Russian consecration will ice ecumenism. Could that mean a thaw for Eastern Catholic requests?
The most powerful effects of the pope’s consecration of Russia and Ukraine to Mary’s Immaculate Heart on Friday will be spiritual.
When Pope Francis and the world’s bishops entrust entire countries to Mary’s intercession, the greatest fruits will be unseen by most people, noticed only by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear the mysterious work of God’s Providence.
But there will be some obviously tangible effects of the Church’s consecration of Russia to Mary — among them will be a cooling of the pope’s ecumenical relationship with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The consecration of Russia is a spiritual act of entrustment, but it is also an assertion of the pope’s universal spiritual authority.
When the pope entrusts and commends an entire country - or two, in this case - to the Blessed Virgin Mary, he does it because he is the Vicar of Christ, and has the prerogatives of the universal shepherd of the Church.
Some Catholics will find that act an encouraging exercise of spiritual authority. But the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church - who sees the pope as an equal, not a superior - will have a different theological perspective.
The presumption that the pope can exercise spiritual authority within the Russkiy-mir, the Russian world over which Kirill claims exclusive jurisdiction, will no doubt chafe the patriarch.
And it will damper what Francis once seemed to hope would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month, Pope Francis and Kirill had taken steps to surpass the usually icy relationship between the Catholic communion and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Francis and Kirill had a historic meeting in a Havana airport in 2016. There was talk that another meeting could take place later this year. But while the Russian invasion of Ukraine made that meeting a near impossibility, the pope’s consecration of Kirill’s territory - a spiritual act with temporal implications - probably guarantees it will not happen.
Those who had hoped to see a positive, long-term ecumenical relationship develop between Moscow and Rome might regard it lamentable that the prospects have chilled so considerably.
But some Catholics, who have wondered about the value of that ecumenical friendship, will likely perceive that a roadblock between Kirill and Francis could have positive effect within the Catholic communion.
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The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, a sui iuris Church in the Catholic communion, has requested the recognition of a Ukrainian Catholic patriarch in Kyiv since the 16th century. It has never happened. Things came close in the 1960s, but Pope Paul VI, who was considering the idea, ultimately decided against it — in large part because of protests from the Russian Orthodox Church, with whom the Vatican was beginning in earnest an ecumenical dialogue.
It almost happened again in 1991 and in 2002, but in both cases, Vatican officials said the recognition of a Kyiv patriarch would be a “disaster for ecumenism.”
But if ecumenism with Moscow is effectively quashed by the pope’s Marian consecration, it is possible Vatican officials will decide to just go ahead with recognizing a patriarch in Kyiv, especially amid the near global support for the Ukrainian people’s resistance to the Russian invasion.
Things could get even more interesting in Russia itself. The Russian Greek Catholic Church is a sui iuris Catholic Church, in communion with Rome for more than a century. It is among the smallest Churches in the Catholic communion, with only a few dozen parishes across the world.
The Russian members of the Church have been without a bishop of their own since the 1950s, and the vacant see can be largely chalked up to ecumenical concerns — the sense that the Moscow Orthodox patriarchate would strongly object to the appointment of an Eastern bishop for the Russian Catholics in the country.
But again, with ecumenism hampered by the pope’s consecration, the Congregation for Eastern Catholic Churches might recommend to Francis that he take the historic step of appointing a shepherd for Russian Catholics in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and in other Russian cities — filling a decades’ long vacancy, and building upon a step taken in 2004, when a Latin Catholic bishop in Russia, Joseph Werth, was charged with care of the country’s Eastern Catholics.
Of course, the Russian Orthodox Church has become itself fractured amid political and theological fallout of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Churches under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate but outside of Russia are increasingly pushing back against Kirill’s leadership, with a greater number of bishops approving the omission of Kirill from liturgical prayers, and some signaling the prospect of a more direct alignment with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.
Between Rome and Moscow, a fractured ecumenical relationship, split more definitively by a global act of papal spiritual primacy, is not what most observers expected during the Francis papacy.
But now that it is happening the “pope of surprises” might well make a few more surprise moves for Catholics in the East.