Yesterday something seemingly incredible happened. Last night, a few days into the Nativity Fast for those on the Julian calendar, when many clergy in Ukraine encouraged people to take time away from their computers and smartphones in preparation for Christmas, and a few hours after the conclusion of a seminar entitled “The Church in the Post-Truth Era” in Kyiv at the Ukrainian Catholic University, Facebook lit up with posts and discussions of a letter from Patriarch Philaret (Denysenko) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) addressed to Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev) of the Russian Orthodox Church, asking for forgiveness. The one-page letter, posted in Russian, was a text consisting of biblical and liturgical quotations that sounded sincere. A rough and unofficial translation follows:
To the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’,
and the Episcopate of the Russian Orthodox Church
Brothers in Christ!
The Scriptures teach us: “Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:17–18) And the Saviour Himself says: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Desirous to end the divisions and dissensions among Orthodox Christians, to restore communion in the Eucharist and in prayer, as befits the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, for the sake of achieving the God-commanded peace between coreligionist Orthodox Christians and the reconciliation between nations, I turn to you with the appeal to take the decision, thanks to which the end of the conflict will be achieved, and namely to nullify all former decisions, including all threats and excommunication, impeding the above mentioned.
I express hope that, in the future, by the help of God, you will take all the other decisions that flow therefrom and are necessary for the good of Orthodoxy.
In the past years, much bitterness and division clouded the common relations between Orthodox in our countries. Let the day draw near in which, according to the words of the liturgical services of the Paschal Feast, “[we] embrace each other; let us call ‘Brothers!’ even those that hate us, and forgive all by the Resurrection.” And I, as your brother and concelebrant, ask forgiveness for all that I have done in word, in deed, and through all my senses, and likewise sincerely from my heart I forgive you.
With love in Christ –
16 November 2017
It was refreshing that it did not mention any names or conditions, whether national interests or autocephaly or autonomy, but rather quoted the Gospel and gave a glimmer of hope. The message was simple: forgiveness and reconciliation.
But, like the internet connection during the livestreamed press conference in Kyiv, something went wrong.
The news of the letter broke in Moscow, where delegates of the Russian Orthodox Sobor heard the letter read to them along with a report explaining that a commission had been formed to lead further dialogue with those who had “separated themselves from Church communion.” The tone of the report was more technical than Philaret’s letter, but there was certainly some progress: it referred to him as “the former Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine, Philaret” (бывший митрополит Киевский и всея Украины Филарета) rather than “anathematized Philaret Denysenko” (анафематствованный Филарет Денисенко) or “the leader of the so-called Kyivan Patriarchate Mykhail Denysenko” (лидер так называемого Киевского патриархата Михаил Денисенко), as was common before.
In Kyiv, the Press Centre of the Kyivan Patriarchate issued a statement in order to avoid misinterpretation. First, the letter was the initiative of the Moscow Patriarchate, with the mediation of Metropolitan Hilarion (Kapral) of ROCOR, in order to begin dialogue with the Kyivan Patriarchate. For this to happen, they supposedly needed to repeal their decisions from 1992 and 1997 to laicize and anathematize Philaret. The Kyivan Patriarchate emphasized that the letter was not a request but an appeal to dialogue to restore union, with the first requirement being forgiveness.
Today, both sides held press conferences to explain their interpretation of the letter and what it meant for dialogue. On YouTube, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) gave a different story, claiming that the letter was not the initiative of Moscow and that it was delivered by a delegation from the Kyivan Patriarchate. His irenic tone seemed ironic, as he sat next to Archbishop Kliment (Vecherya), responsible for media communications in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate, which in the past had produced films demonizing Philaret and promotes (or at least does not condemn) the continued production of such films today.
Meanwhile live on Facebook, Patriarch Philaret also changed his tone, speaking more of autocephaly and Church unity. But he stuck with his version of events: that he was approached by the Moscow Patriarchate to write the letter.
What is the truth? Was it a genuine appeal or politically motivated? Was it all a distraction from the Sobor in Moscow? Was it to steal away attention from the Synod in Constantinople, where the unity of Christians seems less abstract?
Whatever the truth is, last night Christians were preaching the Gospel, forgiving and asking for forgiveness, praying for unity, and praying that communion in the Eucharist and in prayer could be restored in Ukraine. We could certainly use more of that today.