"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Wednesday 22 August 2012


Patriarch Kirill, presiding bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been trashed in many columns, editorials, news reports and blog postings lately, portrayed as corrupt, vengeful, un-Christian, President Putin’s dance partner, etc. Few if any of those making these and similar charges seem ever to have met him or even to know much about Russia or the Orthodox Church -- which (like the USA) is so big and complex that almost anything you say about it is true.

I don’t want to argue that there is nothing about Kirill to criticize -- no one is in that category -- but I do want to share a few memories of him that go back to the summer of 1987, when Nancy and I were his guests in Smolensk for two days. At the time he was both Bishop of Smolensk and rector of the Theological Academy in Leningrad, as it still was in those Soviet days. At the time I was writing a book published the following year as “Pilgrim to the Russian Church.” Here are extracts from the book’s Smolensk pages:

Smolensk, Sunday, July 26, 1987:

Smolensk, “the key and gate of Russia,” is the most western of ancient Russian cities. On the north end of the River Dnieper, it is at the source of the water highway that leads past Kiev to the Black Sea.

Father Victor, a quiet young priest, met us when the train pulled into the station at dawn. After checking into the hotel and having a brief rest, we went to Holy Liturgy at the Cathedral of the Assumption, the principal Smolensk landmark, a five-domed green and white building standing at the top of a steep hill in the center of the city. Inside the cathedral is a mammoth, heavily gilded iconostasis from the Eighteenth Century that includes not only icons but statues. There is also a baroque pulpit, not an element of Russian church architecture until the time of Peter the Great.

Archbishop Kirill was presiding, a man in his forties, among the youngest bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has a greying black beard and a clear, direct manner. For ten years before coming to Smolensk he was rector of the Leningrad Theological Academy where he is credited with many of the innovations that happened there, including the introduction of women students.

While he stood in the center of the church with his arms outstretched, attendants vested him. It as though he were no longer himself, but a moving, praying, singing part of the liturgy, all connected with the church, the icons, the music, the incense, the Eucharist.

The church was crowded. There were the usual deeply pious old women, among them one woman on her knees at the front rail, eyes fixed on an icon, crossing herself and bowing over and over again. Russian Tourists moved in and out, watching rather than participating. Despite the almost continuous motion among the people and the clergy, and the constant music from the choirs, there was a powerful sense of attentiveness and stillness.

No one hushed the children in the church. They obviously enjoyed being there. We noticed a priest and his family in a vacant choir stall. One daughter looked to be twelve and her little sister about four. The older sister was holding the little one up on the rail and they were hugging and stroking each other. All the while, the older girl joined in singing the words to all the prayers and hymns.

The day's Gospel was the story of Jesus healing two blind men. A sermon followed by Archbishop Kirill. As he began to speak, the congregation gathered around him, standing with their hands relaxed at their sides, completely attentive.

“Our Savior said to the blind men, 'Do you believe I can heal you?' They said, 'Yes, Lord.' And then he healed their blindness.

“This story makes me wonder about wonders. A wonder is something that surprises. It goes past the border of usual experience. We see wonders and we call them miracles. But there are people who reject the possibility of miracles or anything that goes beyond their own experiences. They say, 'It cannot be.'

“What the Church teaches is that wonders are special expressions of the love and power of God. When we experience or contemplate wonders, they inspire wonder in us.

“St. Augustine says that the normal growing of wheat is akin to the multiplication of loaves. So much of the beauty of the natural world awakens wonder: sky, sun, plants, water. 'Look at these things,' says St. Augustine, 'and see that they are beautiful. Their beauty is their confession of God.'

“Most wonders stand on laws that are the foundation of the world, in which everything is developed. And isn't this too a wonder? When God does things beyond our understanding, even then he is acting within the laws of the universe.

“Not to see beauty, not to be aware of wonders -- this is to be blind and deaf. The French scientist Pasteur said that the more we contemplate the world, the more we are filled with wonder.

“Some people can see wonders, some not. Why? What makes it possible to become aware of the actions of God in the world? Do we need special education? Some special wisdom? No, dear brothers and sisters, the Gospel shows us otherwise. Christ said to the two blind men, 'Do you believe I can heal you?' Only when they confess that they do believe does he heal them.

“They were healed, but there were even at that time people who were not moved to wonder by what he did. There were those who said, 'Jesus casts out devils only because he is the prince of devils.' What he does, they said, isn't a miracle. It is magic. And so they dismissed what Jesus did.

