Rome and Moscow

Russian Federation president Dmitri Medvedev’s recent visit to the Vatican, which included an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, is being trumpeted in some quarters as further evidence of a dramatic breakthrough in relations between the Holy See and Russia, and between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. While I wish that were the case, several recent experiences prompt a certain skepticism.

In what were called “elections” in December 2010, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko was returned to office. Virtually all international observers regarded the “elections” as fraudulent and condemned Lukashenko’s post-election arrest and jailing of candidates who had dared oppose him. Yet shortly after the results were announced, Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of Russian Orthodoxy, sent a congratulatory message to Lukashenko, whom he praised for having “honestly served the whole country and its citizens”; “the results of the elections,” he wrote, “show the large amount of trust that the nation has for you.”

Coddling autocrats is not, unfortunately, unknown in Christian history. What is new, however, is the Moscow patriarchate’s repeated claims that Russian Orthodoxy is the sole repository of the religious identity of the peoples of ancient “’Rus” (Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians) and their principal cultural guarantor today. That close identification of ethnicity and Russian Orthodoxy raises serious theological questions, even as it crudely simplifies a complex history involving multiple cultural and religious currents.

More disturbing still were remarks made in Washington in February by Metropolitan Hilarion, the Moscow patriarchate’s “external affairs” officer—Russian Orthodoxy’s chief ecumenist. Hilarion is an impressive personality in many ways: he is entirely at home in English, he displays a nice sense of humor, and his curriculum vitae includes a large number of publications and musical compositions. Yet when I asked him whether the L’viv Sobor (Council) of 1946—which forcibly reincorporated the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine into Russian Orthodoxy, turning the Greek Catholics into the world’s largest illegal religious body—was a “theologically legitimate ecclesial act,” Hilarion unhesitatingly responded “Yes.” I then noted that serious historians describe the L’viv Sobor as an act of the Stalinist state, carried out by the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB); Hilarion responded that the “modalities” of history are always complicated. In any event, he continued, it was always legitimate for straying members of the Russian Orthodox flock (as he regarded the Ukrainian Greek Catholics) to return to their true home (i.e., Russian Orthodoxy).

Throughout the meeting, Hilarion smoothly but unmistakably tried to drive a wedge between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II (whom two patriarchs of Moscow, both KGB-connected, refused to invite to Russia). He also suggested that Benedict’s calls for a “new evangelization” in Europe, including a recovery of classic Christian morality, could be addressed by joint Catholic-Russian Orthodoxy initiatives. Yet, in what seemed a strange lack of reciprocity, Hilarion also spoke as if the entirety of the former “Soviet space” is the exclusive ecclesial turf of the Russian Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow.

Some clarifications are thus in order.

The Catholic-Russian Orthodox dialogue clearly needs theological recalibration. If Russian Orthodoxy’s leadership truly believes that a 1946 ecclesiastical coup conducted by the Stalinist secret police is a “theologically legitimate ecclesial act,” then there are basic questions of the nature of the Church and its relationship to state power that have to be thrashed out between Rome and Moscow. Serious theological issues are also at stake in the Moscow patriarchate’s insistence on a virtual one-to-one correspondence between ethnicity and ecclesiology, a position Rome (which does not believe that genes determine anyone’s ecclesial home) cannot share.

Second, the relationship between the Russian Orthodox leadership and the efforts of the Medvedev/Putin government to reconstitute the old Stalinist empire, de facto if not de iure, has to be clarified. Patriarch Kirill’s praise of the dictator Lukashenko, like his forays into Ukrainian politics, suggest the unhappy possibility that the Russian Orthodox leadership is functioning as an arm of Russian state power, as it did from 1943 until 1991. If that is not the case, it would be helpful if Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion would make that clear, in word and in deed.

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.