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Daniil Parenkov

Deputy Head, Department of Political Theory, MGIMO University, RIAC Expert

The meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis would seem to be a carefully and finely planned event, one that has raised the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church to a qualitatively new level and made their statement a document of particular importance. The meeting with Patriarch Kirill is important for Pope Francis as well: the Holy See is interested in the Moscow Patriarchate as its most promising ally in the fight to preserve the positions of Christianity in the western world.

2016 will inevitably be a very special year in the modern history of Christianity: on February 12, a truly landmark meeting was held between the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Pope in Cuba; and in June, the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church will take place.

The Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia will hardly have a better time to play the “meeting of the millennium” card. Regardless of the meeting’s agenda, the very fact that it is taking place allows Kirill to move forward in solving at least two issues: to enhance his own status ahead of the Pan-Orthodox Council and to present the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church as a global player. Significant success in the latter was achieved immediately after the meeting had been announced. The European media traditionally presented the Ecumenical Patriarch as the leader of Orthodoxy in the world, and the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church was viewed only as the leader of Christians in Russia, or at best, in the post-Soviet space. Now, however, as foreign media explained the importance of the meeting in Cuba, they pointed out the significance of the Moscow Patriarchate as the second-largest Christian church, and its Primate was called the real, not just the spiritual, leader of Orthodoxy, as opposed to the Patriarch of Constantinople; Kirill’s resources, followers, and influence are incomparable with those of the Patriarch of Constantinople and of other autocephalous churches. Such a transformation of Kirill’s image must surely trouble the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, whose position coincides with the one expounded in The Economist: yes, the meeting is spectacular, but it is nothing out of the ordinary, especially since, not counting the 1439 Council of Florence, the Pope met with a Primate of the Orthodox Church for the first time in 1964, when Paul VI and Athenagoras I of Constantinople lifted mutual anathemas. The number of believers and the power of the Russian Orthodox Church’s ecclesiastical structure are usually passed over in silence.

Regardless of the meeting’s agenda, the very fact that it is taking place allows Kirill to move forward in solving at least two issues.

The meeting with Patriarch Kirill is important for Pope Francis as well: this is a significant breakthrough in bringing Catholicism and Orthodoxy closer together, a task that has proved impossible for his predecessors. Besides, the Holy See is interested in the Moscow Patriarchate as its most promising ally in the fight to preserve the positions of Christianity in the western world, especially in Europe, where the decrease in numbers of the followers of both denominations differs greatly from global indicators. The continent has around 257 million Catholics and 200.5 million Orthodox Christians, most of whom belong to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Roman Catholic Church is extremely concerned about the changing religious beliefs of people in North America and the Old World. In his first encyclical Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis stressed that many of our contemporaries perceive the “light of Faith” as outdated, something that has lost its relevance in the age of rationality, as people search for new knowledge. It is essential for Catholicism and Christianity as a whole to maintain its positions in the Western world. No increase in the number of believers in Latin America or Africa can compensate for the rapid outflow of people from the Christian Church who are joining the ranks of the “undecided” (atheists, agnostics, etc.), as it adds fuel to the argument that there is an inverse relationship between religiousness and the level of development of society: the better the quality of life, the weaker the positions of Christianity. In this regard, the Lumen Fidei contains a quotation from a letter that Nietzsche wrote to his sister, “… this is where humanity’s paths part: if you want peace of soul and happiness, then believe, but if you want to be a follower of truth, then seek.” [1]

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In spite of the “unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia, as well as in many other countries of Eastern Europe,” which was noted in the Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, Orthodox Christianity is facing the same challenges. In Russia, for example, 72 per cent of the adult population consider themselves Orthodox Christians; however, only 56 per cent believe in God, 32 per cent believe in the afterlife, and a mere 7 per cent attend church services at least once per month. The concerns of the Orthodox Church are reflected in the draft documents of the Pan-Orthodox Council published as a result of the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches held in Chambésy on January 21–28, 2016. For example, the text entitled “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” points to the spiritual crisis of modern civilization and stresses that “The Church often encounters on her path to preaching and to fulfilling her saving mission of ministering to humanity the manifestation of secular ideology.” At the same time, despite the theological differences, the Orthodox Church recognizes the need to intensify its dialogue with Catholicism. The draft document “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World” states that “the Orthodox Church deems it important that we all, Christians, inspired by common fundamental principles of our faith, make efforts to willingly give a unanimous response to those difficult problems posed to us by the contemporary world,” and that “the Orthodox Church is aware of the fact that the movement for the restoration of Christian unity takes new forms in response to new circumstances and new challenges.”

The Holy See is interested in the Moscow Patriarchate as its most promising ally in the fight to preserve the positions of Christianity in the western world.

