In Moscow, a Sendoff of "Planetary Scale"
Led by the nation's President Dimitri Medvedev and Premier Vladimir Putin and the patriarchate's locum tenens Metropolitan Kirill, the duo were joined by three other heads of state, a high-powered Vatican delegation led by two senior cardinals, almost the entire cabinet, remnants of the Romanov dynasty that ruled the Empire for three centuries and -- in a rare show of unity given Orthodoxy's penchant for infighting -- the heads of the church's second and third largest branches, Patriarch Daniel of Romania and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I (above).
In the days leading up to the funeral, tens of thousands of mourners flooded past Alexei's open coffin as the church's main cathedral remained open for a 72-hour vigil.
Elected patriarch of Moscow and All Russia just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the late Holiness' significant, fearless strides toward rebuilding the church in an open society were hailed by his interim successor, who termed him "a man of planetary scale":
"Bringing wreaths to the coffin of the Holiest One, let us bring him our main wreath - our sincere prayers, pour readiness to follow the same path, without stirring up any conflicts or hostility, without trying to establish authority by force, but carrying our hearts to people, opening them to everybody so that the only solid and real connections can be established in response to love like that of Christ the Savior, so that love can prevail and so that peace, prosperity and well-being can prevail together with it," Metropolitan Kirill said during the funeral service....Yet with the election of Alexei's successor at most six months away, the hustings have even now begun.
Under Patriarch Alexy II, the Russian Orthodox Church became "the only force preserving the traditions and values of holy Russia," Metropolitan Kirill stressed.
Patriarch Alexy II "always respected the sovereignty of the countries of the former USSR, but understood that these divisions could not divide the people's single system of values," Metropolitan Kirill said.
"Through his service, the Holiest formed the unity of the holy Russia, and the unity of historical Russia was formed through that," Metropolitan Kirill said.
At the beginning of his service as Patriarch, Alexy II received a weak Church, which was unable to "fully use its spiritual potential," but the Church he left is different, Metropolitan Kirill said.
"It is no longer weak and lives with its people," he said.
As previously noted, Kirill's longstanding role as the patriarchate's well-regarded point-man to the Vatican -- and Medvedev's reported intent to see better relations with Rome -- have placed the 62 year-old locum tenens at the head of the pack... a reality highlighted by the speed with which reports were spread that the metropolitan had "fainted" during the hours-long funeral liturgy.
By day's end, the patriarchate was forced to issue an official denial... and from here, expect things to get even more charged.
PHOTOS: Reuters(1); AFP/Getty(2)