Question:

We hear and read during the last few days so many contradictory things related to the Ukrainian question, things that are making us dizzy. We would like to hear from you in some detail how the relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate have reached
such a point of crisis.

The following is an attempt to answer your question:

The crisis in the relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate has deep roots. Moscow has, for centuries, espoused to the theory of the so-called “Third Rome”.

It is a theory, or rather prophesy, attributed to the 16th century Russian monk Philotheos of Pskov (abbott of the Yelizarov Monastery) and exploited alternatively as a result of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. According to this theory, the First and old Rome fell into heresy and cut herself off from the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The New Rome, Constantinople, with the fall of the Byzantine Empire and its subjugation to an Islamic regime was no longer free to lead the Orthodox Church in the world at large. For this reason, it is incumbent upon the Moscow Patriarchate, which is the only ecclesiastical body whose Seat is in a free Orthodox country, to rise as a Third Rome and lead the Orthodox Church worldwide. This is the basis upon which the Patriarchate of Moscow has been acting for centuries, either during the period of the czars in Russia who were seeking to be recognized as heirs of the Byzantine emperors, or during the Soviet Union era through an arbitrary intrusion into various countries beyond the borders of Russia. The basis of motives and actions of the Moscow Patriarchate seems to be similar, as it should not have been, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As it is known, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the countries that were forming this Union started becoming independent states from the communist sovereignty. Then, national borders were defined, governments of their own choice were elected and sovereign states were formed. Accordingly, the Orthodox Churches of those countries became also independent from the influence of Moscow and, one by one, started receiving a declaration of their autonomy, or Autocephaly, from the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The exact same thing had happened in earlier times, after the Ottoman Empire had collapsed. It was the Ecumenical Patriarchate at that time that bestowed upon various countries the Autocephaly: in 1879 upon the Serbian Church, in 1885 upon the Romanian Church and in 1945 upon the Bulgarian Church, recognizing them as Patriarchates. It was also the Ecumenical Patriarchate that declared the Autocephaly of the Church of Greece in 1850, of the Church of Poland in 1924, of the Church of Albania in 1937, of the Church of the Czech Republic and that of Slovakia in 1998. As to the Churches of Finland and Estonia, the Ecumenical Patriarchate bestowed upon them Autonomy in the year 1923.

These decisions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate received the recognition of all Orthodox Churches. Only one Church, and the second most populous in number of faithful at that, did not receive the Autocephaly; and this was the Ukrainian Church, which was under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as all other Churches were, as we just mentioned; after all, the Russian Church was also, originally, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Her Metropolitans were ordained, up to the 15th century, by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It was the Ecumenical Patriarchate that bestowed the Autocephaly upon the Church of Russia in 1448 and the one that also recognized later this Church as Patriarchate, in the year 1589.

Furthermore, it is important to note that it was a decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the time that defined the geographic boundaries of the Moscow Patriarchate, boundaries that did not include Ukraine. There has been no subsequent decision ever by the Ecumenical Patriarchate placing the Ukrainian Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. Therefore, when Ukraine became free from the Soviet Union and reconstituted itself as an independent state, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine requested, as had done all other countries with Orthodox population, to become a self-governed entity. This raised the anger of the Moscow Patriarchate to the point of declaring Metropolitan Philaret of Kiev (who had been ordained as bishop in 1962 and at the time he was Metropolitan of Kiev and of All Ukraine) as schismatic, as well as all the bishops, priests, monks and lay people who were asking for the Autocephaly. As it seems, all these people account of more than ten million faithful.

The suggestion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate made known to the Moscow Patriarchate was that a Committee should be formed to deal with this huge issue. Unfortunately, the Patriarchate of Moscow, for a quarter of a century, showed no signs of cooperation with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, nor was it able to restore unity within the Ukrainian Church. In the meantime, the Ecumenical Patriarchate was continuously receiving requests from both sides, the schismatic Metropolitans and the governments of the country, to settle the matter, all of them facing the turmoil in their country caused by the ecclesiastical division among its citizens.

