News: Winter 2009

Patriarch Kirill pledges to keep church unified

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who was enthroned in Moscow as Kirill I, the 16th patriarch in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, has stressed it is his task to ensure unity within the church and to preserve the faith, but he is also seen as being a more "political leader" than his predecessor by some analysts.

Hundreds of bishops attended the lengthy service on 1 February. A Vatican delegation was led by Cardinal Walter Kasper.

Four of Russia's most famous choirs performed in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, chanting in Greek, "Axios! Axios! Axios!" ("He is Worthy!"), during the installation of the first Russian Orthodox patriarch to be elected since the fall of the Soviet Union.

In his first sermon as patriarch, Kirill stressed the importance of church unity.

"The Patriarch is the custodian of the internal unity of the Church and, together with his brothers in the episcopate, guardian of the purity of the faith," he said.

He then addressed the issues of the collapse of the Russian Empire and later of the Soviet Union. This continues to affect the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill said, since its territory extends beyond the borders of the present-day Russian Federation.

"The Patriarch is the defender of the canonical borders of the church," he said. "This ministry takes on special significance with the situation that arose after the formation of independent states on the territory of 'historical Rus'."

"In an era of moral relativism," Kirill declared, "when the propaganda of violence and debauchery steals the souls of young people, we cannot wait quietly for youth to turn to Christ. ... We must be of service to young people, however hard it might be for us of middle and older generations, and help them find faith in God and meaning in life, and together with this an understanding of true human happiness."

Kirill was elected in the cathedral on 27 January by a Russian Orthodox Church council of bishops, clergy, monks and lay people. [Sophia Kishkovsky/ENI]

Patriarch Aleksy: 1929-2009

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Aleksy II, 79 years old, died December 5 at his residence in Peredelkino outside Moscow. He had often been ill in recent years and had undergone several operations. The most recent, last September, was a heart operation.

Despite illness, he continued serving at the altar and taking an active part in church life. The day before his death, celebrating the start of the Christmas fast, he presided at a Liturgy in the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Moscow Kremlin.

The first patriarch of post-Soviet Russia, he led the revival of the Church and played a major role in restoring unity with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

The son of a priest, Aleksy Ridiger was born in Tallinn, Estonia, 23 February 1929. He entered the Leningrad Theological Seminary in 1947, graduating two years later. He was ordained priest in Leningrad in April 1950 and appointed to a parish in Estonia. While there he continued his external studies at the Leningrad Theological Academy, graduating in 1953.

He was tonsured as a monk in March 1961 and several months later was appointed Bishop of Tallinn. That same year the Russian Orthodox Church joined the World Council of Churches and Aleksy became a member of the WCC's Central Committee.

For many years he was active in the Conference of European Churches, of which he became president in 1972 and chairman in 1987.

During the 1980s, in the final years of the USSR, he did much to repair church relations with the Soviet state. While the Soviet Union was falling apart, Aleksy dedicated himself to keeping the church together.

In 1986 Aleksy was appointed Metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod. His time in Leningrad coincided with Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, which greatly relaxed anti-religious restrictions. (Reacting to Aleksy's death, the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said he was "so shocked that it is hard for me to find words on the spot. I respected him deeply.")

Elected patriarch in 1990, he traveled widely, visiting more than 100 dioceses and encouraged congregations to come back to the fold.

A noted academic, he had hundreds of articles published in both the religious and secular press worldwide. He placed great emphasis on the education of the clergy, overseeing the building of new theological schools and colleges.

At the end of 2006, there were more than 27,000 active parishes throughout the old territory of the Soviet Union, 20,000 more than when he had been elected.

'My heart aches,' says director of bombed Gaza clinic

Constantine Dabbagh had prepared himself for the worst when he visited the ruins of the Gaza clinic for mothers and children, run by his organization, that was destroyed by an Israeli jet.

Nonetheless, he said he was shocked by the scale of devastation. "There was a heap of rubble, and some papers from files blowing about in the wind, and that was all. Nothing survived," said Dabbagh, the executive director in Gaza of the Middle East Council of Churches Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees.

"We thought there might have been something we could keep as a memento of 40 years serving the community, but everything had been obliterated. Only after digging did we find a couple of smashed machines," the 70-year-old director said. "I cannot express how I felt. I didn't cry, but my heart was aching. For humans to have caused this made it especially shocking."

It wasn't until several weeks after the attack that Dabbagh was able to carry out the inspection.

A Palestinian Christian, Dabbagh was spending Christmas in Bethlehem when the Israeli incursion into Gaza started at the end of 2008, and it wasn't until the cease-fire in mid-January that he was able to return home.

