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The Pope, the Patriarchs, and the Battle to Save Ukraine

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In February, 2016, Pope Francis, en route to Mexico, made a diplomatic stop in Havana. The stop lasted just a few hours, and he never left the airport. In a gussied-up V.I.P. room in a cargo hangar, he met with Kirill, the Patriarch of Russian Orthodox Christianity. The long-sought encounter was the first between the leaders of the two Churches since the Great Schism of 1054. Kirill had refused to meet in Europe, citing “open wounds” in Orthodoxy’s dealings there; Francis had said, “I will go where you wish,” so they wound up in Havana. They signed a joint declaration affirming common aims, such as the defense of traditional marriage, and deploring “hostility” and developments, such as the “confrontation” in Ukraine—a reference to fighting in the Crimea and in the Donbas after the Russian military moved on those regions. And they held out the prospect of meeting again—say, during a papal visit to Moscow.

In the world of religious diplomacy, the encounter was seen as a breakthrough. It showed Francis reaching out to the Russian Orthodox leader, as he had already reached out to the Eastern Orthodox leader, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, and suggested a fraternal evenhandedness in their dealings. It echoed the 1998 visit to Cuba of Pope John Paul II, whose meeting there with Fidel Castro was seen as the moment when that nation and the free world engaged with each other directly for the first time since the Revolution. And it brought to mind the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev pulled back from the brink of nuclear war after an intervention from Pope John XXIII, who stepped in and acted as peacemaker, sending the two leaders a message urging caution, and then reading it aloud on Vatican Radio.

But, six years later, the hopeful calls in the Pope and the Patriarch’s joint statement are dead on the page. The “confrontation” in Ukraine has become a Russian invasion ordered by Vladimir Putin, involving air strikes, ground troops, the bombing of hospitals, and the targeting of civilians. The “open wounds” in Orthodoxy—a split within the Church in Ukraine—are among the pretexts cited for the invasion, even as the war has led to unprecedented unity among Ukraine’s Christians. And the three Christian leaders have taken distinctly different positions on the invasion: Kirill praises it, Bartholomew denounces it, and Francis decries the war in general terms while avoiding naming Putin’s Russia as the aggressor.

Kirill’s support for the invasion was no surprise. The Russian Orthodox Church is an arm of the state, and Kirill is one of Putin’s trusted advisers. The surprise was the way that he expressed it. Earlier this month, in a homily at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in Moscow, he made the bizarre and alarming claim that the invasion was about stemming the spread of “gay parades” from the West, and celebrated it as “a struggle that has not a physical but a metaphysical significance,” explaining that “we are talking about something different and much more important than politics. We are talking about human salvation.” In his telling, the invasion is not about territory, or national identity, or wounded post-Soviet pride, or religious identity in any strict sense. Rather, it is a culture war—a holy war—between religious traditionalism and liberalism.

Nor is it any surprise that Bartholomew opposed the invasion. The branch of the Church that he leads from Istanbul has jousted with Moscow over the churches of Ukraine for centuries. Putin has committed “a great injustice” by going to war against his “coreligionists,” and “has earned the hatred of the whole world,” Bartholomew told Turkish television. “I hope World War Three won’t break out.”

Francis, for his part, has taken an approach that is vividly expressive but light on specifics. The day after Putin launched the invasion, Francis made a personal visit to the Russian Embassy to the Holy See. He declared Ash Wednesday a “day of prayer and fasting for the people of Ukraine,” and he spoke on the phone with President Volodymyr Zelensky, who came away saying that “the people of Ukraine feel the spiritual support of His Holiness.” The Pope also dispatched two cardinals to Ukraine to affirm his “closeness” with the two million refugees fleeing that country, and with Ukrainians generally. Last Sunday, in St. Peter’s Square, he said that the Vatican is “ready to do everything, to put itself at the service” of peace, adding that “rivers of blood and tears are flowing in Ukraine. This is not just a military operation but a war, which sows death, destruction, and misery.” And yet, in all this, he has made no mention of Putin, or Russia, or an invasion. It’s a strange look for a successor of John Paul II, now a saint, whose support for the Solidarity trade union against the Polish Communist Party, in the nineteen-eighties, vested him with moral authority as a leader who courageously used the papacy to oppose authoritarianism.

Now, as then, the role of religion in the region is extraordinarily complex. Present-day Ukraine is where, in the tenth century, Prince Volodymyr (known in Russia as St. Vladimir the Great) converted to Christianity, and Orthodoxy locates its roots there. The Church in Constantinople split with Rome, in 1054—the Great Schism—giving rise to Orthodoxy, led by an Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, and local patriarchs under him. In 1686, the Patriarch in Constantinople granted the Patriarch in Moscow authority over churches in Kyiv. At different points in the centuries thereafter, both the Russian and the Ecumenical Patriarchs sought to assert authority over Orthodox churches in Ukraine, which was also home to Greek and Roman Catholics and to a vibrant Jewish community, notably in the port city of Odessa. Under Soviet rule, with religion suppressed, dissidents from all these traditions met while imprisoned in the Gulag, and made common cause there. Following glasnost, they were freed, and their various communities thrived.

