Russia-Ukraine: Religious Wars and Patriarchal Egos       

A view from inside an American Russian Orthodox parish.

As a member of a Russian Orthodox parish in Philadelphia, I can attest that the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine has a special significance for the congregation there.

Some members hail from third or fourth generation Russian families, while others consider themselves both Ukrainian and Russian. Converts from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism—Irish, Italian and English members—can also be seen at Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feast days. Mixed marriages are also not uncommon. One spouse may be Orthodox, the other Catholic. A former pastor of the parish, Archpriest Father Vincent Saverino, who died in 2018, once boasted that he had “not one ounce of Russian blood.” 

You will not find the word "Russian" listed in front of the word "Orthodox" on the signage in front of the church. I’m not sure why the word was left out but several years ago some in the parish discussed whether to include "Russian" or to insert “Eastern" in front of "Orthodox." Since no action was taken on the signage, to the average passerby the church is just Orthodox, which can mean anything—Serbian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Albanian, etc., although the three-bar cross on top of the towering steeple (the church was built as a German Reformed church in 1874) might identity the church as Russian to those in the know.

My parish sits in a multi-block complex of Orthodox churches in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood settled by Eastern European immigrants in the early 1900s. Saint Andrew’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, two blocks from my parish, is recognizable by its impressive blue onion domes. Construction on St. Andrew’s began in 1897 when 1,200 Russian naval officers were sent as builders by the Czar. Nearly 600,000 immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe migrated to the city between 1890 and 1914, and many settled in the Northern Liberties area so that very quickly the area began to be known as "Slavic Europe in microcosm."

Saint Andrew’s cathedral makes no attempt to hide its Russian identification, although during the years of the Cold War the pastor there, the Rev. Mark Shinn, told me that the church was frequently vandalized or viewed as "the enemy" because of the word "Russian."

Two blocks from St. Andrew’s is Saint Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church, perhaps the most beautiful Orthodox Church in the city. Across the street from St. Nicholas is the gold-domed Ukrainian Catholic cathedral, part of the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church with its distinctive "Orthodox" liturgy and customs (married priests). A Romanian Orthodox church and a Slovakian Catholic church of the Latin rite complete this interesting neighborhood of churches.

Several years prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there was a schism in the Orthodox world when, on January 5, 2019, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a separate body with zero ties to Russia, was granted self-governing status by the head of Orthodox Church in Constantinople. This “new” Church now stood in “opposition” to The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate, UOC-MP), which is part of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

The creation of this new Orthodox body created a division between the Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who some regard as “the first among equals in the Orthodox Church.” While Constantinople (the city is never referred to as Istanbul in Orthodoxy) may have played an important part in the early history of Christianity, the Islamic majority city today has few Christian residents, causing many over the years to proclaim Russia as the real future of Orthodoxy.

The Russian Church’s refusal to acknowledge the “new” Ukrainian Church resulted in the Moscow Patriarchate’s decision to end communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Greek Orthodox Church. On the local parish level, this meant that Russian Orthodox congregations were informed that communing in a Greek Church or a Ukrainian Church with ties to the newly created OCU, was forbidden on canonical grounds.

I saw this new rule play out when Greek priests who formerly concelebrated with the priests in our parish were suddenly told they could no longer do so. Greeks who would occasionally visit our parish for Divine Liturgy and receive communion, were no longer welcome to participate in the sacrament unless they did not identify as Greek Orthodox.

A majority of parishioners in my parish viewed this ruling as merely a manifestation of hurt egos in a political war between two patriarchs. Many chose to ignore the sanction of inter-communion, feeling that "Orthodox" is "Orthodox," the same sacraments, belief and theology and worlds away from any espousal of heterodox theology which traditionally has always been the cause of schism. 

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko, who served as Ukraine’s fifth president from 2014 to 2019, praised Constantinople’s move when he referred to it as "an issue of Ukrainian national security,” as well as "a great victory for the devout Ukrainian nation over the Moscow demons, a victory of good over evil, light over darkness."

The Moscow Patriarchate in turn stated that it has always had legal authority over the Ukrainian Church, and that Kyiv was the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox Church.

My experience as an Orthodox Christian (I made the switch from Roman Catholicism about ten years ago), is that many Orthodox laypeople--the people in the pews--have radically different views from the hierarchy when it comes to canonical squabbles. Orthodox lay people, for instance, are highly likely to attend services in any Orthodox Church regardless of its canonical (political) status. This is certainly true in my parish, where members sometimes openly proclaim that they communed in a Greek Church while on vacation or that they paid a visit to the magnificent church of Saint Nicholas, a mere 4 blocks away, which is no longer a part of the Moscow Patriarchate but affiliated with the OCU.

