April 19, 2010
Vienna, April 19 – At the end of the Soviet period, many Russians believed that theirs was an “Orthodox” people which simply lacked churches, but now, a leading Orthodox educator says, they recognize that this was an illusion and that Russian society consists of “baptized godless” people who have numerous “magical and pagan prejudices.”
Still worse, Father Georgy Mitrofanov of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy tells “Ogonyek” this week, they are increasingly forced to admit that the new generation of priests is incapable of changing that situation for the better. Indeed, they may be making the situation even worse.
Ever fewer young men are training for the priesthood, he continues, the result of the country’s demographic problems and the decline of popular interest in the Orthodox Church. There is no longer any competition for places in seminaries, and “the social and educational level of those enrolled leaves much to be desired.”
That is especially true, Mitrofanov says, in the 37 new seminaries which have opened in Russia’s provinces since 1991. Only five or six of these correspond in any respect to the standards of the St. Petersburg or Moscow seminaries, and in the capitals, the size of classes is half what it was ten years ago.
Much of what is wrong now, he argues, began at the end of Soviet times when the state ceased to be involved in this process and handed over complete power to the hierarchy. The hierarchs “received the chance” as a result to approve “all who wanted” to become priests, as long as another priest recommended them.
Today, that has led to a situation in which “only a little more than a third of priests [in the Russian Orthodox Church] have a seminary or academic education, and a large part has made do in general without any theological training.” That has led to “a catastrophic decline” in the level of the priesthood, but the Patriarchate has not done anything about it.
Indeed, Mitrofanov says, “the clergy of the post-Soviet period is now not only more numerous but qualitatively it is frequently worse than that of the Soviet period.” Because the Soviet system destroyed so many priests, there are not the sons of priests anymore who often helped maintain the system.
The new priests who entered church life in the 1990s and since, Mitrofanov continues, “brought with them a specific conglomerate of ideas” which gives one a headache just to think about. A “significant part” of these priests are “disorganized” and confused young people who “dream of acquiring [in the church] their accustomed totalitarian ideology and organization.”
Their minds are full of “mystical literal and totalitarian anti-human politicized ideology” and having become priests, they quickly project this on their flocks, encouraging “the search for enemies” like “Jewish Masons, ecumenists, Protestants, and the like” as if “all problems of church life were somehow connected with external ‘dark’ forces.”
Believe it or not, Mitrofanov says, those values are very different than the ones which animated their Soviet-era predecessors. The priests in earlier times had to pass through a much more difficult school, including obligatory theological training, and face many more obstacles from the regime. Those who did so were often among the most committed.
“The final decision as to whether an individual could attend seminary was taken by a special figure from the organs, the plenipotentiary of the Council of Religious Affairs of the USSR Council of Ministers.” He placed as many obstacles as he could on the path of future priests, especially those from urban areas.
At the end of the Soviet period, “more than half” of the Orthodox churches in the USSR were in Western Ukraine, and Soviet officials ensured that the largest portion of new entrants to the seminars came from rural areas in that part of the country, places where religion still had an active role among the population.
And priests in Soviet times could not count on big incomes. But now, at least some of them are able to use the churches as a business to such an extent that “certain girls specifically seek to marry future priests: there is money, and a certain status in society, and even assumptions about definite moral qualities” of those who enter that profession.
In large measure, Mitrofanov says, this reflects the drive in the church to rebuild churches, something that attracts to the church not former Soviet people but “people who are still Soviet now.” And he adds, communists deceived everyone about everything, but “they did create a new type of man, a poor envious individual who believed the main values are material.”
“For the present-day generation of priests, the church at least in part is not the body of Christ and not a community of people united by Christ but above all a church in which it is possible to actively be involved in business relations with commercial people and build a profitable system of ritual services.”
Such people, Mitrofanov concludes, are not able “to talk with people including the intelligentsia on their level,” they lack the live experience” and knowledge to be “the bearers of the highest Orthodox culture.” Only if that is changed, he suggests, will Orthodoxy be able to fill “the greatest commandment – go and teach all peoples.”