Jean-Francois Thiry: «Hope is always born of faith»
Vladimir Legoyda
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HOPE


Our next topic is Hope, and the first question may seem much the same as I already asked you, but it’s still different. By the way, exactly how many years have you been living in Russia?

I have been living here since 1991.

You’ve been living in Russia since 1991, which means you’ve been living in the modern Russia practically the whole time, from the moment it was formed. If you’re here, this means there’s something that attracts you, that keeps you here. What hope does life in Russia give you in terms of our topic?

You know, such questions are not easy to answer.

Our program is like that.

Sometimes people ask me, “Well, you’re in Russia, thank you for loving Russia so much.” I say, “Yes, I love Russia, but I do love Belgium, I do love Italy as well... That’s not a country that I love, I love the people I met, who gave me the opportunity to become the person I am, who gave me the opportunity to become a Christian. For some reason I went through it here. So, I’m very grateful to this country. And I think that here lies the hope, that any event in itself is neither negative nor positive. It’s an opportunity to go some path today, to find the meaning of life. Life isn’t easy here, and maybe because you don’t become sluggish in some kind of comfort, like in maybe some Western countries, the challenges are more serious, and maybe that’s what appeals to me, too.

Do you feel that you live here because you get something for yourself, for you personally? Or are you here because you feel you have to give something away?

Because I get something here.

For yourself?

Of course, that’s for sure. This idea that I have something to give to somebody is not close to my heart. I think I just must exist, and while I do exist maybe something will be passed on to others. Well this is what Seraphim of Sarov, and not only him, other elders say, “Save yourself, and all around you will be saved.” That is for me, I must exist. And that’s why I’m here, to get something in this sense, to grow.

As I read in one of your interviews, you said that not only would you like to continue to live in Russia, but you would like to die here. It’s very strong statement.

I don’t know... I have all my life here. I feel like a part of society. I don’t understand why I would have to go somewhere else...

To die in Belgium?

Why? I don’t get it. No, I don’t.

What’s interesting, you see, you first said that you love Russia as much as you love Belgium, Italy, maybe you love something else. But if you say that you would like to die here, it means a particular subject to you. Or I give it too much of...

No, it’s not like that. I think it’s like your life mission, your vocation as a husband, as a married man... It’s a vocation that we get forever. So, I don’t see any temporary ministries for myself, I think we have to be where we are, with all our heart, our soul, our energy, and so I don’t set any limits for myself. Then things can change, recently I started a new period connected with Syria. It opened up new horizons for me.

So, you don’t rule out that...

That I can choose to die there at the end of my life.

Let’s not be in such a hurry, especially since you can die there much faster than here. I want to talk to you about Europe. Many people think that this expansion of Islamic presence and influence in Europe means fading hope for Christianity. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that you personally see this as a kind of new hope, is that right?

Yes, right.

What kind of hope?

You know... I see it as the hope to go back to what faith really is. For too long, we’ve been used to the idea that Christianity is some kind of culture, it’s a form of existence, it’s a space in society.

Part of the setting.

Yes, exactly. It’s the power that we want to use to get the right laws. That’s how it’s all supposed to be, it’s all good. But we still go back to faith, because hope is always generated through faith. We’ll lose the point of reference. And so these circumstances that are destroying the Europe that we knew, that I still knew being a kid, and no doubt, Europe known in the 19th century, it allows us to go back to in fact to the sources of faith. That’s why I think this is a great opportunity. You know, when I was young, Belgium and Holland sent the most missionaries. They sent them all over Africa. Now we have Africans coming to us, and there is no one to meet them, no one to receive them, to tell them, to witness. So, basically, these new circumstances challenge us to understand what our faith is all about, and to understand that it is not the organization, not the Church as an institution will save Christ, but our relationship with Him.

Look, what you’re saying is more about opportunities and challenges. About hope to have the dialog. To establish the dialog we need this mutual desire. Do we have it? I don’t see it much on either side.

You know, I disagree with you. If you see your children making mistakes, maybe they’re not ready yet, you’re going to keep trying to build relationships with them because you care. That’s what we understand when we say to our loved ones that we’re going to keep coming back to this. To demand that others would be ready is not Christian. It means our claim on others. Jesus Christ didn’t expect anything, he didn’t demand that others...

He did not demand anything. But he did say that if whosoever shall not hear your words, shake off the dust of your feet and leave.

Yes, that’s true.

So, are there situations when dialog is impossible all the same?

Maybe, but if you care about the person in front of you, you will not give up, you will keep trying.

Tell me, really, very interesting, do you have an understanding, maybe a feeling, which European country has the strongest hope for the future of Christianity, a return to the true faith, where do you personally feel the strongest hope?

I see a place with active communities. Strange as it may seem, parishes as the structures of the country, they are slowly breaking down. I mean, they still exist, but there is one visiting priest for three or four villages, this parish structure still exists. Places with active communities give hope. With all these new things that have come from the Catholic Church after or around the Vatican Council...

By communities you don’t mean parish communities but rather congregations like yours?

Trans-parish congregations, I would say, that are operational, maybe. The receipt of the sacraments takes place in their parishes. If I see a vibrant community like that, I see hope there that we don’t go back to the old structure.

So, it does not depend on a country. Or there are countries where...

There are countries, of course, where the situation is much more difficult. I think they include Belgium and Holland, and there are such signs of hope there.

 

PATIENCE


Patience is our next section. And I want to start with a historical example, a very famous one. In 1990, when the Parliament of Belgium was legalizing abortions, the king of Belgium Baudouin I abdicated for a few days, and the Government signed the law, passed it, so, he kind of... Has his hands clean. He failed to endure it, then. So, to you, what the King did was the action of a Christian, or it’s hypocrisy, because he didn’t prevent the law from being passed.

