The solemn funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was held on the eve of Epiphany, and two days before the Orthodox Christmas, for which even the primate of the Church Militant, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, called for an armistice to allow everyone to celebrate the divine mysteries, supported by President Putin, echoing Pope Francis’ pleas for peace. Joseph Ratzinger’s passing to heaven attracted great attention, and called everyone to a different vision of Christmas as well.
Benedict had met Kirill in 2006, ten years before the historic meeting with Francis in Havana, when he was still Metropolitan for External Affairs of the Russian Church, and was already preaching the reconquest of the world to the true faith.
On that occasion Kirill had come to consecrate the Russian church in Rome, dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, which towers above the dome of St. Peter’s from the grounds of the Abamelek villa on the Janiculum Hill, the residence of the ambassador of the Russian Federation.
The future patriarch, after all, had come to Rome often during the many years when, from his youth, he was already exercising de facto “ideological” leadership of the patriarchate, and several times he had met with Cardinal Ratzinger.
Relations with Catholics were his primary reference because of the universal aspirations of the Moscow Church, which since the Middle Ages had claimed to rise to the status of “Third Rome,” and the church above the Vatican was but a symbolic model of its self-consciousness.
Kirill’s “universal” debut, after his youthful Soviet years (he became bishop when he was less than 30 years old, in Brezhnev’s time), was at the Millennium celebrations of the Baptism of Rus in 1988, which he led alongside the now aged and ailing Patriarch Pimen, who would die the following year.
Taking advantage of Polish Pope John Paul II’s fear of Gorbačev and the entire elite of the still-uncertain perestroika, Kirill had a Vatican delegation with 10 cardinals, from Casaroli to Martini and Lustiger, arrive in Moscow, gathering a small ecumenical-patriarchal council at the Lavra of St. Sergius.
In 1990, Kirill supported the patriarchal appointment of Metropolitan Aleksij (Ridiger), antagonizing the great favorite Filaret (Denisenko), the now 95-year-old Metropolitan of Kiev who inspired the Ukrainian church revolt against Moscow.
Ratzinger was already at the top of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, holding a similar function to Kirill in Russia, as the inspirer and ideologue of the Wojtylian papacy, and to him in fact Kirill looked as the real reference of the possible Orthodox-Catholic alliance.
The now 76-year-old patriarch of Moscow is certainly an educated and brilliant man, although he does not have a resume of academic and theoretical production comparable to Benedict, perhaps the greatest Christian theologian of the second half of the 20th century.
Ratzinger’s teaching sought to prepare the Church for a future of humility and hiddenness, what would later be called the “Benedict Option,” and Kirill had in mind an integrative, rather than an alternative, proposal to this program.
The Bavarian theologian and future pope already saw in the years following the Second Vatican Council, an event in which he had participated as a young consultor, a profound change in relations between the Church and the world.
Preparations had to be made to abandon the dominant positions and socio-political influence of official Christianity and return to the prophetic and decisive influence of the Gospel, which was able to change the world without power and without the support of earthly glory. Many comments these days return to emphasize Benedict’s prescience, which already showed the “outgoing” and “periphery” Church called for by his successor.
Kirill was paying close attention to Ratzinger’s words, in the years when he was trying to manage the delicate transition of the end of the Soviet Union, in which the Orthodox Church had faithfully served since the Stalin years the party’s directives, taking a humiliating and very compromised position.
The religious revival of the 1990s challenged the Moscow Patriarchate, which, while recovering the faithful, was in danger of losing power. The metropolitan then proposed to put himself at the service not only of the Orthodox, but also of the Catholics: in 1990 he suggested to the Holy See not to send bishops or apostolic nuncios to Moscow, and to send missionary priests to him to be distributed over the vast Russian-Eurasian territory (the USSR was still alive), as members of the “Catholic section” of the patriarchate.
Pope John Paul II did not like the idea at all, and as soon as it was possible he reestablished Catholic structures in Russia and the former Soviet countries, starting with Ukraine, which Kirill particularly cared about, and today it is easy to understand why.
The metropolitan took this as a personal affront, and this circumstance prompted him to change the tone of his official pronouncements. He put aside ecumenism and the niceties of diplomatic relations to begin preaching another variant of religious revival, that of the apocalyptic Church standing up to the assaults of the Antichrist.
