Ukraine: The Isolated Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow

July 12, 2022

From the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Ukrainian Orthodox authorities under the Patriarchate of Moscow expressed their opposition to the conflict and distanced themselves from Patriarch Kirill. Indeed, the latter made no secret of his support for the policy of Putin's government and justified the military intervention as a “metaphysical fight” of good versus the evil of the West.

Break With the Moscow Patriarchate

According to Ukrainian law, the members of a parish can decide by a two-thirds majority on the transfer of the community to another confession. A number of Ukrainian parishes that have been faithful to Moscow until now, mostly in the western part of the country, have decided to leave the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, whose primate is the Patriarch of Moscow.

About 60% of the 41 million Ukrainians profess Orthodox Christianity. They primarily belong to two different Churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Moscow or the Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church (autocephalous), founded at the end of 2018. The Church faithful to Moscow has more parishes by far in Ukraine than any other denomination.

The dissensions between Kyiv and Moscow have been worsening over the weeks. The Clerical-Lay Assembly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, convened by Metropolitan Onuphry of Kyiv on May 27, 2022 declared its full independence from the Moscow Patriarchate.

The assembly approved the amendments to the administrative statutes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, stating the “full independence and autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” The assembly's final statement “condemns war as a violation of God's commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill!' (Ex. 20:13) and sympathizes with all those who have suffered in war.”

It affirms its “disagreement with the position of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all the Russias on the war in Ukraine. Not only did he not condemn Russia's military aggression, but he also had nothing to say regarding the suffering Ukrainian people,” the Ukrainian Church spokesman said.

The break with Moscow does not, however, mean joining the recently established Independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, recognized in 2019 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and considered schismatic by Moscow. The assembly nevertheless has opened the door to dialogue, but set its terms.

It “expresses deep regret over the lack of unity in Ukrainian Orthodoxy. It is deplorable that the recent actions of the Patriarch of Constantinople in Ukraine, which has resulted in the formation of the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine,” have only increased misunderstandings and provoked physical clashes. However, the assembly does not lose hope of resuming dialogue even under such circumstances.”

For this the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” must stop the seizure of churches and the forced transfers of the parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church; recognize the fact that their canonical status is non-autocephalous; and verify the apostolic succession of the bishops of the so-called autocephalous Church.

The Sudden Change in Metropolitan Hilarion

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk has been appointed head of the diocese of Budapest and Hungary, Vatican News announced on June 7, 2022. He has been relieved of his obligations as chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow, permanent member of Synod, and rector of the Saints Cyril and Methodius Institute of Higher Studies, said the Patriarchate of Moscow.

The transfer of the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk was decided at the meeting of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church that same June 7. Metropolitan Hilarion has been replaced by Metropolitan Anthony of Chersonese, who remains responsible for the Exarchate of Western Europe as well as director of the administration of the institutions of the Patriarchate of Moscow abroad.

Thereby, Patriarch Kirill has appointed his former secretary, Metropolitan Antoine, who has been Metropolitan of Paris for the past few years, says Vatican News.

Aged 55, a key man of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion had just made a trip to Hungary from June 1 to 5, 2022 where he met the Archbishop of Budapest and Primate of Hungary, Cardinal Peter Erdő.

Committed to ecumenical dialogue, he has made numerous visits to the Vatican, particularly in 2014 and 2015 when he participated as a delegate to the synods on the family. Hilarion was one of the linchpins of relations between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the Zenit agency reported on June 8, 2022.

He was present at the meeting of the two men in Cuba with Cardinal Kurt Koch on February 12, 2016. And during the press conference on the plane returning from Athens to Rome on December 6, 2021, the pope confided his hope of meeting Kirill again: “I believe that next week Hilarion will come to see me to agree on a possible meeting.” This sudden shift seems to be a sanction.

A Divided Patriarchate?

The Italian Catholic news agency SIR published an interview with Gianni Stefano Caprio, professor of Russian history and culture at the Pontifical Oriental Institute. According to him, the Patriarch of Moscow often treats his closest collaborators in this way: sometimes without warning, depending on his mood, he transfers them, sends them to other places to perform other tasks.

In the case of Hilarion – from what we understand, the Italian professor points out – the fact that the Metropolitan was too independent, took too many initiatives on his own, in particular by

trying to open avenues of dialogue and diplomatic relations, was not appreciated at a time when Patriarch Kirill took a more rigid and intransigent position on the war.

“It had been rumored for some time in patriarchal circles that Hilarion was going his own way. During the last three months, he has never made a speech in support of the war, as the Patriarch of Moscow did,” explains Gianni Stefano Caprio.

“Obviously he had different positions. I believe I understood that this visit to Hungary where he had met Cardinal Erdő had not been agreed to nor discussed between Hilarion and the Patriarch. We can therefore assume that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he concludes.

Patriarch Kirill has already dismissed both conservatives and progressives, intransigents and liberals, continues the Italian professor. Thus, he recalled from Paris the very young Metropolitan Antoine, 36 years old and his own former personal secretary… after having sent him to Paris three years ago to replace the previous Metropolitan who was deemed to be too weak regarding relations with Constantinople.

Professor Caprio specifies that the patriarch finds himself in a very critical situation within the Patriarchate of Moscow, between the liberals and the conservative radicals. “It is also possible,” he adds, “that pressure was exerted by the Kremlin to sideline Hilarion, who sought to have too much contact with the 'Westerners.'”

“It is certain that, orthodoxy having no center, any bishop of any patriarchate can disagree and change his guardianship. This creates divisions in Orthodoxy in general, between Russians and Ukrainians, and even within the Moscow Patriarchate,” confirms Professor Caprio.