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Moscow patriarch seemed to bless the war on Ukraine: What does that mean for ecumenism?

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John Burger - published on 03/06/22

Russian Orthodox leader's statement was roundly criticized, even by members of his own Church.

It wasn’t a surprise for most people that the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church would be practically mute about Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill, thought to be a former KGB asset — and maybe an agent — is widely seen as intimate with Kremlin officials – and subservient to the Russian president.

But that didn’t soften any of the anger people felt when Kirill, on the day of the invasion, merely referred to the attack as “current events” and called on both parties to avoid civilian casualties. Even some in Ukraine who normally would give Kirill a pass were shocked and angered. A few days later, Kirill seemed to call those fighting the Russian invasion as “evil forces.”

“He never mentioned who is the aggressor,” said Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, Professor of Ecclesiology, International Relations and Ecumenism at Sankt Ignatius Theological Academy in Sweden. “He is careful in the language he uses not to imply that the Kremlin is to blame for this war. What is implied is that the West is to be blamed for this war.”

On the other hand, Metropolitan Onuphry, who heads the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church, issued a statement saying, “Defending the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we appeal to the President of Russia and ask him to immediately stop the fratricidal war. The Ukrainian and Russian peoples came out of the Dnieper baptismal font, and the war between these peoples is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy. Such a war has no justification either from God or from people.”

It was a statement quite out of character for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, which, as Fr. Hovorun, a Ukrainian native, pointed out, rarely spoke out against the eight-year simmering war in Eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists. 

Metropolitan Onuphry’s Church is one of two Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. The other, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, came about when the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, granted it autocephaly, or self-rule, in 2019. It is headed by Metropolitan Epiphanius.

Unity fractured

The anger expressed by Orthodox Christians in Ukraine was much more widespread than Onuphry’s statement. About a dozen bishops under him, who head dioceses around the country, declared publicly that they would stop “commemorating” Patriarch Kirill during the Divine Liturgy. A bishop commemorating – praying for – another bishop during the liturgy is a sign of their being in communion with one another, explained Anatolii Babynskyi, a historian and religious scholar at the Ukrainian Catholic University’s Institute of Church History. 

Patriarch Kirill responded to news of the protesting Ukrainian bishops by writing to Bishop Evlogii of Sumy, Ukraine, that the eparchs in question were now in schism. 

“For Ukrainians, once Kirill wrote to Bishop Evlogii, it sounds surreal, because Russian aircraft and missiles are flying over their heads, and Kirill wrote that, ‘We have some political disagreements, and political disagreements can’t be a cause for breaking communion with the Moscow Patriarchate,” Babynskyi commented. “I think that for Ukrainian people who belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, all this is very shocking.

“I can’t imagine that people, even in Eastern Ukraine, want to hear the name of Patriarch Kirill in their churches,” Babynskyi said, speaking with Aleteia on March 3, the day Russians shelled the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Kharkiv. “That’s in far eastern Ukraine – a Russian speaking region,” he said. “The majority of people there belong to the Moscow Patriarchate.”

Babinskyi said that a bishop of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, under Metropolitan Epiphanius, pointed out that if Metropolitan Onuphry were to announce that he was ceasing to commemorate Kirill, “that would be a real revolution in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate.” But, the scholar said, the situation was changing “every hour,” and it was too early to predict whether it would lead to the masses leaving the Moscow Patriarchate. 

“Anyway, this is not a good time to change jurisdictions,” he said. “On the casus belli list of Russia was the protection of Orthodox churches of the Moscow Patriarchate. So if they see that in some regions parishes are switching their jurisdiction, they might raise their voice again and say, ‘You see that all these nationalists are capturing our parishes.’”

But, he predicted, “I think that after the war, undoubtedly there will be changes in the Ukrainian religious landscape. People are really very shocked and angry. This war changed everything. Everything fell to the bottom. It’s horrible.”

Fr. Hovorun said that not only does Patriarch Kirill keep “outrageously silent,” he also promotes a prayer in all Russian churches that is basically “an ideological statement.”

“A lot of churches refuse to use it,” said Hovorun, a former official in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. “The idea is that ‘We pray for peace and for the repulsion of all who insult Holy Rus.’”

But, along with Putin’s control over the news in Russia, there is little if anything said by the Russian Orthodox Church about the invasion. “If you look at the website of the Moscow Patriarchate, they deal with minor things, like congratulating the 60th anniversary of a Russian general,” he said.

Fr. Hovorun noted that because of the invasion and Kirill’s reaction to it, some priests and bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are going to push Onuphry to work toward independence from the Patriarchate of Moscow.

“It will be a self-proclaimed autocephaly, not recognized by any other Church, including the Russian Church,” said Hovorun. 

Did Kirill know of Putin’s plan to invade?

