Despite its size, the Russian Orthodox Church has never had a pope. Its bishops and theologians have struggled to contextualize their faith in a changing culture.
Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill met Friday in Cuba, a first-ever meeting between leaders of the two churches. It’s an important step toward healing a 1,000-year-old schism that divided Christianity.
The Russian Orthodox Church is ruled by its patriarch, who is the leader of all the clergy and the faithful. He presides over the holy synod, which is a governing body of bishops.
He has many duties, including enforcing the canons of the church, guiding the priests and deacons and ensuring that the church is run in accordance with the Ecumenical Councils. He also works with the government, representing the church in political matters.
During the time of Peter the Great, the Russian Church went through a major transformation. He abolished the Patriarchate and replaced it with the holy synod, which was made up of members nominated by the emperor.
Pope Francis and Kirill’s meeting in Cuba last year was a historic step in mending a nearly 1,000-year schism that divided Christianity between East and West. They are planning a second meeting, which will be announced in the near future. This will be the first time that a pope has met with the head of a Russian Orthodox church.
Despite a long history of ecumenical contacts, the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest in World Orthodoxy, has never had a pope. That has always been a source of friction for the Vatican, which nurtures ties with Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in an attempt to bridge closer ties between Catholics and Orthodox.
As far as a pope-patriarch meeting, however, the Russians had made it clear that a meeting could not take place unless Catholics were actively “proselytizing” in what the Orthodox considered their territory. Nonetheless, the two men have met at least twice in recent years and both leaders are optimistic about a possible meeting in the future.
At a meeting in April of this year, the Archbishop of Moscow Abroad, Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America & New York, received from His Holiness Kirill Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia a jeweled Paschal egg for his tenth anniversary as First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad and congratulations on his ministry to the Church. He also presented him with a piece of the coffin and vestment of St. Tikhon of Moscow.
Orthodox bishops are the chief church officers. They are the spiritual fathers and teachers of the faithful. They are also the sacramental leaders of the Church.
Usually, a bishop is called a metropolitan or archbishop. In larger dioceses, a bishop is called a patriarch.
In the Russian Orthodox Church, we can find hundreds of bishops scattered all over the world. Each of them has a unique position in the Church, but all of them are equal to each other.
In 1905, the Holy Synod asked all of the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church to describe their views on those features of the Church life that needed reform or alteration. Their Replies (Otzyvy) reveal the remarkable unity of opinion and the depth of their thought. These Replies outlined a variety of solutions for the problems that were present in Russian Church life. They proposed innovations in both provincial and central administration, reformed the role of the clergy, and encouraged local involvement in parish ministry.
There is a pope in the Russian Orthodox Church, but he is not considered the supreme head of the church like the Roman Catholic Pope. He is called a patriarch, and is elected for a lifetime. He must be a bishop, at least 40 years old, possess a higher theological education and be held in high esteem by the church.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which requires celibacy for priests, many Russian Orthodox priests are married. This allows them to reduce the temptation to commit immoral behavior.
However, the Russian Orthodox Church does not consider celibacy an important requirement for priests; it is more important that they are devoted to God and His church. There are several awards that a priest can receive for his service to the church.
These include a nabedrennik (sword of the spirit), which is awarded by the bishop after three years of service to the church (5 years for monks). This award is not found in any other Orthodox Church and symbolizes the priest’s ability to use his spiritual weapon in the battle against evil.