Russia expert says political pressures forcing Kirill to back Putin’s war

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ROME – On Friday, Pope Francis and Catholic bishops from around the world will consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. At the request of their Patriarch, the Russian Orthodox too will invoke the Mother of God.

In the words of Father Stefano Caprio, a professor of Russian history and culture at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, there is “great ambiguity” as one side will be praying to the Virgin to guarantee peace, and the other for the mother of God to grant them victory in this war.

Caprio, who was a missionary in Russia between 1989 and 2002, said the announcement from the Vatican of Francis’s intention to consecrate both countries to Mary came the day after he spoke with Kirill in a videoconference. Two days after that call, the patriarch asked members of the Russian Orthodox Church to also pray for the intercession of the Virgin Mary.

The Italian priest knows the Russian church well, both as a former missionary and as a scholar, and he met Kirill many times when he was still a metropolitan archbishop. In fact, Caprio served as his driver during some of the Russian prelate’s visits to Rome. 

The priest spoke with journalists in Rome on Wednesday.

Ostpolitik, the politics of contradiction

Since the war began, the priest noted, Pope Francis has tried in “many ways” to express his closeness with those who suffer, and has also said the invasion was not a “special military operation,” as the Russian government claims, but is a war.

“But he has avoided giving full names,” Caprio said, addressing one of the controversies surrounding the Vatican’s attitude regarding the war. “The Vatican’s position has a historic name: Ostpolitik, and it was born in the 1900s.” 

At its origin, he said, the term referred to the pro-Soviet politics in Germany. Today, it has also applied to the Vatican’s relationship with the Kremlin and with China: keeping the doors of dialogue open, in the hopes that “those who can be saved will be saved” from anti-Christian activities under the communist regimes.

Pope Francis and Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, speak by video with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of external relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, March 16, 2022. Also pictured is Ukrainian Franciscan Father Marek Viktor Gongalo. (Credit: CNS photo/Vatican Media.)

“With Pope Francis, this relationship was recommenced,” he said. “In the 20th century, too, persecuted Christians accused the Vatican of betrayal, but the Holy See insisted that it was the only way to save them. And that’s the same speech they have with China.”

Caprio also pointed out the Vatican today has “very good” relations both with the Orthodox Church aligned with Moscow and with the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, headed by Patriarch Bartholomew, and which according to Russia, is in “schism.”

“What is the Holy See to do? Keep the doors of dialogue open,” Caprio said. Francis’s “Latin Americanized version” of Ostpolitik, he said, adds a bit of spice to the issue, as he has “a very particular personality, sometimes going in one direction, other times in the other direction.”

Ostpolitik means to enter in contradiction,” he said. “How do we support the Ukrainians? By breaking all relations with the Russians? Some think this would be the best, but it is not easy.”

Though the Vatican’s position on the war is clear – peace must always prevail – the religious mixture in Ukraine makes things more challenging. On the one hand, virtually all the major Christian ecclesiastical jurisdictions coexist: Rome, Moscow, Kiev and Constantinople. And there’s the strong influence of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church alongside the Latin Rite.

RELATED: Throughout history, Ukrainian Catholics have been a ‘Church of martyrs’

But it’s not only the diversity of Christian churches that makes the religious element of the crisis important. An estimated 30 percent of the pre-war Ukrainian population went to Mass every weekend, and the number goes up to 50 percent during major feasts. 

In Italy, “we are lucky” if 10 to 15 percent of Catholics go to Mass on any given Sunday, and in Russia, the number of practicing Orthodox is three to five percent, Caprio said. 

Acknowledging a margin of error, Caprio argued, that taken at face value, 20 million Ukrainian Orthodox are “worth more than 80 million Russian Orthodox, who are religious on paper, more for political reasons than actual faith.” 

In fact, he said, there is an argument to be made that Russia will lose the “majority” within Orthodoxy if the Orthodox Christians of Ukrainian origin – including the “great proportion of priests in Russia” – left the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Kirill question

According to Caprio, the Russian patriarch made his displeasure with the invasion of Ukraine known when he took 10 days to actually speak about the war after it began on Feb. 24. Recalling a conversation he had when Kirill was a metropolitan in 2000, during an ecumenical youth gathering held in Kyiv, the Italian priest said the Russian prelate had asked the Catholic Church’s help to “fend off” radical Russian Orthodox, who aligned themselves with the Soviet idea of Russia taking over the world.

Caprio said it was pressure from Putin and the more extremist wing of the church he leads that eventually pushed Kirill to publish a document justifying the war as an attempt to fend off western values not aligned with Russian values and culture, such as homosexuality.

“Kirill cannot openly oppose the war because he knows he would be killed,” Caprio said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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