“It was a very hard decision, but, regrettably, the latest steps taken by Constantinople left us no other choice.” On these grounds, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow, explained to SIR the reasons that have led Moscow to break communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, following the latter’s decision to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. ” We had not closed the doors to the dialogue”, Hilarion recalled, promptly clarifying the “thorny aspect” of the Ukrainian issue: “In late August, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia visited Istanbul to discuss the situation with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in a fraternal manner. Our Synod has requested – and continues to request – pan-Orthodox deliberations on delicate issues. In this respect, other Churches have put forward the same suggestions. However, Constantinople, following and upholding a theory envisaging a special status granted to the Patriarch of Constantinople, comparable to that of the Pope in the Catholic world, rejected all the appeals calling for a Council resolution to these problems and through its actions destroyed the unity of the Orthodox world.”
Is it correct to speak of a “schism”? And what does it mean for the future of inter-Orthodox relations?
The Patriarchate of Constantinople created the grounds for a schism with the recognition of the schismatic structures in Ukraine and after deciding to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian believers thereby creating a parallel structure in the territory of the canonical Church that stood by its people since their earliest, difficult times. That decision made it impossible to continue to be in Eucharistic communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Thus all that the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox did was to acknowledge that dramatic fact. That decision inevitably affects the whole Orthodox world. As Patriarch Irinej of Serbia has noted, the recent decisions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople not only aggravate the schism in the canonical territory of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, they also pave the way for new schisms in other Local Churches. Furthermore, the mechanisms of inter-Orthodox dialogue and cooperation, which had been developing for a long time, have ultimately been destroyed. All the Local Orthodox Churches have equal dignity, yet until now, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, first in honour, has acted as coordinator of the inter-Orthodox activities.
But now that more than half of all Orthodox Christians in the world are no longer in communion with it, Constantinople has lost this role. Ukraine is a land of conflict. To what extent will the division of the Churches weigh on such a delicate situation? Could it jeopardize peace, with regard to the property of churches and monasteries?
The attempts made by Ukraine’s national authorities to reform the religious sphere regardless of the opinion of the majority of the faithful are fraught with the most severe consequences for peace in a war-torn Country. Faith lives in human hearts. It’s the heart and the soul of a people. The ongoing divide has been occasioned by those who interfered in ecclesiastical affairs and are now leading everyone to believe in the idea of legalizing the schism and establishing a new Church structure. Even prior to that the parishes of the canonical Church were often subjected to attacks by vandals; church buildings were seized, and the decisions to return them were ignored. However, now the schismatics are openly laying claims to the great shrines of this land. For instance, recently the Synod of the schismatic “Kievan Patriarchate” has officially changed the title of its primate, “Patriarch” Philaret, to include that of “hiero-archimandrite of the Kiev Caves and Pochaev Lavras.” Yet, these ancient Orthodox abodes, sacred for millions of Orthodox Ukrainians, are not under his jurisdiction. They belong to the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Thus it was a way to assert ownership of the largest monasteries in Ukraine.
Now the question is: who will resolve this issue?
Could the Ukrainian government play an important peacemaking role?
The Head of the State of Ukraine said that there would be no redistribution of church property, which is hard to believe.
At the moment the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture is drawing up an “inventory” of the church buildings that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has in its use. Intentions have been expressed to revise all the documents, as a token of respect for the Church that uses those buildings. Ukraine’s Foreing Minister Pavlo Klimkin said that “Moscow’s Patriarchate has nothing to do in Ukraine.” On top of that, discriminatory bills which legalize hostile takeovers of communities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and stipulate control over ecclesiastical life, including forcible renaming of the canonical Church, are being considered by the Verkhovna Rada. The President of the Ukrainian Parliament Andriy Parubiy has recently expressed his position towards the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church by saying that “it is not a Church.” I am sorry to say that by taking the decision to legalize the Ukrainian schismatics Constantinople has aggravated the religious situation in Ukraine. Constantinople hypocritically appealed to avoid all acts of violence. Patriarch Irinej of Serbia has recently astutely said that by doing so the Patriarchate appeared to be turning a blind eye to the predictable consequences of its own actions, enacting a veritable Pilate-like washing of hands.
You said that we are not facing an irreversible process. What are the conditions for a return to unity?
Return to unity is exactly what we want. Of course, certain conditions must be met.
It is necessary to restore the norms of the ecclesiastical order that the Orthodox Church observed for many centuries; what is needed is that the Ecumenical Patriarch ceases his attempts to extend his jurisdictional powers aimed at annulling the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils and at encroaching on the territory of other Churches. I want to hope for the best.
You met Pope Francis during the Bishops’ Synod on Young People. What did he tell you? Is he worried?
As might be expected, the rupture of full communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople could not but affect inter-Christian dialogue. It should be said that according to the decision of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church of September 14, representatives of Moscow’s Patriarchate shall no longer participate in theological dialogues with other Christian Churches and other structures chaired or co-chaired by representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
This applies, for instance, to participation in the work of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. While in Rome, I informed of this decision Pope Francis and Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, co-chair of the Joint Commission on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. They both expressed their deep concern over the current situation. It is clear to everyone that without the participation of the Russian Orthodox Church which numerically represents half of the Orthodox world, the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue loses its meaning in many respects.
Needless to say that the bilateral relations of Moscow’s Patriarchate with the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian confessions will continue to develop and, perhaps, will include more items on their agenda.