EXCLUSIVE: Interview with WCC interim general secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca for Doxologia INFONEWS

Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC

In other languages: BG  – MK

Today we present you an exclusive email interview with World Council of Churches (WCC) interim general secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca for Doxologia INFONEWS.

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Father Ioan, how are the churches doing in the pandemic? Did the coronavirus pandemic help ecumenical rapprochement, or did it exacerbate religious differences and divide people from different churches?

Father Ioan Sauca: The pandemic hits all countries and peoples hard. It exposes in a merciless way existing inequalities. At the same time, it shows us that we are one human family belonging to the one household of God in spite of race, gender, wealth or region. Confronted with the imperative for physical distancing that made worship in community almost impossible and created a very difficult situation for many congregations, churches are learning from each other and exploring together how to stay socially connected, accompany the sick and those who lost a loved one, and pray together.

The WCC provides on its website in addition to basic questions and answers concerning the pandemic resources for prayer, Bible study and worship. Just now, churches are engaged in the yearly Week of Prayer for Christian Unity because they know that all Christians are related to one another as disciples of Christ. Of course, there are some fringe groups that deny the deadly consequences of the pandemic, but they are clearly a minority among Christians.

You ask also for the impact on inter-religious relationships. I am glad to say that there are very positive recent developments fostering meaningful inter-religious cooperation which affirm and build upon common values. This is especially true for shared engagement for health and healing or for climate justice in all regions of the world. This cooperation is indeed very important when we still see the misuse of religion for spreading violence and death in some places. 

How will the World Council of Churches remember the past 2020? What would you define as the most significant achievement for the World Council of Churches in 2020?

Father Ioan Sauca: I would like to invite you to visit the website of the WCC and to look at the news that was published during the year. I am encouraged that we did not allow the pandemic to push us down. The fellowship of member churches and the secretariat in Geneva responded rather with many creative initiatives nurturing relationships and cooperation. I think, our interaction with the member churches has even grown. The main programmatic initiatives for unity, mission, justice and peace are vital and relevant.

As someone who has been responsible for so many years for the Bossey Ecumenical Institute, I am especially encouraged by the fact that we could gather nearly 30 students from all regions of the world for another academic year in Bossey despite all restrictions. What we do for these students and for other young peoples and children in our youth projects and in our initiative for child-friendly churches, I believe, are very good investments in the future of ecumenical cooperation and a world of justice and peace.  

Father Ioan, there is a lot of talk about Islamic fanaticism and fundamentalism. But little is said about Christian fanaticism and fundamentalism. What is your position on this growing problem? What is worrying for us is that fanaticism and fundamentalism are also found in some circles of the Orthodox Church. How the World Council of Churches can help bring Orthodox Christians closer together within the Orthodox Church.

Father Ioan Sauca: Yes, Christian communities are unfortunately not immune to the impact of populist ideologies. Although these are in most cases minorities with little resonance among the churches. I make an important distinction between fanaticism and fundamentalism. There is nothing to say against a strong commitment to values and a specific reading of one’s faith tradition. It becomes, however, difficult when dialogue is no longer pursued, and people turn against the other without respect for their each other’s and rootedness in different cultures.

The WCC has given high priority to the participation of Orthodox Churches in the WCC with a Permanent Commission on Consensus and Collaboration. Half of its members come from the Orthodox family. Even if there have been tensions in the relationships between Orthodox Churches, they continued to collectively cooperate within the WCC with the exception of the Georgian and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. They withdrew from the WCC in 1998.

What is the opinion of the World Council of Churches about what is happening in Ukraine? The Moscow Patriarchate is constantly creating religious tensions in Ukraine and is actively waging a hybrid war against the Ecumenical Patriarchate after the Ecumenical Patriarch granted a Tomos for autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Father Ioan Sauca: The WCC has been and is still struggling to bring church families into dialogue and closer relationships. It is less equipped to deal with conflicts within one church. Therefore, the WCC does not interfere in or comment on internal discussions in the Orthodox family, as it is their role to bring about reconciliation and unity among themselves, on the basis of their canon law, doctrine and practice. I will not agree with the words you chose to characterize the situation in Ukraine. Such a conflictual situation is not the first of this kind even in recent history. In the 1990s, a similar situation was in Estonia and WCC was again asked to intervene. WCC did not and will not take sides but will continue to encourage dialogue and cooperation as a way forward. It will always offer a safe platform of encounter and dialogue if this is the wish of the churches concerned.

What is the meaning of faith, hope, love and prayer in modern life: for some a wonderful life, but for others an unbearable life?

Father Ioan Sauca: I find faith, hope and love in God, the Holy Trinity and expressed in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ for the salvation of all. This remains the truth during all times until the ages of ages. This is what we celebrate in the Holy Liturgy: the sacrificial love of God in Christ offered for ALL (διὰ πάντα). At the same time, however, we are witnessing the deadly consequences of massive poverty, oppression and ecological destruction. Even more important, it becomes that we are working for justice and peace well rooted in our faith, full of hope in the Gospel of Christ and following Christ’s love that moves the world to reconciliation and unity. This is, by the way, the theme of the forthcoming assembly of the WCC 2022 in Karlsruhe, Germany. 

Unfortunately, the Bulgarian Patriarchate left the World Council of Churches in 1998, for unclear and frivolous reasons. However, what message would you send to our Church?

