This is from the new head of the MP DECR, Bishop Mark of Yegorevsk. He shows himself a solid and good man, not an intellectual at all (thank God!). Not only I, but, many others heaved a sigh of relief that the pro-papist (and too ambitious by half) Hilarion Alfeyev was passed over. As a priest-friend of mine remarked, “He (Hilarion) should be sent to Lvov. That would sort him out”. Hear, hear!
Today, the church is actively searching for effective forms of missionary work, especially among young people. Vladyki Mark, in your opinion, which one of them is best?
The most effective is a general approach, which really joins people [to the Church]. Now, there is much to be discussed concerning the missionary activities of youth work. Certainly, this is very important; although, it seems to me that we are often use the word “missionary” in a wrong sense. The Holy Apostles did not consider themselves, much less call themselves, missionaries when they went into the world preaching Christ. They were simply doing their duty. This applies to everybody. Everyone is called to be a witness to the Truth. Remember what the Apostle St Paul said, “Woe is me if I do not preach”. It is important that everyone, not just priests, but, also the laity, give their witness, because everyone is called to this, regardless of their status, position, or place of service. Now, when we say “missionary”, it implies that we have people specially-trained to deal with mission. Actually, we do have a few such, Deacon Andrei Kuraev, Professor Aleksei Osipov, and a few other people.
It is hard to say what is more beneficial. It could be one who lectures and gives speeches at meetings. Or, it could be an ordinary priest, who, with a burning heart, carries out his ministry and by the example of his life and pastoral podvigs, attracts people, although he may not be trained in special missionary techniques. We are surrounded by many people who know most of what they know about the Church from hearsay, and when they hear from others that they are a missionary or engaged in mission work, then, these people experience an underlying fear. They begin to perceive themselves as patients, who are to be “cured” or “converted”. This is not the best way to proceed.
A feature of contemporary life is that people do not want to be taught, so, they are not accustomed to be taught. We know what happens when parents take a didactic and hectoring tone in teaching their children, even when the ideas suggested are good and correct. If children do not feel parental love, attention, and concern, the result is rather miserable. Similarly, when we approach others in society with the desire in our heart of serving the church and educating our neighbour in the light of the Gospel, we must avoid the same pitfall.
People are not convinced by lessons and lectures, but, above all, by sincerity and warm intensity, if one manifests such in service, in words, and in deeds. People are much more receptive to words spoken in a friendly way, in a simple atmosphere, where you do not lecture them, but, give your advice, submit your personal experience, and share some thoughts with them. This form is more effective and brings more benefit. You can barrage someone with information, and find that all was for nought. It is important to convey the feeling that this is not just mere propaganda, but, it is founded on an existential base; that you speak not simply because you collect a pay-packet from the Church, but, because adherence to Christ is the means to life, and you do precisely what you preach.
At the last Christmas Readings in Moscow, a resolution was passed asking the hierarchy to appoint a full-time Assistant to the Rector for Youth Work at every parish. In your opinion, how effective is such a step? Isn’t there is a danger of the work becoming bureaucratised?
Certainly, I believe that such a step may be fruitful, but, most importantly, we must appoint those who are called to this ministry, who really have the necessary abilities and skills, so that it does not degenerate into mere “ticket-punching”. There are many problems involved, and not all of them are directly-connected with youth work. When we talk about youth, we imply not only adolescents, but, also, children, including those in orphanages and dysfunctional families. In fact, it also overlaps the care and attention we must give to the sick, elderly, and prisoners. We should not focus solely on young people, I think, separating youth work from the general list of pressing issues on which the Church should pay attention. Contemporary Orthodox parishes must cover many priorities in its activities. You can not just limit pastoral work to the people who come to services. Priests and parishioners alike have to go beyond the church fence, for there is a need and necessity for active work amongst different people, which we should achieve in a very tactful and thoughtful way.
The youth policy of our Church now seeks to address two main issues, how to bring the light of Christ to our unbelieving young countrymen, and how to keep young people in the church, many of whom grew up in Orthodox families, but, in growing from childhood to adulthood, after finishing, Sunday school, leave “for a far country”. What is your vision for solving this problem?
