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The Pope, the Patriarch, and the Pan-Orthodox Council

The Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Church concluded Jan. 28 in Switzerland. – Courtesy of the Orthodox Christian Network Read more:
The Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Church concluded Jan. 28 in Switzerland.
– Courtesy of the Orthodox Christian Network

VATICAN CITY — The historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Havana Feb. 12 — the first such encounter since the Russian Orthodox Church was founded in the 10th century — would probably not have happened were it not for another historic upcoming meeting: the Pan-Orthodox Council.

The leaders of all Orthodox Churches will gather June 16-27 for the first time since 787. Over the succeeding 12 centuries, there have been councils of various levels attended by representatives of various Churches, but this will be the first Pan-Orthodox Council attended by all Orthodox leaders .

The meeting, which has been years in the making and was originally planned for Istanbul, will now take place in Greek Orthodox Crete, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The heads of the autocephalous, or self-governing, Orthodox Churches (there is not universal agreement among the Orthodox about the precise number of such local Churches) decided on most of the final details of the Council at a meeting, called a Synaxis of Primates, at the end of January in Chambésy, Switzerland.

The council is a fruit of long work carried out by local Orthodox Churches for more than 50 years but expectations are fairly muted. Speaking in Moscow Feb 2, Patriarch Kirill stressed that the council, which will only last 12 days, will not be like “ancient ecumenical councils” and it is “not called to make decisions on doctrinal issues because such were made long ago and are not subject to revision.” He also stressed it is not aimed at introducing “any innovation in the liturgical life of the Church and her canonical order.”

What it will do, he added, is become “an important factor” in building “inter-church unity and cooperation” and contribute to the “clarification of the responses that the Orthodox Church gives to challenges of today on the basis of her age-old Tradition.”

In an interview with the Register in 2014, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Department of External Church Relations, explained that a pan-Orthodox Council would not be an Orthodox equivalent of the Second Vatican Council “because their agendas are utterly different” and the Russian Orthodox, at least, “do not expect it to introduce any reforms making a substantial impact on the life of Orthodoxy.”

Topics of Discussion

Ten topics for discussion have been on the table since the 1970s, but only seven of them made it through to the June meeting having been passed unanimously by the Council’s participants in Chambésy. These concern the Orthodox diaspora; autonomy and its manner of proclamation (autonomy is different from autocephaly, and means a local Church is self-governing to a certain degree in internal matters but has a leader who is appointed or confirmed by the autocephalous Church that nurtures it); impediments to marriage; adaptation of Church regulations on fasting; relations of the Orthodox Churches with the rest of the Christian world; Orthodoxy and the Ecumenical Movement; and the contribution of the local Orthodox Churches to the prevalence of the Christian ideals of peace, liberty, brotherhood and love among peoples, and the eradication of racial and other discrimination.

Agreement couldn’t be reached on three other issues: the proclamation of autocephaly (the declaration of a church to be entirely self-governing); the Diptychs (not iconography, but the fact that Moscow has long stated that each Church should have the right to use its own hierarchical organization among the Churches and recognize that in liturgical celebration; although some Orthodox Churches oppose this, the Russian Orthodox maintain this rule shouldn’t be changed): and the establishment of a common calendar (it was hoped that a common Christian date for Easter could be set, but Patriarch Kirill is understood to have been particularly opposed to discussing such a possibility).

At the January meeting, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the acknowledged “first among equals” of the world’s Orthodox prelates, said four matters needed to be resolved before the council takes place. These were the rules of the meeting itself, the invitation of observers, the assurance that the council would be considered valid, and the requirement for consensus in all official statements.

The council will include a liturgy to be celebrated on June 19, the feast of Pentecost on the Eastern calendar, in the Crete capital of Heraklion at St. Minas Cathedral.