Babynskyi and Hovorun both commented on reports that Kirill, a week before Putin invaded Ukraine, had phoned certain bishops in Ukraine to warn them of the coming military action. “It was published on the website of the Moscow Patriarchate, and then pulled down,” Hovorun said. “Kirill is in a position in the Russian political hierarchy to have this kind of information. Apparently, he warned his confidants in Ukraine, but he left people who he claims are his people unprepared, unaware, and completely exposed to this war.”

Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia said recently that the day before the invasion, when the 190,000 troops massed along Ukraine’s border were set to invade, Russia celebrated Soviet Armed Forces Day. 

“And Patriarch Kirill issued an enthusiastic felicitation to the Russian military, thanking Putin for his leadership,” the archbishop said in an online conversation with Francis X. Maier at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “The Russian Orthodox Church, for eight years, never spoke out clearly against this war [in the Donbas], and it never challenged Putin. It’s not doing it today. It says, ‘We want peace between the brotherly Russian and Ukrainian nations.’ 

“‘Well, if you want peace, you’re the altar boy for the guy who’s waging the war. Tell him to stop the war. You’re in Moscow.’ But, you know, they’re on the payroll.”

Others have made that request, though not quite as informally as Archbishop Gudziak did.

In an open letter to the Russian patriarch, Romanian Orthodox Fr. Ioan Sauca, acting general secretary of the World Council of Churches, implored Kirill, “Please, raise up your voice and speak on behalf of the suffering brothers and sisters, most of whom are also faithful members of our Orthodox Church.”

Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, this week called on Kirill “to appeal to Vladimir Putin to stop the senseless warfare against the Ukrainian people.”

A chance to become a saint

Is Kirill’s reluctance to criticize Putin a result of his hands being tied, that he doesn’t have another option? 

“We know from Church history that people always have options,” Fr. Hovorun commented. “Some people become saints because of that. He’s not in prison,” he said of Kirill. “Of course he knows he will suffer consequences, but he chooses not to suffer consequences for himself; instead, he lets the Church suffer the consequences for the sake of his silence.”

But Kirill, the priest said, “led himself to this situation of being completely under the control of the Kremlin. He had much more freedom at the beginning of his tenure, and his entire policy led him on this track. And he’s the only person to be blamed for it.”

Babynski believes that Kirill really believes the ideology, fostered by Putin, that Ukraine should be part of the “Russkiy Mir,” or Russian World, and that his patriarchy is the only legitimate Church to which Ukrainians should make their fealty. 

The fallout from Putin’s invasion is certainly reaching far and wide, and the Vatican is by no means spared. Just days before the attack, commentators were still talking about the possibility of a second meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, which, for many, would be a hopeful sign in the long and fraught road toward Christian unity. This week, Kirill told the Apostolic Nuncio to the Russian Federation that, “We perceive very positively the ministry of Pope Francis, which really contributes a lot to justice and peace.” A statement released by the patriarchate following Kirill’s March 3 meeting with the nuncio did not make mention of the war in Ukraine or the anticipated papal-patriarchal meeting. 

Babynskyi noted that the first meeting between the two religious leaders took place on February 12, 2016, two years after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. 

“When Russia wants to break its international isolation they always try to find some leader to meet,” he said. “I think when Russia planned this attack on Ukraine, they also planned that meeting with Pope Francis because they need to show they are hand-shaking people. I’m not sure this meeting will happen this summer, as it was reported.”

Babynskyi said that if it does, “it will be the greatest harm to the Catholic community in Ukraine that we can imagine.” Speaking from Lviv, he became emotional as he continued, “You can’t imagine what is happening now. It’s so hard to explain to children why we hear sirens three times a day, even here in Western Ukraine. My mother was awakened on the day of the attack because they shelled the airport not far from her house. It was a peaceful city, and it became a war zone. We couldn’t imagine this would happen in Eastern Europe in the 21st century. My wife said today that for her she feels like she’s sleeping and dreaming, that it’s not real. But unfortunately it’s real.”

Fr. Mark Morozowich, a Ukrainian-American priest who serves as dean of Catholic University of America’s School of Theology and Religious Studies, took a more forgiving, hopeful tone.

“I always believe we have to meet everybody,” he said, asked about the potential Catholic-Orthodox summit. “We have to call them to new life. We have to be inviting our brothers and sisters into that depth of the reality of God’s presence. 

“So I certainly do hope that the pope meets with Kirill,” he continued. “I hope that it is a fraternal meeting of exchange where Kirill can see the presence of the Spirit and feel the love that our world has for all people and the hope for conversion.”

Fr. Morozowich said he couldn’t speak to why Kirill “is not willing to stand up against the falsehoods, is not willing to witness to the bloodletting in Ukraine. That’s a question he has to answer for himself. 

“But,” he said, “I call upon every Russian everywhere to witness to the truth, to search their consciences, at the time of the Great Fast, to really see and know what is right and true and just.”

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