(Above) The Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow at the consecration of the Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces in 2020.
José Maria C.S. André
In recent weeks, the news from Russia was brimming with hope. The Orthodox Church’s aversion to Catholics was dissipating, the Pope would meet the Moscow Patriarch, and the war in Ukraine could end.
Traditionally, Russians view Catholic leaders as partners of Russia-hating American tycoons, but that opinion is changing. When numerous Orthodox Christians were kidnapped by ISIS in Syria, the Pope was the only international voice that did not remain silent until they were released. This act went unnoticed in the Western world, but it meant a lot to the Russians. More recently, when the Ukrainian Orthodox broke away from Moscow, the Catholic Church did not take advantage of the fact to negotiate a collective conversion to Catholicism, and again, this was appreciated among the Orthodox of both sides. Finally, they found that the Church sincerely desires peace and not the annihilation of Russia.
All these factors made people think that the 7th Congress of the Leaders of World Religions in Kazakhstan, on September 14-15, to promote peace, would be an excellent opportunity for a dialogue between the Russian Patriarch and the Pope. Despite the acute pain in his knees, Francis confirmed the trip to Kazakhstan and that he wanted to meet the Patriarch. On the Russian side, circumstances seemed to facilitate the meeting and the Orthodox Church’s number two went to the Vatican to work out the details.
A good part of Russian society is still convinced that American tycoons dominate the Western world. Thanks to their immense fortune, they control all the media, to the point of deceiving the people, who think they live in a democracy in which they can freely choose their leaders, while in fact, in the shadows, the aforementioned tycoons decide everything. This storyline survived the Soviet dictatorship and is still widely accepted today because every day the Russians receive new facts to prove it: poor people of the USA, enslaved by all-powerful tycoons!
Because of this narrative, many Russians are grateful to Putin for invading Crimea in 2014, anticipating the plan of the US tycoons who were ready to attack Russia to start the third world war. The same happened now. The forces of the US tycoons already ruled over Ukraine and were about to launch an assault on Russia when Putin intervened to save both the Ukrainians and Russia. The Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow hailed Putin as “a miracle from God” and declared that God inspired this war.
However, the Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine are bringing disturbing news to their families. Incomprehensibly, the Ukrainians, instead of thanking the Russians for their generosity in saving them, are fighting back! Given this unjust and ungrateful reaction, the answer of the Russian army is to take revenge on the cities and the population with frightening cruelty. Some Russians justify this attitude of their army, but a large part of the Russian people, who recognized the need to fight the American tycoons, no longer agree with what Russia is doing in Ukraine.
When the war began, in the Luzhniki Stadium, Putin fed the religious fervor of his army by applying to the soldiers a phrase of Christ from the Gospel of St. John: “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Today, Russian public opinion no longer follows this warlike devotion and the popularity of the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow is so low that he usually prefers to stay at home.
Until recently, most of the Moscow Patriarchate’s subjects were Ukrainians because Ukrainian Christians heroically resisted the Communist persecution, while quite a few Russians gave in and abandoned religious practice. For this historical reason, the Moscow Patriarchate lost half of its parishes when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church decided to move to the Constantinople Patriarchate. This setback could have also induced the Patriarch of Moscow to be open to dialogue.
Unfortunately, on August 24 the hope was dashed. A spokesman announced that the Patriarch would not go to Kazakhstan.
The war continues, with millions of refugees and thousands of dead. A war that, as the Holy See stated in a press release a few days ago, “is morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant, and sacrilegious.”
Will the Russian people have the courage to end it?