Long-Standing Rivalries

A good deal of politicking forms the backdrop to the June council, including long-standing rivalries among Orthodox leaders. Both Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Patriarch Kirill differ widely on a variety of issues including contested boundaries of their respective jurisdictions, especially in the diaspora, but also in predominantly Orthodox lands such as Ukraine.

Two-thirds of the world’s Orthodox population are Russian Orthodox, while the Ecumenical Patriarchate numbers less than 3,000 faithful in Istanbul. The two are constantly vying for primacy — a dispute that has become one of the most serious within the Christian East, with significant repercussions for Catholic-Orthodox relations.

Rivalries also exist at a lower level between Metropolitan John Zizioulas, essentially the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s representative abroad who has close ties with the Vatican, and his Moscow counterpart, Metropolitan Hilarion. The two have principally differed over the thorny matter of primacy and politics. Metropolitan Zizioulas is critical of Metropolitan Hilarion’s close ties to the Russian state; Metropolitan Hilarion is suspicious of Metropolitan Zizioulas’ concept of primacy, which he believes resembles a kind of papal authority over the Orthodox East.

Also pertinent to the council are ecumenical relations. In the approved procedures for the meeting (signed by all leaders except the patriarchate of Antioch), the Orthodox leaders agreed that “observers” from other Christian churches or confessions as well inter-Christian organizations “shall be present at the opening and closing sessions of the council without the right to vote or speak.” Among the first to be invited will be Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

Differing Views on Ukraine

Jostling for power between Bartholomew and Kirill, and who ends up in the more powerful position, will be a central focus of the council, especially given current events. One of these is that Bartholomew wants to grant autocephaly to Ukraine, which is the Russian Orthodox Church’s power base.

“Maybe more than half of the faithful claimed by the Russian Orthodox Church are in Ukraine,” explained Bishop Borys Gudziak, head of the Department of Foreign Relations of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. “So if Ukraine becomes ecclesially independent, autocephalous, and the Orthodox and Ukrainians unite, it will probably be the biggest Orthodox Church in the world if you count number of people who actually practice.”

The Russian Orthodox are currently losing parish after parish to the patriotic Ukrainian Orthodox Church. According to Catholic Eastern-rite sources, Bartholomew wants to be the “grand arbiter,” which he is supposed to be, but Moscow wants to be an “Orthodox pope.”

Ukraine Orthodox autocephaly “is crucial now,” Bishop Gudziak told the Register. “One of the arguments for the Russian Orthodox in presenting their case to the other Orthodox Churches is that they are the biggest Church, and that will not be true if Ukrainian Orthodoxy becomes independent.”

So in his speech to the Synaxis of Primates in Geneva, Patriarch Kirill was firm in expressing his “deep concern for the actions of some hierarchs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople,” who, he said, “expressed their support” for those “sowing temptation among the Ukrainian faithful and clergy.”

Still, despite the unresolved issues and tensions ahead of the Pan-Orthodox Council, Patriarch Kirill told the Orthodox delegates in Geneva that he hoped the meeting would “show us and the whole world the truly conciliar nature of our Church, thus helping consolidate the pan-Orthodox unity.” He called for prayer that the Lord help efforts to “benefit of the Church and in overcoming all the difficulties standing in the way towards her Great and Holy Council.”

Vatican Support

The historic meeting on Friday in Havana with Pope Francis will have helped boost Patriarch Kirill’s standing and political weight. He is understood to have wanted the meeting ahead of the council in order to convey powerful symbolism that he could use to his own advantage during the historic June meeting.

For its part, the Vatican understandably welcomes the council, seeing it as a “sign of brotherhood” and important to Catholic-Orthodox relations, principally because it contributes to internal unity and so augurs well for future dialogue. Officials are disappointed that the “most controversial” issues are off the table, but welcomes the council as a “first step” to having other councils in the future.

The Vatican is also hoping the Pan-Orthodox Council will help an important Catholic-Orthodox meeting in September, when theologians from the two Churches hope to sign a new document on the issue of primacy and synodality.


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