Father Ioan Sauca: First, I will respond from the perspective of an Orthodox priest and theologian coming from Romania. I understand very well the situation of our countries and churches during the communist times and the abrupt changes and challenges when that system collapsed.  Many accusations were heard against the hierarchy for having collaborated with the Communists and for having betrayed the truth of Orthodoxy by participation in the Ecumenical Movement. Concerning the participation in the Ecumenical Movement, the reality is that there has been a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation. During those difficult times, our best theologians and hierarchs participated in the dialogues with other Churches but people from the pews were not informed. They only heard about it when the iron curtain collapsed and then the information came first via some fundamentalist Evangelical circles with a strong anti-ecumenical agenda.

I have spent almost all my life witnessing to our Orthodox Theology and Spirituality in the Ecumenical Movement and can tell you that from my research of the documents and from the contributions that our Orthodox theologians have made during those years, I could not find a single sentence which betrayed or denied the Orthodox faith or spirituality. The Orthodox participation in the Ecumenical Movement has meant witness to our faith and openness to dialogue with others with the view to rediscover together our common roots, the reasons of our historical divisions and by healing the past to advance towards the rediscovery of the common Apostolic faith which leads to greater unity.

Orthodox Church, by its very identity, is a Church open to the world, to others and to the whole of creation. Trying to become a closed grouping with an inward focus will mean betraying our faith and our identity.

The Ecumenical Movement is not a market of negotiation; participation in it does not mean diluting one’s identity or losing one’s faith.

This is the message that our people should hear and be convinced about. There is a need for education, formation and accurate information. This is the only way of getting out of our self-imposed ghettos and be again open to witness, to service and to dialogue with and to the world.   

Although the Bulgarian Orthodox Church withdrew from the WCC, some forms of cooperation have continued over the years in the area of philanthropy, diakonia and education. We continue to have students of theology from Bulgaria who study at the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey and look forward to getting more applications.

As General Secretary, I would say that the message of the WCC can only be that we pray and hope that one day the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria will come back to this world fellowship and will join its sister Orthodox churches and other member churches in witnessing to its prestigious theology and spirituality. Only together we can confront the challenges and be credible in our witness.

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Profile of Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca

Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca has been confirmed interim World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary by the executive committee at an online meeting held on 3 June. Sauca will hold the post until the WCC central committee meets in June 2021.

Sauca, a priest of the Orthodox Church in Romania, has served as Professor of Missiology and Ecumenical Theology at Bossey since 1998 and as its director since 2001. He has served as a WCC deputy general secretary since 2014 in the areas of unity, mission, ecumenical relations, youth, interreligious dialogue and cooperation, worship and spirituality, as well as ecumenical formation.

Sauca first joined the WCC in 1994 as executive secretary for Orthodox Studies and Relationship in Mission. Prior to joining the WCC, he taught mission and ecumenism at the faculty of theology in Sibiu, Romania, and later served his patriarchate as head of the newly established Department of Press and Communication, with additional responsibility for the Department for External and Ecumenical Church Relations and of religious education in public schools.

Sauca studied in the Theological Faculties in Sibiu and Bucharest, Romania, and earned his Ph.D. in Theology at the University of Birmingham, UK, with a dissertation on “The Missionary Implications of Eastern Orthodox Ecclesiology.” He is also an alumnus of the Graduate School at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey.

While his publications in five languages range across the theological loci, from mission to Christology, ecclesiology and its inner relation to eschatology, they centre on what he has called “the ecumenical vocation of Orthodoxy” and Orthodox contributions to ecumenism. An early publication, Orthodoxy and Cultures, probed the relationship of the gospel to cultures (1996), while a later one, edited with Tim Grass, explored prospects for Building Bridges: Between the Orthodox and Evangelical Traditions (2012).

As director of the institute, Fr Sauca has overseen a closer partnership with the University of Geneva by reshaping the faculty and study plans in light of academic standards, which led to the academic accreditation of its postgraduate courses. To equip students with biblical, theological, and spiritual knowledge to live out and witness to the Christian faith in the multi-faith and multicultural societies of our times, he has also initiated the revision of the institute’s curriculum, expanding it with interreligious offerings, and has encouraged students to engage in the “dialogue of identities” and cooperation among Christians and people of other faiths.

While his own identity is strongly rooted in Orthodox Christianity, Fr Sauca has unflaggingly championed the institute as the premier ecumenical laboratory, in which students undergo life-changing experiences of ecumenical community, encountering the gifts of other Christian traditions and spiritual practices in an atmosphere of respect and openness.

“The ecumenical formation in Bossey is a formation in the ecumenism of life,” he has said. Students come with strong particular identities, he says, but “experience has shown that, living with others does not mean a dilution of one’s identity. After the experience of Bossey’s ‘ecumenism of life,’ they return home strengthened in and with a better understanding their own identities but also with openness toward the others, eager to dialogue with and learn from the others, to be enriched by the spirituality and the way of life of the others.”

Welcoming students to the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2018, Fr. Sauca reminded them of the importance of ecumenical formation and their own mission. ”In proclaiming, translating and incarnating the Word in the very context [that] the people of our time live in, we prepare and become partners of God’s mission in transforming the world,” he said.

Alexander Ivanov especially for Doxologia INFONEWS.


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