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Young bishop of Russian Orthodox Church: Ukraine war is ‘scandalous’

Young bishop of Russian Orthodox Church: Ukraine war is ‘scandalous’

Bishop Petru Pruteanu was ordained as a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow last November. But despite being consecrated by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the 43-year-old from Moldova takes a strikingly different line on the conflict in Ukraine than the Russian Orthodox leader.  

Bishop Pruteanu, who is responsible for the Russian Orthodox community in Portugal and Spain, told The Pillar that the conflict pitting two majority Orthodox nations against each other is “scandalous.”

The bishop, who serves within the Moscow Patriarchate’s Patriarchal Exarchate in Western Europe, which is based in Paris, also suggested that Orthodox support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention is the result of an “enslaved” and idolatrous mindset.

The interview with Bishop Pruteanu, who also criticized the war before his consecration, was conducted via email in Portuguese and translated into English.

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You were born in Moldova during communism. Tell us a bit about your childhood and education.

I come from a large and very Christian family which never stopped practicing the faith. Until 1991, we lived under a communist regime, but Gorbachev introduced some freedoms in 1987 that allowed for several monasteries and churches to be reopened, giving religious practice a new boost. I was educated in this period, and by the age of 12 I was set on becoming a priest.

The only Church in Moldova at that time was under the Moscow Patriarchate (MP). Now there is another, linked to the Romanian Church, but it only has a few parishes in central and southern Moldova, not in the north, where I am from.

I studied theology in Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, and I was ordained in 2003.

I taught at the seminary, and then at the faculty of theology until 2011, but then I decided to become a missionary among the diaspora. That is when I was asked to move to Portugal, where there were few priests.

Were you surprised to be named bishop?

This had already been planned in 2018, when Bishop Nestor was still in Paris and needed an auxiliary for Spain and Portugal. However, the diocese of Paris was raised to a metropolis, and Bishop Anthony was made metropolitan, and Bishop Nestor was put in charge of Portugal and Spain. Meanwhile, in June, Metropolitan Anthony was called back to Moscow and replaced in Paris by Bishop, now Metropolitan, Nestor. That allowed for a return to the original plan.

The Orthodox tradition is that diaspora communities fall under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP). The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has been in open conflict with the EP for some years. Is that why there are ROC structures in Western Europe?

The Russian diaspora in the West predates the Greek by far. The Russian Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky in Paris was consecrated in 1861 and the Greek in 1895. Only in 1924, when the Greeks from Asia Minor began to move to the West, did the EP decide to interpret canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon (451) in a broad sense, and claim jurisdiction over all diaspora communities.

There have been overlapping Orthodox hierarchies in Western Europe for quite some time. They are coordinated by an assembly of bishops which is presided over by a representative of the EP. I don’t deny that there is some chauvinism and national pride behind this multiplicity, but the fact is that there are differences of language, customs, calendar, discipline, and even liturgy among the various Orthodox churches which, from a practical point of view, require parallel hierarchies.

This is an old problem. In 1215, the Fourth Council of the Lateran (one of the councils of the Latin Church that the Orthodox do not consider ecumenical) recognized, in canon 9, that “in many places within the same city and diocese there are people of different languages having one faith but various rites and customs,” and recommended naming clerics to celebrate accordingly, and to act as episcopal vicars for each of those communities. The council also forbade the coexistence in one city of several bishops, describing it as “one body, as it were, with several heads, which is a monstrosity.” But perhaps we could counter that it is a lesser evil…

You were consecrated at a time of crisis, because of the war in Ukraine. Being neither Russian nor Ukrainian, you have come over the years to know both quite well, and your episcopal title refers to a titular see which used to exist in disputed Crimea. What has it been like for you to watch this conflict?

When Metropolitan Nestor was named auxiliary bishop in 2010 (before the Russian occupation in 2014), he also received the title Bishop of Caffa. The title itself, therefore, has nothing to do with the dispute over the territory, which for centuries was neither part of Russia nor Ukraine, but a Muslim Tatar Khanate.

Stalin deported the Tatars en masse to Kazakhstan, replacing them with Russian immigrants, who now form the majority. During celebrations of the 300 years of the 1654 union between Ukraine and Russia, Khrushchev offered Crimea to Ukraine, to whom it had never belonged.