It is important that those young men and women who already are in the Church should feel at ease in the parish. Often, they stay in the church because they are engaged in parish life. There are, for example, the young men who are acolytes. If the atmosphere in the altar is good and devout, of course, seeing a good example, people are affected by them. There are other forms of attracting young people to parish life, but, every time one finds that it is the result of a personal effort such as participating in youth meetings, workshops, the ministry of charity, or participation in an educational ministry or pilgrimage. If young people feel that this is important and interesting, this involves them in everyday life of the parish, then, of course, we have a better chance to keep them in the Church.
A great number of our young compatriots are not connected with the Church, and, unfortunately, we are faced with the fact that their spiritual ignorance is abetted by the Ministry of Education. Understandably, if that is the position of those who are at head of the the Ministry, then, of course, it is difficult to devise a contrary position in most educational institutions. But, some occasions for optimism exist. Recently, the Russian International Academy of Tourism, where I am one of the chairmen in the department of religious tourism, began to give the students a course “Bases of Religious Culture” in their first year. It is a one semester course, but, in future academic years, it is expected that its length will increase to a full year course. The syllabus examines the history of religions, the history of Christianity in general and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular, sects and their beliefs, the history of ecclesiastical art, and many other disciplines. Instructors from the Moscow spiritual academies and seminaries are giving the lectures.
This case is interesting because the Academy of Tourism is a purely secular institution; moreover, it is commercially-based. I talked with students and realised that young people, especially young women, know very little is known about the Church, about Orthodoxy. The most basic question causes bewilderment in the students. The Rector of the Academy is convinced that an exact understanding of the Orthodox culture is important for them in terms of professional skills, because, according to the experts, in the near future, interest in religious tourism in the world will grow, and Russia has a real opportunity to dominate this segment of the tourism market. However, what do we have to show in Russia? Of course, first of all, it is our churches and monasteries. Without a clear understanding of the origins of Russian culture, about the Church, and about the faith, it is impossible to do high-quality work in domestic tourism. But, far more importantly for us, young people have the chance to form a moral core, to make them aware of their spiritual roots.
We have created many Orthodox youth organisations, especially in Moscow. How appropriate and effective are these officially-sponsored youth groups and how is the membership structured?
Much depends on people who are involved in these groups. It is important that any association is neither fictive or short-term, “Here, they say, is a new development, the hierarchy gave its blessing of the establishment of youth associations, well, then, we’ll create one so that we have one too, so that we are not seen to be backward, and we will make a nice write-up in the annual report”.
In principle, I believe that organisation is important, but, it may differ in each case depending on the goals and objectives of the particular youth group. If the work is carried out only within one parish, then, it is not necessary to create a specially-structured organisation. Four years ago, in Holy Trinity parish in Khorosheve, a youth association was formed, which we called the Youth Club. It is led by one of our clergy. Young parishioners of our church invited their friends, and then we announced at the services that we were holding youth meetings. Anyone who wants to come can take part. In addition, we placed this information on the parish website. Interestingly, as a matter of fact, most of those who came were not parishioners of our church. Now, the club has about 40 members, ranging in age from 15 to 35, the majority are about 20. A meeting is held every other week, centred on conversations around tea, frequently, we are often show films as well. Mostly, the members are students, some of them without a real experience of church life, being, in a sense, neophyte parishioners. From time to time, the group makes a joint pilgrimage. All of this is purely voluntary, no membership is required. So far, we have not felt the need for any particular organisation for the club. The most important thing is to attract the people and the form of the organisation can come from the experience and needs of the group.
I remember my own adolescence. At that time, in the ’60s and ’70s, only a very small number of young people went to services, so, it was difficult to find peers who thought and believed as I did. The lack of communication was an intractable and immovable problem. In large parishes in the big cities, it was easier for young people to find peers, but, in the provinces, it was very difficult. The vast majority of people then were either unbelievers or religiously indifferent, no one talked about the faith, because the topic was taboo. Now, of course, everything is different, and young people should benefit from the existing opportunities.
In the Youth Section of the last Christmas Readings, there was a discussion about the fact if you want to preach to our youth, it should be based on our historical traditions. What is your opinion?
I think this concern is rather far-fetched. How can we, in working with youth, not refer to history? It shows our victories, our national greatness, and of our national tragedy, so you need to study it and draw the proper conclusions. Knowledge of history reveals the strengths and weaknesses of our people. We need to learn it, so as not to repeat our past mistakes and develop our best qualities.
Young people, including those who are Orthodox, are amongst those who are involved not only in public, but, also, in political life. The Church is not supposed to interfere in politics. How, in your opinion, does one resolve this contradiction?
