An Interview with Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky

by Fr. Leonid and Fr. John Schimchick

[This interview between Fr. Leonid and Fr. John Shimchick (JW) took place on June 25, 1999.]


JW: Your editorials in The Orthodox Church over the past year and your commencement address at St. Vladimir’s Seminary have featured positive words in describing the possibilities for Orthodoxy at this time in history. You have spoken about the opportunities for an Orthodox "response," "contribution," "civic responsibility," and "engagement with culture." It would seem that this century has probably been the first in which there has, in fact, been any significant Orthodox engagement with Western culture. Would you, first of all, comment on what you would see as some of the patterns and lessons we can learn from the Orthodox engagement with Western culture to this point and what might be some of the possibilities for the future.

Fr Leonid: When we speak of Orthodox engagement with the West in this century being more significant we probably mean, the "diaspora." I think that there is a longer-range perspective. For example, in some real ways obviously the Church of Russia before the Communist Revolution of 1917 was, in a fashion, engaged in an encounter with Western culture. And I think this encounter has even been recognized by the West. For example, no one would speak about world literature without speaking about Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. So there has been in that sense a profound encounter which was aborted in the framework of the Communist Revolution, the persecution of the Church, the marginalization of Christianity in Russia. And then the encounter of Russia with Communism was, in a certain sense, an encounter with the West, since the ideology of Marxism is rooted in Western development – that’s very complicated, but bears consideration.

What is new in the so-called "diaspora" is that Orthodox churches and communities are living as minorities in Western contexts. Therefore we have been drawn into the encounter with the West willy-nilly, simply as a matter-of-fact. But the responses to this fact are different. Some of the responses are self-isolating, with Orthodox communities withdrawing into themselves. Ethnic and sometimes religious identity takes on the character of self-preservation, and the necessary encounter with the West is neglected or forgotten. Other elements of the encounter have been expressed, manifested, and illustrated by such theologians and writers as Frs. Schmemann and Meyendorff and others. In Western Europe and America our encounter with the West is a direct encounter, a daily and unavoidable conversation and debate. It is, I believe, an imperative of our mission not to fear this encounter and debate. Our encounter with the West should be a source of missionary energy and intellectual vigor for us.

Now I think the jury is still out what will we be able to accomplish along this line. Fr. Schmemann wrote his articles on the various crises in Orthodoxy back in the 1960's. Clearly there are crises facing us that are spiritual, liturgical, canonical, and these crises have a specific dimension in the so called, "diaspora" context. When we try to be fully faithful to the Orthodox inheritance, obviously there are two ways to go: One is very inward-looking and, in a sense, entering into a ghetto voluntarily. Another is to engage the civilization of the West and do it in a living way. We have both of those responses occurring right now.

JW: Are there certain things that we as Orthodox have to offer at this time in history? Are there things that we have to say that are not being heard, that are not being expressed by anyone else?

Fr. Leonid: My presentation at the Commencement was, I think, reaching toward an answer to that question. It seems to me that today’s Western civilization is very prone to thinking of itself as a world and universal civilization. And therefore, whatever it thinks, whatever it does, whatever it writes, whatever values it has are seen as universal, by definition. In reality, of course, even if we look at its Christian dimension, the West very often in practical terms is simply ignorant of Eastern Christianity. So there is a presumption that the West is equivalent to universality, but in reality that universality is very much attenuated, it’s a very partial and selective thing.

What we have to offer in the context of world Christianity is an insistence on the wholeness of the Tradition, the integrity of the Christian Tradition in history — meaning both East and West. In my presentation at St. Vladimir’s, I also pointed out that we Orthodox have our own demons — religious and ethnic tribalisms — which drive us into our own particularisms, undermining our witness to Catholicity. To put it another way: America and the West are very much prone to the arrogance of power right now. I do think that we also are prone to a kind of triumphalism as Orthodox. We need, spiritually, to be very aware of that temptation because arrogance and triumphalism are not the way of the Gospel. The integrity of the Tradition is meaningless if the integrity of the Gospel is not fully kept.

Yet, in today’s Orthodox debates, any word of caution about triumphalism is heard by many as advocacy of relativism, as advocacy of "branch" theories of ecclesiology, as betrayal of the Orthodox Tradition. But this is certainly not what I have in mind. Clearly, there is a way of witnessing to the fullness, the integrity, the Catholicity of the Orthodox Church and not at all falling into relativism and other reductionisms or into arrogance. Our witness can be given in a way that has evangelical integrity. To be Orthodox is to be rooted in the Gospel - which means to have charity and generosity, affirming whatever is right wherever you find it, affirming Christ — wherever Christ is encountered.

JW: I’m wondering why, despite your own efforts and those of the Serbian bishops and others who have made efforts to speak with our government, there still has been an unwillingness to seek out or hear Orthodox views, to be sensitive to Orthodox contexts, specifically now as they relate to the Balkans but in other areas as well?

