Francis, Kirill, and the Russian war in Ukraine


Among the many successes attributed by the mass media to Pope Francis has been the “historic meeting” that took place on February 12 2016 in Havana with Moscow patriarch Kirill. An event, it was written at the time, that saw the collapse of the religious wall that for a thousand years divided the Church of Rome from that of the East (la Repubblica, February 5 2016).

But Pope Francis’s ecumenical project has run aground in the tempest of the war in Ukraine, blessed by Patriarch Kirill himself, who on May 9 was one of the guests of honor at the military parade in Red Square in Moscow.

Kirill, born Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, the sixteenth Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which numbers 165 million faithful spread throughout the world. Born in 1946 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), he was consecrated bishop in 1976 and elected patriarch in 2009. According to declassified documents from the archives of Moscow, in particular from the Mitrokhin Archive, from the early 1970s he was an agent of the KGB (here). Partly on account of this common experience in the service of Soviet Russia, Kirill has been called “the soft power of Putin’s hard power” (Huffington Post, April 14 2022).

In reality, the origins of the close relationship linking Kirill’s altar with the throne of Putin date back to none other than the ideology of the Byzantine Empire, whose heir Russia claims to be. While Western Christianity upheld the distinction between religious authority and political power, in Constantinople there was the birth of what is called “caesaropapism,” the de facto subordination of the Church to the emperor, who is considered as its head in both the ecclesiastical and secular camps. The patriarchs of Constantinople were in fact reduced to being officials of the Byzantine Empire, just as is the case today in Russia with Kirill, not incorrectly defined by Pope Francis, in his May 3 interview with Corriere della Sera, as “Putin’s altar boy.” This expression aroused Kirill’s anger and led to a press release from the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, according to which “such statements are unlikely to contribute to the establishment of a constructive dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, which is especially necessary at the present time.

The only way for the Patriarchate of Moscow to get out of the isolation in which it finds itself today subsequent to the war in Ukraine was precisely that of relaunching dialogue with the Vatican, but the second meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill that was supposed to take place in Jerusalem next June 14 has been canceled by the Holy See.

Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, for his part, in an interview given on May 2 2022 to the newspaperKathimerini Cyprus openly condemned Kirill in these words: “You can’t claim to be a brother of another people and bless the war that your state is waging against your brother. (…) You can’t insist that Ukraine belongs to you ecclesiastically, but let the faithful of the church entity in Moscow’s jurisdiction be killed and their churches destroyed by the Russian bombing.” These criticisms are shared even by the faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church who are under the jurisdiction of Moscow. Four hundred priests of this church have appealed to the Council of the Primates of the Ancient Eastern Churches, lodging the accusation that “Kirill preaches the doctrine of the ‘Russian World,’ which does not correspond to Orthodox teaching and should be condemned as heresy.” If the council were to agree, it should “deprive him of the right to occupy the patriarchal throne”.

Moreover, Kirill was not yet patriarch when in 2002 Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation for two years, began the expulsion of Catholic missionaries from Russia in the name of the “Russian world.” One expert on Russia, Fr. Stefano Caprio, recalls that Orthodoxy had already been elevated above all other confessions, as the “state religion,” in the law on religious freedom revised in 1997 and inspired by the patriarchate of Moscow. “In the preamble of that law,” Fr. Caprio writes, “it was proclaimed that the historical religion of Russia was precisely Orthodoxy, while four other religions were recognized as ‘traditionally secondary’: Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and… Christianity, obviously meaning Catholics and Protestants, present in Russia for centuries but distinct from the Orthodox as another religion. This was not a matter of an oversight, and in fact that expression has never been corrected: Russian Orthodoxy is in effect a distinct spiritual dimension in which Christian dogmas are mixed with the remnants of paganism to a much greater extent than in other branches of Christianity, and above all are reformulated in universalistic national ideals that point to Russia as the ‘salvific people’ for humanity as a whole.”

The first to pay the price for this politico-religious conception in Russia are the Catholics, who for the Moscow Patriarchate continue to be “enemies” feared on account of their “proselytism,” in spite of their being a tiny minority within the population. They are accused of undermining the religious and political unity of Russia to which Putin makes constant reference. Therefore, Fr. Caprio observes, “when there was the anti-Russian Maidan revolt in 2014, patriarchal circles pointed the finger at the Uniates (editor’s note: Greek Catholics) as the true inspirers of the riots, even going so far as to attribute to them the spiritual paternity of the most aggressive groups of the Ukrainian far right, the ‘neo-Nazis’ that Putin has indicated as the enemies of the ‘Russian world,’ against whom it was necessary to undertake the defensive ‘special military operation’ in order to free Russians and Ukrainians from Western influence”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought to light the contradictions of the Russian Orthodox Church that Kirill represents today. The importance of the 2016 ecumenical meeting, according to Pope Francis, lay in the possibility of creating a religious bridge between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, in the name of the principle of synodality. And yet it is this very principle that justifies the position of Kirill, whose nationalism arises from the autocephalous nature of the patriarchate of Moscow and its symbiosis with political power.

The fundamental difference is this. The Church of Moscow is national, while that of Rome is universal and is called “catholic,” precisely because it does not identify itself with any people or culture and proclaims the Gospel to all nations, even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The Roman Catholic Church knows no limits of time and space and is destined to unite in one family all the peoples of the earth. It is the only one that can issue an appeal for a peace that transcends the interests, the ambitions of individual nations. Its center of unity is the Roman Pontiff, who exercises full power over the universal Church. The Catholic Church can tolerate a bad pope, as so many of them in history have been, but without the rock of Peter the world would be plunged into chaos. And today Patriarch Kirill is unfortunately supporting the chaos caused by Vladimir Putin in the heart of Europe.