Historical Considerations on the Moscow Patriarchate

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By Roberto de Mattei

The attraction in Italy and abroad of some political and religious circles to the Moscow Patriarchate is accompanied by a profound ignorance of its history. We aim to briefly fill this gap.

The fundamental starting point is the 17th Ecumenical Council of the Church, which took place in Florence in 1439 under Pope Eugene IV. The large assembly was attended by a large group of about 700 people from Constantinople, under the leadership of Emperor John VIII Palaeologus and Patriarch Joseph II with his clergy. Also with them was the Greek monk Isidore (1385-1463), metropolitan of Kyiv and all of Rus’ (Russia). The metropolitan of Kyiv, who did not have the title of Patriarch, was appointed by Constantinople and on him depended the city of Moscow, which, until the 15th century, had no relevant part in Russian religious history.

A major event took place in Florence: on July 6, 1439, the Decree Laetentur Caeli et exultet terra was signed, ending the Eastern Schism, which in 1054 had divided the Catholic Church of Rome from the self-proclaimed “Orthodox” Church of Constantinople. The papal Bull concluded with this solemn dogmatic definition, signed by the Byzantine Emperor, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Greek Fathers: “We define that the holy Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff have primacy over the whole universe; that the Roman Pontiff himself is the successor of blessed Peter prince of the apostles, is authentic vicar of Christ, head of the whole Church, father and doctor of all Christians; that Our Lord Jesus Christ has transmitted to him, in the person of blessed Peter, the full power to shepherd, rule and govern the universal Church, as is also attested in the acts of the ecumenical councils and in the sacred canons” (Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, Centro Editoriale Dehoniano, Bologna 2013, pp. 523-528).

This was an authentic return to the sources. Indeed, the origins of Rus’ dated back to the baptism of St. Vladimir, which took place in 988, when Constantinople was still united with Rome and the state of Kyiv was part of a single Respublica christiana, under the direction of the Supreme Pontiff. John Paul II, on May 5, 1988, said that “the baptism of St. Vladimir and Kyivan Rus a thousand years ago is rightly considered today as an immense gift of God to all the Eastern Slavs, beginning with the Ukrainian and Belarusian peoples. Even after the separation of the Church of Constantinople, these two peoples regarded Rome as the sole mother of the entire Christian family. This is precisely why Isidore, Metropolitan of Kiev and all of Rus’, did not depart from the most authentic traditions of his Church when, in 1439, at the Ecumenical Council of Florence, he signed the decree of union between the Greek Church and the Latin Church!”

On December 18, 1439, Eugenius IV rewarded with the cardinal’s purple the work in favor of union with Rome of Archbishop Isidore of Kyiv. With the Council closed, the Pope sent Isidore as his legate to Russia to enforce the decree of Florence. Isidore found no difficulties in Kyiv and among its nine suffragan bishoprics, but in Moscow, where he encountered strong hostility from Prince Basil (Vassili) II (1415-1462). During his first Mass, at the Cathedral of the Ascension in the Kremlin on March 19, 1441, Isidore explicitly named the Pope during liturgical prayers and read aloud the decree of union, carrying a large Catholic cross at the head of the procession. He also handed Basil a missive in which Eugenius IV asked him to support the spread of Catholicism in the Russian lands. The prince of Moscow, however, rejected the decisions of the Council of Florence and had the metropolitan of Kyiv arrested. Isidore managed to escape and flee to Rome, while Basil elevated Bishop Jonah of Moscow to Metropolitan of Russia, separating himself from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which had gathered in Rome. This political decision was the first step toward the autocephaly of the Russian church, which was still independent from the Greek church.

Isidore returned to Rome and carried out two missions to Constantinople, the first in 1444 at the behest of Eugene IV, the second by order of Nicholas V in December 1452, on the eve of the city’s collapse. On May 28, 1453 Constantinople fell under Turkish attack, the Byzantine Empire dissolved, and St. Sophia, the highest temple of the East, was turned into a mosque. It was not only the end of the Empire, it was also the end of that patriarchate of Constantinople that had wanted to tie its fortunes to those of the Byzantine Empire.

In the days of the siege, Isidore of Kyiv once again miraculously managed to save himself and return to Rome. Callistus III gave him the archbishopric of Nicosia in 1456 and Pius II the Latin Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1458. Although he held these offices, to which was added in 1461 that of Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals, he lived the last years of his life in economic narrowness: every one of his possessions he had employed in the defense of Constantinople, the fall of which inflicted the most acute pain on him. This champion of the Faith and defender of the Fatherland died in Rome on April 27, 1463 and was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica, not far from the tomb of the prince of the Apostles whose Primacy he had strenuously advocated. The terrible impression left in him of the catastrophe of Byzantium is preserved in an Epistula lugubris et moesta (Patrologia Graeca, XLIX, col. 944 ff).

After the fall of Constantinople, Moscow wanted to proclaim itself heir to its political and religious role. The marriage in 1472 of the Grand Duke of Moscow Ivan III to Princess Sophia, niece of the last Eastern Emperor Constantine XI Paleologus, who died on the shores of Constantinople in 1453, seemed to seal this choice.

It was during the years of Martin Luther’s revolt that the conception of Moscow as the “Third Rome” was expressed. The manifesto of this ideology was the Letter (1523) of the monk Philotheus of the Pskov’ Monastery to the Grand Duke of Muscovy Basil III (Vasily III Ivanovich). In this short theological-political treatise, Philotheus interprets Russian history according to a providential plan, which saw the ‘fall’ of both the first and second Rome. The first, ancient Rome, between the ninth and tenth centuries had abandoned the Orthodox faith, lapsing from its prerogatives; the second, Constantinople, had ended up in the hands of the Turks, just retribution for adhering to the union with Rome. Their historical role was to be assumed by Moscow. This is how the Russian monk expresses himself: “The church of ancient Rome gave itself into the arms of the impious heresy of Apollinaris. The new Rome, the Church of Constantinople, is in the power of the Turks. Here arises the holy and apostolic church of the third Rome (…) Two Romes have fallen, the third stands, the fourth will not be there.”

From then on, a visceral theological and political hatred against the Church of Rome and Western Christianity developed in Russia. Orthodox Christianity, with Ivan IV the Terrible (1530-1584), became a kind of national religion. Russia proposed itself as the shrine of the true faith, and the Kremlin was the fortress that contained the founding myth of the Third Rome. Under his successor Fyodor I (1557-1598), the Moscow Patriarchate was established in 1589, by which Russia set out on the road to religious autocephaly (excellent insight in: John Codevilla, Church and Empire in Russia. From Kievan Rus’ to the Russian Federation, Jaca Book, Milan 2012).

The establishment of the Moscow Patriarchate was both the point of arrival and the point of departure, of an apostasy no less serious than that of Martin Luther.

[To be continued]

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