Lithuania, Ukraine, and the Moral Authority of the Patriarch of Moscow

This past week, right before Orthodox Holy Week, the leadership of the Orthodox Church of Russia simultaneously dismissed from their positions three very publicly known Lithuanian Orthodox priests who respectively served as the chancellor of the diocese and pastor of the Vilnius cathedral, the pastor of the best-known Lithuanian-language parish in the country (in Vilnius), and a popularizing teacher and evangelist of the Orthodox faith in Lithuanian who also served as the editor of the diocesan journal. While various reasons were officially given, it is clear from reading the signs that they were all guilty of one infraction — speaking their mind not only about the Russian invasion of Ukraine but also publicly disagreeing with the Patriarch of Moscow for his open support of the invasion.

Their ruling metropolitan a month ago issued a statement (LT, RU) condemning the war, distancing himself from Patriarch Kirill, and even suggesting that he sought more independence from Moscow. In this last point especially he went further than these three priests did. Clearly, then, this recent decision was a reversal, strongly suggesting that he did not so much change his mind as have it changed for him. He is also only a few months away from reaching the Russian Orthodox Church’s mandatory retirement age of 75.

The evidence suggests that Russia’s church leadership will not brook even respectful criticism within its ranks. And while legal penalties cannot be leveraged against these clergy as we have seen happening in Russia, church leaders can certainly fire clergy from their positions. As of now, while these clergy have not been deposed and can theoretically still serve as priests, they no longer have income and responsibility within the church. All indications are that a large number of the active laity in the church support these priests and regard them even as heroes.

The scandal is growing and, as of this writing, four more clergy in the country have either been dismissed or voluntarily stepped down in solidarity with their brothers. This scandal is now being talked about in national media in Lithuania, not just among the Orthodox but also in society at large, in Lithuanian-language media and also in Russian-language media (there is a sizable Russian minority in Lithuania). And the Lithuanian-language Church of St. Paraskevi in Vilnius was shuttered for Palm Sunday services this weekend.

Currently, all Orthodox Christians in Lithuania are under the single jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church of Russia and make up about 4% of the population. But why should Lithuanians in general care about what a minority church does within its borders with its clergy?

Lithuania was once at the helm of the largest country in Europe, but over time has shrunk down to what is basically its oldest borders. Much of that shrinking process has been at the hands of first the Russian empire (1795-1918) and then later the Soviet Union (1944-1990). Both periods represented decades of Lithuanian suffering at the hands of Russians. That the first Russian invaders and occupiers were ostensibly Orthodox Christians and the second were atheist Soviets does not make much difference. What is remembered is that 169 years of modern Lithuanian history involved suffering at the hands of Russians (albeit with very different ideologies and governments).

During the late imperial period, the empire’s policy of Russification was aimed at erasing Lithuanian culture and language. After a famine in the 1860s, followed by a major economic downturn, the empire did not invest in Lithuanian economic development, leading to mass emigration as some 20% of Lithuanians left for America or elsewhere to find jobs to keep themselves from starving. This was also a period of intensified Russification. The Lithuanian language was forbidden in many schools, and it was forbidden for some decades to print books in Lithuania using the traditional Latin alphabet, giving rise to book smuggling from Prussia, making the smugglers cultural heroes to the Lithuanians. Many Lithuanians alive today proudly speak of their not-too-distant ancestors who smuggled forbidden books into Lithuanian homes that were used to teach children and keep the language and culture alive. Lithuania emerged in 1918 with a brief period of independence in the wake of the collapse of the Russian empire.

We are all probably more familiar with what the Soviets, who annexed Lithuania in the 1940s, did in the countries they occupied, and until 1990 Lithuania suffered that very fate. It was the first member state of the Soviet Union to break away, galvanized by the trans-Baltic protest of a human chain over 400 miles long, known as the Baltic Way, stretching through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Many people are still alive who remember Russian tanks rolling through Vilnius to try to prevent that independence, an independence that the Russian Orthodox metropolitan of Vilnius supported and which has been affirmed by his successor.

Thus, in the 20th century alone, Lithuania had two declarations of independence — once in 1918 and the second in 1990. In both cases, independence was being declared from Russians. And both are celebrated every year as national holidays.

So Lithuanians are very sensitive to Russian aggression. And so, as you may imagine, Lithuanian society is nearly unanimous in its solidarity with Ukraine as it suffers from invasion by the Russian government. That is why the firing of these three priests has become a national scandal in Lithuania.

Our purpose here is not to debate whether it is proper for a patriarch to fire clergy for publicly disagreeing with him, nor to analyze the decisions of their metropolitan who implemented what is clearly an instruction from Moscow. Nor is our purpose to analyze the invasion of Ukraine. All this can be read in many other places.

Rather, this is our point: The canonical arguments that the Orthodox Church of Russia made with regard to the 2018 entrance of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople into Ukraine are now for many people on the ground being drowned out. This is not so much because Russia invaded Ukraine but because the Patriarch of Moscow has openly and repeatedly supported that invasion. And that policy of support is being bolstered by penalizing clergy inside Russia and now even outside Russia not because they engaged in some uncanonical act but simply because they expressed their opinions. Patriarch Kirill affirms the unity of the Slavic nations with a common heritage in Holy Rus’ — a heritage Lithuanian Orthodox history shares, though not because Lithuanians are Slavs — yet blesses the attack by one Slavic nation against another.

It is true that some — including with the blessing of their bishops — have ceased to commemorate Patriarch Kirill in the divine services. While this is clearly an act of protest by eliminating a customary practice of the Russian church, it is not inherently uncanonical. Universal Orthodox tradition requires the clergy to commemorate only their diocesan bishop, without the addition of a primate or patriarch. Why? Orthodox ecclesiology regards each diocese as being the Church in its wholeness, and the communion of the Church is maintained not by top-down structures such as in Roman Catholicism but by bishops maintaining communion with each other.

If the Orthodox Church of Russia wishes to be taken seriously when it comes to ecclesiastical invasions of Ukraine, it cannot at the same time support military invasions of Ukraine — no matter what the Russian government’s justification is. The patriarch cannot appeal to the love and unity of the Church that is the canonical norm to support the jurisdiction of Metr. Onoufriy of Kyiv and at the same time bless and cheer the initiation of deadly force against a country — whatever its claimed faults — that did not attack Russia.

It is hard to imagine what the dynamics of the Orthodox Church worldwide will be after the dust settles and Ukraine begins to rebuild. But what seems clear, based on the actions of the Patriarch of Moscow, is that the map of the Russian church is going to be rather different, especially just outside Russia’s civil borders.

Will the Church divide further in Ukraine? Will the Church divide in Lithuania as it already is in the other Baltic nations to its north? As of today, we do not know.

But what we do know is that the unity of the Church is threatened not only by opportunistic sheep-stealers, something we saw far too often in the 20th century. The Church’s unity is also threatened when shepherds kill and cook their own sheep. It is very hard for sheep to want to stay in such a fold.

A patriarch might make a proper canonical argument and even be demonstrably correct when it comes to history and proper canonical procedure, but it is very hard to listen to him if he is also abusing his own flock. He not only strengthens the hand of those he disagrees with but also has abandoned his ministry. A shepherd should lay down his life for his sheep, not lay down theirs for his own.

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