II and given by Stalin to
the Orthodox Church – dressed in an unadorned cassock. He shook my
hand, showed me a seat, and said, „Your questions, please.“

I vividly recalled that interview when I heard Friday that Patriarch
Aleksy had died. He had been elected as head of the Russian Orthodox
Church only a year earlier, but he had served as priest and bishop
for 40 years, and he talked of how hard it had been to serve under
the Communists, locked in a constant struggle with the hostile
watchdogs of the State Council of Religious Affairs.

He firmly denied accusations that he had been an actual KGB officer,
noting that every bishop had to make compromises to ensure the
survival of what they believed to be most important in the church.
„Defending one thing, it was necessary to give somewhere else,“ he
said. But he also repeated an apology he had just made publicly in
Izvestia: „Before those people, to whom the compromises, silence,
forced passivity or expressions of loyalty permitted by leaders of
the church in those years caused pain; before these people and not
only before God, I ask forgiveness, understanding and prayer.“

Above all, I remember the patriarch’s unending wonder that it was
over. „I never thought the moment would come,“ he confessed. Not that
he underestimated the challenge before him: „We have to rebuild
everything – charity, catechism. The new generation has forgotten
everything – the very word charity was barred from dictionaries.“

In many ways, Aleksy was a true reflection of his church. He had been
born and raised in Estonia when it was still free; he had served the
church through fierce anti-religious campaigns; and when he was
elected patriarch in 1990, it was as the first leader of the Russian
Church freely chosen since 1917, destined to lead as the church and
the state struggled to find a new model and a new identity.

The process has seen its share of triumphs and failures. The number
of functioning churches has grown from 6,800 in 1987, when Mikhail
Gorbachev first signaled a loosening of the bonds on religion, to
27,950 today. There were 19 monasteries then, 735 now. Charitable
work by the church – prison ministries, halfway houses, nursing
services, orphanages, free meals and the like – has blossomed and spread.

But church attendance, which soared when it first became safe, has
sharply declined. And to the dismay of many liberal churchmen, the
Orthodox Church has increasingly appeared in the guise of a state
religion, with the patriarch or other prelates commonly appearing at
official functions, and has come to be associated with the
authoritarian and nationalistic policies of Vladimir Putin – or at
the very least to have shown little resistance to them.

Yet in all these years, public-opinion polls have consistently shown
Patriarch Aleksy among the most respected figures in Russia, a symbol
of a restored continuity in the history and identity of the Russian
nation. Even as his health was failing, he traveled constantly around
Russia and abroad, pursuing what he termed as the healing of the
nation from the disease of Communism.

He was one of the few senior figures in Russia to consistently demand
a reckoning with the Stalinist terror, instituting an annual memorial
service over the remains of thousands of victims of the purges at the
Butovo field outside Moscow.

I last saw Patriarch Aleksy in June, and though his voice was weak
and his breathing shallow, he was still enthusiastic. „Despite all
the difficulties, Russia is healing,“ he said. „Look back over the
past 20 years, how much has happened! There are many difficulties; we
have not resolved them all, but they are being resolved through the
will of God and the prayers of the new martyrs.“

He talked of searching for a new relationship between church and
state, after a history in which the church had never been free. „The
church is separate from the state, but it is not separate – and
cannot be separated – from society and the people,“ he declared. And
he talked about himself. „Doctors tell me that my blood pressure is
always a bit elevated before a church service,“ he said, then added
with a smile, „But afterwards it’s always normal.“

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