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The Ongoing War Divides (Forever?) the Orthodox

by Luigi Sandri

by Luigi Sandri. Confronti Editorial Staff

The split judgment on the “special operation” advanced by Putin against Kiev divides the Russian patriarchate from the Ukrainian Church which is linked to Moscow, from the Russians of European emigration and from the Romanian patriarchate. Unity in faith is therefore shaken by an uncontainable ethical and political evaluation of the consequences of the tragedy.

A jolt at the top of the Moscow patriarchate led by Bishop Kirill, who defends Vladimir Putin’s unfortunate decision to invade Ukraine; a trial of conscience for the Russian episcopate, clergy and faithful, at home and abroad; the possible reunification of the Orthodox Churches which have their center in Kiev, and which for three years were controversially opposed between the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church (CAOU), linked to the Patriarchate of Constantinople—and with which the Holy Synod of Moscow had broken the Eucharistic communion, considering it schismatic—and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (COU), linked to the patriarchate of Moscow, and led by Onufry; and the split in Orthodoxy, with the patriarchate of Bucharest calling the Russian patriarchate “cynical.” These are the “side effects”—supposedly unforeseen—of the Russian special military operation against the sister Republic.


 On February 24, Kirill announced, “It is with deep pain in my heart that I feel the suffering of the people, caused by the events that take place. As patriarch of a Church whose flock is found in Russia, Ukraine and other countries, I sympathize with all those affected by the misfortune. I urge the parties to the conflict to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.” Instead, he sided totally with Kiev and against the Kremlin Epifanij, primate of the CAOU. And the primate of the COU, Onufry, said: “Defending the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, we turn to the president of Russia and ask him to stop the fratricidal war immediately. The Ukrainian and Russian peoples arose from the baptismal fonts of the Dnieper and the war between these two peoples is the repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his brother out of jealousy. Such a war finds no justification either before God or before men.” The Holy Synod of the COU makes Onufry’s appeal its own; but the individual bishops go further: they ignore the name of Kirill during the “divine liturgy” (mass), beginning on Sunday 6 March. 

For Orthodoxy, when the bishop celebrates he must absolutely remember the primate of the Church with whom he is in communion. If he didn’t, it would be a schismatic gesture. Well, the metropolitans Eulogus of Sumy, Theodore of Mukachevo, Filarete of Lviv and another dozen have “forgotten” Kirill, explaining—as they said—that they do not tolerate his silence on the “invasion” in progress.

Dozens of parish priests have also done so; but then they launched a bold proposal: Onufry is to convene a local council—made up of all the bishops, and representatives of the clergy and faithful—to proclaim the autocephaly of the COU. Would this New Church be linked to Constantinople, or parallel to CAOU? In any case, without Ukraine, the Russian patriarchate would lose a third of its faithful.


Faced with the Ukrainian tragedy, sooner or later Kirill will have to convene the Episcopal Council—that is, all the bishops of the patriarchate. It will be a crucial moment and a a narrow escape, if there is an almost-unanimous consent to him. If, however, the critical wing were substantial, there would be a risk of a crisis involving Kirill (and also his “foreign minister,” Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk). Indeed, until February, the Russian episcopate agreed with Putin’s strong irritation at the continuing hostilities, and also violence, desired or tolerated by the Ukrainian government, of extremist nationalists against the Russians and Russian-speakers of the Donbass and the separatist republics of Donesk and Lugansk, a violence truly underestimated in the West. But perhaps some bishop will ask: could such violence justify an all-out war against Ukraine? Was it not enough, for example, to send the Russian army to defend those areas? Was it moral to bomb Kiev, other cities and their hospitals? 

Kirill could answer: deep Russia supports Putin, seen as the defender of our country’s rights, and the firm opponent of NATO’s expansion to the East. But—another objection—will the war, due to international sanctions, make even more precarious the daily life of the people? At this point the confrontation, in the Episcopal Council, will become dramatic; also because it will be weighed down by the critical voices of Russian Orthodoxy, at home and in Europe, against the war and against the patriarch. Over 270 Russian popes and deacons wrote, in an appeal launched in early March: “We mourn the ordeal to which our brothers and sisters in Ukraine have been undeservedly subjected,” and “the ongoing fratricide.” 

Someone will shake the Episcopal Assembly by reading the letter (protocol number: 2022.010) that Metropolitan Jean of Dubna, archbishop of the Orthodox Churches of Russian tradition in Western Europe, wrote to Kirill on March 9 from Paris: “In the name of the whole of our faithful I appeal to Your Holiness to raise your voice as Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church against this monstrous and senseless war [against Ukraine] and to intercede with the Authorities of the Russian Federation so that this may end as soon as possible. Indeed, “until recently it seemed impossible between two nations and two peoples united by centuries of history and their common faith in Christ.” Then Jean went against a thesis of Kirill, which in the West has made many people indignant. Three days earlier, in fact, the patriarch had harshly criticized gay pride which, he said, would make lawful behavior that is against the will of God, and ruin society: “Your Holiness, in the homily for Sunday del Perdono [6 March], had hinted that you just ‘take this war of aggression as a’ metaphysical fight, in the name ‘of the right to be on the side of the light, on the side of God’s truth, of that which reveals the word of Christ to us.’ With all respect, I tell you that I cannot subscribe to this reading of the Gospel.” 


Various Orthodox hierarchs—first Bartholomew—intervened, calling for the immediate cessation of the Russian” operation.” For his part, the spokesman of the Patriarchate of Romania declared, “The true Christian will distinguish between an authentic and worthy primate of the Church of Christ and a Primate morally and Christianly dishonored for his cynical complicity with the most hateful things that man without God is capable of committing: the war of conquest, terror, torture and death of masses of people.” These are actions that Innokentzy, Metropolitan of Vilnius and Lithuania, linked to Moscow: “We strongly condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine and pray to God for its rapid end … Patriarch Kirill and me have different political opinions and perceptions on current events. His political statements about the war express his personal opinion. We, in Lithuania, do not agree with it.” The interim secretary of the Ecumenical Council of Churches, the Romanian Ioan Sauca, also implored Kirill to “play the role of mediator to end the war.” In the background, a question: will the Russian Church be able to participate in the General Assembly of the CEC in Karlsruhe in September in Germany? The pope, in an unusual gesture on February 25, went to the Russian embassy to the Holy See to express his opposition to the war. And the nuncio to Moscow, Giovanni D’Aniello, met Kirill on 3 March who – he will specify later in the press release – recalled with pleasure his meeting with Francis, in Cuba, in 2016; he made no explicit reference to Ukraine. On Sunday 6, Bergoglio said, “In Ukraine rivers of blood and tears flow… War is madness!” And on the 13th: “In the name of God, stop this slaughter! Focus really and decisively on negotiations.” Could there be a Vatican mediation? Even if the pope would be well-disposed to do so, will Putin be, after consulting with Kirill? On the 16th, Francis and the patriarch telephoned each other: the first reiterated that “there is no just war;” but, according to the Moscow communiqué, the two “discussed how to overcome the consequences of the current crisis.”

Luigi Sandri

Luigi Sandri

Confronti Editorial Staff

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