In the end, the Ecumenical Patriarchate felt that the limits of patience had been exhausted. There seemed to be no signs for a solution from the side of the Moscow Patriarchate. The ecclesiastical situation in Ukraine had become unbearable. Church and government agents were constantly sending requests pleading with the Ecumenical Patriarchate to do, urgently, everything possible in the direction of forming an Autocephalous Church to which everybody would be a member for the reconciliation of all sides. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, as the first Seat of the Church, felt that it was her duty to act within the framework of her responsibilities, so that canonical order is restored, to the benefit of the millions of Ukrainian Orthodox. After all, there had been an interruption in the ecclesiastical communion, at no canonical fault on the part of the people, nor any dogmatic transgression from the Orthodox faith, but only and simply because that was what Moscow had decided.

After a long and protracted study of the issue, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with a clear mind and transparent procedures, began making decisions on the matter, which were consistent to those made repeatedly in the past, when the Patriarchate was bestowing Autocephaly to Churches to all other Orthodox countries, as we mentioned earlier. As it is quite evident, the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself had nothing to profit from the Ukrainian Church becoming independent, because by receiving the Autocephaly the Church in Ukraine would not be administratively dependent on the Ecumenical Patriarchate; as this is the case with all Autocephalous Churches, too.

However, the Moscow Patriarchate objected to this unifying and peace seeing action of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and started fighting harshly and with all means against it, distorting historical documents and events in a way as to expose for sure the Ecumenical Patriarchate negatively. Furthermore, as easily Moscow in 1992 proclaimed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine under the Metropolitan of Kiev as schismatic, so easily it took the liberty to proclaim also as schismatic … the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as well as all its Bishops, Priests, Monks who are serving the Orthodox Church in all five continents.

This proclamation included even the Holy Mountain that has been such a benefit to the Russian Church throughout history! But among the saddest and most tragic-comedic things that have been pronounced by Russian ecclesiastics has been the statement made by a Russian Metropolitan, member of the Synod, that all Churches under the Ecumenical Patriarchate have deprived themselves of … the Holy Spirit! This is a loaded and dangerous proclamation. It is as if the Russian bishops, exclusively, are owners of the treasures of the Holy Spirit and they are in a position to dispense, or deprive, Churches, Convents and Monasteries, where saintly persons reside, including the Holy Mountain Athos (that is to say, everybody under the auspices of the martyr Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople) of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, at their own absolute discretion and judgment!

The consequence of such an illogical decision was that all the Holy Sacraments, or Mysteries, which are taking place and are celebrated by these Churches, Convents and Monasteries are considered by Moscow to be … null and void! This is the reason why orders were given to Russians living in countries, which are under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, not to receive communion in Churches under its jurisdiction. It is only sad and painful that Bishops are those who have come to the point of using the sacrament par excellence, that of the Sacrifice of love and unity, as a weapon against brethren of the same confession, thus causing a schism in the very Holy Body of Christ which is the One Orthodox Church!

After resorting to decisions which have disturbed the conscience of the faithful people and the subsequent actions taken by the Moscow Patriarchate, it has become obvious that the Ukrainian issue served simply as a pretext used by the Moscow Patriarchate in order to project itself as the dominant Church agency over the entire world, thus placing the Ecumenical Patriarchate aside. In this respect, it is important to note that the Moscow Patriarchate has long ceased calling the Patriarchate of Constantinople “Ecumenical” acting also, in East, West and wherever possible, as a sovereign and dominant agency, putting aside in a contemptuous way the local Bishops who are under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Examples and cases of such a behavior are many. We will limit ourselves to a few of them: In 1970, the Moscow Patriarchate declared the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) Autocephalous.

On what Holy Canons, really, did the Moscow Patriarchate based this decision? (Similar thing happened with Japan, too, when declared “Autonomous Church of Japan”). As we have seen, bestowing Autocephaly upon local Churches has been, and remains, the prerogative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate alone. Certainly, no Orthodox Patriarchate has recognized the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Also, the Moscow Patriarchate keeps establishing parishes in cities where Metropolitans who are under the Ecumenical Patriarchate have their seats. The practice has reached the point of appointing an Archbishop over the Russian parishes in Asia, extending this way the Moscow sovereignty throughout the entire Asian continent, ignoring the existence of local Metropolitans of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in this continent.

