Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
February 2, 2009
Ecumenist elected to head Russian Orthodox Church
BY CINDY WOODEN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
VATICAN CITY - The Russian Orthodox Church has chosen its leading ecumenist to be its new patriarch, raising hopes of an improvement in often-strained relations between the Vatican and Moscow.
Pope Benedict said he learned "with joy" of the election of Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad as patriarch of the 150-million member Church.
Patriarch-elect Kirill has been in charge of the Russian Orthodox Church's ecumenical relations for the past 20 years and has had dozens of high-level contacts with the Catholic Church.
Patriarch-elect Kirill, 62, was elected patriarch of Moscow Jan. 27 during a meeting of the Church's local council, which is made up of more than 700 priests, monks and laypeople representing each diocese and foreign mission of the Church.
Patriarch-elect Kirill, who will be enthroned as head on Feb. 1, was seen as the candidate most open to improving ecumenical relations.
While he has often criticized papal actions taken to re-establish the work of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia, Patriarch-elect Kirill has met three times with Pope Benedict.
He had served as the Moscow Patriarchate's director of external affairs - its chief ecumenist - since 1989.
In that position, he held dozens of meetings with Cardinal Walter Kasper and his predecessors at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity as well as with the cardinals and Catholic bishops from around the world.
The patriarch-elect was chosen by the Russian Orthodox bishops to be the interim head of the Church after the death Dec. 5 of Patriarch Alexy II, who led the Church for more than 18 years.
Patriarch Alexy's tenure coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the establishment of democracy, and the long and difficult process of re-establishing the Russian Orthodox Church and religious practice after decades of communist repression.
But newfound freedom for the Russian Orthodox also brought the possibility for the Catholic Church to re-establish its structures in Russia and for the Ukrainian Catholic Church to worship freely in Ukraine, a process that led to Orthodox claims that the Catholic Church was trying to expand in traditionally Orthodox territory.
As late as December 2007 Metropolitan Kirill publicly called on the Vatican to downgrade the status of the four Catholic dioceses in Russia and reclassify them as "apostolic administrations," which they were prior to 2002.
When the Orthodox or Catholics have communities outside their traditional homelands, he said, a bishop should be in charge of their pastoral care, but that bishop should be an administrator, not the head of a diocese in territory already under the care of another bishop.
Even while tensions continued over matters of Church jurisdiction, Metropolitan Kirill and other Orthodox leaders affirmed the need for Catholics and Orthodox to work together to strengthen and defend religious and moral values in Europe and around the world.
The future patriarch began representing the Russian Orthodox Church at meetings of the World Council of Churches in 1971 and participated in official dialogues with the Catholic Church in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The Russian Orthodox Church named him chairman of the department for external Church relations in November 1989 and two years later he was elevated to the rank of metropolitan.
Pope Benedict, at the end of his Jan. 28 general audience, prayed that the new patriarch would be filled with "the light of the Holy Spirit for a generous service to the Russian Orthodox Church" and he entrusted the patriarch to "the special protection of the Mother of God."
Cardinal Walter Kasper, who as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity met Metropolitan Kirill dozens of times, said: "We are happy to have a patriarch with whom we have enjoyed fraternal relations for many years.
"We trust that we will be able to continue the common journey of reconciliation that we have begun," said the cardinal.
Kasper planned to fly to Moscow for Patriarch-elect Kirill's enthronement liturgy.
WELL-KNOWN AND ESTEEMED
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters Jan. 27 that the Vatican rejoiced with the Russian Orthodox over the election of their new leader.
Patriarch-elect Kirill "is a person who is well-known and esteemed" at the Vatican, Lombardi said.
Catholic Archbishop Paolo Pezzi, head of Moscow's Archdiocese of the Mother of God, told Vatican Radio Jan. 28 that Russian Catholics felt very positive about the new patriarch.
Pezzi told Vatican Radio he "would not exclude" the possibility that under the new patriarch finally there could be a personal meeting between the pope and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Despite the strong desire, first of Pope John Paul II and then of Pope Benedict, Patriarch Alexy repeatedly said that too many problems existed between the churches to make a meeting possible.
A personal encounter between the pope and the patriarch "is highly desirable," Pezzi said. It would mark a step forward in the process toward full communion between the two churches.