On the other hand, Russia recognized Ukraine’s independence in 1991, with its borders at the time, and in 1997 it committed to respect the sovereignty and borders of Ukraine.

This war is nothing short of scandalous. Nobody thought this could happen in the 21st century, especially between countries with the same ethnic background and the same religion.

You have both Russian and Ukrainian parishioners. Has that been difficult?

Fortunately, we did not have any problems. When we collected donations for the Ukrainian refugees, two Russian and two Ukrainian ladies went to deliver them together. On the very first day, we had a demonstration outside the door of the church, but I spoke to the protestors and they calmed down.

When the first refugees arrived in Cascais, Portugal, the mayor invited us to welcome them and offer support. The Ukrainian ambassador, however, said that because we belonged to the MP it was either “us or them.” The mayor apologized, and we left. Soon after that, following similar complaints that reached Kyiv, the ambassador was removed.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainians continue to come to our church in large numbers.

Is Patriarch Kirill of Moscow commemorated during celebrations of the ROC in Portugal and Spain?

Orthodox tradition only mandates commemoration of the local bishop. He, in turn, should commemorate the metropolitan, who commemorates the patriarch. In the ROC, there is the custom of commemorating the whole hierarchical chain.

However, as soon as the war began, some priests, to avoid upsetting the faithful and causing division, began to follow the more general rule of only commemorating the local bishop.

After the invasion an open letter was published online, signed by almost 300 ROC priests, criticizing the war. The first signatory of that letter is Archimandrite Arseny Sokolov, representative of the MP in Damascus at the time. All three Russian priests currently working in Portugal, and at least two in Spain, also signed the letter. Why didn’t you sign?

Even though I agree with the content of the letter, I believe that this sort of protest does not solve the problem and can even be counterproductive, stoking feelings and degrading confidence in the clergy, since the same community can have people with different, or even opposite, political opinions.  

Archimandrite Sokolov was dismissed from his post in Damascus shortly after signing the letter. Are these facts connected?

I am not sure, but they might be. Archimandrite Sokolov is now in Italy, working at a biblical institute, within his field of speciality.

As a priest, he is under the care of Archbishop Jean de Doubna, head of the Autonomous Archbishopric of Orthodox Churches of the Russian Tradition in Western Europe. [Archbishop Jean has been a critical voice against Patriarch Kirill’s stance on the war, since it began.]

Now that you are the superior of several priests who signed the letter, will they suffer any repercussions?

I don’t believe so, especially since they do not have representative responsibilities, as Archimandrite Sokolov did, nor are they directly under the Patriarch.

What is your position on the invasion of Ukraine by Russia?

I agree with both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis who said “there are no holy wars, only peace is holy.” Personally, I can’t think of any war as pointless and useless as this one.

Has being made bishop affected your freedom of expression?

Before I was a bishop, I was already a cleric, and regardless of my personal opinions, I had a duty not to compromise the Church, which is a space of charity and fraternity, not of infighting and division. My consecration only increased this responsibility.

From the outside, however, nothing has changed. I have not been given any political instructions.

The vast majority of people in the West support Ukraine. Are they well informed about what is going on?

I don’t think they are getting fully neutral information, since Western media reflects the markedly pro-Ukrainian position of its governments, but they are definitely better informed than the Russians.

Patriarch Kirill has been widely criticized for appearing to support the invasion of Ukraine. Does this image of a Patriarch who has become too close to the regime correspond to the truth?

I believe Patriarch Kirill, like most Russians over the age of 50, is nostalgic for the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

I think he sincerely supports the regime, not out of interest or opportunism, nor lack of freedom, but because he is heavily influenced by thinkers, such as Alexander Dugin, who have tried to resurrect the ideology of Slavophiles such as Khomiakov, from the 19th century, and especially Ivan Ilyin, from the 20th century.

Some, such as the EP, have accused the Patriarch of ethnophyletism, the conflation between Church and nation. Do you believe he is guilty of this heresy?

