Russian Patriarch takes populist root to appeal to youth

By Ecumenical News International
June 13, 2009

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill I has addressed thousands of young people about the dangers of alcoholism and an unchecked market economy as he takes the church to a people used to the Kremlin as the biggest institution - writes Sophia Kishkovsky.

When he was installed in February, Kirill committed himself to connecting with Russia's young people and he launched a special programme at a meeting of several thousand college students in Moscow on 23 May 2009. Kirill then appeared before an even larger gathering in St Petersburg a week later.

At the first gathering, Kirill expressed what were seen as nationalist sentiments and expressed alarm about threats to Russia's youth, especially alcoholism and an unchecked market economy. In his speeches and in answers to students' questions, he referred to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and focused on the on the meaning of happiness and true love.

The second youth rally, at an ice hockey arena, resembled a US mega-church setting both in venue and content, said attendees.

In referring to King, whom Kirill said he met in 1968, some of those listening thought the Russian patriarch might have been describing himself and his hopes for the Russian church.

"He wasn’t a dreamer, he was a brilliant politician, orator, and Christian pastor," said Kirill of King. "But he had a dream, and this dream led to very concrete achievements."

Illustrating what many see as the contradictions of post-Soviet Russia, Kirill spoke before 8000 students in a glittery new ice arena on St. Petersburg's Prospekt Pyatiletok, or Five-Year Plan Avenue, near Prospket Bolshevikov metro station, named after the 1917 Russian Revolution. He addressed the students as "my dear ones".

In Moscow, the venue and atmosphere at the meeting seemed more like a Soviet-era Komsomol youth meeting. Kirill spoke of the dangers of a market economy and post-modern relativism and praised the Kremlin's new campaign to fight "falsification" of history.

Some critics have described this campaign which seeks to promote officially-approved interpretations of Russian history as reminiscent of Soviet-era methods.

But still, Kirill made clear that youth work will be a priority.

"For me as Patriarch and the Bishop of Moscow, it is very important to see your faces and hear your voices," he told students from nearly 170 Moscow universities and institutes of higher education who gathered at the Russian State University of Physical Culture, Sports, Youth and Tourism. "The Church can successfully bear witness to the world, it can reach human hearts and truly help people only when its ministers understand the needs and hopes, joys and disappointments of its contemporaries."

The youth meeting in Moscow was a highlight of the annual gathering of a nationalist organization, the World Russian People's Council, with which Kirill has been involved for years and which as patriarch he chairs.

Kirill's address at the council and other speeches including those of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Oscar-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov did not mention the United States by name, but clearly implied it was to blame for the world's and many of Russia's, ills.

At the St Petersburg meeting, which gathered members of several Orthodox youth clubs, a particular emphasis was placed also on inviting youth not familiar with the Church to the arena.

Many said they were not turned off by the outwardly Protestant approach of the gathering in Russia's former imperial capital. Some of the Orthodox youth club members said they had encountered Protestant missionaries at their universities and wondered in the past why the Orthodox church was not more approachable.

Other students who came at the invitation of secular universities said they had been strongly encouraged but not forced to attend the rally and noted ties between Church and State as a positive development.

"I think we need more such events, by the church and the organs of power, to deliver that information that would enable us to formulate goals," said Aleksei Belov, a student at the Mining Institute.

At the same time, some Russian observers have noted similarities in Patriarch Kirill's style to that of Pope John Paul II, the Polish-born Roman Catholic pontiff who was often regarded with suspicion in Russia.

"He is copying John Paul II, who had charisma," said Anatoly Krasikov, director of the Centre for Religious and Social Studies of the Institute of Europe in Moscow and formerly a journalist on Vatican affairs for the state-run Itar-Tass news agency. "Kirill is the only Orthodox figure here who has that gift."

[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.]

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