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Sunday, February 1, A.D. 2009
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow

Last week, the Local Council of the Russian Church elected Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad to be the sixteenth Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. You can read the official report here. Here is a news story about the election:

Today, the new patriarch was enthroned at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. Aaron and I had the opportunity to visit the cathedral one year after it was rebuilt and consecrated. The Soviets had destroyed it during their reign and turned the spot into a public swimming pool. Now, it has become the chief religious edifice in Moscow. Here is a news report on the enthronement:


You may recall that I worried about Kirill’s possible election in two posts months ago, “Boring Church Politics” and “Of Patriarchs and Bishops.” Indeed, long before the reunion of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, I worried that Kirill might replace Patriarch Alexy II; poor Andrew had to listen to my preemptive complaints several times. Unfortunately, there is good reason for those with foresight to be pessimists.

I do wish the patriarch well. I hope that he guides our flock with wisdom. He certainly has a lot of work to do. Russian society is not spiritually or morally strong—or stable. It will take generations to undo the damage of the last century.

However, as noted in the previous entries, Patriarch Kirill has voiced some disturbing opinions over the years—often in odd, secular (namely, Hegelian) language. He is fond of using the word “contradiction” in the Marxist sense. Perhaps, anyone educated in the Soviet regime shares those habits of vocabulary, but they make me nervous, all the same—especially when he buddies up with atheist dictators on foreign trips. Moreover, he has been Russia’s chief ecumenical liaison for two decades. I do not look to the W.C.C.‘s favorite Orthodox bishops with much hope for a robust defense of the faith. I hope that Kirill’s work has all been a matter of ecclesial diplomacy. Political and diplomatic cleverness are dangerous in the wicked, but quite useful in the good. Be wise as serpents . . .

If his heart and mind are in the right place, he can be a powerful tool for God. He is bright, diplomatic, and apparently hard-working. If Patriarch Alexy’s role was to stabilize and reunite the Russian Church after the fall of the Communists, perhaps Patriarch Kirill will actually help it take root in the heart of every Russian. There is much to harvest.

I have been annoyed at the media coverage of the election in the Western press. There were reports that Kirill’s chief rival in the election was supported by “fundamentalists.” I suppose that those of us who oppose much of what euphemistically passes as the “Orthodox witness” in the ecumenical movement are “fundamentalists.” Some press releases branded Kirill a “liberal” and others called him a “conservative nationalist.” It is odd how Western media types—completely secular right down to their scrotal blood vessels—always interpret religious matters through their own political filters. In no way is Kirill a liberal; he has publically and repeatedly denounced—correctly, in my opinion—the Western tradition of human rights as inherently secular and alien to the Orthodox tradition. Nonetheless, he appears to be a modernist in the Russian sense of the word. Let us hope that his understanding of renewal is more like that of Saint John of Kronstadt and less like the Renovationists.

Furthermore, several media stories that I read noted that he was elected by businessmen, politicians, and the wife of a regional governor—as if the election were secularly staged. What they fail to mention is that the patriarchal election involves all the bishops as well as clerical and lay representatives from every diocese. Lay electors cast a third of the ballots. People from more than sixty countries participated, and a majority of them were not citizens of the Russian Federation. I harbor no illusions about the transparency of Russian politics, but reporters should at least try to be fair.

One positive editorial on the election is Leonid Sevastyanov’s “Kirill’s Vision of a Great Russia” in The Moscow Times:

Russia is a conundrum. On one hand, it is a profoundly secularized society in which traditional religious practice is sporadic and often superficial. This abandonment of the country’s traditional Orthodox faith is in part due to the period of state atheism from 1918 to 1991 and the subsequent 18 years of nihilism in which idealism is as out of fashion as religious belief. But on the other hand, Russian society longs for political idealism and religious faith.

And so Kirill, who was elected patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church on Tuesday, faces a difficult problem. Within the church, he must go beyond what his predecessor, Alexy II, accomplished over the past two decades, rebuilding the institutional structures of the church. He must fill churches, seminaries, monasteries and schools with fervent believers. Outside the church, he must persuade society to engage with the church and seek to build a post-Soviet Russia that can flourish and provide a just, prosperous life for the Russian people.

Kirill has deep convictions about the role of the Christian faith in the future of Russia and about Russia’s role in the future of Europe and the world. As he has stated on numerous occasions, he is convinced that only a return to “real values” can enable Russia and Europe to confront the current economic crisis. Moreover, he believes that Russia’s greatness, eclipsed in recent years, can only be restored by renewing its ancient Orthodox faith.

Given his relatively young age, 62, Kirill could be patriarch for the next generation. He will undoubtedly set out to fulfill a double agenda. First, he will want to build on what Alexy II accomplished during the 18 years of his patriarchate, continuing the rebuilding of the church’s ruined infrastructure. Thousands of churches have been rebuilt across Russia since 1991. Second, he could start a series of new initiatives to strengthen the church’s voice and influence in Russian society.

The new patriarch can be expected to reopen schools, expand seminaries, renew monasteries and in general restore the outward signs of Russian Orthodox religious life. But Kirill, who was the key figure behind the unprecedented promulgation of the church’s social teaching in a document in 2000, can also be expected to take bold new steps to go beyond renewing the institutional structure of the church.

One big question concerns his relations with the pope and with the Roman Catholic Church. Kirill will be looking for allies in his effort to move Russian and European society in a religious direction. But he will not strive for a theocratic state. Indeed, it is precisely his acceptance of the need for dialogue with non-Christians in a modern, pluralistic state that has prompted some of the more conservative elements in the Orthodox church to be sharply critical of him as too “progressive.”

Kirill, who has been serving for eight weeks as “interim patriarch,” made his thoughts clear in a sermon he delivered on Jan. 6 at a Christmas Eve service held at Christ the Savior Cathedral. Kirill invited those present, including President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, to be valiant during the current economic crisis.

The word “crisis” comes from the Greek meaning “decision,” Kirill said. He said that today, decisions have been affected by attitudes such as “greed, loss of control over consumption, a bid to enrich oneself by all means and have as much as possible.” He said the crisis began when people forgot true values, and that further crises could be avoided if those values provided the foundation for the economy.

Kirill has his own vision for the future of Europe. In an address to the Third European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu in September 2007, Kirill said that in order for Europe to survive the tribulations that have befallen previous civilizations, it must retain its Christian identity. An increasing number of Europeans—Christians and non-Christians alike—have come to recognize “Christianity [as] a powerful source of support for European civilization,” he said.

At the same time, Kirill was careful to explain that this does not imply that “there is no room” in Europe “for people of other religions and with other outlooks on the world.”

With Kirill’s appointment as patriarch, Russian society opens a new page in its history.

Patriarch Kirill, many years!

Posted by Joseph on Sunday, February 1, Anno Domini 2009
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