In a rather unexpected decision, in keeping with the impetuous style of Moscow Patriarch Kirill (Gundjaev), the Moscow Synod has replaced the head of the Department for External Ecclesiastical Relations, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev), with Metropolitan Antonij (Sevrjuk), until now holder of the Russian chair of Paris and Western Europe. This is a real revolution in the patriarchate’s leadership and is as of yet, still difficult to interpret.
HiIlarion, 58, was the first collaborator of 75-year-old Kirill, and one of his possible natural successors. He was formed within the group of the current patriarch’s loyalists, a patrologist and theologian, and represents the most culturally refined wing of the Russian Church’s ecclesiastical elite, which he also exalted with his works as a music composer and publications on the History of the Russian Church. He also established the ‘Cyril and Methodius’ College for the higher education of Russian theologians, where he has now been replaced by a very conservative theologian, Father Maksim Kozlov.
A monk since 1987, Hilarion began his ecclesiastical service in Vilnius, Lithuania, and then continued his studies in Moscow and Oxford, where he was sent in 1993, becoming a disciple of one of the most renowned Orthodox theologians of recent decades, Metropolitan Diokleia Kallistos (Ware). Back in Moscow, he worked in the ‘Foreign Affairs’ department in the team of Kirill, then Metropolitan and head of the sector, becoming his main helper also in the field of teaching theology and the popular dissemination of Orthodoxy also in television broadcasts, a very effective tool of the ‘religious revival’. While Kirill had the programme “The Pastor’s Voice” on the first channel, Hilarion presented the column “Peace to Your Household” on Tv-Tsentr, both very popular with the general public.
Archimandrite and bishop since 2001, Hilarion was sent back to England as the vicar of the legendary Anglo-Russian bishop Antonij (Bloom), who had created a special synthesis of Russian Orthodoxy and British culture. Hilarion fulfilled the task entrusted to him by Kirill, bringing the Russian Church in those parts back to Russian ‘normality’, showing the line that the Patriarchate has followed so far in all parts of the world: to unify the ‘Russian world’ on the basis of fidelity to the religious ideal of the Patriarchate, without giving space to local autonomies.
Thereafter, Hilarion has remained in various stages on the seesaw of patriarchal favour and hostility, moving from various locations such as Brussels, Vienna and as Budapest, where he has now been exiled again by Kirill. Returning to Moscow, in 2009 he became the vicar of Kirill, who had just ascended the patriarchal throne, and his successor in the Foreign Department, hence his name ‘Kirill’s heir’. Now his removal certainly indicates a disagreement of views with the patriarch, although it is impossible to determine precisely on what issues.
In the dramatic phase of the Ukrainian conflict, Patriarch Kirill, after an initial hesitancy, took increasingly radical and ideological positions in justifying the Putin military operation, partly out of conviction and much, presumably, under pressure from the Kremlin. Hilarion has not supported these positions directly, trying to keep all avenues of dialogue open with the other Churches starting with the Vatican, and the decision to send him to Hungary rather demonstratively coincides with his return from a visit to Budapest in which, thanking Orban for the patriarch’s support against sanctions, Ilarion had met with the influential cardinal of Budapest Péter Erdő, a visit perhaps not entirely agreed with Kirill.
The synod minutes mention the Budapest meeting without commenting on the dialogue with the cardinal, limiting themselves to thanks for Orban. Now Hilarion is to be replaced by another of Kirill’s loyalists, his former personal secretary Antonij, 37, who had already been sent to Paris three years ago to replace another of Kirill’s collaborators, Metropolitan Ioann (Roščin) who had shown himself “too weak” in relations with Constantinople and his European partners.
The divisions in Orthodoxy continue to surprise at every level, from the universal one in Moscow’s break with Constantinople, to the one between Russians and Ukrainians still developing, to the internal one within the Moscow Patriarchate, where new surprises are possible in the future.