There is no other way to come to the faith but to come to the church

Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Vienna and Austria: ‘In the Orthodox Church everything is very well arranged for the spiritual nourishment of its own flock, but there are very few bridges between the Orthodox Church and the surrounding world...We must build such bridges that could bring the Church and the world around it together, that could help a person surmount the barriers existing between him and the Orthodox Church.’
Orthodoxy and the World | 11 January 2009

Translated by Olga Lissenkova



Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Vienna and Austria is a theologian of authority in the modern Orthodox Christian world. Apart from the fact that he is in charge of his two dioceses, he represents the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions in Brussels, composes classical music and writes works on theology and spiritual life. Being a member of the higher orders of clergy, he always willingly gives interviews to the Western and Russian press. What can one talk about with the hierarch of the Orthodox Church when it seems that he has already spoken his mind answering many acute, essential questions? The editors of ‘Orthodoxy and the World’  have asked Bishop Hilarion to share his experience and his ideas concerning the development of Orthodox missionary Internet sites, to give advice to the Orthodox believers in Western countries and to support with his spiritual instructions those who belong to other confessions but are on their way to accepting the Orthodox faith. Our reporter met Bishop Hilarion at the Orthodox theological conference that took place in Goteborg, Sweden, in November 2008.


Your Grace, you’ve got a wide experience in carrying on a dialogue with representatives of other Christian confessions. How would you advise Orthodox missionary Internet sites to tell Catholics and Protestants about Orthodoxy, not offending their religious feelings?

– If we want to talk of Orthodoxy the way it is, we cannot fully avoid the risk of disappointing, depressing or hurting our Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters. I do not think there is any need to carry on a controversy with Catholics at Orthodox Internet sites. The differences that exist between Catholics and the Orthodox are well-known. There is much literature on this, for example, on the Filolique and papal primacy, and it is not necessary to dedicate a special topic to it at an Orthodox Internet site.

Speaking of the differences between Orthodoxy and Protestantism, they are really fundamental. It is so because Protestants deny many essential elements of the Church, such as the sacraments, the apostolic succession, the hierarchy. We cannot acknowledge Protestant communities as churches in the true sense of the word just for the sake of not hurting someone’s feelings.

We are in Sweden now, and the principal church here is the Church of Sweden. The processes that are taking place in it now have made the Russian Orthodox Church stop any kind of theological dialogue with it. This has happened because the Church of Sweden started to accept things that, from our point of view, are not acceptable. For example, they have begun to give their blessing to the so-called same-sex unions. When it comes to such radical things as deviating from the Gospel norms, we have to speak our position very clearly and to suspend a dialogue, because it loses sense when there is such a fundamental deflection from Christian morality.

To your mind, what kind of projects and what kind of materials are necessary for an Orthodox Internet site in order to attract believers of other confessions, at the same time not causing the Orthodox believers who might be reading the site to lose interest?

– I think the less negative information you provide and the more positive reflection on the Orthodox belief, on Christian moral teachings, the more useful and in demand it will be. What people need now is very clear and unambiguous directions on how the Orthodox Church recommends to live and to obtain salvation. Texts concerning family life and upbringing are vital because, unfortunately, the atheistic period in Russia and other former Soviet republics and the period of the militant secularism that dominates in the West right now have led to the decline of family values, as well as of the traditional concept of the family that humankind was grounded on for ages. If we can to some extent change the situation for the better and help people realize the importance of the family, of upbringing, of rearing not only one or two children, but possibly more, I think it will be of vital importance.

Most often people come to Orthodoxy not because someone has explained to them or has logically argued that the truth is in this faith, but because they have felt something themselves. For example, one can enter an Orthodox church and leave it a slightly different person already, as he would feel something there that is absent from other places. Is it possible to create such an atmosphere at an Orthodox missionary Internet site that a person, finding himself by chance at this site, would feel the atmosphere of Orthodoxy and would want to come back again?

– Of course, in full measure to create such an atmosphere at an Internet site is impossible.

The atmosphere of an Orthodox divine service is being created with the effort of not only those who perform this service, but also all those generations of people who have invested their art, intellect and talents into creating it. Besides, God Himself participates in an Orthodox divine service, and this is the main point. It is not incidental that before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy the deacon tells the priest, ‘Vrema sotvoriti Gospodevi,’ which means, ‘It is time for the Lord to act.’ The human actions are the church singing, the motions, the processions, the censing, the praying, reading the Gospel etc. But there are also actions performed directly by God. And this presence of God can be felt not only by Orthodox believers but, not so seldom, also by people who have entered the church by chance. They can be believers of other confessions or people who have no faith. Quite often a person’s way to the Orthodox faith starts with his entering the church and feeling God’s presence there.

This is why it is impossible to create such an atmosphere at an Orthodox Internet site. But the publication of books and articles on the Orthodox faith can be useful and can lead a person to faith, can disclose to him the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven and the way to God.

What do you think to be the typical mistakes Orthodox missionary Internet sites make, and how can they be avoided?

– One of the typical mistakes is aggressive missionary work whereby Orthodoxy is shown compared to other confessions, and the other confessions are criticized in an aggressive and polemic way. At the same time, as I said, we are to tell the truth without being afraid of hurting anyone. Once I talked to a Lutheran bishop who asked me how I understand the Church. I tried to explain to him how Orthodox Christians understand it. And then he asked, ‘In this case it appears that you do not consider us a church, do you?‘I said, ‘It appears that we actually don’t.’ And he began to cry. The reaction was unexpected, but at the same time it was a natural reaction. I could not possibly display it in another light to cause a different reaction.

