Sunday, August 28, 2016


The Ambitions Of A Would-Be Orthodox Pope

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.
By Vitaliy Portnikov
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
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Peter from: United States
July 28, 2010 17:21
Dear Mr. Portnikov,

I wanted to take a moment to set your mind at ease. You are obviously not an Orthodox Christian and can't be held responsible for being unaware of how our church operates.

First, let me assure you that there is no such thing as an "Orthodox Pope" and never will be. His Holiness, Patriarch Kirill, is in now way attempting to exercise an unjustified authority over the worldwide Orthodox communion (represented by 16 Autocephelous Patriarchies). He is simply exercising the authority he wields over the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchy. This authority is recognized by ALL of the canonical Orthodox Churches in the world (including my own Greek Orthodox Church). The authority vested in His Holiness is in no way affected by the disturbances of the past few years, nor by the existence of a schismatic group within his territory (who, God willing, will soon be reunited with Holy Mother Church).

Patriarch Kirill is a man of enormous integrity, who refused to join the Communist Party in either his youth or as an ordained cleric. His energy, intelligence and courage are an example to Orthodox Christians worldwide. Attempts to attack his character, particularly those funded by Western sources, will have the paradoxical affect of increasing his popularity.

Finally, the Holy Orthodox Church will never be "just a church" in Russia or anywhere else. It is the Ark of Salvation, and is expected by its congregants to take strong stands on all matters affecting the health of the societies in which it exists. Praying that God will bless you and those you love.


In Response

by: Romana from: Canada
July 29, 2010 14:00
Peter, your statement that "Patriarch Kirill is a man of enormous integrity, who refused to join the Communist Party in either his youth or as an ordained cleric." is a pure nonsense!!!
Everyone knows that Gundiayev was a KGB agent! He was involved in tobacco scandal. He isrespectful of the faith of millions of Orthodox Ukrainians calling them to abandon their Ukrainian Church and join his. If this is integrity then I am Roman Pope.
In Response

by: Vladimir from: Canada
July 29, 2010 21:27
The Moscow Patriarchate is not a neo-Soviet instituion. It has not been reformed as most other Soviet institutions. There has been no truth and reconcilation process nor a purge of its leadership. The current Patriach is a former KGB operative, and as Vladimir Putin has made it clear, "once a KGB, always a KGB." It's heritage and creation comes from no one less than Joesf Stalin, who needed the church to stir up an abused society to help defend 'Mother Russia" against Nazi Germany.
In Response

by: Peter from: United States
July 31, 2010 02:28
Dear Romana,

Kirill's connections to the KGB are neither less nor more than the connections anyone in the Hierarchy of the Orthodox Church under Soviet oppression (including Filaret of Ukraine) was compelled to maintain. Patriarch Kirill is not asking Orthodox Christians to abandon their Church in favor of a Russian church. He is calling on the Church as a whole to resist attempts to divide the faithful through schism. Sister, no Orthodox Patriarch or jurisdiction recognizes the claims of a "Ukrainian Orthodox Church".
In Response

by: Adrian from: Germany
July 30, 2010 05:57
Dear Peter,
sad to see you defending the reduction of Orthodoxy to Moscow hegemony. And your attempt to discredit the content of the article merely by a some possible religious affiliation of the author is certainly undemocratic (i.e. un-Greek).
In Response

by: Peter from: United States
July 31, 2010 02:22
Dear Adrian,

I am not defending the "reduction of Orthodoxy" to a Moscow-based hegemony. I repeat, there are 16 canonical Orthodox jurisdictions world-wide. ALL of them recognize Ukraine as a historic piece of the Russian Orthodox Church.

I care nothing for being considered either un-democratic or un-Greek. I am only concerned with being a faithful Orthodox Christian. I wish nothing but God's blessings on all Orthodox Christians, wherever they may reside. As for the author, he is obviously not familiar with our Church. There is no Orthodox Pope and there never will be.

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
July 28, 2010 19:00
Article say "...erudition" -maybe, British tought Russia all too well
How steal French jokes and my ideas and "prove" that we are dull.
Article say "media sawy" - learning from the West how multiply a lie?
Article say "administrative abillity" - as Russian-German hive of spies?

Article say "...pupil of... ...Nikodim..." who was "atracted" by "machine"
Of Vatican administration - both quite succsessfully inslaving souls,
Plagiarizing fame and usurping roialties - centuries long cantines,
With appointing Emperors and Fuhrers - as eating nations gulls.

What a "Dejavu", as the Russian Molotov and German Robentrop,
One inciting another - danceling like an imperial devide of Europa,
As Russia-Ivanov inciting NATO Secretary - dancing-devide Globe,
As Russian and German prists - two inciting smiling Global Pops,
All duped again by Imperio-Resurectors, duping World into a dupa.