In this century, as Kirill and Russian Orthodox Church became a force in Putin’s project of national identity, some of the Ukrainian churches affiliated with Russian Orthodoxy sought to go “away from Moscow,” by gaining recognition from Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch, as an “autocephalous” Church—one with its own head. (These were the “open wounds” that concerned Kirill in 2016; he saw the move as an encroachment on historically Russian Orthodox territory, and the joint statement in Havana was worded to suggest that Francis agreed.) Bartholomew granted them that new status in 2019, angering Kirill. Putin, who is himself Russian Orthodox, has watched all of this.

Ukraine today is a country led by a Jewish President, where various Orthodox churches, none wholly rooted in national identity, exist side by side, along with Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Jews, and Muslims. Ukraine, in its diversity, defies the religious history of the region. And it defies Putin’s vision of a Russky Mir—a greater Russia—which beckons like an religio-nationalist promised land. Some observers see Kirill as Putin’s puppet and Russian Orthodoxy as nothing more than an arm of his autocracy. That is too simple. It’s true that the Church is not independent of the government, but the expectation that religion might be separated from the state runs counter to the history of Orthodoxy. And, although Kirill is devoted to Putin, it is in the role of an Orthodox magus, who inspires the ex-spymaster by framing his religion-tinged project of national restoration as a sacred calling.

The vision of Russky Mir is not, in fact, so different from the vision of Europe promoted by Catholic traditionalists who see the continent united historically by religious values that are now under threat. Their patron saint is Karol Wojtyła: Pope John Paul II. As priest, bishop, cardinal, and Pope, Wojtyla was a foe of Communism wherever he saw it. His three papal visits to his native Poland under Soviet Communist rule were transformative, emboldening faithful Poles to stand up to the state and pursue national self-determination through democracy. But it’s often forgotten that John Paul didn’t oppose Soviet Communism on behalf of the liberal democratic social order; he despised it as a violation of the Christian heritage that Europe and Russia shared. He liked to say that it was necessary to “breathe with both lungs.” For Europe, in his view, this meant involving both Western and Eastern Europe; for Christianity, it meant involving both the Latin Church and the Orthodox one. He sought the restoration of Catholicism in a “greater” Europe as a condition for Christianity’s spread worldwide. Thus, the man known in the West as the Pope who brought down Communism is also an exemplar for Kirill and his project.


In February, 2016, Pope Francis, en route to Mexico, made a diplomatic stop in Havana. The stop lasted just a few hours, and he never left the airport. In a gussied-up V.I.P. room in a cargo hangar, he met with Kirill, the Patriarch of Russian Orthodox Christianity. The long-sought encounter was the first between the leaders of the two Churches since the Great Schism of 1054. Kirill had refused to meet in Europe, citing “open wounds” in Orthodoxy’s dealings there; Francis had said, “I will go where you wish,” so they wound up in Havana. They signed a joint declaration affirming common aims, such as the defense of traditional marriage, and deploring “hostility” and developments, such as the “confrontation” in Ukraine—a reference to fighting in the Crimea and in the Donbas after the Russian military moved on those regions. And they held out the prospect of meeting again—say, during a papal visit to Moscow.

In the world of religious diplomacy, the encounter was seen as a breakthrough. It showed Francis reaching out to the Russian Orthodox leader, as he had already reached out to the Eastern Orthodox leader, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, and suggested a fraternal evenhandedness in their dealings. It echoed the 1998 visit to Cuba of Pope John Paul II, whose meeting there with Fidel Castro was seen as the moment when that nation and the free world engaged with each other directly for the first time since the Revolution. And it brought to mind the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev pulled back from the brink of nuclear war after an intervention from Pope John XXIII, who stepped in and acted as peacemaker, sending the two leaders a message urging caution, and then reading it aloud on Vatican Radio.

But, six years later, the hopeful calls in the Pope and the Patriarch’s joint statement are dead on the page. The “confrontation” in Ukraine has become a Russian invasion ordered by Vladimir Putin, involving air strikes, ground troops, the bombing of hospitals, and the targeting of civilians. The “open wounds” in Orthodoxy—a split within the Church in Ukraine—are among the pretexts cited for the invasion, even as the war has led to unprecedented unity among Ukraine’s Christians. And the three Christian leaders have taken distinctly different positions on the invasion: Kirill praises it, Bartholomew denounces it, and Francis decries the war in general terms while avoiding naming Putin’s Russia as the aggressor.

Kirill’s support for the invasion was no surprise. The Russian Orthodox Church is an arm of the state, and Kirill is one of Putin’s trusted advisers. The surprise was the way that he expressed it. Earlier this month, in a homily at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in Moscow, he made the bizarre and alarming claim that the invasion was about stemming the spread of “gay parades” from the West, and celebrated it as “a struggle that has not a physical but a metaphysical significance,” explaining that “we are talking about something different and much more important than politics. We are talking about human salvation.” In his telling, the invasion is not about territory, or national identity, or wounded post-Soviet pride, or religious identity in any strict sense. Rather, it is a culture war—a holy war—between religious traditionalism and liberalism.

