National Catholic Register


Patriarch Kirill ‘Gives Us Hope’

Will New Man Bring a New Phase in Catholic-Orthodox Relations?



February 15-21, 2009 Issue | Posted 2/9/09 at 11:35 AM


News of the election of Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad as the new Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was exceptionally well received at the Vatican, but dialogue still won’t be easy between the two Churches.

Speaking at the end of his Jan. 28 general audience, Pope Benedict XVI, who has already met Kirill on three occasions, said he learned the news “with joy.”

The Holy Father prayed that the new patriarch would be filled with “the light of the Holy Spirit for a generous service to the Russian Orthodox Church.”

He also sent a congratulatory telegram Jan. 28, calling on the Lord to grant the new patriarch “an abundance of wisdom to discern his will” and to persevere in loving service of the people entrusted to him. The Pope wrote: “May the Almighty also bless your efforts to maintain communion among the Orthodox churches and to seek that fullness of communion which is the goal of Catholic-Orthodox collaboration and dialogue.”

Patriarch Kirill, 62, who had been in charge of ecumenical relations for the Russian Orthodox Church for the past 20 years, was elected Jan. 27 on the first ballot cast by members of the Church’s local council in Moscow. He was enthroned Feb. 1 in the Russian capital, succeeding Patriarch Alexy II, who died in December after more than 18 years as head of the Church.

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity joined the Pope in expressing its joy at the election result.

“We are pleased to have a patriarch with whom we have maintained fraternal relations for many years,” a Jan. 28 statement read. “We trust we will be able to continue together down the path of mutual understanding we have already begun.” The council noted the “difficulties that still remain,” but added a willingness to cooperate in bearing “witness to Christian values” without forgetting the goal of full communion.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the council’s president, and Bishop Brian Farrell, its secretary, both attended the patriarch’s enthronement. Cardinal Kasper told Vatican Radio that the Holy See has “known Kirill for many years” and added that he “has a firm stance, but with him, one can dialogue.” His election, Cardinal Kasper said, “represents a new phase for the Russian Orthodox Church,” whose rebirth after communism is largely due to the work of Alexy II.

Catholic Archbishop Paolo Pezzi, head of Moscow’s Archdiocese of the Mother of God, told Vatican Radio Jan. 28 that Russian Catholics felt very positive about the new patriarch, saying his election “gives us hope.” He also said he did “not exclude” the possibility of a historic meeting between the new patriarch and the Pope — the first such meeting since the Great Schism of 1054.

Pope Benedict met Metropolitan Kirill three times as Pope: first, immediately after the Pope’s election in 2005, then during a visit to Rome to consecrate a Russian Orthodox church in 2006, and lastly, for formal talks in December 2007.

An official at the council told the Register Jan. 28 that Kirill was “in many ways, the hoped for candidate” and someone “who’s more open to rapprochement with us than some of his colleagues — and certainly the last patriarch.” However, the Vatican is under no illusion that full communion is a long way off.

Patriarch Alexy’s tenure coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the establishment of democracy, and the long and difficult process of reestablishing the Russian Orthodox Church and religious practice after decades of communist repression.
But newfound freedom for the Russian Orthodox also brought the possibility for the Catholic Church to reestablish its structures in Russia and for the Ukrainian Catholic Church to worship freely in Ukraine, a process that led to Orthodox claims that the Catholic Church was trying to expand in traditionally Orthodox territory.

Kirill is widely considered to have been behind this push, and, in particular, the establishment of a fundamentally Orthodox civilization and state. In 2007 he publicly called on the Vatican to downgrade the status of Russia’s four Catholic dioceses and reclassify them as “apostolic administrations,” which they were prior to 2002.

He told Russia’s Interfax news agency at the time that the Orthodox Church would “never recognize” ordinary Catholic dioceses and “will always dispute” their [presence] on Russian territory, seeing them as a challenge to the tradition of church organization that Catholics and Orthodox share.
This attitude led to accusations, which the Vatican has always denied, that the Catholic Church was “poaching” Orthodox followers through proselytism. (The situation is worse in Ukraine, where historical antagonisms run deeper.) But although the Russian Orthodox Church claims to have 150 million followers, surveys show that only 5% to 10% of Orthodox regularly attend church.

For the Vatican’s part, it believes that to understand this attitude, it is especially important to take into account the nation’s history and culture. As well as a strengthening link between the state and the Church after the fall of the Soviet Union, pressure was also exerted on Russia to embrace not only the West’s economic model, but also its cultures and norms.

The Vatican believes that many Russians saw this as a dangerous threat to their own traditions, religion and national conscience. Missionaries who came over after the fall of communism were caught up in these perceptions, and Russians tended to group them together, regardless of whether they were proselytizing Protestants or Catholics.

Kirill reflected these concerns in an address to the local council shortly before being elected. According to Interfax, he said Christianity faced challenges from an “aggressive and ungodly secularism” dominant in Western society, which was being assisted by “attempts by Protestant communities radically to review Christianity and Gospel morality.”

The Vatican believes that a sense among the Orthodox of a need to preserve their cultural identity, coupled with the lack of an Orthodox Second Vatican Council, are important reasons for the difficulties in Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations — not least because this mentality is still prevalent among ordinary Orthodox followers. (Some Orthodox bishops are cautious about even talking of unity or collaborating on common values for fear of provoking reactions from within their own Church.)

With all this in mind, the Vatican is proceeding to dialogue slowly and with great sensitivity, trying to see the situation facing the Russian Orthodox from the Russians’ point of view and in the light of the country’s painful recent history.

A historical meeting between the Pope and the patriarch would not, therefore, be necessarily helpful, nor perhaps is it useful to even talk about such an encounter.

The priority, as the Vatican sees it, is to try to resolve these many sensitive questions with patience and without pressure, building up trust and good will on both sides.

(CNS contributed to this story.)

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.