As article say "...realizes... ...unlike... ...(secular) leaders, he is not Constrained by state frontiers (of the expansion of Imperial boat)...
Can display the flag of former Soviet republics..." of Russia "throne"
He will shear with apointed Emperor - o what an erudit! I am gone!


by: Mykhayl from: Holy Pittsburgh
July 29, 2010 20:34
Слава Icycy Xpucty!

A quick Ukrainian history review: I c Apostle St. Andrew evangelized Scythia erecting a cross in Kyiv. II c Pope St. Clement evangelizes along Black Sea coast where he was martyred. IV c Scythian bishops at councils of Nicea & Constantinople. VII c Pope St. Martin evangelized Cherson on the Black Sea. VIII c refugees from Byzantium’s persecution by the iconoclast migrate into the Black Sea basin. IX c Slavonic texts of scripture and liturgy are known. After Pokrova (Theotokos) apparition Ss Cyril & Methodius baptizes St. Nicholas (Askold) first Christian ruler of Kyiv spreading the orthodox (small o) Faith before his martyrdom. X c St. Volodymyr is baptized and court establishes Kyivan Rus’ as the borderlands (ukraina) of Christendom. Christian missionaries met mortal resistance where the waters flow north (Russia). There is only one, holy, catholic (small c) and apostolic Church of the orthodox (small O) Faith at the time of Volodymyr until 1054. XIII c tribes from Northern Rus’ rape Mother Kyiv. Greek appointed Kyivan metropolitan who after Mongol invasion abandoned his flock, moves to Vladimir then succeeds to Moscow. XV c Council of Florence entices the Ruthenian bishops to align with Rome instead of Constantinople to safeguard their sui juris status from Islamic aggression and their orthodoxy from counterreformation turbulence. Kozak brotherhood reestablishes an Orthodox Episcopate, Constantinople falls to Islam and Moscow declares itself the final Rome. XVII c Patriarch of Moscow Nikon the zealot through the baby out with the bath water. XVIII c Because of hetman Khmelnytsky and after the anathematized the damned Mazeppa Tsar Peter I move Kyiv Metropolie from Constantinople’s protection to Muscovite jurisdiction, Russian patriarchate is transferred to St. Petersburg. Reformation ideals are imposed, St. Petro Mohila (from Bulgaria) in Kyiv adopts Jesuit style school practices. XIX c Synod of Polotsk suppresses the Greco Catholic Church for the state-church. After Pope Clement XIV crowns the Pochaiv Theotokos icon her monastery is taken over by the Russian Orthodox. XXc Ukrainians migrants establish the Ukrainian Churches in the US, Canada and Brazil. Kyivan Orthodoxy is suppressed under Stalin martyring Metropolitan Vasyl (Lypkivsky). Stalin manufactures a famine genocide of 10 million deaths. Synod of Lviv suppresses Greco Catholics in western Ukraine. Ukrainian Greco Catholic primate is released from the Soviet Gulag as a Cuban Missile Crises appeasement than becomes first Ukrainian Patriarch Yosyf (Slipyi) of Kyiv and Halych. You should know the rest. It seams that Ukrainian Seventy and Independence is but window-dressing without a BILL of RIGHTS

Will the canonical territory of Ss Cyril and Methodius be suppressed next under the new Third Rome? Will the emancipation of serfdom in 1861 Russia and 1848 Austria-Hungary safeguard the Patriarchate of Poland, and the Churches of Romania, Georgia, Finland, Slovakia or the Czech Lands and Bulgaria? Are Orthodox Christians serfs?

Is not Patriarch Ludomyr (Husar) of the Ukrainian Greco (sui juris) Catholic Church of the Orthodox Faith (in communion with Rome) not the only unbroken Ruthenian (Rusyn, Russian etc) apostolic succession from St. Askold of Kyiv, if not earlier?

by: Oleh from: Toronto
July 30, 2010 13:32
Mykhailo from 'Holy' Pittsburgh knows what he is talking about.

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
July 31, 2010 08:35
Mykhayl knows too much for understanding.
Like in old testiment, to understand his standing,
One have read only the essential of what he posted:
"Stalin guilty of golodomor" - is a lie, just a brain roster.

Russia genocidal occupiers of CIS Russia betraied, stood
Since Katrin Prussian and Lenin - army of huliganic hoods.
Stalin lead Parliament of Nations - no power only to advise.
During hunger Ukrainians were starved by Russian's base.

"Scithians accepted Christianity" - is true, but a small detail:
The last 150 thousands Scithians, or so, and their last Zcar,
Received political shelter in Georgia - escaping genocides,
By Russia - they are still among the best Georgia's knights.

The important thing, not withstanding reverance to Russ,
He stands against resurecting of imperial conspiracy
Of inslaving nations in spirit and in body by a goose
Of Russian Church "oborotens" inserfing "unity".