In a way, the 2018 Moscow-Constantinople Schism might be described as a prescient event foreshadowing the bloody tragedy now occurring in Ukraine. In 2019, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill announced at a plenary meeting entitled ‘Saving the Nation is the Present and Future of Russia’ at Christ the Savior cathedral in Moscow, that,

God forbid that the present political states in fraternal Ukraine so close to us should be aimed at making the evil forces that have always strived against the unity of Russia and the Russian Church, gain the upper hand.

Patriarch Kirill, speaking about the Ukrainian Church schism, also noted,

We have certain reliable information that everything that is happening in the global Orthodox Church today is not accidental. It’s not just a whim of this or that religious figure. This is an implementation of a very definite plan—first, to separate Russia from the Greek world and the Greek world from Russia.

Part of the blame for the current disunity in the Orthodox world can be laid at the feet of the Russian Patriarch who insisted that Russian Orthodox people and members of the Ukrainian-Moscow affiliated Church OUC disavow relations (inter-communion) with Churches affiliated with the Patriarch of Constantinople. Decisions like this only contribute to the splintering of Orthodox unity and in so doing decrease the effectiveness of the Church in a world increasingly threatened by Islam.

How much better it would have been if the Russian Patriarch had deferred to Constantinople in this one instance and let matters stand for the health of the Church.

In some Russian Orthodox circles there’s a belief that secular (global) powers fear the conservatism of the Orthodox Church -- a Church that for the most part has remained unchanged in its theology and liturgy throughout the centuries, unlike the Roman Catholic Church which has constantly adopted new forms, new liturgies and many other innovations in order to “synchronize” with the times (consider the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and its dance with the progressive left ideologies of the Democrat Party.)    

The first two Sundays following Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, I was careful to check the mood of fellow parishioners and to be on the lookout for possible reactions when the presiding priest commemorated Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in the prayers before Communion. I noticed no reaction among the congregation at the mention of the Patriarch’s name, although when prayers were offered for the people of Ukraine, most in the congregation bowed their heads profoundly. Later, at coffee hour, I spoke with women who identify with both countries; several of whom who have family and friends in St. Petersburg and Kyiv, and who had always talked about Russia and Ukraine as if it was one country.

The coffee hour comments exploded exponentially on the second Sunday. Some parishioners were discouraged, even angered, that there was not a word on the devastation in Ukraine (or a call for special prayers for that country) on any of the Russian Patriarchal Church sponsored web sites, while other parishioners wondered how long it would be before the parish encountered protests outside the church once it became widely known that the church was “Russian.”

Protest in the tightly knotted world of Russian Orthodoxy is beginning to occur. Some Ukrainian Churches aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate are systemically withdrawing their prayers for Patriarch Kirill (who is seen as the shadow power behind Vladimir Putin) during the Divine Liturgy. In another development, Russian Orthodox priests throughout Russia are rising up and asking—demanding—that Patriarch Kirill make a bold statement distancing himself from Putin.

Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Philadelphia, Borys Gudziak, in an  interview with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN’s the ‘World Over,’ said that,

Patriarch Kirill came up with this ideological concept called ‘the Russian World,’ where there was a Russian Empire, a foot print, we [Russia] want it back. This is an ecclesial term that Putin has been using. There is great sympathy between the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin.

Archbishop Gudziak also mentioned that Russians are bombing their own Moscow Patriarchate churches in Ukraine and that many of the people injured or killed so far have been Russian members of the Moscow-affiliated Church.

It should be noted that in my Russian Orthodox parish, the pronounced political viewpoint of most members is politically conservative. There is, however, a small band of soft leftists who have always been vocal about their hatred for anything labeled Republican. During the 2020 George Floyd riots, one parishioner decorated himself with “I Can’t Breathe” buttons while bragging to another parishioner that he missed services one Sunday because he took his children to a BLM protest. Another parishioner is adamantly Pro-Choice, which is not the "Orthodox Way" at all.  

The fact is, the slight right-left divide in my parish has pretty well dissolved at this point thanks to the apocalyptic nature of the Ukraine crisis.

Ten years ago, when I became a member of this venerable church, I would never have imagined that the people in the pews here would be sitting around at coffee hour talking about how Putin should be taken out.

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism.  He is the author of fifteen books, including Philadelphia Architecture (2005); Literary Philadelphia and From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.

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