Patriarch Kirill and Mr. Putin

George Weigel

The annals of sycophancy are, alas, replete with examples of churchmen toadying to political power. Here in the United States, we’ve seen too much of that among certain evangelical leaders recently. In today’s Sycophancy Sweepstakes, however, it’s hard to top Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.

Last December 1, after President Vladimir Putin addressed a meeting of the Episcopal Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill concluded his thanks in these cringe-inducing terms:

“There is nothing more serious and important than moral consensus within society. If there is consensus on the main moral values, then all other social relationships are formed harmoniously … and political practice corresponds to the interests of the people.

“… I  express my gratitude to you for the dialogue we hold together … and for the atmosphere of openness in which our society lives today. I believe that this openness will be the pledge for the certain success of our Fatherland in the near and distant future.

“… I would like to wish you, much esteemed Vladimir Vladimirovich, long years of life, good health, and God’s aid in the lofty mission the Lord has entrusted to you through the will of the people … May the Lord preserve you!”

In the dialogue that the Catholic Church conducts with Russian Orthodoxy, perhaps it would be useful to clarify the following points.

Does the “political practice” rooted in “moral values” to which the Patriarch referred include the assassination of Putin’s political opponents, such as Boris Nemtsov? Or the murder of his critics, like journalist Anna Politkovskaya? Or the poisoning with radioactive polonium of Alexander Litvinenko, who tried to shed light on Putin’s secret police thugs? Or the recent use of a weapons-grade nerve agent in England against two Russians of whom Putin disapproved? Are the ethics of these practices part of the patriarch’s “dialogue” with the president?

What are the “moral values” that inform Putin’s claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union, a murderous tyranny, was the worst geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century?

Why doesn’t the “atmosphere of openness” in which Russian “society lives today” extend to Alexei Navalny, the brave dissident who was not permitted to run in last month’s presidential election? How is that “atmosphere of openness” affected by 24/7 state-sponsored propaganda inside Russia, which depicts Vladimir Putin as the one man who can save the country from Western aggression and domestic traitors? In an “atmosphere of openness,” why has Mr. Putin been the beneficiary for eighteen years of a colossal, Kremlin-organized personality cult – more sophisticated than that of the late, unlamented Mao Zedong, to be sure, but of the same character?

Does the “certain success of our Fatherland in the near and distant future” mean the permanent occupation of Crimea, the ongoing presence of Russian troops in Ukraine, and the continuation of the low-grade but lethal war Russia is waging against its neighbor? Does it mean the destabilization of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia? Does it mean continued Russian support for the Syrian butcher, Bashar al-Assad? Does that “continued success” depend on Russian internet trolls and bots sowing discord and confusion (not to mention lies and propaganda) around the world? How does the alternative reality created by this tsunami of disinformation square with harmonious “social relationships”? How does it advance “the interests of the people”?

How is “the will of the people” expressed through charades that aren’t “elections” in any real sense of the term? Is the “lofty mission which the Lord has entrusted” to Mr. Putin a mission-without-end? And does that “lofty mission” include Putin’s accumulation of extraordinary wealth? Did the Lord really intend that Mr. Putin be president-for-life and a multi-billionaire to boot?

The extraordinary spiritual riches of Russian Orthodoxy are squandered when its leaders engage in this sort of propagandistic rubbish. The Russian Church suffered terribly under Lenin, Stalin, and their heirs. Its martyrs, who number in the millions, are dishonored when the bishops of a putatively free Church play the role of chaplain to the omnipotent and infallible czar, rather than speaking truth to power. Putin has cynically cast himself as the savior of Christian values and the Russian Church leadership has not only acquiesced in, but promoted, that farce. After years of suffering, Russian Orthodox believers deserve something better than this. So does true ecumenical dialogue. 

COMING UP: Swole.Catholic helps people strengthen body and soul

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

St. Augustine once said, “Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; and take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow.”

Humans are both body and soul and both must be strengthened. This is the reason for the existence of Swole.Catholic, a group of people who dedicate themselves to nurturing their soul while strengthening their body, and through their ministry, motivate others to do the same.

According to Paul McDonald, founder of Swole.Catholic, they focus on encouraging faithful fitness. “We must take care of our temple of the Holy Spirit, because our bodies are one of God’s greatest gifts to us,” he said.

McDonald solidified the idea of faith and fitness when he was a sophomore in college. While “going through a huge moment in my life, at the same time I was really learning about the gym and learning ethical statements on my own. Both things clicked together,” he told the Denver Catholic. As a young guy, he started bible studies, and in those studies, he always had an analogy back to the gym.

He decided to make shirts for him and the guys in the bible study during his senior year. The shirts ended up becoming good conversation starters, and he decided he needed to do something with it — evangelize and motivate others to take care of their body and soul.

Thus Swole.Catholic was born. “Swole” is a slang term for bulking one’s muscles up from going to the gym, and of course, the Catholic part is self-explanatory — not only because of the Church but also for our faith and how it defines us in all we do. Swole.Catholic launched officially in Jan 2017.

The ministry consists of a website which provides resources to helps people with Catholic gyms, Catholic workouts, Catholic trainers, podcasts as well as workout wear.

The workout wear works as an evangelization tool. The word “Catholic” is printed on the front of the shirts and a bible verse is placed on the back.

“This raises questions or interest in others. It also works as a reminder of the purpose of the workout,” McDonald said. He added, “Most of the gyms we are going to have mirrors and all that, making you focus into yourself.” But the real purpose of the workout, as the members of Swole.Catholic say, is to strengthen your body and soul to live a healthy life.

Swole.Catholic also has rosary bands, a simple decade wrist band that people can wear while they workout and be flipped off at any time to pray a quick decade.

“Because everyone’s faith journey is different and everyone’s fitness journey is different, what we are trying to do is connect people with people [for them] to be able to have the correct support with their faith and fitness,” McDonald said.

That is why Swole.Catholic now has outposts around the country, with passionate Catholic members who love to help and inspire others in the fitness world while pursuing God in everything they do.

“Each one has its own flavor,” McDonald said. “In Florida we have a rosary run group where a bunch of girls meet up and pray rosary while they go for a run.” Among the outposts, there is also a group of guys in North Dakota who do a bible study and lift together. Similar to these two groups, members from other states have formed their own Catholic fitness groups and are now part of Swole.Catholic, including in Texas, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Wyoming and more.

“We encourage faithful fitness,” McDonald concluded. “We think your fitness fits in your faith as much as faith fits in your fitness. We are body and soul and we need to be building both.”

To join a group or a workout, visit swolecatholic.com or find them on Facebook.