Francis is walking into a Russian minefield
by Fr Mark Drew
The Orthodox Church is not usually associated with rapid change and fast-moving news stories. Its image is more usually one of immobile customs, ancient rituals and an unshakeable attachment to tradition. Of no Orthodox body is this more true than of the Russian Orthodox Church, sometimes styled as the “Third Rome” and seen by many as the solid repository of the ecclesiastical polity and political culture of the Byzantine Empire.
The past week, however, has seen news stories developing with unaccustomed speed. First, news came out that plans to hold the “Great and Holy Council” of the world’s Orthodox churches in Istanbul had been abandoned in favour of a venue in Crete. This was to accommodate the Moscow Patriarchate’s reluctance to hold it in Turkey, now locked in geopolitical conflict with Putin’s Russia.
Then came another bombshell. The Moscow Patriarchate confirmed that a meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis, which veteran Italian Vaticanologist Sandro Magister had announced the previous week – only to provoke a denial from sources linked to the Patriarchate – was actually to take place after all.
With hindsight, the denials should have been treated as suspect from the start. When politicians say “there are currently no plans”, we all know that the planning process must be well advanced, and the Moscow Patriarchate is a very politically savvy entity. It has to be; it has been a hostage to political fortunes since its origin.
Headlines spoke of a “historic first meeting between Catholic and Orthodox since 1054”. There has indeed been no meeting of a pope with a Moscow patriarch since that date, when relations between Rome and Constantinople were severed, but there was no such encounter before it either. This is not only because popes and patriarchs of the first millennium were not in the habit of making long and arduous journeys to meet each other, but also because the Moscow patriarchate was yet to exist.
The Slavs were first evangelised in the 9th century by Saints Cyril and Methodius. It took another century for the new faith to become established in what is now Ukraine and Russia, symbolised by the baptism of Kievan Rus in 988. The spiritual heritage of that event is hotly disputed today between Russia and Ukraine. Political fragmentation, as well as Mongol and Tartar invasions, pushed the political centre eastward to Moscow, and gradually Kievan Rus was overtaken and eventually absorbed by what became the Russian Empire.
Moscow became pre-eminent as an ecclesiastical centre, too. The Muscovite rulers were keen to establish the independence of their church from Constantinople. That keenness was bolstered by their rejection of the policy of reunion with Rome then being pursued in Byzantium, and so in 1448 a metropolitan see was created in Moscow.
It took more than a century for the Russian Church’s autocephaly to win acceptance from Constantinople. But in 1558 the metropolitan of Moscow took the title of Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus. The Fall of Constantinople to the Turks had meant that many Orthodox would henceforth look to Moscow as the “Third Rome”, the new seat of Christian empire whose resistance to union with Rome had given it added prestige as a bastion of Orthodoxy.
Russia had become an empire in 1547 when Ivan the Terrible took the title “Caesar”, or Tsar in Russian, and over the centuries the importance of the patriarchate waxed and waned with the fortunes of the state, assuming a vital authority when the rule of the tsars was weak. This was what motivated Peter the Great to suppress the institution of the patriarchate altogether in 1721, replacing it with a standing synod over which successive tsars would keep tight control through a lay procurator.
In effect, the Church was run by a civil servant as a department of state for almost two centuries. Only in 1918 did a brief window of freedom allow the restoration of the patriarchate, before a whirlwind of expropriation and persecution beat down upon the Russian Church, now seen as the enemy of the state which had so long simultaneously nurtured and contained it.
That persecution was a defining experience for the Russian Orthodox Church, which faced near extinction. The brutal repression was mitigated under Stalin – at the price of total subservience – but it definitively ended only with the fall of communism in 1990. The outgoing generation of hierarchs were men who had been obliged to combine the cultivation of the fragile flame of faith with the necessity of a more or less willing collaboration with the state security apparatus.
Kirill, who became Patriarch in 2009, has promoted a younger generation of clerics to the episcopate, probably aiming to consign this period to history. But he remembers it well, having had to negotiate its necessary compromises as a young monk and theologian before becoming an archbishop in 1984.
Kirill inherited a Church which in many ways seems flourishing, and well on the way to recovering its privileged position in pre-revolutionary Russian society. Still, the fragilities inherited from the past are never far below the surface. Although church membership has boomed since the end of communism, mass baptisms have not generally been accompanied by solid catechesis and regular religious practice. With at least 50 million members in Russia and many more in affiliated Churches worldwide, Kirill’s Church is by far the largest Orthodox body, counting perhaps 40 per cent of Orthodox believers. Yet although most Russian citizens now define themselves as Orthodox, the Church’s grip on Russian society is probably neither as deep nor as secure as statistics suggest.
This is the context within which Kirill seeks to gain for his Church both security and stability at home, and influence and prestige abroad. His decision finally to meet the Pope, a meeting fervently desired by recent pontiffs but consistently refused by previous patriarchs, is to be interpreted against this background. We may consider his objectives under these two aspects: relations with the Russian state and external relations and influence.
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