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Francis is walking into a Russian minefield

Patriarch Kirill (AP)

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.

Kirill may seem to have a cosy relationship with the Putin regime, but this involves maintaining an equilibrium which is not always comfortable. Western, conservative Christians are sometimes superficially impressed by Putin’s desire to be seen as a protector both of Christian moral values and of persecuted Christians, in the Middle East especially. They should, however, be under no illusion that this is any more than political posturing designed to bolster the president’s popularity at home and advance his policy objectives abroad.

Kirill will want to take advantage of this policy to serve his Church’s own interests and priorities. There is little doubt that he favours good ecumenical relations personally, having promoted them since the early stages of his career in the hierarchy. In Soviet days the Russian Church was among the most ecumenically inclined of Orthodox jurisdictions, in part because this made for a better image abroad and favoured its objective of detente with the West.

When the fortunes and liberty of the Church increased after 1990, this pro-ecumenical stance experienced a marked decline. Putin, now suffering from international isolation as a result of his aggressive foreign policy and economically weakened with sanctions biting and energy dollars in short supply, is probably encouraging Kirill to seize the initiative.

Putin probably encouraged Kirill to seize the initiative and meet Francis (Photo: AP)
Putin probably encouraged Kirill to seize the initiative and meet Francis (Photo: AP)

At the same time, the forthcoming pan-Orthodox synod this summer is an opportunity for Kirill to present his patriarchate as the de facto leader of world Orthodoxy. To polish up the reputation of the “Third Rome” he will be trying to push Constantinople further into the shade. Hence the transfer of the synod to Crete is certainly at least as much about this as about avoiding Turkish harassment. If Kirill can be seen to take upon himself the mantle of chief Orthodox interlocutor with the papacy, he will certainly derive some satisfaction in depriving arch-rival Patriarch Bartholomew of that role.

And yet he will be simultaneously looking over his shoulder towards powerful elements within Orthodoxy, not least in Russia, who resist ecumenism on principle. Hence his repeated assurances that, while promoting warmer relations, he does not envisage actual reunion. He presents his dialogue with Catholicism as being a matter above all of seeking cooperation in defending Christian morality against secular encroachment, and defending persecuted Christians, in the Middle East especially.

Both of these, incidentally, are issues on which Pope Francis seems to prefer the softly spoken approach to war-like posturing, so it will be interesting to see what sort of common statement emerges.

One issue which is delicate for both Francis and Kirill is Ukraine. Kirill’s patriarchate has been haemorrhaging adherents, in western Ukraine especially, over its closeness to Putin’s Kremlin and to the cause of pro-Russian separatists in the eastern provinces. Overt support of pro-Russian separatists by clerics loyal to Moscow, despite Kirill’s attempts to soften the line, have led to entire parishes defecting to the rival Kiev Patriarchate. Constantinople has been forced to reject outright this new jurisdiction, and Kirill will ensure that it remains out in the cold at the Crete meeting. He will be on the lookout for anything Francis might say which he can use to bolster his interpretation that what is happening in Ukraine is a “fratricidal civil war”, rather than a Russian incursion against Kiev’s sovereignty.

Francis is no ingénue when it comes to recognising and outflanking political manipulation, but here he is navigating a minefield. Vatican officials will have briefed him intensely on the pitfalls to avoid, but his tendency to make spontaneous and not always clearly defined gestures of goodwill will mean that it will be a nerve-racking meeting for those seeking to keep Vatican diplomacy running along well-planned lines.

Others who will be watching the meeting with a degree of apprehension will be the clergy and faithful of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest Eastern Catholic Church. In recent years they have felt almost abandoned by the Vatican, as time after time it has cultivated the Russians by rejecting “Uniatism” (the derogatory term used by Orthodox of Eastern Catholics) as a way forward for ecumenism while affirming at the same time that the Eastern Catholics have a right to exist. Any careless words which Kirill might exploit in this way will only serve to confirm the impression of Ukrainian Greek Catholics that they are being thrown under a bus.

The meeting of the Pope and Patriarch, while certainly historic and of real symbolic importance, should not be seen as a harbinger of unity round the corner. Those who expect this to come about from high-level gatherings of hierarchs of the respective Churches probably are missing the point about what Orthodoxy is.

The Orthodox Church is hierarchical, but its hierarchs are not the Church and it does not belong to them. Catholics, used to well-defined structures where authority is seen to come from the top, are often over-optimistic not only about what Orthodox hierarchs want from ecumenism but also about what they can deliver.

Orthodoxy lives above all in its worship, in its parishes and monasteries and in the hearts of its faithful. Its saints and mystics exert an authority at least as real as its official hierarchs. Much the same, in reality, can be said of Catholicism, as Benedict XVI tried to remind us. Ecumenism between us will prosper, and with God’s help succeed, when our communities get to know each other, when prejudices are dispelled and we begin to learn deeply from each other and imitate each other’s strengths, putting the quest for holiness at the heart of our concerns.

This process has scarcely begun. Realism about the limited possibilities of the present moment, and the determination to seize them without yielding to the disappointment generated by excessive expectations, are a necessary part of it.

This article first appeared in the February 12 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here