A 10-day visit to Ukraine by Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church was a triumph, laying to rest talk of the need for formal independence of one of the most significant parts of the church, say top aides - writes Sophia Kishkovsky.
That was their assessment at a 6 August media conference in Moscow following the Patriarch's 27 July to 5 August 2009 trip.
Kirill's visit to Ukraine was his first to the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy since his enthronement in February and took place amid divisions that have shaken the Orthodox church there since the collapse of communism.
Addressing the subject of Ukrainian nationalist opposition to the Russian Patriarch's visit, which was widely reported in the media, Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations, said the extent of opposition was small.
"The number of opponents was so insignificant in comparison to the number of Orthodox believers who gathered to greet the Patriarch, that it is impossible to speak of any real confrontation and opposition," Hilarion told the media conference.
The demonstrators came from "quite marginal groups and isolated political groups that dislike the Patriarch simply because of their anti-Russian sentiments", he said.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has been in a stand-off with a breakaway Kiev Patriarchate, which is not recognised by other Orthodox churches, but has had the support of the Ukrainian government.
The Kiev Patriarchate has been urging the creation of a unified Orthodox church in Ukraine, independent of Moscow.
Vladimir Legoyda, chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate's Synodal Information Department, said, however, that the impact of the Patriarch's visit was so positive that in some places demonstrators dropped their protest posters on seeing him and asked instead for a blessing.
Talks between Moscow and the Kiev Patriarchate are already taking place on an informal level, said Archbishop Hilarion. For now, formal conversations are complicated by the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church does not recognise the leadership of the Kiev Patriarchate, but that hurdle, the archbishop said, will eventually be overcome.
The visit, said the Rev Vsevolod Chaplin, chairperson of the patriarchate's Department of Interrelations of Church and Society, confirmed the trans-national character of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Kirill's visit coincided with the 1021st anniversary of the conversion to Orthodoxy of Prince Vladimir, the ruler of Kievan Rus, a date that is celebrated as marking the beginning of Christianity in an area that encompasses present-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
"We are not the church only of the Russian Federation, nor only, as it is sometimes said, of the Russian people," said Chaplin. He noted that, as in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church has significant numbers of believers in Belarus, Moldova, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and around the world.
In his visit across Ukraine, Kirill spoke often of Holy Rus as having a spiritual significance that transcends geographical boundaries. At the end of his journey, speaking to clergy gathered in Pochaev, Kirill said he would even consider taking Ukrainian citizenship.
Chaplin and the other speakers at the media conference said that Patriarch Kirill's visit proved that it is possible to be a good patriot of one's country, and a patriot of other countries within the church, but most importantly, devoted members of the church.
On relations with Europe, Chaplin said that just as Ukraine wants to be a part of Europe, so does Russia, but neither country should give up its identity for the sake of becoming part of Europe.
"Our striving to participate in united European processes should not be based on the striving to subject ourselves to certain standards, criteria and values developed in the West but must be complemented by the striving to remain ourselves," he said.
Patriarch Kirill addressed the issue of Europe in a sermon at the Pochaev Lavra monastery in western Ukraine on the last day of his trip. The monastery, he said, was one of the "great spiritual centres" of the Russian Orthodox Church.
"From this mount I would like to appeal to all of our fellow Christians in Europe and say: we lived through the horrific experience of constructing a society without God. Don't repeat this frightening lesson," the Patriarch stated. "And when today in Europe people are rejecting their Christian roots, relegating Christian values to oblivion, pushing religious life into the sphere of private life, they are making a grave mistake."
Ukrainian media and bloggers continue to discuss another aspect of Kirill's visit to Ukraine: photos that appear to show him wearing a Bregeut watch said to cost 30,000 euros. During his trip Kirill spoke out against rampant consumerism.
Chaplin told Ecumenical News International that such a watch is appropriate for the Patriarch. "I don't see anything bad in that the leader of the church, whom the church helps to have a certain material level, has a good watch," said Chaplin. "He has a good watch. He has a good car, he has a good residence. All of this reflects the church's love for this person."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]