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from issue no. 09 - 2003

THE ORTHODOX CHURCH. They have the same problem as the Catholics

More power and less believers

Keen observers are aware that the pretence of the Orthodox hierarchies to be once again playing a leading role masks the real data on the practice of the faith. After more than ten years of “free evangelization” the number of believers attending churches is progressively falling

by Gianni Valente

A young woman lights a candle in church

A young woman lights a candle in church

On 10 June last Aleksij II celebrated the thirteenth anniversary of his election as Patriarch of Moscow and of all the Russias. But the high Orthodox dignitaries who wanted to offer their homage on the solemn occasion had to go out to his residence in the Moscow countryside at Peredelkino where the head of largest Eastern Church has now for months been spending the long periods of rest prescribed by the doctors, between time in hospital (most recently in the second half of May). The health of the seventy-four year old Estonian aristocrat who has led the Russian Church during the agitated decade of the post-communist renaissance showed symptoms of decline already in the mid ’nineties. But recently the alarm caused by his breathing difficulties has been more frequent. According to unofficial sources the heart trouble last November, described in the official communiqués as a «hypertensive crisis», also involved complications of blood-circulation to the brain. And serious pneumonia contracted last March prevented him from celebrating the Easter liturgy at the end of April. Which explains why the Russian media have been talking for months of the quickening pace in “maneuvers” for the succession.
Already in mid January, the Nezavisimaja Gazeta printed an article with the ironic title (The second coming of Cyril and Methodius) and tipped as likely winners in the race for succession Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad and Metropolitan Mefodij, then head of the metropolia of Voronezh-Lipetsk, whose names come up in the media form-book along with those of the most elderly metropolitan, Filaret of Minsk, and Sergij, metropolitan of the newly-founded diocese of Voronezh-Borisoglebsk.
The biographical profiles of the potential successors to Aleksij bring out the “strongpoints” of each candidate. Kirill, currently number two in the hierarchy, head of the rich and powerful Department for External Relations (a post which makes him an old acquaintance of the Catholic delegates involved in ecumenical discussions), is usually tipped as favorite. The Sunday broadcast in which he has taken an unbroken part for eight years on an important national television network has made his face known to the public. Coming from the squad of disciples of Nikodim, the Catholic-sympathizing Metropolitan of Leningrad who died of a heart-attack in the Vatican while in audience with Pope Luciani, is still counted as belonging to the more liberal wing of the episcopate in virtue of that spiritual descent. But in recent years his dominant interest has been the reinforcing of the political role of Russian Orthodoxy. Theological prestige is instead the strongpoint of Filaret. Exarch of Bielorussia, President of the Theological Commission, permanent member of the Holy Synod, he also belongs among the heirs of Nikodim, from whom he inherited a willingness to dialogue with the Catholics and the wish to stress the spiritual profile of ecclesial presence in society. His more advanced age (he was already bishop in 1965, at the height of the Soviet period, when the other potential candidates were still in the seminary) could play a role in the contest. But his acknowledged religious authority is not matched by material means and political backing. Which instead Kirill had, as does Sergij, currently Chancellor of the patriarchy. And even Mefodij, whose main advantage is his entrée in the actual national hierarchy. Made bishop in 1980 at only 31, administrator of the patriarchy finances throughout the ’eighties, the only Orthodox dignitary accused in recent times by a colleague (Chrysostom of Vilnius) of being a direct collaborator of the KGB, Mefodij, after quite a number of years on the sidelines, made a comeback following the presidential election of Vladimir Putin. He practically settled in Moscow where he set up a wide network of relationships with the current political power elite, taking a stance of pragmatic openness to the West and of reaffirmation of national interests, in line with Putin’s views. In recent weeks Mefodij’s rising star seems to be waning again. On 8 May last a general reorganization of the diocesan structure of the patriarchy of Moscow caused chain removals. In the series of shifts Mefodij was packed off to Kazakhstan when the metropolitan see of Voronezh-Lipetsk, of which he was titular, was broken up and he was put in charge of the new metropolitan arrondissement of Astana and Almaty. A new territorial unit created ad hoc «to make his exile respectable», the daily Nezavisimaja Gazeta smirked in an article with the headline Cyril has beaten Methodius, again playing on the names of the two saintly evangelists of the Slav peoples, interpreting the whole business as further reinforcement of Kirill’s position.
Mefodij has thus had to give up the chairmanship of the Historico-Juridical Commission, of the patriarchy and that of the Makariov Collection, thanks to which he’d been able in recent years to award prizes and recognition in the field of historical research. From the outback of the former empire it will be more difficult for him to cultivate relationships with the Moscow political nomenklatura. But apart from the real or presumed tricks they play on each other, in the uncertain hiatus that marks every transfer of rule, all the “patriarcables” are inevitably forced to adjust their moves to fit in with the nationalistic, anti-ecumenical and conservative pressures that run through a good part of the ecclesial body, above all in monastic circles and among the young starets, the spiritual teachers of the last generation who constitute almost a parallel ecclesiastical network with anti-hierarchy leanings.

