When I met the senior Russian Orthodox official Metropolitan Hilarion in Lisbon last week, I asked him about the current crisis in the Orthodox world, writes Filipe d’Avillez. The Patriarchate of Moscow has protested strongly against plans by the Patriarchate of Constantinople to grant “autocephaly” to Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, many of whom are currently under the authority of Moscow. Hilarion, chairman of the department of external relations of the Moscow patriarchate, said the only legitimate Church in the Ukraine is the one that answers to Moscow.
“There are two schismatic groups, not recognised by any Orthodox Church, which apparently are meant to form the basis for this newly formed autocephalous Church,” he told me. “But in the current situation, when the Ukrainian people are divided, when there are so many conflicts, this so-called autocephaly, if it is granted to the schismatic groups, will not bring reconciliation or unity. On the contrary, it will bring more schisms.”
I asked the Metropolitan whether the Patriarch of Constantinople risked becoming irrelevant, given that he presides over a very small community in Istanbul. Hilarion paused for several seconds, before saying: “I wouldn’t put it this way. I believe in Orthodox unity and I very much hope that the Patriarch of Constantinople will stop his activities in the Ukraine.” But, he added, “If he really wants to remain relevant for the Orthodox churches, he should help them rather than damage the Orthodox unity in the way he is doing currently.”
Hilarion deflected any suggestion that the Russian Church was beholden to President Putin and said the true concern was in Kiev. “I cannot imagine President Putin saying how the Orthodox Church in Russia should be organised, and I cannot imagine President Trump saying to the Orthodox in America that they have to be united into one Church because they are an independent state. But in contemporary Ukraine it is President Poroshenko who calls for a united Ukrainian Church, and says how it should be organised.”
Asked about relations with Rome, Hilarion stressed that the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in 2016, in Havana, turned a new page and that work must continue for it to bear fruit. Orthodox concern about the activities of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, though, remains as high as ever.
“We repeatedly called for the withdrawal of any political involvement of the Greek Catholic Church into what is happening in the Ukraine,” Hilarion said. “Since the beginning of the conflict, they took a particular side, and they continue to pursue this aggressive rhetoric, which often becomes an anti-Orthodox rhetoric. We are also unhappy about its expansion into eastern Ukraine, because we see many conflicts originating from this expansion.”
Often described as the second most important figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion declined to comment on the current controversies shaking Rome. Regarding issues related to marriage and the sacraments, he said he trusted Pope Francis’s wisdom.
“It is not up to me to decide for the Pope. He sees the situation in his Church in a much clearer way. Of course, we understand that it is a big problem that there are so many devout Catholics who had a divorce, or collapse of their family life, and started new families, but cannot receive Communion.
“In our Church it is addressed in a different way,” he said, referring to the Orthodox practice of allowing second or even third marriages. But he added: “Maybe we can have joint consultations about this. It is always useful to exchange views and to share experiences.”
Filipe d’Avillez is a religious affairs reporter for Renascença
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