Using Ratzingerian arguments, Kirill wanted to show that Christianity was indeed in danger of being eliminated from secularized society; and for that matter, who better than the Russians to know this after seventy years of militant atheism? The Church had to be reborn in new forms, and this task fell precisely to the Third Moscow Rome.
These and other considerations made Kirill, then called “the ecclesiastical oligarch” because of his unscrupulousness in launching himself into the contradictory adventures of Yeltsin’s Russia, the real inspiration for the policies of the newly elected President Vladimir Putin, who came to power in the year of the third Christian millennium.
If today the Orthodox Church is somehow forced to support the bellicose excesses of Putinism, accompanied also by harsh repressions, in the first decade of the new tsar’s reign it was the patriarchate that guided the choices, advocating in every way the “defense of tradition” as the solution to all problems.
When Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, Kirill had thus taken over the reins of Russia and its revival, no longer just generically religious, but properly Orthodox and “sovereignist.” He then sought to revive the alliance that had failed in 1990, putting himself alongside the new pontiff in the worldwide defense of true Christianity.
He effectively obtained the control over Russian Catholics he had asked for previously, and which the Ratzingerian papacy granted him, putting aside Polish proselytizing ardors. After all, this was no longer his primary need, since the new rules of the Putin regime already allowed him to avoid any form of competition on the sacred territory of Russia.
Kirill’s desire was to push Catholics around the world to increasingly defend “inalienable values” in the social arena, the traditional family and the defense of natural gender roles, along with the defense of unborn life, even though this argument is hardly defensible in Russia, the country where by percentage more abortions are performed in the world and where divorce is even allowed by ecclesiastical canons.
Ethical and anthropological arguments are often covers, expressed in Russia (and elsewhere) with ample doses of hypocrisy, while actually expressing deep needs in the Church’s action at the social level. What really matters, from the perspective of the Russian Orthodox, is the “defensive” attitude, the proclamation of an insurmountable space that constitutes the original meaning of the term “Orthodoxy,” the defense of the true faith.
The document “Dominus Iesus” written by Ratzinger in 2000, the year of Putin and Kirill’s glory in Russia, seemed to meet these demands, reaffirming the uniqueness of salvation through Christ, and not through other religions or ideologies.
In the years of Ratzinger’s pontificate it then seemed that the grandiose project was achievable, a kind of “Benedict-Kirill option,” a union of Christians of East and West not to bring about structural mergers but to witness the coming of a new era of true Christianity.
However, history has shown how baseless these dreams were. When Kirill became patriarch in 2009, a very serious economic crisis had already exploded in the globalized West, causing deep discontent in all countries and in all the least protected strata of the populations.
More than ethical crusades, anxieties of social rebellion, so-called “populisms” and sovereignisms of all kinds began to spread, and Russia also lost the last privilege it had left, that of being the only country in the world to challenge global power.
Instead, the second decade of the 2000s, the beginning of Kirill’s patriarchate, led to the end of Benedict’s pontificate, who resigned for reasons known only to God, but still showing obvious weakness in the face of the disintegration of the world and the Church.
Instead of the syncretistic and ultra-liberal optimism of globalization, the era of susceptibility and the search for culprits has begun, in the public institutions of state and church. The Orthodox-Catholic alliance, dreamed of by Kirill and at least partly indulged in by Benedict, was nevertheless proclaimed in Havana by Francis and Kirill, without unfortunately being able to translate into a true rebirth of the universal Church.
We know today how that turned out, with Kirill blessing Putin’s armies to “defend the world” from an Antichrist who is increasingly difficult to pin down, or increasingly equal to each authoritarian drift in either camp of the war.
Pope Francis had long believed in the alliance with Kirill, favoring it in every way and trying to support it even during the months of the invasion of Ukraine, failing to believe that that was really the ultimate choice of the Russian Orthodox: the apocalypse of history.
Benedict had withdrawn into prayer, entrusting the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and the future of the whole world, to God. His passing away in the days of Christmas, after a year of war, imposed on all, believers and non-believers, militants and activists on all sides, a respite of reflection and contemplation, like that of the Magi of the East before the helpless Child.
The meek and profound pope has long prepared us to face the true Apocalypse, and his prophecy is even more valid today than yesterday. The Benedict Option is the rebirth of the world in Christ, at the end of the war of peoples and hearts.
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