Kremlinologists and Vaticanisti are cut from the same cloth — fantastically adept at identifying the most important signs amid the smoke-and-mirrors maneuvering of their respective subjects. This month, both have their eye on the same thing: the plot turns inside the Russian Orthodox Church, which is weighing a successor to longtime Patriarch Alexy II,
who died last month at age 79.
The Russian Orthodox Church's Local Council, which includes both clerics and laymen chosen by parishes and is the church's highest decision-making body, will elect a new Patriarch in the next few weeks. Among the names being mentioned are Metropolitan Filaret, the scholarly patriarchal exarch of Belarus; Metropolitan Cyril, the well-known head of the external-relations department of the Moscow Patriarchate; and Metropolitan Kliment, the more liberal administrator of the Patriarchate. (See pictures of Russia's victory day.)
Within Russia, where Orthodox Christmas is celebrated Wednesday, the stakes for succession are high. Alexy, who rose to power in 1990, led his church through the convulsive but ultimately fruitful transition to the post-Soviet era. Religious freedom blossomed. The church, which counts some 110 million faithful (though far fewer attend church regularly), grew in importance after decades of suppression under Communism.
Alexy was occasionally criticized for his closeness to Kremlin leaders. But by the time of his death on Dec. 5, he was seen as having ably steered the church through a momentous period of national and religious revival. His successor will have to navigate both Moscow's growing geopolitical ambitions and the first hints of Western-style secularism in Russian society at large.
The arrival of a new Patriarch is also creating plenty of anticipation among religious leaders outside of Russia. Attending Alexy's funeral last month was an impressive array of clerics from dozens of countries and religions, including the main branches of Christianity. Notably, several prominent Catholic Cardinals showed up. Rome has no sway over the Orthodox Church's choice, but it is deeply interested in the new Patriarch. The 1-billion-strong Catholic Church is eager to forge closer ties to the largest branch of Orthodox Christianity after a millennium of prickly (at best) relations following the Great Schism of 1054. Most recently, Alexy had accused Catholics of aggressive proselytizing throughout the former Soviet Union after the fall of Communism. It was said that Pope John Paul II's
great regret was not being able to visit Moscow.