Pope Benedict XVI, flanked by Metropolite Hilarion Alfeyev, welcomes Italian actress Sophia Loren (Getty Images)
Catholics would agree with much of what Metropolitan Hilarion has said, but what can we actually do?
Metropolitan Hilarion, who is the ‘foreign minister’ of the Russian Orthodox Church, has recently been in London, where he gave a speech at a conference organised by the Russian Embassy. The Russian Embassy website reproduces the speech in toto here. The Russian Orthodox Church website gives a list of participants at the symposium, which was focused on the Christian Future of Europe.
The speech given by Hilarion was certainly interesting, and revelatory of the thought of the Russian Church. He sees religion in most of Europe as in decline, about which he is undoubtedly right. One reason is increasing secularism in most countries outside Russia, and he characterises that this is a hugely negative phenomenon. There is much that Catholics will agree with here.
The Metropolitan also focuses on another factor that has led to a change in the religious landscape of Europe: large-scale immigration from outside Europe, and in particular from the Middle East and Africa. While he does not suggest that this migration should be halted or can be halted, here Metropolitan Hilarion finds himself in the opposite corner to the Pope, at least in the question of tone. For Hilarion, immigration is a challenge or even a threat, but for the Pope it is the opportunity to welcome the stranger. Indeed, more or less at the same time as Hilarion was speaking, Pope Francis was warning against the “temptation of exclusivism and cultural fortification.”
His strong words are clearly coming from a different perspective from Hilarion’s, and yet it would be a mistake to see these points of view as mutually exclusive. The truth is that Hilarion is right: if we admit large numbers of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, then the character of Europe will change. The only question is how will it change, and whether this change will be a good or a bad thing. Again, there can be no dispute that Christians have a duty to welcome the stranger, as the Pope says, and that ethnocentrism is not the Christian way. But this does not answer the question of how we welcome the stranger, nor does it address the question whether the best way to help people and their countries is to let them enter Europe, rather than helping them at home.