Young scholars pursue their education in informal classes. (photo: courtesy, European Humanities University, Minsk)
The theology faculty reaches out to the community to aid its religious renaissance. (photo: courtesy, European Humanities University, Minsk)
Metropolitan Philaret founded the college using a European liberal arts model. (photo: courtesy, European Humanities University, Minsk)
The theology department of Sts. Methodius and Cyril is an Orthodox institution with an innovative approach to religious studies. (photo: courtesy, European Humanities University, Minsk)
A spiritual renaissance behind the Iron Curtain was set in motion when the Soviet Union collapsed, releasing its stranglehold on religious activity and expression.
Yet complex rifts some as passionate as the very idea of competing distinct national identities are weighing down the newfound liberty that is flourishing throughout the region. While any easy resolution to these longstanding and historic antagonisms seems unlikely, there are a handful of emerging ecumenical efforts aimed at forging a common good.
One such effort, little known in the Christian West but increasingly receiving praise for its innovative approach to religious studies, is the Orthodox theology department of Sts. Methodius and Cyril at the European Humanities University in Minsk, Belarus.
The department, supported in part by CNEWA and founded in 1993, educates religion teachers and specialists in theology, following a liberal arts tradition. It is accredited through the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Belarus. And although an Orthodox institution, the theology department is ecumenical in the broadest sense.
Currently, 10 percent of the 100-strong student body is Catholic, a remarkable figure given the tense relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in the former Soviet Union.
The theology department is the initiative of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Exarch of Belarus, Metropolitan Philaret of Minsk and Slutsk. The Metropolitan, who holds a doctorate in theology, also serves as the departments dean.
The existence of a theology department in a lay, nonstate-run university testifies to the great changes in our society, the Metropolitan said.
In the years of Soviet power, church educational institutions [three seminaries and two theological academies] provided for the formation of priests, but we did not have a school of theological education for the laity.
Set to celebrate its first decade, which might not seem like much of a milestone by Western standards, the theology department is without parallel in the lands of the former Soviet Union. The immediate and long-term aims of the department include the restoration of ties between Christian tradition and contemporary culture, the creation of a Christian educational system for Belarus and the reintegration of a Christian worldview in scholarly circles.
Students of the department can choose from a two-tiered course system. One study course that is specifically theological concentrates on church history, Scripture and moral theology. Another tier of study is similar to a Western general humanities curriculum degree with courses on Belarussian culture and history, philosophy, economics and modern and ancient languages. The six-year course is full-time; students graduate with a bachelors degree.
The Metropolitan said the idea for a lay theology department in a private European-style university came about during a meeting of philosophers and academicians.
The collapse of the Communist Party came after this failed anti-Gorbachev coup by party hard-liners. More than four months later, on 25 December, the Soviet Union formally dissolved.
I remember the day of the meeting very well, he said. It was 20 August 1991, the second day of the putsch.
However, long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, regimes whose legitimacy was based on communist ideology had already begun crumbling. In Eastern and Central Europe this climate of freedom gave rise to the euphoric resurgence of religious life. Previously, the state was in control of most of the churchs activities. To a lesser degree, this regulation carried on as late as 1988. After the celebrations in 1988 commemorating a millennium of Christianity in the Soviet republics of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, state controls relaxed.
It is my hope that our graduates will be instrumental in getting the influence of religion back into society, the Metropolitan said.
The theology departments trustees have also established a separate Christian Education Center. The centers activities are aimed at restoring public and private initiatives in Belarus in areas including social work, science and the arts.
The center pays special attention to the great social transformations of the past decade, and particularly the place of Christianity in this process.
According to the centers administrator, Grigori Dovgyallo, the major contribution of the church and faith-based civic organizations like Sts. Methodius and Cyril is the formation of peoples spiritual lives. The goal is that their faith can be actualized.
This principle forms the guiding philosophy of the centers activities, Dovgyallo said. Its not an accident that Sts. Methodius and Cyril, who are equally part of the Eastern and Western traditions, were chosen to be the organizations patrons. It is more than symbolic that our emblem shows Western and Eastern traditions united.
To highlight the scholarly work of the theology department and the center, an international conference of Cyrillo-Methodian readings is held annually in conjunction with the saints feast on 24 May.
But during Soviet rule, Belarus was meant to be a unique proving ground for the communist experiment. The state wanted Belarus to be the first republic of victorious atheism. As a result of this purge of Christianity, what bravely remained of the Orthodox Church there during those years was subjected to grave persecution.
And while the Metropolitan claims it was with ease that the theology department and Christian Education Center were established, general obstacles to such free religious expression were great.
In his book The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey, Paulist Father Ronald G. Roberson said that although the communist state agreed to allow the church a very restricted sphere of activity, limited in practice to liturgical worship, persecution continued. (For the full text see www.cnewa.org.)
Virtually all theologians and leaders of the church were either exiled in the 1920s or executed in the 1930s. Conditions improved somewhat during the second world war and in Stalins later years, until Khrushchev began to intensify the persecutions in 1959, Father Roberson wrote.
In Belarus as late as 1968, the Church of Our Lady of Kazan in Minsk was destroyed. But since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the number of faith communities and churches in Belarus has increased from 360 to 1,235. Today, there are 10 dioceses and a new seminary. In Minsk, there are 30 Orthodox parishes.
But while the interconfessional situation in Eastern Europe remains difficult, the Metropolitan said institutions like the Sts. Methodius and Cyril theology department and Christian Education Center are advancing ecumenical dialogue.
The Russian Church has been weakened throughout the years of communist dictatorship and is only now trying to get up from her knees, he said. So little time has gone by since we have become free.
What we say to our brother Catholics is: You want to help, so help us in a brotherly fashion.
Use your experience, means and influence but do not act in a sectarian way by trying to lure religiously unenlightened people and deprive them of their historical Orthodox experience and heritage.
The pioneering work of the Sts. Methodius and Cyril center is providing a structure where just such developing ecumenical cooperation can thrive.
Father Slesinski, a Byzantine Catholic priest, is a visiting philosophy professor at Sts. Methodius and Cyril.