Is it hard to be Patriarch?

On February 1, 2012, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated the three year anniversary of his enthronement with Divine Liturgy in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow. Bishops, abbots and abbesses of monasteries, government leaders and civil authorities came from all over Russia and former republics to share in the celebration.

Last year before his anniversary, His Holiness appeared on Russian television to answer questions about religious life posed by TV commentator Dimitry Kiselev. We present several of those questions and answers here.

—Your Holiness … what do you consider to be your main accomplishment over the past year, and has there been anything that you regret?

—Of course I have regrets. There is a saying that there are only twenty-four hours in the day. And I regret that there is so little time—first of all, time to read and think. A Patriarch should definitely think. Ideas should come from the Patriarch. He should attentively perceive everything that happens in the world. But this everyday whirlwind of affairs, unfortunately, turns our attention away from those issues that should be at the head of the list of things the Patriarch has to do—the secondary issues (but in fact, not secondary). Therefore, I regret it, but I will keep trying, because I have to accompany my thoughts and prayers with serious reading.

As for what I have been able to accomplish—I am least of all inclined to ascribe what has happened over this past year to my own personal merits. Of course, I have taken part in all of these processes. Many important events have taken place over the past year, but I would particularly emphasize the President’s decision concerning the teaching of the fundamentals of religious culture and secular ethics in the schools, as well as the decision to finally allow our clergy to work in the armed forces. If we talk about what is important, then of course it would be my trips to the Ukraine, Belorussia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan, which helped me to see and understand very much, and mainly, to acutely perceive the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church is not the Church of just one nation, but that belonging to this Church are people of various nationalities, living in various countries, and who are involved in the resolution of various problems. All of this is a pastoral call of great force; we have to answer to all of this, and take it all into consideration.

—Your Holiness, you just said that there is no time for thinking about the most important issues. Just the same, everyone knows that Christ’s most important commandment is love. But how has love changed over the past two millennia, and has it changed?

—I think that an enormous civilization problem now exists—that is how I would describe it—on the scale of all mankind. It is the total deformation and distortion of the concept connected with the word, “love”. For me as person of faith, love is a miracle and gift of God, but this gift is not selective. It is not like a talent: one person was given a gift by God and became a musician, another became a mathematician, a third became a doctor. Love is like the air for all. Everyone receives this gift of God as he is able to do so. One person gets burned by the sun and ends up in the hospital, while another’s health is strengthened by the sun’s rays. One person breathes clean air, while another does everything to pollute it with industrial wastes, so that people are no longer breathing air but toxins. It is the same with love. It is an absolutely amazing gift of God, because love is able to unite people in itself. Everything else—our talents, our self-identity, our national, cultural, and political differences—almost all work to disunite us. In this sense, someone may say, “God’s plan for the world is strange. Where do all these differences that work for our disunity come from?” Yes, truly, this would be a strange plan if it were not for love, which is able to unite people. But what is now taken for love—human passion and the realization of this passion—has no relationship to love. That is how this understanding is disrupted.

Now perhaps we will talk about the main thing. Love is a gift of God, but we answer to this gift, and we answer firstly by certain situations of our will. Therefore, love is at the same time a directive of human will, the will for good. I will give a simple example. You think badly about a person, you don’t like him, either inwardly or outwardly; there are a mass of factors that repel one person from another. You can give in to this feeling and live with it, or you can try to overcome it. And there is a way to overcome it—to begin to think well of that person. There is yet another absolutely stunning way—do good to that person. People for whom we do good forever remain in our hearts. Your relationship will change toward that person if you do him good. So, love is, among other things, this orientation toward human will, which directs a person’s deeds towards doing good. We know what is it to be in love: young people meet, they like each other—that is a good, bright feeling. Sometimes they say, “We have fallen in love”. But the question is—have they come to love each other, or not yet? life’s trials will show whether there is love or not. But so that falling in love would grow into love, they need to direct their will to the good, to share their lives with each other, to give a part of themselves to the other.

Therefore, love is on one hand a gift, but on the other, a task that God gives each one of us. As long as this exists in the human race, then the understanding will exist of people’s commonality; even the understanding of something like goodness exists, because love is always at the foundation of goodness.

God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God (cf. Jn. 4:16). These are amazing words. On one hand they are so simple, but on the other, incredibly complicated to fulfill. May God grant that our people today would not give in to the temptation to destroy that gift. If it will be destroyed, I think it will be the end of human history.

—Your Holiness, the majority of the people in Russia look at the Church as something close to them. Nevertheless, how would you explain to a person who is not church-going, why we need the Church?

—We have already talked about talents. Truly, one may be born with the talent of mathematician, another of a doctor, a third with some other talents. One may be a scholar, a diplomat, or a businessman, while another cannot be any of these; but anyone can be believer. Faith gives a person inner support and the ability to become happy. The consciousness of modern youth perhaps has great difficulty combining the idea of happiness with faith. Yes, people come to church, they like our liturgical arts; furthermore, many have believing parents, relatives, or friends. And you are right—the majority of the people have a respectful relationship toward the Church. But it is probably hard for them to relate and apply what they see in church to their own lives, because they have no personal religious experience. Then it is as if two realities exist for that person: the reality in the church is one picture, while on the street there is another picture. The other picture is his life.

