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‘Endless vigilance is needed, chiefly so we don’t replace the power of love with the love of power’

Your Grace, here with you in Albania, I wonder where God is. He doesn’t seem to be very present here. I’ve heard that question before, from a colleague of yours who asked if God had stopped at the borders during the years of persecution here. I answered then that no border can halt the presence of God; the only thing that can stop him is hypocrisy and arrogance. God is always close to those who suffer, who need him, who undergo deprivation and ordeals. I think that God never stopped being here in Albania, because this country has always undergone suffering and great poverty. Are hypocrisy and arrogance more powerful than God? No. God does not want to cross those borders, out of respect for the freedom of each person. When he knows in advance that he is not wanted, he withdraws discreetly. State-owned chemical factories left the Porto Romano area some years ago, leaving behind rotting waste. One sees children playing in that waste… The situation in that area near Durres is depressing. Some measures have already been taken to protect poor families from the north who took refuge there. At the same time, as part of an environmental program, our church took the initiative of getting a full study of solid waste management in the city of Durres and of preparing the necessary works to protect the environment. But the problem isn’t only at Porto Romano. I remember when I was first here in the 1990s, and I would walk from where we were living to the church here. I used to feel that same pain to see children playing on top of the garbage. Can those children really come close to God? I think that many of them have already done so. Aren’t they what are known as the «children of a lesser god?» No, I wouldn’t say that. A poll showed that most people in Albania believe in God. Despite decades of an atheist state? Precisely. Recently at a conference here and a sociological study noted that more than 75 percent of the people believed in God. Those who keep a distance are the so-called intellectuals, who were subject to systematic atheist propaganda from nursery school till they finished university. But I must say that I have also heard some voices among them which have moved me greatly. When they say, «I want to believe but you know I can’t; help me,» they are sincere. And this cry for God is often more genuine than the certainty of many people that they have God in their pocket or somewhere in their room. Has your faith ever been shaken during the years you have lived here under such difficult conditions? I wouldn’t say that my faith has been shaken but there certainly were difficult moments when I felt the need to say: «Lord, help my lack of faith. Give me more faith.» I think that was an experience of life. Here in Albania one can experience many New Testament texts in a genuine, personal, existential way. We live in a time – especially after September 11 – when religions are on everyone’s lips, some times as a form of hope, sometimes as a means of conflict. Where will this lead? Religions are living things, not fossils that you measure and study through a telescope or a microscope. As a professor at Athens University, I had the opportunity to travel a lot in the past, starting with Africa, because my studies were on African religions, and then going on to Asia and other places. So it was in 1970, 30 years ago, that I began this attempt at dialogue with representatives of various creeds. It was not a dialogue about starting a new religion – nobody is naive or silly enough to try that – but it was an attempt to study and to listen respectfully to one another. Nowadays we have a strange phenomenon: While the 20th century began with Nietzsche’s cry «God is dead!,» at the end of the 20th century we saw a resurgence of religion. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century we perceive that religion is not just interesting but something very important, and that we don’t know where it will go with the conflicts that arise. History showed first of all that religious feeling is an amazing motive force which may lead to extremes and I think many people realize that. On the other hand, we must be objective. The recent attacks also reminded us of the element of faith. Faith is a very serious business, and Christians who have ignored it have to pay attention to it. Currently I think we see an Islam with very dynamic faith, and at the same time a numb, Western Christianity. Isn’t that also the case with Eastern Christianity? Sometimes Eastern Christianity suffers from the same ailment. And here we must rediscover the weight and depth of the faith to which we have the blessing and joy to belong. Sometimes I think we don’t take it very seriously. What is asked of us today is that we act more in accordance with what we say we are. I have said before that you cannot say you are looking forward to Christ, who lived as he did in Bethlehem before being stripped on the Cross, while you live in luxury and ignore other people. Apart from that, what about the spiritual dimension? Wherever it is, whether in the past or the coming era, the Orthodox Church must radiate the power, faith and joy of the living God. Its main task is to proclaim the mystery of the Trinity in word and deed, in every era and every place. It must transform repentant man, raise him up, build a society of solidarity, a society of free, loving people. it must help man to redemption. We must not forget the basic Orthodox position on Holy Communion and the unquenchable desire for divinity. We are more daring than many people realize. All the other things – the social, educational, cultural projects – are incidental, and they cannot replace or overshadow the basic mysteries and the redemptive character of the Orthodox Church. If Orthodoxy stops giving priority to and putting the emphasis on faith, love and hope, it will not be able to fill the vacuum with other activities connected with wealth, power, glory and great feasts. This is why endless vigilance is needed, chiefly so that we don’t replace the power of love with the love of power. We are in a place where an extraordinary saint once walked: Aghios Cosmas Aitolos. I remember many of his sayings, but I’ll tell you just one of them. «Christianity,» he said, «needs two wings to fly to Paradise: humility and love.» Certainly, Orthodoxy without those elements will end up being a synthetic Orthodoxy, which is not genuine and cannot move people today or bring a breath of life to global society.