“Faith is the condition of wonder, not the other way around. Perhaps here at this moment there could be a miracle. Even then there would be people present who would leave saying, 'Yes, there was something strange, something we need to clarify.' In fact we find in the press stories about events for which there seems to be no natural explanation. But this doesn't mean people reading these stories are led to faith. Miracles don't give birth to faith. Perhaps that is why Our Lord in this Gospel forbids people to publicize what he did for the blind men. The news would add nothing to people's faith. It was not with wonders but with his words that he tried to soften people's hearts. A heart filled with love and faith can distinguish good and evil. The believer can cross any boundary with God.

“Love is the power of God. May God help all believers to be attentive to the wonders that, because of God's love, fill the whole universe.”

The congregation replied, “God save you!”

While the Liturgy was going on, Vasili left us for about a half hour. When he returned he said that another priest had been giving a talk in the back of the church on such topics as the reception of communion, marriage and mutual help.

At communion, the children came first -- all the children, beginning with babies, held in the arms of their parents or other adult friends. The first in line was the twelve-year-old girl, holding up her little sister to receive the Eucharist. Communion is administered with a spoon while an attendant holds a napkin under the chin of the person receiving. [.…]

Smolensk, July 27:

After a morning of being rained on in the countryside, we visited Archbishop Kirill. He lives in a small house with a view of the Assumption Cathedral. The dining room table was laid with candies, cookies, and a delicious cake. Coffee, tea and vodka were served.

I asked why so few adults had received communion at the Liturgy yesterday. “Yes, it is still very few, but more than used to come. Now it can be fifty on a Sunday when it used to be not more than five. Things change, but slowly. Before the Revolution, it was common for people to receive communion only twice a year. People were overwhelmed by their sense of unworthiness. Patriarch Pimen has made a call to believers to receive communion as often as possible and this appeal is being heard. But with this there has to be a process of religious education. We try to offer that in the church and actually prefer doing it there. We would rather not have something like that happen in a school classroom. Part of the process of religious education in our diocese is to have a priest on duty throughout the day in the cathedral where they can answer questions. We find that if one person asks a question, immediately others gather and you have a group discussion.”

Archbishop Kirill is a member of the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches. “I got into the ecumenical movement as a 'youth.' It was the sixties, a decade when everyone was bowing their heads to the young people. The experiences that opened to me through the World Council of Churches have made me realize that the ecumenical movement and work for the renewal of humanity and peace are profoundly linked to each other. What enthusiasm there was for Christian unity sixty years ago! Not that I was there, but what a spirit of youth, power, and passion there is in papers presented at early ecumenical conferences. They are filled with both joy and pain, with longing for unity and sorrow for division.”

Nancy commented on how much more vital churches are in the Soviet Union than in Holland. “The problem in the west is not organized atheism but secularism and the consumer psychology. But we may face the same thing in a few years, so we watch anxiously what the church does in the west as this may help us. But perhaps we also have something to offer the church in the west, some encouragement, some lessons. It is important to know something of the church that exists in the first socialist state.”

I asked about the tendency for more young people to become active believers.

“Certainly there is an encouraging influx of young people right now but we have to be careful not to limit our perception of who is a believer by only noticing who is standing in the church. The process of coming to belief is very complex. We are aware that many people are believers in their world outlook even though they rarely go to church. The tip of the iceberg are the people you see in church, and that tip creates the image. These are people permanently in church, often retired people, mainly elderly women. But the iceberg is one object, not two, even though most of it cannot be seen. Also that babushka that looks older than the world -- in fact she is younger than the Revolution. She never attended a church school. She memorized no catechism. As a young woman she never went into a church. But sometime in her life she became part of the visible church. There is always a large group of believers who are struggling with this decision, and slowly, as they become older, they begin attending church. The invisible part of the church is much younger, but today they more quickly become part of the visible church. They aren't waiting for retirement. The democratic events now going on in our country help this process. We see more and more people coming who never came before, never showed any sign of belief. Now they want to belong to the church. It seems like a fresh development, something completely new, but actually it has deep roots.”

Toward the end of the conversation, Archbishop “ said, “Jim, I am disappointed. There is one question every journalist asks but you haven’t asked it.”

“What question is that?”

“How many of the people in church are actual believers?”

“Your Grace, one last question: How many people are actual believers.”

“I’m glad you asked. My answer is I don’t know. Yesterday you saw quite a lot of people in the church. You might say that some of them were just tourists. I don't think more than twenty percent of the people were crossing themselves. Many of the women weren't wearing scarfs. But a lot of those who seem to be just watching are on the border of belief. They don't stand there for two hours just because it is a beautiful old building. Something draws them. They are not practicing believers, but they are there. But what about those who crossed themselves? Can we say they are believers? It may be that they were just conforming to norms of church behavior. Who can say who is a believer and who is not? We don't know. Nobody knows. God knows.”

We said good-bye and hurried to catch the train to Minsk.

