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New Russian Patriarch Kirill I pledges to keep church unified

Kirill I, the 16th patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Photo from the Russian Orthodox Church

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who was enthroned in Moscow as Kirill I, the 16th patriarch in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church has stressed it is his task to ensure unity within the church to preserve the faith, but he is also seen as being a more "political leader" than his predecessor by some analysts.

Hundreds of gold-vested hierarchs, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attended the three-and-a-half-hour service on 1 February along with a Vatican delegation led by Cardinal Walter Kasper. The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, was also present.

Four of Russia’s most famous choirs performed in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, chanting in Greek, "Axios! Axios! Axios!" ("He is Worthy!"), during the installation of the first Russian Orthodox patriarch to be elected since the fall of the Soviet Union.

In his first sermon as patriarch, after he was vested in his robes, cowl and mitre, Kirill stressed the importance of church unity, which has been threatened by calls in Ukraine to break with Moscow and dissent within Russia about the church’s links with others.

"The Patriarch is the custodian of the internal unity of the Church and, together with his brothers in the episcopate, guardian of the purity of the faith," he said.

Then he addressed the issues of the collapse of the Russian Empire and later of the Soviet Union. This continues to affect the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill said, since its territory extends beyond the borders of the present-day Russian Federation..

"The Patriarch is the defender of the canonical borders of the church. This ministry takes on special significance in that situation that arose after the formation of independent states on the territory of ‘historical Rus’," he stated.

Illustrating the transformation of Church-State relations since the fall of communism, Medvedev and Putin were prominent in the cathedral decorated with gold-trimmed frescoes. The place of worship was destroyed on the orders of dictator Josef Stalin in 1931, and rebuilt in the 1990s.

Putin and Medvedev were present at the cathedral altar to witness the moment of Kirill’s ascension onto the patriarchal throne. At the end of the service, Medvedev gave a short address in which he expressed hope that the enthronement of Kirill would usher in closer dialogue between Church and State. The Patriarch’s role, he said, is especially important in Russia.

"Russia is a complicated State, inhabited by many different peoples, by followers of different faiths, and in this sense also the mission of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia is extremely notable," said Medvedev.

Kirill I had been elected in the cathedral on 27 January by a Russian Orthodox Church council of bishops, clergy, monks and lay people. He succeeded Patriarch Alexei II, who died on 5 December after leading the church through the post-Soviet era.

Critics of Kirill who supported the two other main candidates, Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, and Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk, had argued that Kirill was tainted by scandals in the 1990s connected to tax breaks on imports of alcohol and tobacco originally granted to the church to support reconstruction. He had also been called too showy, media-oriented and political.

"He is without a doubt more politicised than Alexsei," said Nikolai Mitrokhin, a researcher on the Russian Orthodox Church at the Centre for East European Studies at Germany’s University of Bremen. Mitrokhin noted that Kirill is the chairperson of a nationalist organization called the World Russian People’s Council and speaks constantly of ‘Holy Rus’."

At the same time, Mitrokhin told Ecumenical New International, Kirill developed a modernist reputation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but one that tends towards enlightened absolutism. He said strident nationalists in the church fear Kirill’s ecumenical ties.

In his sermon, Kirill said, "In an era of moral relativism, when the propaganda of violence and debauchery steals the souls of young people, we cannot wait quietly for youth to turn to Christ." He asserted, "We must be of service to young people, however hard it might be for us of middle and older generations, and help them find faith in God and meaning in life, and together with this an understanding of true human happiness."

(c) Ecumenical News International

Photo : Kirill I, the 16th patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Photo from the Russian Orthodox Church