European campaign
An Orthodox priest in Moscow leading a thousand believers in a demonstration against the Vatican

An Orthodox priest in Moscow leading a thousand believers in a demonstration against the Vatican

The restless activism in the upper reaches of the Russian Church at the present moment of passage also has its effect on inter-Orthodox relations. The more recent case opened with the message that Patriarch Aleksij addressed to the Orthodox parishes of Russian tradition spread through western Europe, inviting them to come together in a unified ecclesiastical structure under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchy of Moscow. A “reductio ad unum”, presented as a kind of return home, to put an end to the fragmentation, jurisdictional as well, that has become a settled feature of the Russian Orthodox diaspora in Europe since the ’thirties of last century. That is from the time in which, while the Church at home was undergoing persecution, ample sectors of the Russian emigration left the orbit of the Moscow patriarchy, finding welcome and a canonical framework within other Orthodox ecclesial bodies.
Aleksij’s open letter was dated 1 April and was addressed not only to the bishops of the Patriarchy operating in western Europe but also to the bishop who heads the archdiocese for the parishes of Russian tradition in western Europe that looks to the ecumenical Patriarchy of Constantinople, and to the one who directs from Geneva the Euro-western diocese of the so-called “Russian Church beyond the frontier” which broke away from the Patriarchy of Moscow in 1926 to avoid any contamination by the Bolshevik regime. In his letter Aleksij claims that the moment has arrived to overcome the jurisdictional divisions of the Orthodox Russian diaspora caused by «the historical tragedy suffered by the Russian people» after the «revolutionary catastrophe». He declares his intention to set up a «metropolitan region» for western Europe in which «all the parishes, monasteries and communities of Russian origin and tradition» can come together. He adds that the new entity will be ensured a statute of autonomy and self-government respecting «the forms of organization of ecclesial life that the descendants of the first wave of emigrants have worked out over the decades». But he also foresees a “phase two” in which the process of reunification will also absorb large Orthodox splinter groups and conventicles from central Europe, at the moment outside Moscow’s orbit. The final aim, set out at the end of the letter, is «the canonical foundation, at the time of God’s choosing, of an Orthodox local and multinational Church in western Europe, to be built in a spirit of conciliarity on the part of all the Orthodox believers who live in those countries».
Aleksij II with Metropolitan Kirill

Aleksij II with Metropolitan Kirill

Setting aside the concrete results that it might achieve, the letter well expresses the strategic “scenario” guiding the moves of the Russian ecclesiastical leadership. The attempt to establish a bridgehead in western Europe can also be interpreted as a response to the «Catholic expansionism» in what the Patriarchy claims to be its own exclusive canonical territories. And it matches the activism of Putin’s Russia in European geo-political space. But it is in danger of opening new points of confrontation for the control of the communities of the diaspora that has always been a minefield for inter-Orthodox relations, as one can see from some reactions to the controversial patriarchal gambit. Father Boris Bobrinskoy, Dean of the Saint-Serge Institute of Orthodox Theology in Paris and authoritative member of the Orthodox community of Russian origin that is under the jurisdiction of the ecumenical Patriarchy (and constitutes the largest section, jealous of its autonomy, of the Orthodox Church on French soil) deplored the fact that the matter could degenerate into a new clash between Moscow and Constantinople. While in the Paris weekly Ruskaja Misl’ Professor Nikita Struve has described the Patriarch’s letter as «more a political move than an ecclesial move». From Moscow, Father Innokentij Pavlov, professor at the St Petersburg Theological Academy, judged the letter «a move clearly attributable to Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk» and to his Department for External Relations, given that the patriarch «rarely himself drafts the texts that bear his signature, and furthermore is now bedridden by illness».