It’s a heroic act of a true Christian, no doubt about it.

But why is it heroic?

He couldn’t have prevented the law from being passed. Our King is not like the President of the Russian Federation.

No king is like the President of the Russian Federation. (Both laughing.)

He is must sign all the laws, he cannot make amendments, send them back. In case he refuses to sign, he must abdicate, that is, he had no choice. And they begged him to continue to rule because he had no heir and his brother was still very young.

He had no children. I think they say this situation for him personally was, too...

Yes, so it was important for all of Belgium that he stayed, otherwise, it would be unclear which way Belgium should choose. That’s why he said: “Okay, you want me to stay, but I’m not going to sign this law.” And came up with this trick to make him stay. But of course both he and his wife, they proved to be genuine Christians by their lives. Sooner or later he will be canonized, I think.

And did this act cause a massive public outcry?

Yes, it did. Society split further over this issue, those who loved him before, began loving him stronger. Let’s say, the left or secular part of society, Masonic part of society, did not like him very much, and their disliking just grew stronger all the more so. So, yes, this situation split society even more than it was split before, it was evident event after his death. He wrote a very interesting diary, which has not yet been published, we are waiting for it. I’m sure it will be a very interesting book.

Let’s go back to Russia. We are talking Patience now. What do you find the most difficult to bear in Russia?

Allow me to begin from afar.

OK.

Because the issue of patience is really interesting. I think that often we take our closed eyes for patience. We don’t want to see what’s happening. And it’s no patience, it’s inability to see the reality. I very often note that I am in danger of...

Refusing to see what’s happening around you?

OK, this issue will resolve itself. What is the most difficult thing to bear in Russia? I don’t know, let me think.

The uncertainty about the renewal of your residence permit?

No, it’s not that. Perhaps, it’s despair. When I see it in people...

The lack of hope?

The lack of hope that it won’t work out any way. People think, “Why should I get involved if nothing is going to change anyway?” In this case I want to say, “Well, you’re not doing this to change circumstances, you’re doing this for yourself to stay human, so do that.” Sometimes I come across that feeling just.

Now we can get closer, maybe, to the Christian interpretation of patience. The Orthodox life, at least in the modern Orthodoxy, at least in our country and in our Orthodox community, puts a strong emphasis on asceticism. It is related to fasting, among other things, and so on. As far as I understand it, Catholics use a fundamentally different approach, and in general, fasting is something from the past, yes, am I right? In reality, Catholics fast only during Holy Week, Holy Wednesday, right?

We have only two days of strict fasting...

Days! Two DAYS of strict fasting!

They are Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and Good Friday.

Ash Wednesday, right. Is it the first day of Lent?

Yes, it is. And Good Friday. Plus, we should abstain from meat on Fridays. But Lent is not so much about food, about diet, but more about works of mercy, about prayer, maybe.

So, you see fasting as an action?

And a way to grow awareness, too. Because I think, works of mercy are not just about doing something to fix the world, but it’s also about personal conversion, after all.

Actually, I haven’t asked my question yet. I wanted to ask you What the role of ascetics is, because it has to do with antiquity, with the understanding of Christianity, with the idea of a Christian as someone who goes through this journey, or who is compared to a warrior, or an athlete. It always implies some kind of discipline. What place does ascetics take in the life of the modern Catholic Church?

I don’t know, I can speak for myself, and I must say that I have a hard time practicing ascetics.

I mean not only as the way to discipline your body, but more of a global understanding of this notion...

I would use the word “aesthetics” instead of “ascetics”.

The word “aesthetics”? Why?

Because one’s behavior always depends on what they love. If you love your children, you will never focus on what you have to sacrifice as part of paying the cost because it all comes out of this love.

You mean these limitations will come naturally to you?

Of course. It’s obvious. When there’s somebody who you can’t stand, be that in your family or at work, everything immediately becomes a problem in that respect, any action. And on the contrary, when we have an affection for someone, we forget everything. A problem is where we turn our attention, what we have to do to turn it in that direction. To me it means turning my attention. That’s why I say to use the word “aesthetics”, i.e. It’s where I turn my attention.

What does meekness mean to you, this Christian, maybe even the highest form of patience? What is meekness? How would you describe it?

I would describe meekness as your awareness that everything that you have, and everything that you do originates from God. And all that you have received, for example, that we are sitting today in this beautiful studio, is a gift that has been granted to you. Meekness means to understand that your job is to serve this gift, this gift that you have received in life, and generally all that you get.

And your Center often hosts exhibitions and meetings with art people, and so on. That is, with people who have accomplished something, who have something to say, to show, etc. Is it important for you that these people were aware of what you just said? Because for common people art and meekness are two polar extremes, aren’t they?

Yes, I think you can feel it right away if a person is filled of themselves and their accomplishments, it is visible. It starts to get on your nerves really quickly. And when you see a person who serves this gift that they have received... For me Elena Cherkasova is one of the examples. She is...

A wonderful artist.

Yes, she is, and she does not like to talk much, she understands that she received this gift, she conveys it through her art, through her paintings. To me, she is exactly the example of not being full of yourself. Can I mention one more thing about patience that I find important?

Of course, you can.

Charles Pierre Péguy created a very beautiful image. He said that God is like a father who teaches his child to swim. If he gives too much of his support, the kid will never learn to swim. If he does not give his support at all, the kid will drown. This is exactly God treats us, with His patience towards man. To me, it is very important because to be patient is to expect a person to be free, as well as your involvement in the process. It’s not something that happens without me being part of it. That would be indifference or tolerance, call it what you want. But to me, patience is when I just have to be inside a process together with a person or circumstances.

And to give your support so that the person wouldn’t drown but could swim in the direction of their own choice.

And could have back up so that they could continue swimming.