Russia’s real top story — and it's not Pussy Riot

By 
  • August 24, 2012
The Pussy Riot trial was the second most important story regarding the Russian Orthodox Church last week. Understandably, it got top billing. A punk band invoked the Mother of God in Moscow’s cathedral to protect Russia from its new czar, Vladimir Putin, and to inveigh against the support given to the regime by the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate. Politics, protest, church, state, freedom and censorship — it had it all, and so dominated the global news.

The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church — Kirill — was likely happy to be away from Moscow for the sentencing of the protesters for “hooliganism.” He was in Poland for a historic meeting, one that might hold great promise for the future of 21st-century Christian unity. That was the most important story last week.

The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is the single most important figure for Christian unity. The Roman Catholic Church has been ready for closer, even full, unity with the Orthodox Church for more than a generation. And that is the only prospect for Christian unity. Unity with the Anglican Communion is no longer an option; the next archbishop of Canterbury’s principal task will be to preside over the peaceful dissolution of that Christian communion, not to deepen stronger ties with Catholics or Orthodox Christians.

Kirill is not the head of Orthodoxy. That office belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul), but he has been reduced to a largely ceremonial role. His flock is only a few thousand souls, and the Turkish government has so strangled his religious liberty that he can barely function as bishop of his own city, let alone the global head of Orthodoxy.

That leaves the patriarch of Moscow and All Russia as the leader of the majority of Orthodox Christians in the world.

The Pussy Riot story was about how Kirill is managing the patriarchate’s relationship with the Kremlin. His explicit support of Putin makes many wary, worried that Kirill intends to make the Orthodox Church the long arm of the Kremlin in exchange for privileges from the state. Relations between the Orthodox Church and the czar, then with the communist state, have a long and tortured history. The question facing Kirill is whether the Orthodox Church will defend liberty, including religious liberty, or prefer to reconstruct an altar-and-throne arrangement with Putin as Russia’s de facto king.

The visit to Poland was about how Kirill will position the Orthodox in relation to the Catholic world, and whether he will resist or support Putin’s attempts to recreate the old Soviet empire by establishing a Russian sphere of influence that will include Ukraine certainly, and perhaps aspires to move westward toward Poland.

The signs from this visit were promising. It was the first visit of the patriarch of Moscow to Poland, which alone made it an historic moment. He came at the invitation of the local Orthodox Church in Warsaw, but in visiting the largest Slavic Catholic nation, the critical meetings were with the leadership of the Catholic Church.

The highlight of the visit was the joint signing of an appeal for reconciliation between Russians and Poles, who throughout history have had hostile relations. Russia’s role in the dismemberment of Poland in 1795, and again in 1939 in complicity with the Nazis, is not forgotten by Poles, the majority of whom regard Russians with suspicion. “We appeal to our followers and ask them to pray in order to be forgiven for their wrongdoings, injustice and all the ill deeds they inflicted upon one another over the centuries,” states the joint appeal, entrusting to the Mother of God this work of mercy. Kirill and the head of the Polish bishops’ conference exchanged icons of the Blessed Mother as a sign of Christian charity and common Slavic spirituality.

The meeting of fellow Slavic Christians ought not to be so unusual, but it is. The hope is that Kirill’s visit to the Catholics of Poland signals a willingness for a more fraternal relationship with Catholics, both in Russia and abroad. Blessed John Paul II repeatedly desired to meet the patriarch and to visit Russia, but Kirill’s predecessors refused permission. A meeting of the Pope and Patriarch remains unlikely today, but might be arranged before long.

The Polish visit may bear other fruit. The centuries-long model in Russia has been for the Church to seek amenable arrangements with the state. The Polish Church learned, under more than 150 years of brutal foreign occupation and persecution, to align itself not with the state, but with the historic liberties of the people. Those who desire a more humane and free Russia, religious or not, hope that Kirill’s visit to Poland might prompt the Orthodox in Russia to move in that direction too.

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