The clinic, in the densely populated Shujaiya district of Gaza City, was destroyed after people living in the flat above received a telephone warning from the Israelis to vacate the premises. A missile strike followed 15 minutes later.

Dabbagh said the reason the building was targeted remains a mystery. He was adamant that it had not been used for military purposes by Hamas.

The clinic was closed at the time because of the security situation, but the bombing destroyed medicines and equipment worth thousands of dollars. The facility is supported by Action by Churches Together International, a global alliance of churches and related agencies.

One of only three clinics serving a population of 80,000, it offered pre- and post-natal care and the services of gynaecologists and general doctors. It had also recently launched an ambitious program to visit 15,000 homes to check every child between six months and three years old for malnutrition.

"Much has to be replaced," said Dabbagh. "We had a laboratory fully equipped for blood tests and ultrasound, and we had only just put in computers with a management information system There was a six-week stock of medicine and water purification equipment, as well as milk and nutritious biscuits for the malnutrition program."

After visiting the ruins, Dabbagh said a clinic operating out of borrowed premises would be running within days. "The community is very anxious that we continue, so we will be replacing what we can and starting from scratch," he said. "The silence of Western governments in the face of incidents like this is the silence of the grave," Dabbagh asserted.

"After nearly 41 years of occupation we have to say enough is enough. We are humiliated and oppressed, enslaved and imprisoned. You reach madness if you do not believe in God. It affects the young people particularly. They will not forgive anybody for what is going on. It is a tragedy."

Convert elected head of the Orthodox Church of America

Over the course of 11 days in November, a soft-spoken monk known as Jonah saw his life change in ways he hadn't dreamed of. For years he had been abbot of a monastery in California. Then, just days after being consecrated bishop of Forth Worth, Texas, he was elected metropolitan of the 100,000-member Orthodox Church in America.

Born James Paffhausen, the 49-year-old Chicago native was baptized in the Episcopal Church. He converted to Orthodoxy as a college student, was ordained a priest and then became a monk, and founded a monastery  St. John of San Francisco and Shanghai located in Manton, California.

His election as head of the church's synod of bishops was greeted with joy by members of the OCA, which is still reeling from a September report detailing the disappearance of millions of dollars in church funds under two of Jonah's predecessors.

Jonah was formally installed as metropolitan on December 28 at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, DC. Among the formidable tasks confronting him are the restoration of trust in the church's hierarchy and administration as well as fostering unity among the different Orthodox churches in the US and raising Orthodoxy's profile in a country where Orthodox Christianity, in many places, is a trace element.

Asked what drew him, as a student, to the Orthodox Church, he replied: "I encountered Orthodoxy in a hippie bookstore, picking up a book called the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky. It was one of the few books on Orthodoxy available in English at the time. When I read it, I knew it was the truth. I saw that Orthodoxy is the fully integrated experience and vision of what Christianity is all about."

He was also asked if, as metropolitan, he will encourage the Church to take a more public role on political matters.

He responded: "There's a difference between political issues and moral issues. When there are things which destroy people's souls, it's our fundamental responsibility to stand up and say, this is wrong, and this is wrong because it will hurt you. It's not wrong because it says so in some book somewhere, in the canons or even in the Holy Scriptures. That's part of the basis of judgment, but it comes down to, it's wrong because it hurts you."

Olivier Clément, 1921-2009

Olivier Clément, the renowned theologian and long-time professor at St. Sergius Institute in Paris, died at his home in Paris on January 15. He was 87 years old.

His conversion to Christianity at age 30 was in part influenced by the writings of Nicolas Berdyaev and Vladimir Lossky.

He was a member of the joint Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue. He also inspired the work of the Orthodox Brotherhood in Western Europe since its founding in the early 1960s and participated actively in various conferences Orthodox Christians in Western Europe since 1971.

He was the author of 30 books. English translations include the following: The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New City Press); Three Prayers (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press); You Are Peter (New City); On Human Being: Spiritual Anthropology (New City Press); and The Spirit of Solzhenitsyn.

A sentence from his writings: "The spiritual person is drunk with the wine of love and that wine is the Spirit, the wine of power and life."

US Protestants more loyal to toothpaste than church

Protestants in the United States have less "brand loyalty" to their denominations than they have to their toothpaste, a survey made public in January revealed.

The survey, which categorized churches as "brands," found there is a trend of "church shopping" in a diverse marketplace of religious offerings in the US.

The survey found that only 16 percent of US Protestants surveyed said they will not consider changing their denominational affiliation. By contrast, 22 percent expressed brand loyalty to a preferred toothpaste.

Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52

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