by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

This is a tale of two bishops, interesting for their contrasting narratives and presenting a classic choice for us all.

The first is His Holiness, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. His patriarchate is large and powerful. It has a membership of more than 90 million congregants, counts 314 dioceses, 972 monasteries, 40,500 full-time clerics, 4,000 plus deacons and 382 bishops. It has jurisdiction over the Ukranian Orthodox Church and is in full communion with other Eastern Orthodox patriarchates.

In recent weeks Partriarch Kirill has scandalized not only his own church but the entire world with his deafening silence and more than implicit support of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This despicable sin of omission is a result of his personal relationship and shared vision with Putin – one that links a spiritual unity and territorial expansion of Russia against a decadent West.

The invasion began on February 24th after months of assembling an overwhelming Russian military force around the perimeter of Ukraine. In two public sermons, one on February 27th and the other on March 6th, the patriarch made no direct mention of what from the beginning was a brutal attack on Ukraine. Instead, on both occasions, Kirill not only spiritualized the situation, “we should pray for peace, for the restoration of good fraternal relations between our peoples”, but he also hid behind the pious words, “God forbid that the present political [!] situation in fraternal Ukraine so close to us should be aimed at making the evil that have always striven against the unity of Russia and the Russian Church.”

There is little need to belabor the incredible blindness these words signify just as Russian military lined up 47 miles of tanks, began to advance on Kyiv and the resulting unbelievable destruction of buildings, murder of thousands, and millions of Ukranian people fleeing their country.

The second prelate is Saint Oscar Romero, martyred Archbishop of San Salvador in Central America. The anniversary of his assassination by death squads falls on Wednesday, March 24th while Kirill’s cravenness continues. Romero was a pastor who witnessed the deadly oppression of his people and spoke out forcefully and continually against it. And he spoke in Gospel terms.

“A Church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a Gospel that does not unsettle… proclaim a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed: what kind of gospel is that?”

“The Church is pointing out sin and society must listen to that accusation and be converted and so become what God wants.”

These are just two of the countless prophetic denunciations proclaimed by Archbishop Romero week after week in his Sunday homilies from the San Salvadoran cathedral. They were directed to all who were fomenting the fratricidal war in that country, most importantly the government and its military.

His final homily was the culminating statement of Archbishop Romero’s prophetic cries. It addressed specifically the army, the National Guard, the police and the military: “Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’… In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I IMPLORE YOU, I BEG YOU, I ORDER YOU IN THE NAME OF GOD: STOP THE OPPRESSON.”

There is no need to elaborate on the vast difference between the actions of these two shepherds. However, aside from this fascinating comparison, an age-old and ever-new definitive choice is again posed: to be or not to be. Kirill at least up to now and Romero without doubt have answered but in diametrically opposite ways. We pray for the one and pray to the other.

Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

2 thoughts on “A study of contrasts in two religious leaders during times of war

  1. I have long appreciated Fr. Nangle’s commentaries, and he is right as far as he goes, but there is a depth to this tragic story he doesn’t seem to discern.

    “As Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the ROC, explained in early 2019, “Ukraine is not on the periphery of our church. We call Kiev ‘the mother of all Russian cities.’ For us Kiev is what Jerusalem is for many. Russian Orthodoxy began there, so under no circumstances can we abandon this historical and spiritual relationship. The whole unity of our Local Church is based on these spiritual ties.”

    What spurred Patriarch Kirill to make that statement was the separation of much of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Russia in early 2019 with the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, with go-ahead from the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (i.e., Istanbul: who is the not-a-pope of world Orthodoxy, where national churches are self-governing). This involved the transfer of thousands of parishes and millions of believers from the long-existing Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has been under the ROC since the seventeenth century, to the brand-new OCU. The UOC-MP is self-governing under Moscow and there wasn’t much spiritual demand in Ukraine for independence from Russia, what Orthodox term autocephaly.

    However, the pressures of the not-quite-frozen conflict with Russia after 2015 made church issues a political football, and Ukraine’s then-President Petro Poroshenko made autocephaly his pet project, with backing from Ukrainian nationalists, who found it offensive that the UOC remained under Moscow, where the church is a vehicle for Putinism, Russian nationalism, and anti-Ukrainian aggression. Advocates of the new OCU had a valid point there, and they were also correct that, since autocephaly is the norm in the Orthodox world, why didn’t Ukraine have its own, fully independent national church?

