Romanian Scholar Writes Doctoral Thesis about St. Vladimir's Seminary
Father Ilie Toader, a member of the theological faculty of Buzau, Romania, is writing a doctoral thesis about St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He visited the Seminary during the course of a month, during September and October 2010, to perform his research. Dr. Peter Bouteneff, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at SVOTS, spoke with him about his project, about the Seminary, and about his expectations and findings.
Fr. Ilie, tell us about your project, your doctoral thesis.
In 2007, when I was admitted in the doctoral program at the Bucharest Faculty of Orthodox Theology, I decided, with the consent of my director, Rev. Prof. Dr. Viorel Ioniţă, to write my thesis about the contribution of St. Vladimir's to contemporary Orthodox thought. The provisional title of my thesis is “St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary and its contribution to modern Orthodox thinking.” I was able to come and visit here, at the invitation of Fr. John Behr, for the purposes of completing my research, using your library and meeting with your faculty and students.
What provoked your interest in our seminary?
While a student, I was taught—and always imagined—that Dogmatics and Church History were completely distinct subjects. I was therefore very struck when I read Fr. John Meyendorff’s Byzantine Theology, because it is a dense analysis and synthesis that is at the same time dogmatic and historical. Soon after that I discovered Fr. Schmemann’s works. And I realized that both writers belong to a common and enriching tradition. Reading more about them I was able to locate the epicenter of this remarkable tradition at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. Then I also read Fr. Florovsky and others. I saw more and more a common thread, one that had to do with understanding “Tradition.” Florovsky, through the “neo-patristic synthesis,” Schmemann through the revitalizing of the liturgical Tradition, Meyendorff, through his writing about “living” or “dynamic” Tradition. These approaches were each distinct but had a common perspective—this is one of the greatest contributions of St. Vladimir’s.
Does St. Vladimir’s have a particular reputation among your colleagues in Romania? Are there particular supporters and critics?
Myself, I knew that St. Vladimir's is representative of North American Orthodoxy and one of the most prestigious and prolific centers of education and spirituality in contemporary Orthodoxy anywhere.
As for serious critics, in fact I found that it’s more here in America, than elsewhere, that St. Vladimir’s has detractors! In Romania almost no one has this spirit of criticism of this Seminary. Of course, some of the theology faculty in Romania haven’t heard of SVOTS. Among those who have, the ones I spoke with have this idea that SVOTS is very open in its outlook. For some, this quality of “open” is a very positive thing; for others, that same quality is not so positive.
What were your expectations of the life and ethos of the Seminary before you came? And what has your impression been now that you are here?
Before I came I had a “Romanian” image of the Seminary: I imagined it as a large and cold institution, where faculty and students meet together only in the classroom, in the morning, and then everyone leaves the building “lifeless.“ What I found here is both smaller than what I expected, but also much more communal, on the part of both faculty and students. I was also surprised at many of the activities that students do here as part of their training: hospital visitation, prison ministry, et cetera.
I was very surprised to find such a heterogeneous body of students, coming from very different ethnic and religious backgrounds—Indians, Serbians, Albanians, Armenians, Americans, et cetera, and born-Orthodox and converts—and yet proving to be a numerous and friendly family. But the place that had the biggest impression on me, the place which struck me as the heart that gives cohesion and strength to this family most of all, and where I could really feel the living memory and legacy of your predecessors, was the chapel. When I saw you—professors and students—serving together, taking Eucharist together, praying together, I felt myself connected to your past and present, to your Tradition.
Some who come here from Eastern Europe, like yourself, are surprised that in many places in North America, the people receive Holy Communion at nearly every Divine Liturgy, whether or not they have confessed the same day or the day before.
As a student of history, I look back to the writings of the Holy Fathers, like St. Justin Martyr in his first Apology, where the evidence is that everyone communed at every liturgy, and, even more, those who were absent for various reasons had Holy Communion brought to them by the deacons. And I read Fr. Schmemann’s writings on this subject, and agree with this. So I am completely supportive of this practice, and will try to be an ambassador for it in Romania. Yet, while I was here with you, I had to remain faithful to the actual position and practice of my Church.
Are there other things you feel you have learned here, not just about the Seminary?
By coming here, I learned a lot of things, concrete and abstract. The concrete ones will be reflected in my doctoral thesis, so let me tell you more about the others. First of all, this is my first major work in the field of Church History and I realized how difficult is the task of a historian. A “scientific” approach to history can easily obscure the facts. For example, If I go back to Romania and say simply that St. Vladimir’s is a Seminary founded in 1938, with a number of outstanding personalities and with its own Press; or if I reduce Fr. Schmemann only to his life and works—no matter how dense and precise the data of my thesis will be—I will fail to present the real place and contribution of St. Vladimir’s to American and worldwide Orthodoxy. So, the historian’s mission is more creative than simply gathering and collating information.
Do you have any feelings or hopes for Orthodoxy in America, or for the Seminary, that you’d like to share with us?
One thing is that I think that Orthodoxy in the world today needs more communication between the spiritual, educational, and cultural centers of the Orthodox world. Another impression: as I come to know the Seminary and its context better, I understand better the importance of your contribution. You had to struggle here to survive here in America in a way that we, in the more homogenously Orthodox context of Romania, have not. We struggled as well, of course, under communism, but in my opinion we have lost more believers after the Revolution (in 1989), because we lack a clear sense of mission to our own people. We haven’t woken up to this new reality, this missionary imperative. It’s very different here in the U.S., where there are not so many Orthodox Christians.
I hope that you at the Seminary will continue to grow and develop yourselves in the same direction as you have done since 1938, following the goals of your founders: you have students from all over the world; you bring Orthodoxy all over the world through your books, alumni, and professors; you have always represented Orthodoxy in the ecumenical or inter-Orthodox dialogue. I think there are enough reasons for me to hope that in 2038, at your centenary, all of Orthodoxy will be speaking about St. Vladimir’s Pan-Orthodox Theological Seminary!
Read more about Faculty and visiting Faculty activities in the “Faculty Footnotes” section of the Voices page on our Website.