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The Ambitions Of A Would-Be Orthodox Pope

  • Vitaliy Portnikov

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill waves during his visit to Odesa on July 20.

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill waves during his visit to Odesa on July 20.

The current visit to Ukraine by Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill -- and his statements before his departure from Moscow and during his stops in Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kyiv -- have probably evoked greater interest than any previous visit to Ukraine by a head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This is not simply because it's mid-summer and there is so little other news. It has become evident that the new patriarch adheres to a clear political line with regard to Ukraine, one that entails regular and lengthy visits -- and possibly even dividing his time between Moscow and Kyiv.

To understand why the patriarch is showing a level of interest in Ukraine that can hardly be compared with scant attention paid by his predecessor, Aleksy II, we need to look at Kirill's biography. He is almost certainly the most influential cleric within the Russian church today. Within the Holy Synod, none of the clerics of Kirill's generation can compete with him in terms of erudition, "media savvy," and administrative ability.

What's more, the majority of the current leaders of the church eparchies, including Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine Volodymyr, are already well on in years. The process of rejuvenating the church hierarchy depends on the new patriarch: The new young metropolitans and archbishops will be chosen from Kirill's circle.

Nikodim's Pupil

But the patriarch is not a lone priest who developed independently and mustered enough support to enable him to become head of the Russian Orthodox Church without any serious competition. Kirill was the favorite pupil of one of the most influential figures within the Russian Orthodox Church during the Soviet era, Leningrad Metropolitan Nikodim.

Pope Benedict (left) greets Metropolitan Kirill to the Vatican in 2006.
Nikodim always aspired to the patriarchate himself, but he was so independent and charismatic that the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was afraid of him. But they were only too happy to make use of the learned and respected Nikodim within the pro-Soviet peace movement and the World Council of Churches.

Other clergymen -- including Nikodim's friend, Kyiv Metropolitan Filaret -- were apprehensive about his enthusiasm for the Roman Catholic Church. But by all accounts what attracted Nikodim was not the church as such, but the Vatican's administrative machine.

One could argue that in the last years of his life Nikodim de facto headed the Russian Orthodox Church, and that his death -- in St. Peter's, while on a trip to the Vatican to congratulate new Pope John Paul I -- was symbolic. At that point, Kirill, despite his youth, was already rector of the Theological Academy in Leningrad and was regarded as Nikodim's spiritual successor. For that reason, his recent statements in an interview with Ukrainian journalists about his support for the moral positions staked out by Pope Benedict XVI were little surprise to anyone.

But it must be borne in mind that for decades after the death of Metropolitan Nikodim, Kirill (who soon succeeded his teacher in the post of church "foreign minister," the head of the department for relations with foreign churches) lived in an atmosphere of constant apprehension. He was suspected of aspiring to the patriarchate, of secretly sympathizing with Catholicism, of putting business interests above those of the church, and, worst of all, of reformist views.

Russia's John Paul II

Judging by his later career, those suspicions were not without foundation.

That Kirill wanted to become patriarch is, to my mind, a given. What is more, despite Aleksy's reservations about him, he managed to emerge as the only real candidate for that post.

The media have had a field day writing about Kirill's imputed business activities while he was metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad. But the church is a closed organization, and one can only guess at what is true and what is simply the fabrications of those both within and outside the church who have no great affection for him. (Those outside the church are a separate subject of discussion, insofar as the Kremlin had its own prospective candidates for the patriarchy and was forced to concede defeat.) Accusations of sympathy for Roman Catholicism and reformist views are simply manifestations of fear before Kirill the able administrator.

Kirill visits Belarus in 2009.
Kirill really does want to reform the Russian Orthodox Church as an organization, possibly even on the Vatican model, and he is capable of doing so. He wants to make the church more "telegenic” and open it up to the Internet, which is inevitable if the Russian Orthodox Church really wants to become not simply a cover and friend of the authorities in Russia, but a genuine church that can compete with the many Protestant confessions.

But from the theological and social standpoint, this apparent reformer remains an arch-conservative. In this respect, I would compare him with Pope John Paul II. He is, in fact, the John Paul II of the Russian church, a man who is not afraid of television cameras or crowded stadiums, who can express himself not just on religious topics, but also on history and politics.

But there is one key difference: The Russian patriarch is not the pope. Kirill, however, refuses to admit this fact. He is trying to subordinate to himself the entire administrative machine of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Battle For The Ukrainian Church

In this context, Kirill's frequent visits to Ukraine are entirely justified. During Aleksy's tenure as patriarch, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate evolved into a completely independent organization, headed by one of the Russian Orthodox Church's most influential clerics, Metropolitan Volodymyr, who is a member of the Holy Synod and a former candidate for the patriarchy.

What's more, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, which split from the Russian Orthodox Church, is headed by yet another former aspirant to the Russian Patriarchate, Filaret, the representative of the patriarchal throne and the de facto head of the church in Patriarch Pimen's time. So we can see the serious and, more important, informed younger contemporaries of Nikodim that Kirill has to contend with. For the moment, he is simply waiting.

Kirill will wait Metropolitan Volodymyr (left) out.
The real battle for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will get under way only after the departure of these two elderly clerics. Kirill will not risk an open confrontation with Metropolitan Volodymyr, although his decision to deliver a sermon in Kyiv's Cathedral of St. Sofia is a gesture intended to show the clergy that Volodymyr's successor will be the Moscow patriarch.

It was Kirill who organized Aleksy's trip to Ukraine to celebrate the anniversary of Rus's conversion to Christianity in 988 A.D. in Kyiv, and he did so in such a way as to transform the visit into a joint one by two patriarchs. The opportunity to legitimize a part of the Ukrainian church under the auspices of the patriarch of Constantinople was lost.

A Post-Soviet Church

The ultimate aim of all Patriarch Kirill's efforts is clear: he calls it the "Russian world," but bearing in mind that he includes within the confines of this world only Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova (which is not Slavic and is fractured by a conflict between the Russian and Romanian Orthodox churches), it is clear that what he really means is a "church empire" with himself as its head. This is a huge temptation.

The patriarch realizes that unlike Russia's leaders, he is not constrained by state frontiers, and he can display the flags of the former Soviet republics around his throne. He sees the real intellectual level of the post-Soviet leadership with whom he deals with, as opposed to the image of them shown on television.

And unlike many of those leaders, he does not have to worry about the problem of a "third term." So all he needs to do is wait for an opportune turn of events and work to bring it about sooner.

What, specifically, would constitute an opportune turn of events? First, intensified control on the part of Moscow over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the demoralization of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate. This means waiting for a change in the leadership of both churches.

Second, dialogue with the Vatican resulting in a limit on the growth of the Greek Catholic Church and freezing the question of the Greek Catholic Patriarchy. This dialogue could equally be conducted with Pope Benedict or with his successor.

Third, political and economic instability in Russia that would convince her citizens their political idols/leaders are phantoms and focus increased attention on the patriarch.

In a society that lacks moral authorities, the patriarch could play a key role because even now he is not afraid to condemn Bolshevism and to hold the church in contrast to Soviet institutions. In the midst of this, the patriarch would then look like an "Orthodox Pope," a symbol of unity for the demoralized post-Soviet populace.

The one thing that could prevent the fulfillment of those dreams, however paradoxical this may sound, is the political and economic modernization of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. If these countries take the path of reforms, if a responsible elite and middle class emerge, then the church will be just a church, and Patriarch Kirill will have to devote his abilities not to building a new Vatican in Moscow, but to giving moral sustenance to his fellow citizens.

Vitaly Portnikov is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Ukrainian and Russian services. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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