Saturday, January 31, 2009

The priest the Communists could not silence (Contribution)

“Here in Smolensk we make the best bread in Russia,” said Metropolitan Kirill at his dinner table in November 1999. His lively conversation about the selection of grain and its milling held my attention, not least because he told me that his diocese had financial control over this local industry.

His words have come back strongly to me after his election this week as Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, because his critics at home have been resurrecting the story of how he became immensely rich through being involved in the import, avoiding taxes, of eight billion of cigarettes in the 1990s.

More recently and more legitimately, it is said, that he has been much involved in the automotive and other industries and is now the richest man in the Church.

The new Patriarch is — and has been for a considerable time — the most powerful man in the Russian Orthodox Church. His election as Patriarch is no surprise, though that has not prevented considerable lobbying and a contested election.

It seems as though Kirill was even powerful enough to block a website, Portalcredo.ru, perhaps the only source of independent comment on church affairs in Russia, after criticism of him had appeared on it.

Last weekend it closed down and Alexander Soldatov, its editor, reported that a hacker broke in and destroyed its database.

I was in Smolensk nearly ten years ago at the invitation of Kirill, the diocesan bishop. The BBC was planning the first in what would be a series of broadcasts from the Russian Orthodox Church.

For the first, Kirill insisted that we should go to his diocese. My producer, the Rev Stephen Shipley, and I were soon convinced that the choice was excellent. We saw the church in its strongest aspect, rebuilding its life after 70 years of persecution.

Kirill insisted that I lecture in the new diocesan seminary, and we also visited the impressive school for female church singers and conductors. There was an openness among all the church leaders we met, a desire for contact after years of isolation.

Whatever the other criticisms of the new Patriarch — for his authoritarianism and anti-Catholic stance, for example — he is reckoned in Russia to have been a highly successful bishop in his diocese (which included the exclave of Kaliningrad) and to have made strong contacts with the intelligentsia.

But how did such a strong man find himself in this provincial city, four hours west by train from Moscow? Nepotism explains his early rise. He was a protégé and relative of the formidable Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad, who dominated Russian church affairs in the 1960s and 1970s.

But he was also an able theologian, which persuaded Nikodim to appoint him as rector of the Leningrad Theological Academy at the age of only 28.

His high-profile attempts to reform theological education annoyed the communist authorities, who secured his removal to Smolensk in 1984 — out of harm’s way, as they thought.

How wrong they were! It was in Smolensk that Kirill honed his skills. He become head of the Department of Foreign Relations, a post he has held for 20 years, and he transformed the internal government of the Church.

In 1961, at the outset of a serious outbreak of religious persecution under Khrushchev, a new ustav (regulation) had removed parish priests from executive power in their own parishes, clearing the way to the massive closure of churches.

Now, before Mikhail Gorbachev began to facilitate church reform in the mid-1980s, Kirill drafted a new ustav.

This massive document — 34 detailed pages — came to the fore in 1988 at the sobor (council) marking the millennium of the conversion of Russia. He presented his document in a masterful way. It was accepted, though subsequently critics have pointed out that it contains loopholes for potential manipulation by the church leadership. His rise was now assured in the liberal climate by then prevailing.

He further prepared himself for an international role by spending a few weeks at Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham to improve his English.

The question now being asked in the Vatican, Poland and elsewhere is: will this Patriarch invite the Pope to Moscow?

He seems to have had early sympathy with the Roman Catholic Church, and I perceived a certain openness in his Smolensk seminary, for example.

This, however, changed when the Vatican created four dioceses in Russia and Kirill strongly criticised this. The Vatican, though, seems hopeful that relations will improve now.

Keston Institute’s Atlas of Contemporary Religious Life in Russia, volume 3 of which has just been published, designates him as a “popular and colourful figure who has regular meetings with the scientific and artistic intelligentsia of Smolensk” and is brilliant in the field of education.

He supports a “powerful Russian State”, and it will be interesting to observe his developing relations with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, who have similar views.
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Sotto Voce

(Source: CCN)

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