Storm clouds in the East

 — June 14, 199714 juin 1997

The Pope and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch may meet in Vienna this month. If so, will they be able to revive the relations between their two Churches which seemed to promise so much, but now are at a low point? The director of the Keston Institute in Oxford examines the present disarray of the Orthodox Churches.

Rome — and Poland — are buzzing with rumour, counter-rumour and denial: will Pope John Paul and Patriarch Alexis of the Russian Orthodox Church meet in Vienna on 21 June or won’t they? Perhaps by the time this article is published there will have been an announcement that puts paid to the rumours, but even an eventual negative provides a timely stimulus to consider relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

One argument against the likelihood of a meeting between the Pope and the Russian Patriarch is obvious: there has been no preparation. The Patriarch will be in Vienna on his way to the European Ecumenical Assembly in Graz and the Pope wants to meet him. The Pope has spoken prophetically about his desire to see the reunion of East and West, to reverse the basic division in Christendom of nearly a millennium, before the year 2000. Yet his health and the ticking of the clock make this an unattainable goal, at least in human terms.

While Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has maintained correct, even positive, relations with Rome, Patriarch Alexis II of Moscow has not quelled the stream of vituperation towards Catholics which emanates from his hierarchy at home. Nor is it easy to forget that Patriarch Alexis chose an ecumenical occasion in London — a reception and press conference in 1991 at Lambeth Palace, of all places — to state to the world that Pope John Paul II would not be welcome on Russian soil.

Putting all of this, and the usual protocol aside, would it not be a magnificent gesture for these great Christian voices of our age to tear up the script, ignore the caveats of careful counsellors, talk real reconciliation and plan together a new grand initiative which would put Christian unity back on centre stage (the Geneva process with the World Council of Churches seeming to have run out of ideas and credibility)?

The Orthodox Church is truly in disarray. Following decades of subjugation to Com munism in so many countries, it has been more concerned to reassert its erstwhile domination of society under pre-revolutionary regimes, than to seize the God-given opportunity of protecting religious liberty for all. In Bulgaria there is full schism, accompanying a violent debate about who did and who did not compromise with the Communist system. The Church in nowindependent Moldova is split over whether to continue under the jurisdiction of Moscow or to unite with the Romanian Patriarch, with whom ethnic and linguistic ties are stronger.

Many Orthodox in Belarus dislike the Russifying tendencies of Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk, a mainstay of the Moscow Patriarchate now, as in the old days before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The very large Orthodox Church in Ukraine is in painful dislocation, having split, with much recrimination, into three major groups, or five counting further internal disputes. The Orthodox Church in Greece, beset by none of these political pressures, none the less pushes its Government to disadvantage other denominations and to deny the conventions on religious liberty which it has signed as a member of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Russia is behaving remarkably similarly to Greece. There are Orthodox groupings which do not recognise the Moscow Patriarchate, but these are not many. What is really ominous is the abject failure of the Russian Orthodox Church to cope with the consequences of the compromise it was forced to make with the Communist regime in the past.

A victim of this failure is the redoubtable Fr Gleb Yakunin, formerly imprisoned for his struggle for religious liberty under the old system. After his release in 1987 he stood successfully for Parliament in Gorbachev’s day. The condemnation he received from the church leadership for his “political” activities originally resulted from his work in the KGB archives, where he found abundant documentary evidence that the compromise

of the church leaders was profound and affected virtually the whole leading group of the Moscow Patriarchate. Instead of showing humility and repentance, gestures which surely would have been appropriate in the painful circumstances, the hierarchy stood on their dignity and humiliated Fr Gleb, first by defrocking and then by excommunicating him, as his attitude became more intractable. The debate about the past has been suppressed, but the Russian Orthodox Church cannot regain its health until this has taken place. Fr Gleb may be more effectively silenced than ever the Communists managed to do, but the voice of truth will not be for ever dumb. For example, three Moscow priests have recently published a persuasive article appealing to Patriarch Alexis to re-examine the history of 1961 and the years just after, when Archbishop Yermogen sacrificed his career to oppose the new systematic persecution under Nilcita Khrushchev and tried in vain to enlist the support of the then Patriarch, Alexis I. The injustices of that period have never been examined, let alone rectified, claim the priests.

The Moscow Patriarchate’s reaction to its internal critics is matched by its hostility to the Roman Catholic Church. It is hard to believe that it was as recently as nine years ago that Russia and Ukraine celebrated the millennium of the baptism of St Vladimir and welcomed an influential delegation from the Vatican as the culmination of two decades of increasingly warm relations. After all, Metropolitan Nikodim, the most powerful Russian Orthodox leader of his day, not only symbolically died in Rome in 1978, but did so during the brief papacy and in the arms of John Paul I.

We now have on official record what is the current Moscow attitude: not only has Rome no right to jurisdiction in Russia; it also does not even have the right to a presence. The text referred to does not, of course, state this in such a bald form, but this is the clear implication of a speech given recently by Metropolitan Kirill (responsible for the foreign relations of the Russian Orthodox Church and its most influential figure after the Patriarch himself). This was not a casual statement, but one setting forth the formal position of the Moscow Patriarchate at the culminating conference in Brazil of a long study programme on proselytism undertaken by the World Council of Churches.

Here Metropolitan Kirill restated an ancient doctrine of “territoriality,” supposedly originating with St Cyprian of Carthage. The thesis is that only one Church has the right to be active in any one territory. Admittedly, his primary target seems to be the incursion of new foreign-financed missions, but he had not even a word on the right of the historic Protestant or Catholic Churches to exist on Russian soil. Such a scenario is, of course, out of touch with reality. De facto, Russia is a pluralistic society and is destined to become more so. Already the number of Catholic parishes in Russia has risen from 13 to over 300 in the past five years, not in the main as a result of “mission,” but of the provision for the pastoral needs of existing Catholics. It is a shock, however, to discover that Kirill renounces the ecumenism for which the Russian Church has more than nominally stood since it joined the World Council of Churches in 1961.

Perhaps most disappointing of all is to find that there is no word of commendation for the remarkable support which has been carefully distributed by the Catholic agency, Aid to the Church in Need, to the tune of more than $700,000 (£440,000) in 1996 for Orthodox projects alone, with a special emphasis on theological education, as well as a further $1.5m (£940,000) for support of an ecumenical radio station and Christian newspaper.

There is indeed enough contact on the ground in Russia, between Catholics and Orthodox at a local level, for a possible meeting between Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Alexis II to stimulate the turning of a new page and thus to prepare to meet the new millennium in a climate of hope.


Posted: June 14, 1997 • Permanent link:
Categories: TabletIn this article: Catholic, ecumenism, John Paul II, Moscow Patriarchate, Orthodox
Transmis : 14 juin 1997 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : TabletDans cet article : Catholic, ecumenism, John Paul II, Moscow Patriarchate, Orthodox

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