(extracts from “Pilgrim to the Russian Church” by Jim Forest, Crossroads Books, New York, 1988)

The Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), Sviatoslav Shevchuk is of the opinion that without a dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate, “it is impossible to stop the russification of Ukraine and ukrainophobia in Russia.” He said so last Sunday, at the press-conference in the town of Kolomyia in Ivano-Frankivsk Region as he commented on the visit of Patriarch Kirill to Poland. 

“We also should follow such way of a certain reconciliation. Without this it is impossible to stop the russification of Ukraine and ukrainophobia in Russia. And if we try somehow to settle the painful questions of the past as Christians, in the light of the Gospel and to heal our memory only by means of reconciliation, then we can build something constructive,” he noted. 

The patriarch said that he is pleased with the fact that the process of reconciliation between the Russian and Polish nations has begun with the meeting between the Moscow Patriarch and the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. 

“We could not hear what the Poles forgive the Russians and what the Orthodox Church intends to apologize to the Latin Church in Poland for. Perhaps, it will also be said some day. But a very powerful example or call to reconciliation has been made,” stressed the primate. 

The patriarch also positively evaluates the fact that Patriarch Kirill began to communicate “not only with the Head of the whole Catholic Church but also with the head of the local Church.” 

“I would really like something similar to happen in Ukraine. Firstly, we would be very pleased to see finally the beginning of a personal dialogue at the level of the two Churches. To see the Moscow Patriarch recognize the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church as his interlocutor. For they have talked about us so far only with the Most Holy Father in the Vatican almost always without us,” noted the Head of UGCC. 

“We are waiting for a response from our prospective partners and let Lord God help them and us in this regard,” concluded Patriarch Sviatoslav.

 In an overwhelmingly Muslim Middle East, it is surprising to note that one-tenth of all Syrians are Christian, and even more shocking to discover that almost half of the population of Lebanon is also Christian. It is a wonder there are any Christians left in that part of the world at all. But then, these are no ordinary Christians. Most Christians in the Middle East are not Roman Catholic or Protestant—they are Eastern Christians with a unique heritage distinct from Western forms of worship and practice. Perhaps their millennium-old customs make them robust enough to stay in countries where they are surrounded by hostile neighbors. 

“It is their faith,” says George Baho, a native of Damascus, Syria. George told Catholic World Report, “Without a strong faith, Christians in Syria could not persevere under a Muslim majority.” His parents moved to Damascus from a small village in northern Syria called Mardeen. Mardeen is one of many small, isolated, Christian villages in the Middle East that heroically cling to their Christian culture and identity. The Baho family is Syriac Catholic—one of many Eastern Christian communities in the Middle East. Syriac Catholics have their own distinct monasteries, churches, liturgy, and hierarchy within the Catholic Church. 

Lebanon is actually governed by the Christian majority of that state, the Maronite Catholics. But Syria and Lebanon are home to half a dozen other Eastern Christian communities as well, including Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Assyrian/Chaldean, and Coptic Christians. These communities celebrate liturgies that developed independently of one another more than a thousand years ago. They have preserved a cultural treasury of liturgical beauty and depth that is waiting to be explored by Western Catholics. 

Blessed John Paul II called for the Church to breathe with “both lungs,” incorporating the rich traditions of both the East and West. In 2011, Pope Benedict’s general intention for the month of November was “that the Eastern Catholic Churches and their venerable traditions may be known and esteemed as a spiritual treasure for the whole Church.” Most Roman Catholics, however, have yet to discover how this can be practically achieved. 

The most obvious difference between East and West is the liturgy. The prayers and actions of the Mass are not the same in the Christian East. The Catholic East practices five distinct rites, or liturgical traditions, that mirror the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches (which are not in union with Rome). To understand the difference in liturgy, it is necessary to look back to the regrettable schisms in the Church. 

During the fifth and sixth centuries, the Alexandrian and East Syrian bishops broke away from the Greek and Latin Church, marking the first schism in the Christian Church. These Churches are called the “Oriental Orthodox” (Iraqi Assyrians, Egyptian Copts, etc.)
The early part of the second millennium witnessed another significant rupture between the Latin Church of the West and the Greek Church of the East—the gradual, tragic result of linguistic, liturgical, disciplinary, theological, and cultural differences. The Eastern Church took the title “Orthodox,” and the West, “Catholic.” 

Over time, many Eastern Orthodox Christians resumed communion with the bishop of Rome, and are called Eastern Catholics. These Churches are known as the Alexandrian (Egypt), the East Syriac (Iraq/Iran/India), the West Syriac (Syria/Lebanon/India), the Armenian (Armenia), and—the largest—the Byzantine (Greece, Russia, and the Slavs) Churches. 