    The answer there, that Orthodoxy tends to move on “Orthodox time” which appears glacially slow to secular minds, thinking more in terms of centuries than years or even decades, was unedifying to advocates of the OCU, who got their wish in early January 2019, when the Ecumenical Patriarch granted autocephaly to Ukraine’s new national church. What followed was predictably messy and politicized, with fights across Ukraine over parishes and clergy. This issue is neither simple nor clear-cut: the OCU is considered broadly nationalist (with exceptions) while the UOC, despite its Russian connections, has many laypeople who are Ukrainian patriots who don’t feel they belong to a “foreign” church. Moreover, this issue birthed a schism in global Orthodoxy that has reverberated on several continents, most recently in Africa. The OCU-UOC split has even caused heartburn among American Orthodox believers.

    Above all, the schism rendered Moscow white-hot with rage. The ROC viewed this as a direct attack on its “canonical territory” and on world Orthodoxy itself. The Kremlin, too, made no effort to conceal its outrage here. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov quickly denounced the Ecumenical Patriarch as Washington’s puppet: “His mission, obviously, is being prepared by the Americans and they do not hide that they are actively cooperating with him, using the slogan of ‘freedom of religion and belief’…Bartholomew’s mission, obviously, is to bury the influence of Orthodoxy in the modern world.” A few weeks later, Lavrov added fuel to the fire by castigating the OCU as “this travesty of history, and pursuing the objective of sowing discord between Russia and Ukraine in addition to preventing our peoples from being friends are essentially a crime [by the current Ukrainian regime] against their citizens.” A few months after that, Lavrov reiterated that this tragedy was all America’s fault: the ROC “is currently under tremendous pressure from a number of Western countries, primarily the United States, which set itself the goal of destroying the unity of world Orthodox Christianity.”

    It’s an article of faith in the Kremlin that the creation of the OCU is an American project designed to destroy world Orthodoxy and harm Russia. It’s painful for me to state this but the Russians have good reason to think this. Unlike absurd Kremlin propaganda lines about “Ukrainian Nazis” perpetrating “genocide” against Russians, the idea that Washington wanted the split of Orthodoxy in Ukraine is a reasonable inference upon examination of recent U.S. Government conduct. What’s the evidence?

    Our Kyiv embassy congratulated the OCU for its birth and the selection of its first primate, then the State Department in Washington amplified the same. Celebrating Constantinople’s grant of autocephaly, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed it as a “historic achievement for Ukraine” which represented America’s “strong support for religious freedom.” Pompeo’s statement left no doubt about America’s backing the OCU against the UOC. Pompeo’s position in the worldwide Orthodox schism was made clear by his subsequent meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch, whom the Secretary of State hailed as “a key partner as we continue to champion religious freedom around the globe.” Neither was this a partisan project, since the position of the Biden administration on this issue is identical to its predecessor’s. Four months ago, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also met with the Ecumenical Patriarch, reaffirming U.S. commitment to religious freedom, which in Moscow unsurprisingly looked like support for the OCU.

    Since very few Americans, and functionally no non-Orthodox ones, noticed any of this, it’s worth asking why the State Department felt compelled to take a public position on any of this. Does Foggy Bottom side with Sunni or Shia? What about Lutheranism versus Methodism? Who in Washington thought it was a good idea to throw its weight behind the OCU, since anybody who knew anything about Putinism and its religious-civilizational mission had to be aware that such statements were guaranteed to raise Moscow’s ire.

    That ire has now taken the form of air strikes, missile barrages, and advancing tank battalions. Just last month, Lavrov restated his government’s position that the United States stands behind the “current crisis in Orthodoxy.” As he explained without any word-mincing, Washington caused “the most serious dispute in the entire Orthodox world,” adding, “The United States of America had an immediate hand in the current crisis in Orthodoxy. They created a special mechanism, a special agency for the freedom of religious confession, which actually is not dealing with freedom but most actively set up and financed Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew so that he conducted a device for schism, particularly in Ukraine, in the first place, for creating there the schismatic, uncanonical Orthodox Church of Ukraine.”

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