Fr. Leonid: I do think, as I mentioned earlier, that the Western intellectual climate has a notion of the West as being universal, liberal, inclusive, and ecumenical. This West is, in fact, very selective, not hearing other voices very well. But we as Orthodox tend to project ourselves more along the lines of our tribalisms, than along the lines of Catholicity — which really is the core of our witness. The difficulty is both on the side of the West and on the side of Orthodoxy. Now, the West is, of course, in possession of power — cultural, economic, military, political, and media power — and therefore there is a very distinct potential for the arrogance of power, the blindness and deafness of power. The Christian East is imbedded in societies which relative to the West are weak and, in many ways, powerless. Therefore the responses that we make as Orthodox tend to be defensive — aggressive verbally, but, in effect, executing a kind of defensive strategy. I do think that there is work to be done on both sides of this division of Christian East and Christian West to understand both current and deep-rooted civilizational patterns and to act with responsibility towards the core of the Christian Tradition.

Recently at a Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical setting I gave a presentation which borrowed from what I said at the Seminary. One Catholic lay scholar was surprised that I was raising civilizational issues and pointed out that the Pope, for example, has spoken strongly about the Christian East and Christian West as being part of one Europe and has stressed the role on a European scale of Saints Cyril and Methodius. This is true, the Pope has done that. But the point I made in response is that while the Pope has said these things, Western Europe and the West have not heard him. Certainly the record is clear, the Pope of Rome has tried to address this tension and divide. He has attempted to bring into Western European consciousness the fact that Christianity in Europe is of two parts and that there is a Christianity of the East which has made substantial impact on European history, culture, and civilization. Has the West heard this? I don’t think so. In my response to the Catholic scholar I observed that Catholics have not heard or absorbed the Pope’s message. And therefore the issues remain.

I think both Western Christians and Orthodox Christians in the various societies are influenced by non-theological factors and by specific patterns of information, media, and cultural perspective which influence how Orthodox Christians and Western Christians see each other. There are stereotypes and caricatures of the West prevalent in Orthodox societies in the East, and there are stereotypes and caricatures of Orthodoxy prevalent in the West. Sometimes, simple lack of information affects self-perception and perception of the "other." The Wall Street Journal recently published a long article on the Serbian Orthodox Church, "From the Ruins of Kosovo." At the end, the article describes a twenty-two year old monk travelling through Kosovo with Bishop Artemije. "Throughout a five-hour journey, the fresh-faced monk sat silently as the convoy passed charred Albanian homes, shattered shops and wall daubed with abusive Serbian graffiti. At the final stop, a church in Urosevac, he whispered a horrified apology. ‘I'm so ashamed,’ he told a foreigner. ‘I’'m so ashamed of everything that has been done in the name of Serbia and the Serbs.’"

JW: Do you think that there has been enough of a repudiation of these horrors and atrocities by the Serb forces?

Fr. Leonid: In Yugoslavia the media did not cover the atrocities, therefore people simple didn’t know. What they knew was that the Serbs were at risk. They were not wrong. Did they know about atrocities? I don’t think they knew, they couldn’t know. Therefore this monk’s journey was revealing: once he has seen, he is horrified. Had someone told him before this journey about atrocities, he probably would have said that it was not possible. So when the charge is made that the Serbs have been silent in Serbia, yes, there has not been enough reaction. But I have to say that in the Serbian context the one figure who has always spoken about the suffering of Serbs and Albanians has been Patriarch Pavle.

I was in Belgrade twice during the bombing, once at the beginning of May with the group that was brought together by Jesse Jackson and once at the end of May when Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk and two Europeans and I went. We met with Patriarch Pavle and President Milosevic on both occasions. Milosovic denounced what he called the propaganda images of CNN when he spoke with Jackson and the rest of us. I responded by saying that CNN has definitely given us a constant flow of images of expelled people, refugees, stories of Albanians fleeing from Kosovo. Granted, we do not get stories of KLA atrocities and these certainly also occur. But then I told him that he should not be under any illusion; religious communities in America do not rely only on media images. Most religious communities have humanitarian agencies in the Balkans, many religious representatives from the United States have gone to the region and have actually met the people we are talking about. Therefore, quite aside from the media, it is clear to us that there are terrible things happening in Kosovo. I told him also that Serbian friends have observed that Yugoslav television never shows the Albanian tragedy in Kosovo.

The Patriarch of the Serbian Church has clearly denounced all atrocities. Patriarch Pavle made a universal appeal for an end to all violence. My experience is that the people in Yugoslavia have generally not known about the kinds of things done in their name and therefore could not be expected to rise up in revulsion. It seems to me that as these things become more and more known, surely the response will exactly be like that of the monk in The Wall Street Journal story. Now, of course, there are atrocities taking place in Kosovo against Serbs, and the sad cycle of violence and suffering continues.

The Serbian Orthodox voices for peace have often not been given a lot, if any, visibility in Western media. Some people know about Fr. Sava and the Decani monastery, but all in all not very much attention has been given in the mass media to Decani monastery and to the fact that the monks there have given shelter to and have embraced Albanians seeking help and refuge. Bishop Artemije has, over the last two or three years, criticized the regime of Milosovic as being undemocratic and, therefore, an obstacle to any solution of the Kosovo crisis.