In this context, success in the rapprochement of Catholic and Orthodox Christians plays a key role in the struggle for superiority among local Orthodox churches. Note that the main competition is between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Kirill of Moscow. Bartholomew I governs the Constantinople episcopal see, symbolically the most important, while Kirill presides over the largest and most influential Orthodox Church. What is more, the superiority of the Russian Orthodox Church in terms of numbers and resources is not the only reason for its lofty ambitions. For Russian Orthodoxy, the supremacy of the Third Rome is not just a theoretical concept, but a concrete formula that is reflected in the Constituent Charter on the Establishment of the Patriarchate of 1589: “Since Ancient Rome fell due to apollinarian heresy, and the Second ‘Rome’, that is, Constantinople, is ruled by the descendants of Hagar – godless Turks, the Third ‘Rome’ has surpassed all in its piety.”

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Until recently, the Russian Orthodox Church deferred to the Ecumenical Patriarchate on matters of building relations with the Holy See. Since 1964, the Patriarch of Constantinople has met with the pontiff on a number of occasions, with joint statements being published. Patriarch Bartholomew is even mentioned in Pope Francis’ encyclical Luadato Si’, which is dedicated to environmental protection. However, the regularity of such events, which never led to any concrete results, made them practically irrelevant and gave the Moscow Patriarchate reason to view them as nothing more than private meetings. Over the past few years, the Russian Orthodox Church has made significant progress in advancing its own interests within the Orthodox world, and the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill all but cancels out all the achievements of Constantinople in building its global image. After the Meeting of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches in Phanar in March 2014, where the proposal by the Russian Orthodox Church that all decisions at the Synod and in the preparatory stages are to be made by consensus, the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches held in Chambésy can also be considered a success for the Moscow Patriarchate. The draft documents Pan-Orthodox Council finally consolidate the prerogative of the Mother Church in matters of Church autonomy, which eliminates the legitimate grounds for deferring to the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in disputes. The decision of the Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference on the Orthodox diaspora can also be seen as benefitting the Russian Orthodox Church. The Conference proposed the creation of 12 predominantly European regions of Episcopal Assembly, which also limits the influence of Constantinople. Finally, the Council was moved from Istanbul to Crete under pressure from the Moscow Patriarchate.

In this regard, the meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis would seem to be a carefully and finely planned event, one that has raised the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church to a qualitatively new level and made their statement a document of particular importance. This 30-paragraph declaration is the largest and most substantial joint text ever published by the heads of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Originally announced as a call to protect Christians suffering persecution in the Middle East and North Africa, the document ultimately reflects not only the global efforts of both primates, but also their unprecedented willingness to search for a compromise in the face of common threats. In the first half of the text, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill declare their determination to “undertake all that is necessary to overcome the historical divergences we have inherited,” before moving, in the second half, onto their intention to find common ground on one of the thornier issues of their bilateral relations – the “uniatism” of Ukraine. In exchange for the Moscow Patriarch’s consent that the “ecclesial communities which emerged in these historical circumstances have the right to exist and to undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful,” which has already sparked fierce criticism among the ranks of the Russian Orthodox Church, Rome acknowledges that “the past method of ‘uniatism’, understood as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church, is not the way to re–establish unity,” and “it cannot be accepted that disloyal means be used to incite believers to pass from one Church to another, denying them their religious freedom and their traditions.”

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Of course, Catholics are not the first to verbally reject the policy of proselytism. Similar statements were made, for example, in the document entitled “Uniatism, Method of Union of the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion” signed in Balamand (Lebanon) in 1993, which did not prevent them from ignoring it in practice. It is, therefore, of particular value that the words of the Roman Church were much stronger this time around: “It is our hope that the schism between the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine may be overcome through existing canonical norms, that all the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine may live in peace and harmony, and that the Catholic communities in the country may contribute to this.” These words essentially negate any hopes of recognition on the part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate. What is more, the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill contained details that indicate the possibility of progress being made with regard to the issue of the leadership of the Christian Church. During the news conference that followed the meeting, the Pope and the Patriarch stressed that theirs had been a conversation between two bishops, and Francis signed the joint declaration as Bishop of Rome, Pope of the Catholic Church, rather than as the Roman Pontiff. This gives us particular hope in the context of the meeting of the Council of Cardinals held on February 11, 2016, at which the decentralization of decision-making in the Roman Catholic Church was discussed.

The Russian and international media have on a number of occasions talked about what they believe to be the political connotations behind the meeting between the Pope of the Catholic Church and the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, as well as the Russian President’s personal interest in the meeting. However, the provisions of the final declaration suggest that Patriarch Kirill did not attend the meeting as Vladimir Putin’s ambassador, but rather as a spiritual leader striving for independence from political considerations who, just like Pope Francis, is concerned first and foremost about the future of his Church and of Christianity in general. Much depends on the two primates, and the meeting in Cuba imposes new obligations on them. Now they share a cross.

1. A translation can be found in: Friedrich Nietzsche, Letters / compiled by I.A. Ebanoidze. Moscow: Kulturnaya Revolyutsia, 2007, 400 pages.

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