Telling the truth, however, does not mean to be polemical or aggressive. We should never turn a dialogue about Orthodoxy into a violent dispute with other confessions. There must be a very clear dividing line between defending the truth and aggression.

Another popular mistake Orthodox Internet sites make is that the Orthodox authors would often speak in a special Orthodox language that is inaccessible to a person who is not Orthodox. They would use their own terms and their own special logics. So it happens that the texts that they offer are meant only for an insider, but tell little to those who do not belong to the Orthodox Church. If this is a missionary Internet site, it is very important that the texts are written in a style understandable for any reader, that can attract people to the faith, that is not particularly Orthodox or particularly specialized.

What is the percentage of converts into Orthodoxy in your dioceses?

– Talking of the diocese of Vienna and Austria, the percentage is not so high: we baptize about a hundred people every year, but only 4 or 5 of them are converts from other confessions. In the diocese of Hungary the percentage is higher because many Orthodox believers there are former members of the Uniate Church who grew in the Greek-Catholic faith and then have realized the need to join the Orthodox Church. For example, the majority of the Hungarian clergy are former Greek-Catholics.

How does your diocese work with the newly-converted in order to make their churching full and profound?

– We work with them the way we work with all other parishioners. I have noticed that in the West, among the so called Orthodox converts, there exists a certain syndrome: someone is converted and then for the rest of his life tries to prove to himself and to all others that he has done the right thing, that he is a true Orthodox, like those born in the Orthodox faith. For some reason this syndrome makes such people refer to their Orthodox faith every two minutes. I think there is something superfluous about it.

Orthodoxy must be accepted naturally, in the same way as one breathes the air. We breathe the air, we need the air, we cannot exist without the air, but we are not talking about it all the time. For people who have been brought up in an Orthodox family, who have Orthodoxy in their genes, in their flesh and blood from their early childhood, the Orthodox faith is the natural habitat, it does not need constant mentioning. It seems to me that people who come to Orthodoxy are to be brought up so that their conversion would not mean any break-down. When someone becomes Orthodox, there is no need to prove to oneself every minute that he has done the right thing.

What obstacles on the way to the faith can await a person belonging originally to another confession or an unbeliever who becomes interested in Orthodoxy?

– There can be many obstacles there. A very frequent one is the language: for a Russian person it is the Church Slavonic language, for a foreigner it could be the absence of his native language in the liturgy. The Orthodox Church is almost always connected with a certain ethnic identity. A person cannot just become Orthodox, he needs to become a Russian Orthodox, or a Serbian Orthodox, or a Greek Orthodox etc. Quite often it poses a serious dilemma for someone who does not belong to any of these ethnic groups.

Another problem is that in the Orthodox Church everything is very well arranged for the spiritual nourishment of its own flock, but there are very few bridges between the Orthodox Church and the surrounding world. So often, when someone has decided to come to the Orthodox Church, he needs to make the whole way by himself with no one to help him. There is no space outside the Church where he could feel at home, to gradually become acquainted with the Church.

Moreover, if often happens that a person enters the Church and is greeted with indifference or rudeness. For example, a woman who comes to the church without a kerchief can be accused and criticized by the women standing at the candle box. So a person comes to the church, and instead of being kindly and warmly welcomed, is rejected. I know people who do not visit the church for this very reason. They have tried several times, but they have come across such negative reactions.

We must build such bridges that could bring the Church and the world around it together, that could help a person surmount the barriers existing between him and the Orthodox Church. The barriers can be of different nature: cultural ones, linguistic ones, spiritual ones, psychological ones…

If this interview is to be read by a person who has faced such barriers on his way to the Orthodox church and is now afraid to enter the nearest church, what would you advise him?

– There is no other way to come to the faith but to come to the church. Let him try to enter one church, and if he does not like it – try another. Sooner or later such a person will find a church where they will feel at home.

Quite often the Orthodox believers in another country find themselves far away from a church, without a priest, without Orthodox environment, without spiritual literature. There is even a special term, ‘isolated orthodox’, to refer to such people. How can one preserve the faith, to stay Orthodox in a non-Orthodox country and surroundings?

– In the Soviet Union, in the epoch of persecution, many people found themselves in such a situation that the nearest Orthodox church was several hundred or even several thousand kilometers away. If a church is far and yet reachable, one must find an opportunity to visit it at least once a month to receive communion. On other days one can visit a Catholic church, for example. Not receiving communion there, but praying, attending services. One can also buy books on divine service and read vespers and matins at home. They are very edifying and useful.

Orthodoxy presupposes constant spiritual growth. But a believer who regularly goes to the Church and participates in the sacraments, can feel one day that he is making no headway. He can get the feeling that going to the church becomes a ritual and participating in the sacraments is but a formality. How can one avoid it?

– Of course, if a person feels he grows spiritually it can be just an illusion. There must be no such feeling. On the contrary, a person must more and more realize his sins, his unworthiness. Most probably, a person cannot objectively judge his own spiritual growth. The only thing one can clearly see is whether it is still interesting for him to be in the church or not, if it is still important for his, or if his spiritual life is turning into a routine, if his prayers become automatic and lifeless. If this is what is happening, special measures must be taken.

I think there can be no universal advice for all cases, but in any case there is a great amount of literature dedicated to how one can keep up in oneself the spiritual fire necessary for the Orthodox faith not to turn into a routine or formality.

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