Preferably, our youth associations should not address political issues. Yes, we teach people what is good, we try to involve them in good common causes, but, if you start talking about political options, there is a risk that division shall arise, because some are conservative, whilst others advocate liberal approaches. In parish life, as a result of such a debate, the majority could assert themselves as representatives of a certain political ideology, whilst the rest will find themselves a minority. As a result, the spiritual relationship that existed between them would cease. Of course, the members of youth clubs and associations have the right to express their thoughts and views, but, there is still a need to limit discussion of political questions. One can refer to history or to the experience of Russia, but, one must not cross the line [into politics], that may create separation.
In addition, it is necessary in principle to distinguish between youth groups with Orthodox members from Orthodox youth organisations. If they have the status of a church organisation and operate within a diocese or parish, it is better that pronounced political debate does not happen. But, if this is a secular association of Orthodox youth, then, its members can speak out more boldly. We have, for example, the Union of Orthodox Citizens, whose members take an active political position and it takes unambiguous stands on social issues. But, after all, it is a secular organisation.
Youth is characterised by spontaneity, but, it is important that young people would not be carried away by this. This is why it is imperative that priests must work with youth groups, so that the questions that arise may be solved definitively.
For young people, a correct preparation for family life is very important life. In your opinion, what form of such training is most effective?
There are different ways to address this issue. For example, in Italy, a traditionally-Catholic country, if someone wants to marry, they must take church courses, where they present a proper understanding of Christian marriage, on how to build relationships within the family. Without it, you can not marry. Of course, now, it is sometimes reduced to a formality. In some cases, people simply buy a certificate of completion of these courses.
Of course, it would be good if in the parish and diocesan youth clubs and centres, the members discussed topics related to family life. People should be prepared for this. They are often not aware of the realities of marriage; they make many mistakes. It is, of course, important to prevent the tragic consequences of this illiteracy. On the shelves of book stores church today we find many books dealing with family life, besides audio and video materials. They are in demand. But, nothing can replace a lively and frank conversation with a priest on vital topics.
At the pilgrimage centre in Moscow, with the blessing of the MP hierarchy, a dance organised by Orthodox youth organisations took place for the first time. Possibly, this event might put an end to the debate over whether, in principle, dances are a fit venue for Orthodox young couples to meet.
Dances for young people, including Orthodox youth, are a form of acquaintanceship and contact, and I do not see anything improper in them. Very often, now, an unjustifiably hard choice is placed before young believers. They must not communicate with their peers in any way, or, they must go to a discothèque; for many people, it is a fatal dilemma.
The Church has never opposed dances as such. In pre-revolutionary Russia, dances were the traditional form of contact for young people, although this was mainly true amongst the upper classes. Unfortunately, today, secular dances in Russia have turned into an exhibition of luxury, where the rich flaunt expensive gowns and precious ornaments costing tens of thousands of dollars. If you remove the element of élitism, where people first and foremost demonstrate their wealth and parade their arrogance, if the dance is organised in a modest and beautiful way, they can be a good alternative to disco. Of course, we should have some specific rules, for example, dances should not take place during the Lents. The main thing is that everything should go according to the rules. If the dances are organised by those whose only experience is in running discos, then, of course, it would be a travesty. If they are under the supervision of an experienced clergyman, then, it is a guarantee that everything will be decent.
I am convinced that we should not be afraid to experiment; we do not have to fear new forms of work with youth. It is important only to look for the moral dimension, to see whether it is positive or negative. You do not need to be afraid of secular life, or that an Orthodox person can look good, be beautiful, and be elegantly dressed. Wretchedness is not a proper sign of Orthodoxy. In our time, when Orthodoxy is departing the ghetto in which it was confined in Soviet times, dances can and should become a new popular form of contact for our youth.
In our pilgrimage centre, youth work is considered a separate and specialised area of activity. We have hired a specialist, a young woman who will be responsible for organising and conducting youth programmes, not only dances, but, also, pilgrimages and meetings with interesting people, whose experience of church life may be helpful to young people. I hope that these projects will be successful.
13 February 2009
As this is from the Sretensky Monastery website, it can be trusted 100 percent. It looks as though by going to the middle, Patriarch Kirill chose a good and workmanlike candidate (and Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov checkmated Hilarion Alfeyev… good-oh!). God willing, his “temporary” appointment may prove “permanent”. That would be to the good of Christ’s Church, I would say. There is more to the life in Christ than the mere writing of books…