The Patriarch’s First Year in Office Has Laid The Ground Work For Further Reform
Prior to Kirill's enthronement in winter of 2009, many church members were wary of his pro-Western sympathies, reformer’s zeal and forceful character that, the fear was, could have led to a schism in the Russian Church. Now that the first year of his patriarchate has elapsed, these fears can be said to have been ungrounded.
When Patriarch Kirill celebrates Divine Liturgy, sound amplifiers make every word he utters audible in every corner of the church – including the Eucharistic prayers that priests usually speak quietly at the altar during the main part of the service.
For a long time, Eucharistic prayers said aloud have been a mark of liberalism in the Russian Orthodox Church. In Russia, few priests had the bishops’ authorization to do so, and conservatives regarded the practice as inadmissible. But Patriarch Kirill resorted to high technologies to resolve the controversy – no one can accuse him of articulating those prayers loudly. At the same time, everyone can hear them. Thus the service becomes more intelligible and parishioners feel more closely involved in it.
As we see now, our thoroughly conservative Church has been spared upheavals that could have resulted in a schism. The Church is getting more dynamic and taking steps toward the secular society. The church hierarchy has sent out a clear message that there is much more to be done. These first steps are just the beginning of a much more ambitious course of action, meant to make the Church more open while retaining the essence of Orthodoxy, even if the reform has no detailed plans yet. “If we have taken at least a tiny step forward this year for our contemporaries to see what the Church is about, it is our common victory, however small it might be,” the Patriarch said in his Monday address to an audience of several thousand who have gathered to congratulate him.
Church disputes are still seething, but with the establishment of the Inter-Conciliar Assembly, they are acquiring an institutional dimension. The Patriarch chaired the first meeting of its presidium on the eve of the first anniversary of his enthronement. This trailblazing consultative body was set up by the Local Council that had elected Kirill to discuss pivotal Church issues. This body, somewhat similar to Russia’s contemporary Public Chamber, brings together bishops, priests, monks, nuns and laypeople – in a way, the intellectual elite of the Church, who will draft decisions on sensitive issues for future Local Councils. The Assembly commissions bring Church liberals and conservatives together. So, instead of a schism, the Church has been invigorated by the Patriarch’s will to bring its most active members together and reconcile forces that were recently at war.
A meeting of bishops has been scheduled for the second day of anniversary celebrations. There, the Patriarch is expected to discuss further reforms behind closed doors. This is yet another manifestation of his businesslike approach. The Patriarch has ordered bishops not to come to Moscow for his saint’s day, as tradition has it. Now, if their gathering for the enthronement anniversary is to take place, he wants them to do something practical.
Preaching to a stadium
Looking back over the first year of Kirill’s patriarchate, two directions can be deciphered in his activity – tireless preaching and assembling intellectual forces able to take the Church’s relations with the world to a new level. This, again, boils down to preaching.
The Patriarch preaches during services (of which he has celebrated 230 during the year, according to his staff – more than any other contemporary Russian priest), during television interviews, and at stadiums, where he meets regularly with young people – something no Russian bishop has ever done before. His sermons are explicit and focus on ethical matters close to every heart, whether the person is a practicing Christian or not.
One of his greatest achievements in the area of education is the establishment of the Church Postgraduate and Doctoral School, whose mission is to educate the Russian Orthodox elite, and the convocation of a commission to develop the new Orthodox Catechism.
Leading the Russian world
The Patriarch has assumed the unique role of a spiritual leader not just for Russia but for the entire Russian world – the religious and cultural environment created by the Russian Orthodox Church. He is not changing the essence of ecclesiastical life as it was during the patriarchate of Alexy II, but is rearranging its priorities. Patriarch Kirill is developing the concept of “Holy Rus’” – the spiritual union of all inheritors to the Baptism of Rus’ by Prince Vladimir of Kiev, with the utmost respect for their patriotism and national statehood. He likes to stress the fact that he is the Patriarch not of Russia alone, but also of all nations “that have accepted the Russian religious and cultural heritage as their basis or as a major part of their ethnic identity.”
His memorable visit to Ukraine last summer marked a milestone in the lives of both these Slavic nations. The Patriarch wants to pay such visits every year. His visits to Belarus, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan demonstrated that he sees himself as a shepherd of his “canonical territory.” During the patriarchate of Alexy II, the patriarchal standard and a Russian national flag of the same size stood in the patriarch’s Throne Hall. These have now been replaced by a tall patriarchal standard and smaller flags of the 15 countries the Moscow Patriarchate claims as its canonical territory – all former Soviet states except Armenia and Georgia, since the Patriarchate recognizes the status of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Armenia and the Georgian Orthodox Church in Georgia. There are also Japanese and Chinese flags because Russian missionaries have established Orthodox Churches in those countries, which vary in legal status and the size of their congregation.
The relations of the Moscow Patriarchate with the Kremlin have always drawn close attention in Russia and abroad. In this, Patriarch Kirill has met all expectations. He is positioning himself as a respectful and respected independent partner – not subordinate – of the secular government. The day when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pronounced invectives at the Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, the Patriarch sent the Ukrainian president a message of heartfelt gratitude for his hospitality. The Moscow Patriarchate recognizes the jurisdiction of the Georgian Orthodox Church over Abkhazia and South Ossetia – the territories the Russian government has recognized as independent. The two churches decided to exchange envoys when Russian-Georgian diplomatic relations were severed.
As for domestic policy, sources in the Patriarchate say that the Patriarch fends off pressure from the highest Kremlin offices without entering into open conflict with them. At the same time, he has won concessions from the secular government that his predecessors had been trying to obtain for years. President Medvedev has approved the introduction of religious disciplines at state schools in 19 regions – on an experimental basis for the time being. He has also conceded to the introduction of chaplains in the army. During his recent meeting with the Patriarch, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that a law is being drawn up on the restitution of ecclesiastical property. This year, the Church will fully regain the renowned Novodevichy Convent in Moscow, where a branch of the State History Museum coexists with the nunnery and the diocesan administration of the Moscow Region.
Patriarch Kirill’s public standing is also gaining ground. The scarcity of intelligent, eloquent and outspoken leaders in contemporary Russia makes him an especially impressive presence. The Patriarch never wavers in opposing prevailing public opinion, as was the case with his views of Joseph Stalin and the victory in World War II. He sees the latter as nothing but “a miracle,” considering the situation on the ground at the time.
The mentor’s behest
The Patriarch has reformed the ecclesiastical administration, establishing new Synodal departments and redistributing the duties of the old ones. He has made many personal appointments of pivotal significance, and expanded the authority of bishops and rectors over the parishes. On the whole, however, he is more circumspect about canonical life and personnel placement than a daring reformer should be. Besides, many of his administrative reforms exist only on paper due to a lack of staff and funding.
The clergy say the Patriarch is following the advice of his mentor, the late Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) of Leningrad, who said that a newly appointed hierarch should never attempt to change anything in his first year. The second year is better suited to launching reforms.
The future will show whether this is the case. Be that as it may, both the Church and the public expect Patriarch Kirill to take his reforms much further than the achievements of his first year of rule.