What is necessary, of course, is to acknowledge in revulsion the terrible crimes committed systematically by some Serb forces against Albanians. But definitely not to allow the identification of all Serbs with paramilitary criminals. But I think morally there is another problem. The goal of defending people who are vulnerable and being assaulted in an ethnic conflict is a worthy goal — it was stated by the US and NATO as a universal cause. However what happened is that the actual action we took as NATO seems to have catalyzed the atrocities, unleashed them. It doesn’t mean at all that the government or that the paramilitary thugs are or have been innocent. Of course, they are not innocent. The evil was there and it was tangible. But the bombing clearly unleashed great violence in Kosovo. And the humanitarian disaster became absolutely massive as an accompaniment to the bombing. I am troubled by that. We cannot as a society claim moral purity here. It seems to me that we as an American society bear some moral responsibility in terms of decisions taken by our government and other governments — decisions unleashing huge atrocities even as we were attempting to prevent atrocities. So we cannot claim moral purity or righteousness.

JW: There has been a great deal of controversy among the Orthodox worldwide and especially here in America about our involvement in the ecumenical movement and discussions. Would you say given your experiences, particularly over the past few months, that it is not only appropriate but even "essential" for the Orthodox to be involved at least on certain levels?

Fr. Leonid: I have found it interesting that most people who have contacted me over the past months have done so because they welcome my participation in the mission to Belgrade led by Jesse Jackson and Joan Campbell of the National Council of Churches. It is our presence at the "ecumenical table" which enables our credible participation at times of crisis. So how can we not be at the table? We need to be there to make our voice heard and our views known. And how can we bear witness to the fulness of the Tradition, speaking in even missionary and theological terms, if our stance will be fundamentally a stance that leads to invisibility. I don’t think that can possibly work.

To be at the "ecumenical table" must not mean silence on issues where we are painfully divided, where we as Orthodox may be in a painful and challenging conflict with the views of others. Of course, we not only need to, but we do state and articulate what our critiques are of some developments in the Christian world, within Christian bodies, and within ecumenism. There are negative things that are occurring and we have the right and the responsibility to criticize and to challenge. Now, having said that we also then are in a situation where others have some need to challenge us as well, and they are not always wrong. There are issues that are painfully important to us, where we empirically fall short of our theological vision. So when we speak of the Orthodoxy and the Catholicity of the Church, when we speak about unity which we see as unity simply in the One Church — and we do so correctly — this is our commitment, our vision, our Tradition. But empirically other Christians see us as divided within the Orthodox context, sundered along ethnic and jurisdictional lines. When they see that we indeed confess one and the same faith, adhere to one and the same Tradition, and yet do not have the capacity, it seems, to bring the Orthodox Church in America together into one body — when people challenge us on that, they are right! The insistence and demand we make ecumenically about what is the nature of unity is the correct demand, the correct challenge. The sadness is that within our own life we have not brought energy into structuring our own Church in a way that fully manifests the very thing we believe in most. And maybe we need to be challenged, otherwise perhaps we would be prone to a complacency and not see as sharply as we need to some of the internal contradictions within our own life.

JW: Finally, as we get ready to approach our next All American Council, would there be one wish that you would have for Orthodoxy in America as we approach the Millennium?

Fr. Leonid: I’m going to make a humble wish, a very humble one, but I think that it could be dramatic in its effect. We do have some dynamic realities within American Orthodoxy which are very much alive, but which need more understanding and support from hierarchs, parish clergy, and laity in order to build a more engaged and more missionary-minded Orthodox presence into the next century. International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC)) and the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) represent a kind of miracle of ministry. Churches jurisdictionally divided have nevertheless come together to authorize and encourage something which is working, operating, and moving forward. More energy, more commitment, more involvement from the whole Church with regard to IOCC and OCMS would literally move mountains. The movement towards ecclessial unity, the overcoming of jurisdictional divisions, would be advanced because the strength of the work of IOCC in humanitarian terms and of OCMC in missionary terms would be such that the witness of the Orthodox Church would be persuasive and credible. And promoting credible Orthodox witness in America is the fundamental commitment of the Orthodox Church in America.


[Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky is the Assistant to the Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America for Inter-Church Relations and Ecumenical Witness, Editor of The Orthodox Church newspaper, and pastor of Our Lady of Kazan Church, Sea Cliff, NY.]

His "Commencement Address to St. Vladimir's Seminary Theological Graduates," delivered on May 22, 1999, is available at:

Several of his Editiorials written this year for The Orthodox Church specifically relate to issues discussed in this interview:

"A Moment of Ecumenical Challenge -- and Opportunity" (January, 1999)

"Witness to the Gospel in the Face of Evil, Hatred, and Violence" (March-April, 1999) available at:

"Relating our Public Witness to Spiritual and Moral Vision" (May, 1999)

From Jacob's Well
Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey
Orthodox Church in America