Pilgrims from France visit St. Philaret’s Institute
“We have come together from all across France, Belgium and Switzerland, said Fr. Jacques, introducing the pilgrims. We are all very different, and many of us only met 10 days ago. We are bonded by the desire for spiritual travel. Antoine Arzhakovsky has been very helpful to us; we asked him to acquaint us with the Russian soul and with Orthodoxy, and he has brought us to your institute. We experience this meeting as something very significant for us, because it is a development and an enrichment of the experience which we have already.”
The guests were present for evening prayer at St. Philaret’s, in the chapel, after which a meeting with Fr. Georgy Kochetkov was arranged. Fr. Georgy explained that St. Philaret’s “arose out of an initiative by lay people, rather than church hierarchy, insofar as the hierarchy at that moment was under the strict control of the authorities, making such initiatives on their part entirely impossible. St. Philaret’s first existed “underground” during Soviet times. Although this was in the final years of Soviet power, nevertheless when we began our work in private homes and apartments it was impossible to say anything about the existence of some sort of an institute by telephone.”
“We decided that it was necessary to carry on the church’s tradition because we didn’t know what the Soviet authorities would do tomorrow, or the next day. Maybe they would suddenly close all the churches and arrest both priests and bishops?”, said Fr. Georgy. “For this reason we had to create some sort of a small institute of higher learning – a little university – albeit absolutely illegally.”
“We couldn’t have existed if the orthodox Transfiguration Brotherhood had not supported us,” said the SFI Rector. “The brotherhood existed informally according to the principle ‘where there are brothers and sisters in Christ, there – there is brotherhood.’ We continued with the age old tradition of the Orthodox church, which since the 15th c. has witnessed such brotherhood organisations, which have helped revivify the church.”
Fr. Georgy also spoke about SFI’s team of professors and teachers, which the institute has managed to gather over the almost 30 years of its existence, emphasizing that the institute has always kept close connections with leading Roman Catholic scholars, such as Miguel Arranz, Don Patrik de Laubier, Fr. Gerhard Podskalsky, Fr. Ernst Christopher Suttner, Archimandrite Robert Taft, and others.
Speaking of SFI’s current educational programs, Fr. Georgy gave special mention to SFI’s new course on the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 20th c. “The 20th c. was a very difficult time for our church, when millions of people died for their faith – and we may never even know the names of many of these people, because archives are sometimes closed, or destroyed. But we should never forget what has happened: we need to take account of it and bring it forth as part of the common property of everyone on earth, because “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity.”
Fr. Georgy noted that both lay people and priests, both men and women – a mix of many different people, all of whom are avowed Christians – are studying theology at SFI. “Our brotherhood has a tradition: when a person lays aside his lack of faith and comes to Christ and to His Church, then he at once enters a period of adult catechesis, which lasts from a year-and-a-half to two years. Usually after this, as a rule, people enter the theological college to earn a BA or some other degree.” He added that in addition to theological education, the institute provides courses in religious studies in general, which are open to people who have no particular faith. All in all, there are about 500 students at the institute today. This includes students who are distance learners and unable to attend classes in Moscow.
Answering the guests’ questions about how it is possible to communicate a spirit of openness, discussion and even ecumenism in parishes, Fr. Georgy commented that “unfortunately in recent years a closed spirit and lack of trust has been on the rise in the Russian Orthodox Church, and has affected even the hierarchy. Our patriarch, though, is an open man – and if he is not blocked by political influences of one sort or another, he will happily cooperate with the sort of thing we are doing here. As you know, it was he, who for the first time in history, located the possibility of meeting with the Pope, in Havana. Of course, this has led to various different reactions, and it would be wrong for him not to take these into consideration. There are fairly strong forces within the church which are threatening him with schism if he makes even one more step in the same direction.”
In answer to the guests’ questions about whether Soviet repression had affected other religions, Fr. Georgy said that “all peoples of all creeds in all our territories suffered during Soviet times, though we must also admit that the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian nation – and not only the Emperor and the Russian State, as is usually believed – were the main enemies, from the perspective of Soviet power. To overcome the Soviet inheritance is very difficult – not only “from above”, but also from “below” and within society as a whole.”
The pilgrimage was organized by the French journal, Pélerin (Pilgrim) and the national pilgrimage service Roman Catholic Monastic Congregation of Augustinians (the Assumptionists). The order was founded by the French priest Emmanuel d’Alzon, in 1845. His main goals were to support Christian education and press, fight separatism and division in the church, and extend ecumenism and organize pilgrimages. The weekly journal “Pélerin”, which has a current circulation of 170 thousand, was founded in 1873 as the journal of this Catholic order, and is published by Bayard Press, which was also founded by Emmanuel d’Alzon.
The pilgrimage was led by Fr. Jacques Nieuviarts, an Assumptionist monk and member of the Bayard Press editorial group. He is the director of the National Lourdes pilgrimage service and an author of books on prayer and Bible reading. Fr. Nieuviarts is also a Biblical researcher and interested in Biblical translation.