An event that is revealing of the hegemonic kind of behavior on the part of Russian Bishops is the one that took place in the year 2015. During the 10th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea, the President of the Department of External Church Affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate declined to co-celebrate the Divine Liturgy with all other Orthodox Hierarchs-Representatives of the Autocephalous Churches at the Orthodox church of the Holy Metropolis of Korea, which the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew himself has consecrated. 

What did he do instead? He celebrated the Liturgy, alone, in a hall of the Russian Consulate!

He preferred the latter, at the displeasure of the rest of the Orthodox Hierarchs and faithful people who felt disdained by the Head of the Representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate.

One wonders, Why all this? So that he may not appear that the said Bishop recognize the  jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the Korean peninsula and thus also the Metropolitan of Korea, whom he and other Russian bishops who travel to Korea try to set aside and ignore with their actions? Or, perhaps, that should he had participated in the common liturgy he would have to hold the fifth place among the co-celebrant Bishops, according to the canonical order and not the first, as he would have, perhaps, preferred? Thus, in the Orthodox Church he is fifth, while in the Russian Consulate, alone! He preferred the latter, to the sadness and disappointment caused to the Orthodox Hierarchs and the faithful people for their disdain by the Head of the delegation of the Moscow Patriarchate. 

Another action of the Moscow Patriarchate was to extend its world sovereignty by lifting the schism in a state of which it was, since 1927, with the “Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia” (known as R.O.C.O.R.) and to confirm all ordinations and other practices executed outside the Russian boundaries, all performed against the Holy Canons. In this context one has to note that no Orthodox Church had ever been in an ecclesiastical relationship with the R.O.C.O.R. Furthermore, one should mention that the Presiding Bishop over R.O.C.O.R. in Korea has ordained a Korean man (we are bypassing any further details) whom he has appointed as Head of the Orthodox Russian Missionary Church in Korea. He is projecting him to the Korean authorities as his personal representative and has even demanded that the canonical Metropolitan of Korea also recognize him as such!

Recently, on November 23rd, 2018, the Presiding over the Department of External Church Affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate during his visit to Seoul, Korea, announced to the Russians who responded to his invitation, that soon a Russian priest will be transferred to Seoul to be their pastor. When they responded to him that “We have already a Russian-speaking priest in Seoul and a church of our own; we are all served properly and in need of no other priest”, his reply was, “We have made our decision and we will send you a Russian priest.”

They are doing the same thing in Attaleia, Asia Minor, even though there are Orthodox churches there, served by Russian-speaking priests.

However, where the Moscow conduct is beyond characterization is that they sent a Russian priest to serve at the very seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in Constantinople itself! One wonders, Why? Is this done, perhaps, out of pastoral interest for the Russians residing in the city, or in order to offend the Ecumenical Patriarch directly? Something like this was done some 800 years ago, but by the heterodox Latin Crusaders. But an Orthodox priest to be established and be a celebrant in Constantinople “to disdain the Ecumenical Patriarch” is “a first”, that only the Patriarch of Moscow has ventured to do – something which, certainly, will survive as a dark page in the history of the Church involving those administering the Patriarchate of Moscow today.

With such a mentality preoccupying those who are in the leadership of the Russian Church and the kind of means they are using, can anyone hope that a day ever come in which the Moscow Patriarchate would be able to end the schism in Ukraine and unite the millions of faithful in that country into one body?

It is, precisely, for this reason that the Great Church of Christ, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, under the burden of responsibility that Holy Canons issued by Ecumenical Councils that lay heavy on her shoulders and as a Church of the First Seat, had to make an effort to unite all Orthodox people in Ukraine into one Autocephalous Church in that country. As His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has said, “The decision on the part of the Church of Constantinople is an act of sacrifice to the benefit of many millions of Ukrainian faithful.”

Certainly, a schism in the Church that has been there for decades does not heal in one moment. It is for this reason that I am calling you to come to help, all Orthodox, throughout the world with our ceaseless prayers. Amen.

+ The Metropolitan Sotirios of Pisidia

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