In fact, when a person immerses himself in the life of the Church, when he immerses himself in real spiritual experience, he begins to understand what immense strength is feeding him. We have spoken about the integrity of the human personality, about inner strength—that is what God’s grace gives us, what we draw from the Church, in combination, of course, with human effort. It seems to me that no words, not even the Patriarch’s on television, can help a person understand what is only revealed through deep religious experience. I can only invite people to try this experience, to go through it, and then they will perhaps relate better than I can what has happened in their souls, and why we need faith and the Church. But this reveals itself in the depths of religious experience.

—You invite people to church. A person will come and see how people pray there. What is prayer to you?

—It is all bound up with our previous question. Religious experience comes first of all through prayer. Without prayer, there can be no religious way of life. And what is a religious way of life? It is not just the awareness that God exists; it is the clear understanding that God is present in your life. He is not somewhere in heaven, he is not somewhere over the hills, or in some unknown space—He is right next to you. And you have two possibilities. You can pretend that there is no God, but the fact itself does not change from this. There is also another possibility—to try to enter into a relationship with God, to close the circuit. Prayer is the closing of the circuit between man and God. When we press a start button, we close the electrical circuit between the power source and the user. The same thing happens through prayer: a person closes the circuit and enters into a real relationship with God. The person asks God and receives what he asks. What greater proof could there be of God’s existence?

I have said more than once that the most convincing proof of the existence of God is that people have been praying for thousands of years. Just imagine: you have come to your supervisor, asked him for something, and he promises to give you it but doesn’t. The second time you wonder whether you should go to him or not, but you gather your courage and go another time to him. He again listens to you, but does nothing. Some might go a third time, and some might not. If the heavens were silent, if God never answered prayers, who would have turned to Him over these thousands of years? But when this circuit is closed, a person acquires personal religious experience.

—A real, contemporary person might go to church only on Sundays. Naturally we should pray every day, but an old American saying comes to mind that a person believes in God on Sundays, but in the stock market on weekdays. Doesn’t it seem to you that this problem holds true in Russia as well?

—First we have to fulfill the first part of what has been said—that people would go to church every Sunday. I think that would already change things very much. But truly there is a problem of what I call inner secularization, inner worldlification. A person believes in God, recognizes the need for prayer, especially in moments of stress, anxiety, sickness, misfortune, or the death of close ones. But life drags him down, and a certain separation of the consciousness from this religious experience occurs, a redirecting of the attention to present problems, and it begins to seem that everything can also be solved without God. This is a most profound error. We should call upon God for help even in resolving our professional tasks. This does not mean that the Lord will increase the money in our bank account without fail. But God can prevent us from making mistakes, or doing something immoral or sinful. We were talking about car accidents. Well, how can we leave our home and sit behind the wheel without crossing ourselves and saying, “Lord, help me”? This means that between Sundays something appears that is important for a person’s spiritual life. When you arrive at work, say, “Thank God, I arrived”. At the end of the day, when you arrive home, and if the day went well, thank God that everything turned out that way. But if you have done something wrong, then you should analyze what happened, and perhaps repent before God. This is the religious way of life: when we continually place ourselves before the face of God and evaluate our own actions and life from the point of view of His commandments, His law.

—You are in fact calling us to a way of life in which morality is an important criteria and motive for behavior. It is every Christian’s duty to be moral, but a priest especially so. What for you is the ideal of a modern pastor? What should he be, and what shouldn’t he be?

—I think that in any country, with any people, and at any time a priest should emulate Christ. People sometimes say to us that their priest is not behaving properly, that he is too modern, or behaves too simply with people. But wasn’t the Savior modern when he talked to publicans, sinners, and simple people? On the other hand, people sometimes tell us that a priest should always recognize his responsibility for what he says and does. This is a correct assertion. He can and should be simple, and not create an artificial barrier between himself and the people. But at the same time, a priest should always control his words and even his thoughts. We spoke of a religious way of life—a priest should first of all lead that kind of life. First of all, a priest should pray very much—then he will not make mistakes, then the Lord will hint to him how he should behave, how to build relationships with people, what, and what not to say.

—Here is the final question for today, Your Holiness. It is hard to be Patriarch?

—I would say, again, not with my own words: God’s strength is made perfect in weakness (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9). I do not think that this service can be performed by relying upon my own strength. I do not want to say very much about this subject right now, but the past year has convinced me very obviously that without God’s help, which is sent down, first of all, through the prayers of millions of people, it is practically impossible to fulfill this service. Therefore, my first year was, first of all, a year of certain spiritual shocks—what I have never experienced or felt before.

I strongly feel God’s hand. I see the support of the faithful who pray with tears for the Patriarch, and the support of their clergy. As long as it is that way, I think that the Patriarch will be able to fulfill his duties.

—Thank you very much for this talk, your Holiness. We wish you all the more strength.

His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, Dimitry Kiselev
Translation by

3 февраля 2012 г.

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