Patriarch Kirill to meet Patriarch Bartholomew on Aug 31, a risky opportunity

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The patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew and the patriarch of Moscow, Kirill

Patriarch Kirill to meet Patriarch Bartholomew on Aug 31, a risky opportunity

By Gianni Valente/ lastampa.it

The Patriarch of Moscow will go to Constantinople on the end of this month and he will try to mend the “Ukrainian issue”: a risky opportunity, if the parties at stake continue to focus on tactics of ecclesiastical politics, on buck-passing, and on trials by fire.

The Patriarch of Moscow Kirill is preparing to visit his brother Bartholomew in Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, primus inter pares among the leaders of the Orthodox Churches. The meeting is scheduled for next August 31, on the eve of the “extended” Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which meets once every three years and is also attended by the Churches of the Orthodox Diaspora that fall under the direct jurisdiction of the “Mother Church” of Constantinople.

The meeting at the end of August – anticipated by a Greek religious information website – could mark a turning point with regard to the “Ukrainian issue” which has long been stressing the relations between the Orthodox Churches, called to take a position in the canonical-ecclesiological dispute between Moscow and Constantinople on the future of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.

In that country, political and ecclesial groups have been insistently asking that the Patriarchate of Constantinople give its canonical endorsement for the recognition of a national Orthodox Church, completely independent of the Moscow Patriarchate. While the leading exponents of Russian Orthodoxy – like Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk – predict that “blood will flow” if the creation of an independent Orthodox Church, strongly supported by the current political leadership of Kiev, will actually take place (with a consequent rift that would take away from the Church of Moscow jurisdiction over the dioceses and parishes currently belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church linked with a status of autonomy to the Moscow Patriarchate).

The agenda and the tactics

The news about the imminent meeting between Bartholomew and Kirill was confirmed by both the Patriarchates. But also in the confirmation communiqués the tones are different. From Constantinople / Istanbul, they say that the request for the meeting has come from Moscow, that Patriarch Kirill will be accompanied by a delegation including Metropolitan Hilarion and that the main focus of the talks will be the issue of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine and the request to recognise its autocephaly to the Patriarchy of Constantinople. Metropolitan Elpidoforos of Bursa, bishop of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, also declared that the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate will be called to account for the polemics raised by sectors of the Church of Moscow against leading exponents of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, starting with Bartholomew. The official confirmations of the meeting from Moscow appear much more laconic: the official spokesmen of the patriarch (priest Alexander Volkov) and of the Department of external relations (archpriest Nikolay Balashov) have confirmed that the meeting will take place but added that the agenda of the talks is still being defined.

The different tones of the communiqués seem to confirm the tactics involving media and ecclesiastical politics that have increasingly dominated the intra-Orthodox confrontation on the Ukrainian issue. In recent weeks, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, relying on its prerogatives of “Mother Church” of Orthodoxy, has sent its representatives to visit the leaders of the other Orthodox Churches – including the Russian one – to scrutinise the prevailing orientations within Orthodoxy before the hypothesis of granting autocephaly (full independence) to a national Church in Ukraine. The results of this particular survey were not disclosed but, in the meantime, the Russian media linked with the Moscow Patriarchate gave broad prominence to pronouncements by senior Orthodox hierarchs – such as Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria, or representatives of the Orthodox Church of Georgia – that currently stigmatise the “political pressures” put in place to promote the recognition of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Even the recent celebrations for the 1030th anniversary of the so-called “Baptism of Rus’” – considered as the initial act of conversion to Christianity of the Eastern Slavs – have become an occasion to try to decipher the moods of the different Churches and Orthodox communities regarding the Ukrainian issue. A delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople – led by Metropolitan Emmanuel of France – took part in the celebrations for the Baptism of Rus’ that took place in Kiev at the invitation of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Emmanuel also delivered to Poroshenko a message from the Ecumenical Patriarch, in which Bartholomew writes, among other things, that the See of Constantinople, by virtue of its traditional concern for the unity of Orthodox Christians and for the overcoming of schisms and divisions, “has taken the initiative to restore the unity of Orthodox believers in Ukraine, with the ultimate goal of granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church”.

In the same days, in Moscow, the representatives of 10 Orthodox Churches, including Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria and of all Africa, took part in the celebrations for the 1030th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’ organised by the Russian Orthodox Church. Media close to the Moscow Patriarchate report that all representatives of the Orthodox Churches expressed their support for the Russian Orthodox Church and for the Ukrainian canonical Orthodox Church linked to Moscow, against the claims of independence sustained by “schismatic Ukrainian” groups.

Exhausting contrasts

In the recent past, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Moscow Patriarchate have already experienced difficult times and cut-offs in bilateral relations for controversies related to issues of jurisdiction over Churches and Orthodox communities present in former Soviet territories. So far, they have always found a way to mend their relations. The unfortunate attempt by the Moscow Patriarchate to boycott the pan-Orthodox Council convened by Patriarch Bartholomew in Crete in 2016 has widened the gap. Now, the Ukrainian issue risks infecting the open wounds in the communion tissue that holds the Orthodox Churches together, especially if the tactics of ecclesiastical politics, the buck-passing and the trials by fire continue to prevail over criteria of genuinely ecclesial and pastoral discernment.

The idea of starting again from the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Crete could be a good opportunity to resume the right path: taking up from there, recomposing the consensus and the ecclesial unity around that event that the Moscow Patriarchate continues not to recognise as a pan-Orthodox assembly that, still with all its limitations, represented a good beginning of confrontation and communion among the Orthodox Churches in the face of urgencies and problems coming their way, in the present and in the time to come.

Thu, 08/09/2018 - 12:04
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