Friday, March 15, 2013

Window on Eurasia: New Pope a Mixed Blessing for the Kremlin and the Patriarchate

Paul Goble

Staunton, March 15 -- After its problems with the Polish John Paul II and its more hopeful ties with the German Benedict XVI, Moscow views the new Argentine pope, Francis I, as a very mixed blessing, someone with whom the Russian government and its Church may be able to cooperate on occasion but someone whose approach challenges the way both do business.

            In a commentary on the site, Aleksandr Soldatov, one of the most thoughtful independent observers of the Russian religious scene, says that the election of Pope Francis is “for the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate more bad than good news” (

            But Soldatov suggests that despite that, there are some aspects of the new pontiff’s approach that may allow at least limited cooperation between the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate on particular questions, such as missionary work in Orthodox countries like Russia and support for traditional values.

            The direction the new pope is likely to pursue, Soldatov argues, is shown by the name he has chosen for himself. “The Catholic Church knows only one Francis, he of Assisi, and therefore the selection of his name by the Pope clearly indicatives thepriorities of the new pontificate – ‘the apostolate of poverty’ with its struggle against luxury and an overly comfortable life.”

            Moreover, the background of Francis I has involved his involvement and cooperation with “’eastern spirituality,’” including with the man who now leads the Urainian Greek-Catholic Church, Archbishop Svyatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv and Galicia.

            Both these apects of the life of Francis put him at odds with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, and they may explain why Kirill did not rush to congratulate Francis the way he had done earlier when Benedict was elected to the papacy, the church observer suggests.
            But there is still more that separates Francis and Kirill. When he was an archbishop, Francis organized in his cathedral “joint prayers with Musims and Jews,” something the Russian churchman has been loathe to do. And that too means that the new pope can”scarcely hope for friendship with Moscow,” at least under its current leaders.

            Moreover, he says, the new pope has shown himself to be “an opponent of the Latin mmass and Catholic traditionalists with whom Benedict XVI sought rapprochement,” an attitude that makes an “alliance” between the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate in support of  “’European values’” and against “conceptions of human rights hardly possible.”

            “On the other hand,” Soldatov says, “the new Popealready in his younger days radically distanced himself from ‘liberation theology’ which is popular in Latin America” because he concluded that it had absorbed too many elements from Marxism.  On that point, at least, the Pope and the Patriarch probably agree.

            But the real obstacle to a rapprochement of the two church leaders and something that almost certainly precludes any meeting between the two anytime soon, the Portal-Credo commentator suggests, are the positive feelings of the new pope to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

            Archbishop Shevchuk of that church sys that the new pope was educated by one of the Greek Catholic leaders, knows the liturgy of the Greek Catholic church, is informed by its spirituality and will, beyond any doubt, “be concerned” about a church that the Moscow Patriarchate in general and Kirill in particular view as a threat to their dominance.

            But in some ways, even this relationship of the new pope to the Ukrainians is of less moment with regard to the relationship between Rome and Moscow than is the clear contrast between the commitment of Francis to fighting ostentation and helping the poor and the way in which Kirill has promoted luxury in the Russian hierarchy and close ties with the Kremlin “sometimes agains the interests of [his] flock.

            ‘There is every reason to think that the values of Pope Francis do not correspond to all this ‘Gospel of wealth,’” that Kirill has pushed, Soldatov concludes, and every reason to believe that his example will represent the kind of challenge that Kirill in particular will resent and oppose.

            Francis may not represent the frontal attack against the Russian Church that many of the hierarchs of the latter saw in John Paul II, who was invariably described by Moscow as “the Polish pope,” but the new pontiff does represent – as other Russian commentators have observed  – “a breathe of fresh air” for church life not only in the West but in Russia as well.

           A somewhat more hopeful reading of the new pope at least from the perspective of the Russian Church is offered by a commentary in the Orthodox publication, “Neskuchny sad,” which directly addressesthequestion of “how the new pope of Rome will relate to the Orthodox” (

           It cites the comment of Bishop Ioann of Caracas and South America concerning his relations with Francis before he was elected pope.  When he was still an archbishop and cardinal in Argentina, Ioann observes, he was extremely helpful to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, especially after that church decided to establish communion with the Moscow Patriarchate.

          Not only did the then-archbishop help to overcome divides between the hierarchy of the Church Abroad and the leaders of many of its congregations who objected to ties with Moscow, Ioann says, but he also helped smooth the way for the registration of the hierarchy with the Argentinian government.

          According to Ioann, the then-“Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio displayed GREAT INTEREST in Orthodoxy,” visiting “all the main holiday serviesin the cathedrals of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Buenos Aires” and providing facilities for the display of church art when the Orthodox needed them. (For more detail on this, see 

         For the Moscow Patriarchate in general and Kirill in particular, establishing communion with and ultimately the absorption of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, these past actions of the new pope, the “Neskuchny sad” commentary says, “speak to the willingness of the new pontificate to engage in dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church.”

         The weekly then adds that “a number of experts on the Vatican say that the new pope will not support proselytism in traditionally Orthodox coutries but will turn his primary attention to the growth of the Catholic church in the developing countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.”

         Such predictions may reflect more the hopes of their authors than anything else, but they and the other observations by “Neskuchny sad” suggest that there may be some basis for cooperation between the new leader of the Vatican and Kirill in limited areas, even if they approach their pastoral responsibilities in such contrasting ways.

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