If the altar leans
on the throne
In the meantime, perhaps also to find a strongpoint that displays solidity and social importance at a moment of delicate transition, the Church of Moscow continues with its systematic occupation of spaces and privileges with the say-so of the Russian state apparatus. The Russian Constitution of 1993 proclaims the State to be secular. And the federal law of the 1997 on religion guarantees that religious organizations cannot usurp the State by taking to themselves the functions proper to state institutions. But starting in 1977 itself a volley of agreements of a concordat between the Orthodox Church and individual governments institutions, at federal and local level, have guaranteed the Church access to key sectors of civil life: schools, hospitals, jails, army. They go from the August 1996 agreement with the Ministry of the Interior that enabled the setting up of chaplaincies in Russians jails down to that signed on 5 March last between the Patriarchy and the Ministry of Health that opens hospitals and clinics to the celebration of religious rites and the intervention of Orthodox ministers to help the victims of ill-defined «non-traditional forms influenced by modern cults». Even the Ministry of Transport is collaborating on a joint plan with the Patriarchy that will enable the creation of Orthodox chapels in all railways stations. While last November the Minister for Education, Vladimir Filippov, sent a circular to the rectors of the academies inviting them to insert into teaching programs «courses of Orthodox culture» to round off the classes in the history of religions already introduced after the fall of the Soviet regime. The state security services such as the FSB (the former KGB) have themselves opened their offices to religious and cultural activities designed by the Orthodox Church. In March 2002 the head of the FSB Nicolai Patrushev handed over to the parish priest the keys of the restored church that now functions as chapel for the staff of the secret service headquarters, the legendary Lubjanka.
The occupation of public spaces made available by the state is a product of the cultural trend that hails Orthodoxy as spiritual matrix of the Russian national tradition. When on 6 March last Aleksij II paid the first visit by a patriarch to the headquarters of the Foreign Office the Minister Igor Ivanov promised the full backing of Russian diplomacy for the international policies of the Patriarchy, remarking that «the collaboration with the Russian Orthodox Church furnishes Russian diplomacy with a wider vision of the strategic interests of the country». While the official communiqué published after the meeting stated that this collaboration strengthens «the inner spiritual force of Russia» and «increases its moral authority on the international scene».
The unholy alliance between ecclesiastical hierarchies and pro tempore political power again taking shape throughout the former empire, evokes ancestral memories of the history of Russian Christianity. But Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, appointed by the Patriarchy chief representative to European community institutions in Bruxelles in July 2002, in a recent internet message on the office site (www.Orthodoxeurope.org) described as «baseless» the accusations against the Orthodox Church of «aspiring to be the State Church, to become the official religion. The Church is well aware of the threat to its freedom represented by its absorption into the mechanism of the State». At all events, mutatis mutandis, the model of relations arising between Church and State in Russia is not so far from the catchphrases on the public role of the Church as locomotive force of society and cultural matrix of western civilization still in fashion among Catholic churchmen and opinion-makers. It is no accident that the effort to reaffirm the Christian roots of Europe is the only one that the high representative of the Patriarchy of Moscow, along with the dignitaries of other Orthodox Churches, have shared with spokesmen of the Holy See and of the Catholic episcopates.
Big plans, small flocks
Keen observers are aware that the pretence of the Orthodox hierarchies to be once again playing a leading role masks the real data on the practice of the faith. After more than ten years of “free evangelization”, the number of believers attending churches is progressively falling and invite one to avoid smugness. An unpublished paper written in 2002 by Professor Nicolaij Mitrochin, of the Institute of Studies on Religion in the Countries of the CSI, shows that in all the former Soviet empire the percent of Orthodox who go to church at least once a year hovers between 2 and 8 per cent of the population, with strong concentrations in the Ukraine and Bielorussia. In Moscow, according to official data supplied by the Ministry of the Interior, out of 12,000,000 inhabitants no more than 60,000 faithful went to church for the Easter celebrations last, confirming the progressive decline registered over the last ten years (at the start of the ’nineties, at a time of enthusiasm for “spiritual rebirth”, the figure was 200,000). A gap between projects, words and reality that in Russia, beyond any ecumenical quarreling, Orthodoxy and the Catholic minority share. After more than ten years of initiatives (pushed ahead in the midst of the known disagreements with the Orthodox hierarchies) to reconstruct the diocesan structure, the network of parishes and training institutes, according to official estimates – that often count all the ethnic minorities of western European origin as Catholics – the followers of Holy Roman Church on Holy Russian soil are alleged to be between 300,000 and 600,000. But according to research conducted in 2002 by Victor Chrul, chief editor of the Catholic magazine Svjet Evanghelja, on the basis of data collected directly from each individual parish, in the whole of Russia «Catholics who attend church at least 1-2 times a year do not go beyond 45,000, spread over 258 registered parishes, almost all in cities with at least 20-30,000 inhabitants».

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