Nor is it any surprise that Bartholomew opposed the invasion. The branch of the Church that he leads from Istanbul has jousted with Moscow over the churches of Ukraine for centuries. Putin has committed “a great injustice” by going to war against his “coreligionists,” and “has earned the hatred of the whole world,” Bartholomew told Turkish television. “I hope World War Three won’t break out.”

Francis, for his part, has taken an approach that is vividly expressive but light on specifics. The day after Putin launched the invasion, Francis made a personal visit to the Russian Embassy to the Holy See. He declared Ash Wednesday a “day of prayer and fasting for the people of Ukraine,” and he spoke on the phone with President Volodymyr Zelensky, who came away saying that “the people of Ukraine feel the spiritual support of His Holiness.” The Pope also dispatched two cardinals to Ukraine to affirm his “closeness” with the two million refugees fleeing that country, and with Ukrainians generally. Last Sunday, in St. Peter’s Square, he said that the Vatican is “ready to do everything, to put itself at the service” of peace, adding that “rivers of blood and tears are flowing in Ukraine. This is not just a military operation but a war, which sows death, destruction, and misery.” And yet, in all this, he has made no mention of Putin, or Russia, or an invasion. It’s a strange look for a successor of John Paul II, now a saint, whose support for the Solidarity trade union against the Polish Communist Party, in the nineteen-eighties, vested him with moral authority as a leader who courageously used the papacy to oppose authoritarianism.

Now, as then, the role of religion in the region is extraordinarily complex. Present-day Ukraine is where, in the tenth century, Prince Volodymyr (known in Russia as St. Vladimir the Great) converted to Christianity, and Orthodoxy locates its roots there. The Church in Constantinople split with Rome, in 1054—the Great Schism—giving rise to Orthodoxy, led by an Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, and local patriarchs under him. In 1686, the Patriarch in Constantinople granted the Patriarch in Moscow authority over churches in Kyiv. At different points in the centuries thereafter, both the Russian and the Ecumenical Patriarchs sought to assert authority over Orthodox churches in Ukraine, which was also home to Greek and Roman Catholics and to a vibrant Jewish community, notably in the port city of Odessa. Under Soviet rule, with religion suppressed, dissidents from all these traditions met while imprisoned in the Gulag, and made common cause there. Following glasnost, they were freed, and their various communities thrived.

In this century, as Kirill and Russian Orthodox Church became a force in Putin’s project of national identity, some of the Ukrainian churches affiliated with Russian Orthodoxy sought to go “away from Moscow,” by gaining recognition from Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch, as an “autocephalous” Church—one with its own head. (These were the “open wounds” that concerned Kirill in 2016; he saw the move as an encroachment on historically Russian Orthodox territory, and the joint statement in Havana was worded to suggest that Francis agreed.) Bartholomew granted them that new status in 2019, angering Kirill. Putin, who is himself Russian Orthodox, has watched all of this.

Ukraine today is a country led by a Jewish President, where various Orthodox churches, none wholly rooted in national identity, exist side by side, along with Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Jews, and Muslims. Ukraine, in its diversity, defies the religious history of the region. And it defies Putin’s vision of a Russky Mir—a greater Russia—which beckons like an religio-nationalist promised land. Some observers see Kirill as Putin’s puppet and Russian Orthodoxy as nothing more than an arm of his autocracy. That is too simple. It’s true that the Church is not independent of the government, but the expectation that religion might be separated from the state runs counter to the history of Orthodoxy. And, although Kirill is devoted to Putin, it is in the role of an Orthodox magus, who inspires the ex-spymaster by framing his religion-tinged project of national restoration as a sacred calling.

The vision of Russky Mir is not, in fact, so different from the vision of Europe promoted by Catholic traditionalists who see the continent united historically by religious values that are now under threat. Their patron saint is Karol Wojtyła: Pope John Paul II. As priest, bishop, cardinal, and Pope, Wojtyla was a foe of Communism wherever he saw it. His three papal visits to his native Poland under Soviet Communist rule were transformative, emboldening faithful Poles to stand up to the state and pursue national self-determination through democracy. But it’s often forgotten that John Paul didn’t oppose Soviet Communism on behalf of the liberal democratic social order; he despised it as a violation of the Christian heritage that Europe and Russia shared. He liked to say that it was necessary to “breathe with both lungs.” For Europe, in his view, this meant involving both Western and Eastern Europe; for Christianity, it meant involving both the Latin Church and the Orthodox one. He sought the restoration of Catholicism in a “greater” Europe as a condition for Christianity’s spread worldwide. Thus, the man known in the West as the Pope who brought down Communism is also an exemplar for Kirill and his project.

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