The Orthodox Church demonstrates its catholicity by admitting all ethnicities, with their own languages and cultures. Apostolic Canon 34 stipulates that the local churches should mold themselves to the ethnic structure of societies, and this principle was reaffirmed, in slightly different terms, by Canon 38 of the Council in Trullo (692).

It was on this basis that the Georgian, Bulgarian, and Serbian patriarchates were erected in the Middle Ages, and the Russian in the 16th century.

The term “ethnophyletism” was coined in 1872 at an Orthodox conference gathered in Constantinople to condemn the efforts of the Bulgarians to restore the autocephaly of their church, but there has never been a more ethnophyletist church than the Greek! To classify it as “heretical” is an overstatement.

To many, the concept of Holy Rus’ [a term frequently used by Kirill to refer to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus as a single ethnic and spiritual entity] is far less Orthodox than “ethnophyletism.”

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev, who was seen as Patriarch Kirill’s right-hand man, was recently set aside. Was it because they clashed over the war?

Metropolitan Hilarion is renowned in the West as an author, theologian and composer, etc. But institutionally, and especially inside Russia, he has never been seen as the Patriarch’s right-hand man.

He denied any relationship between his transfer to Budapest and his position on the war in Ukraine, which isn’t even very clear. It may have had more to do with administrative reasons.

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Can younger bishops, like yourself, shape a less political and less nationalistic Church?

It might be more correct to describe the ROC as imperialistic, rather than nationalistic. In that sense, the “third Rome” is not so different from the first two.

Regarding us “younger bishops,” we need to learn from the Exodus: We are going to need to spend 40 years in a spiritual desert, constantly tempted, until the passing of this mentally enslaved generation that makes an idol out of the political, so that we can enter the “promised land,” or at least a better one.

You are familiar with the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches. What is your view of what is going on there? Do you believe they might one day be reunited?

I do, and I hope so, but only after the war, and without political strings attached.

The situation in Ukraine is confusing, with two churches that are practically autocephalous, both of which sprang from the MP. The first was recognized by the EP in 2018-2019 and then by three other autocephalous churches, but most do not recognize it, given doubts about the legitimacy of some episcopal ordinations.

The second, which has the largest number of parishes and monasteries, is accused by the government of collaboration with Moscow. It is difficult, in this sense, to speak of a less political Church, when the government itself persecutes one and favors the other.

How things work out depends on how the war ends, and it is too soon to predict. It might take a while yet, since the wounds of war are difficult to heal.

Now that you live in a Catholic country, what is your opinion of Catholicism, and of Pope Francis?

Grassroots religion is more alive in Portugal than in other places, such as France, so the religious landscape is not so desolate: there are more people who believe in God, more people going to church, less of a visceral reaction against religion. I agree with the chairman of the Portuguese Muslim community when he says that “Portugal is a paradise of religious freedom,” not only because of the legal framework, but especially because the people are deeply tolerant.

Regarding Francis, the Orthodox Church has nothing against the pope, although it cannot accept the papacy as it is conceived by the Roman Church, regardless of sympathy or antipathy towards the person who happens to sit on the papal throne.

I would say that the pope who did more to heal divisions between Orthodoxy and Catholicism was Benedict XVI, long before he was elected. He was a pioneer of nouvelle théologie, one of the first in the West to react against scholastic rationalism and to claim, in full accordance with the Orthodox tradition, that theological authority is inseparable from a life of holiness, in a return to the Church Fathers.

His first doctoral thesis, on the influence of Church Fathers in the Middle Ages, was seen as a breach in the almost mathematical fortress of Scholasticism – which Trent had made the official philosophy of the Catholic Church – and was rejected. He had to make do with a thesis on theology of history in the work of St. Bonaventure. The West was not mature enough to accept it, but in the long run I believe that, with the grace of God, his position will bear fruit.

The recognition of the superiority of the experience of the saints over the proud exercises of reason is an act of humility and represents an effort towards inner conversion which, in time, will surely bear fruit. What we need, above all, is a humble opening to the Holy Spirit and to its inspiration, without forgetting the teachings of St. Paul: Ego plantavi, Apollo rigavit, Deus autem incrementum dedit… (I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow, 1 Corinthians 3:6.)

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