Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Birth of a Patriarch

As today's election of Patriarch Kirill as head of the Russian Orthodox church was completed after the Vatican's close of business, the Holy See's first official reactions will likely surface in the morning.

In the meantime, however, more context and analysis comes courtesy of Inside the Vatican's ever-eminent Bob Moynihan:

This choice, nearly 20 years after the collapse of Soviet communism, marks an epoch in the life of the Russian Church, and of Russia herself.

Kirill, whom I have had the occasion to meet and come to know, is a dynamic person, energetic, decisive. He has deeply-held convictions about his faith, about the role of that faith in the future of his country, and about the role of that faith in the future of Europe and the world. He is persuaded that only a return to "real values" can enable Russia and Europe to confront the current economic and cultural crisis. He believes Russia's greatness, eclipsed in recent years, can only be restored by the renewal of her ancient Orthodox faith.

Therefore, Kirill will attempt a double agenda: (1) to build on what Patriarch Alexi accomplished during the 18 years of his patriarchate, continuing to rebuild the Church's ruined infrastructure (thousands of Orthodox churches have been rebuilt around Russia since 1991); and (2) to launch a series of new initiatives to strengthen the Church's voice and influence in Russian society.

Kirill can be expected, then, to continue rebuilding Russian churches, reopening schools, expanding seminaries, renewing monasteries, and in general restoring the outward signs of Russian Orthodox religious life.

But Kirill, who was the key figure behind the unprecedented promulgation of the Church's social teaching in a document in the year 2000, can also be expected to take bold new steps to go beyond renewing the institutional structure of the Church.

Kirill wants to affect society.

The new Patriarch, who has for several years had his own Sunday morning television show, wants the voice of the Church, the voice of Christian teaching and Christian values, to be heard in contemporary Russia on the great questions facing the country and the world -- in economics, in law, in family life, in education, in social reform projects, in culture.

Kirill, a powerful public speaker, has been extremely active in recent years, traveling the world from Indonesia to Brazil, from Rome to Havana to Geneva, to preach and build friendships in dozens of countries. (He did this in his role as the "Foreign Minister" of the Russian Orthodox Church, heading up the Church's External Relations Department.)

It is not clear whether this type of travel will also mark his patriarchate, but it is certain that it will be a patriarchate with a global scope. It could not be otherwise, considering his life experience in recent years.

One great question concerns his relations with the Pope of Rome and with the Roman Catholic Church in general. It seems certain that Kirill, who has traveled several times to Rome and has met with Pope Benendict XVI more than once, will invite Benedict to visit Russia -- something Pope John Paul II wished to do but was not able to due to the unwillingness of Patriarch Alexi to receive him....

"Kirill has a keen sense of the important role of religious institutions in public life," said Daniel Schmidt, an American philanthropist who has met and spoken at length with Kirill. "He recognizes the essential role of religious faith, not just in his own country, but in human society in general, in building social trust," Schmidt, director of programs for the Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said. The foundation has supported many Russian youth centers, orphanages, clinics and schools over the past 10 years.

Kirill's election, then, may usher in a time when the Russian Church will be more open to collaboration and common efforts, in Russia and worldwide, with the Catholic Church, and with others as well.

Kirill, who has already been serving for eight weeks as "interim Patriarch" (he was chosen by his fellow bishops to carry out the duties of patriarch after the death of Alexi II on December 5), made his mind clear in a homily he delivered on January 6 at a Christmas Eve Mass held at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (following the Julian calendar, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7).

More than 3,000 attended the Mass, including Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, accompanied by his wife, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and hundreds of other dignitaries, as well as the Pope's nuncio, or ambassador, to Russia, Italian Archbishop Antonio Mennini.

Kirill invited those present to be valiant during the current economic crisis, and asked for spiritual help for the nation's president.

The word "crisis" comes from the Greek meaning "decision," Kirill said. He said that today decisions have been affected by certain attitudes, such as "greed, loss of control over consumption, a bid to enrich oneself by all means and have as much as possible." He said the crisis began when people forgot true values, and that further crises could be avoided if values provided the foundation for the economy.

"Today we recall how the Son of God came down to people so that each one of us could rejoin Him. But to allow this to happen, there must be a response on our part, response worthy of divine love -- our own love, active and sacrificial," Kirill said....

Kirill seems poised to strive to lessen the rift between the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

Kirill has said that "in the Vatican and not only in the Vatican but all over the world, Catholics understand that Orthodox (people) are their allies. And Orthodox (people) are more and more coming to understand that Catholics are their allies in the face of hostile and non-religious secularism."

PHOTOS: Reuters(1)