Most Roman Catholics who are familiar with the East have knowledge of the Byzantine tradition. The Byzantine Catholic Church is made up of 13 “autonomous ritual Churches,” such as the Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Melkite, and Romanian Catholic churches. These Churches have parishes worldwide and are governed by their own hierarchy of bishops who are in full communion with the Pope. 

When asked, “Why are you Byzantine Catholic?” Shelepets Baumann, a parishioner of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church in Fort Pierce, Florida, replied: 

I was born into the Byzantine faith and practiced it all of my life. Like most things [I began] to take it for granted. However, I never realized until my adult years how precious the Byzantine Catholic faith is and how beautiful the Divine Liturgy is. As an ex-flight attendant and presently a traveling nurse, my jobs have taken me to many parts of the states and I have not always had the opportunity to go to a Byzantine Catholic church, so I [often attend] the Roman Catholic church…[but] when I go to my Byzantine Catholic church, I am home. 

Blessed John Paul II, in his effort to bring together the East and West, issued two distinct challenges. Because Eastern Catholics are a minority, they must faithfully preserve their tradition and not be tempted to “Latinize” their practices. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, should seek out some amount of liturgical and intellectual exposure to the Christian East for spiritual and cultural enrichment. 

As John Paul the Great knew, in the current war against secularism, both lungs are necessary in order to provide enough “oxygen” for the spiritual battle raging in today’s world. The Eastern perspective expands the arsenal of the Western Church’s theology and prayer life. So, on the one hand, breathing with both lungs reinforces the Church Militant, but it is also an invitation to broaden one’s horizon through a beautiful encounter with Christ, who is new every morning. 

Eastern perspective

The Eastern lung could analogously be called the feminine branch of the Catholic Church. This does not mean saccharine, feel-good Christianity, but rather that the East is notably mystical and contemplative. The Eastern Church provides a nurturing, liturgical environment for its members to encounter the Most Holy Trinity. 

The East complements the Western need to act upon the world with missionary zeal by being more singularly focused on the liturgical and interior spiritual life of Christianity than its Roman counterpart. 

Christians, East and the West, are all called to holiness and believe the same truths, but the Eastern “feminine” view is different than the analogous masculine perspective. The Eastern Church offers a different vocabulary, a unique lens on the Catholic faith through a liturgical encounter with God. 

“There’s not just one way to be Catholic,” says Father Thomas Loya, radio host of “Light of the East” and pastor of Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glenn, Illinois. The different cultural and liturgical practice of Catholics around the world “is what makes the Church truly Catholic.” Father Loya emphasizes the complementarity of the traditions: “You can take the same faith and express it in a variety of ways. This creates unity in diversity.”
The Divine Liturgy (Mass) is the heart of Eastern Christian theology, mysticism, and culture. The old axiom is, “If you want to know what the Eastern Christians believe, attend the liturgy.” 

One of the first things Roman Catholics will notice about the liturgy is that there is no quiet meditation. There are no pauses—the chanting never ceases. Yet, the Byzantine liturgy is an active meditation with a very rich vocabulary of prayer. Eastern Christian theology is at the service of prayer, because the entire aim of that theology is to find words fitting for prayer. 

Eastern liturgy exhibits an enticing beauty and grace: the smell of incense, the unbroken chant, the striking icons. The senses are transfixed throughout the liturgy, which gives the feeling of timelessness and ascension into glory. Baumann of Fort Pierce, Florida further notes: 

Our Divine Liturgy is so beautiful that certain parts of it always bring tears to my eyes because of its beauty. There is reverence in our church for God. People respond with enthusiasm and one can feel that you are in a holy place, in the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…. Our other worship services are filled with words of such beauty that are offered to God…not to mention our beautiful music… 

This modern-day Byzantine Catholic parishioner is not the first to be awed by the beauty of the Eastern services. A famous 10th-century Russian (sic), after experiencing the Greek Divine Liturgy for the first time, exclaimed, “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth…such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it!” According to legend, the relation of this experience sparked the conversion to Christianity of the entire Russian people. (sic)

Roman Catholics often feel like hobbits among Tolkien’s high elves or travelers in an exotic country upon their first encounter with this liturgy. The East speaks a different language.  And, as John Paul II fittingly stated in his letter Orientale Lumen: “The words of the West need the words of the East, so that God's word may ever more clearly reveal its unfathomable riches.”

About the Author
Christopher B. Warner

Christopher B. Warner, a former Marine Corps officer and veteran, is a graduate student of Orthodox theology at the Antiochian House of Studies. Christopher has a BA in Catholic theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He has worshipped with the Eastern Christian community since 2001, and currently serves as a cantor for his parish of St. George in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Christopher and his wife, Katy, are both teachers at Trinity Academy.

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