One of the leading figures of the Russian Orthodox Church is Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfayev) of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate. A noted theologian, patristic scholar, church historian, and talented composer whose musical works have been honored with performances at the Vatican, the Russian Metropolitan has been the voice of Russian Orthodox ecumenism in addresses before Protestant and Catholic audiences in many Western countries.
He has proved an eloquent speaker before the World Council of Churches, the theological commission of the Swiss Catholic Bishops' Conference, and most recently, has addressed the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization. He has met personally with St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.
In various important addresses he has proved a powerful critic of militant "Secular Humanism", "Moral Relativism", and appealed for Orthodox and Catholics to unite to defend the Family and traditional Christian moral and social values, pointing out that:
"The Church's most important task is to help the human person in his struggle against sin and the passions which destroy the person and lay waste to his soul... A world without God, without absolute moral values rooted in divine revelation, irrevocably turns into the realm of the rule of slavery and lawlessness... A society torn from its spiritual roots and faith has no future."
At the same time, the young Metropolitan (he is only 48) has been the focus of controversy with his fellow Orthodox as well as Catholics. Taking advantage of the fact that Russians constitute two-thirds of Eastern Orthodox Christians with Moscow clearly seeking to become the acknowledged leader of the 14 or so autocephalous national Churches, he has openly challenged the patriarchate of Constantinople's claim to exercise the "primacy of honor" among all the Churches which Rome before the Schism possessed but was then alleged to be transferred to Constantinople.
Hilarion has taken sharp exception to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (Bartholomew) being considered only too often as the head and leader of Eastern Orthodoxy and acting:
"like the Pope of Rome, elevated above all the other First Hiearchs of the Local Orthodox Churches". "This ecclesiology is bad in itself", he declared, and "does not correspond to the two-thousand-year-old Tradition of the Eastern Church, and in particular to the polemic against the Roman doctrine of the Pope which was expounded for centuries by Orthodox theologians."
Hilarion has expressed in no uncertain terms Moscow's resistance to various statements by the patriarchate of Constantinople and other Orthodox that appear to support the concept of a Universal Primacy in the Church to be wielded canonically by the patriarch of Constantinople. In fact, for centuries during the later Byzantine and Ottomam Empires, the patriarchate of Constantinople with its "primacy of honor" exercised a measure of authority over the other Eastern patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.
There has been growing disputes between Constantinople and Moscow over the granting of autocephaly (self-government) to the Orthodox churches of Estonia, Macedonia, Ukraine, and the United States (over the canonical status of the "Orthodox Church of America OCA"). The on-going conflict between Greeks and Russians was dramatically depicted in the Russian Orthodox delegation walking out of the 2007 Ravenna Conference held by the 10th plenary session of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches which dealt with the crucial issue of Primacy and Conciliarity in the Church. The Russian delegation walked out objecting to the presence of a delegation of the Orthodox Church of Estonia given "autonomy" by Constantinople, a status not acknowledged by Moscow.
The 2007 Ravenna Conference revealed not only the sharp rejection by Moscow of the doctrinal statement approved by the Joint theological commission of Catholics and Orthodox but also the serious internal problem troubling the Orthodox regarding the question of authority and the precise meaning of "primacy of honor" among themselves. As the Metropolitan Hilarion admitted:
"We're internally divided on issue of primacy."
In rejecting the document, Russian prelates made clear their sharp rejection of any implication that the Patriarch of Constantinople was the leader of the Orthodox world, similar to that of the Pope as leader of the Catholic Church. Metropolitan Hilarion has repeatedly declared:
"We respect the Patriarch of Constantinople as the first in honor, as the 'first among equals' but we are against viewing him as 'Pope of the East'... No canon speaks of a canonical 'primacy' of Constantinople in the Universal Church... Neither his title of Ecumenical Patriarch nor the preeminence of honor accorded to him, give the Patriarch of Constantinople any jurisdictional rights outside the boundaries of his own patriarchate."
Greek and Russian prelates have proceeded to accuse one another of imperialism and "papism" while angry Greek prelates have continued to affirm for the "Ecumenical Patriarch" a universal or world-wide primacy with specific privileges for the Church's "first-hierarch without equals" (primus sine paribus). For their part, representatives of the Russian government have expressed their support for the expanding world-wide role of the Russian Orthodox Church and the need to unite all the Orthodox nations under:
"the Third Rome" – "under the banner of the Russian Church, which is the largest, and, as such, holds the leadership position among the Orthodox Churches... We are the rightful spiritual heirs of Byzantium..."
A representative of the Russian Metropolitan of Odessa expressed his agreement with such statements:
"We are the leaders of Orthodoxy, and we have to demonstrate that fact."
Interestingly, Metropolitan Hilarion became the object of severe criticism by Ukranian Catholics. Dr. Adam A.J. Deville, author of an interesting volume "Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy" suggesting how the exercice of the Petrine Primacy can be modified to meet standard Orthodox objections, has expressed vixation at the "ignorance and distortions on display" in a recent essay on the Roman Primacy written by Hilarion who is said:
"cannot even relay his own Orthodox [ecclesiological] tradition faithfully, truthfully, and accurately." (See De Ville's article "Christian Unity Cannot Be Built on Lies")
(Catholic World Report, November 17, 2014)
Metropolitan Hilarion's obsessive accusations regarding Catholic "proselytism" on canonical Russian territory, his denunciation of "Uniatism" (Ukranian Orthodox become Eastern rite Greek-Catholics) by aggressive "political slogans, promises, and trickery", and his regarding the Eastern Catholic Churches (always labelled with the pejorative term "uniates") as intrinsic obstacles to any rapprochement between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches – have aroused the ire of other Catholic critics.
In Hilarion's view, the Eastern Catholic Churches (especially, the Greek-Catholic Ukranian Church) has no right to exist or to participate in the Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue. Their union with the See of Rome is only a Catholic plot to divide the Orthodox. The present crisis in Ukraine begun by a Russian invasion he alleges to have been exacerbated by the Greek-Catholic Church; he has asked the Vatican to suppress their activities.
It was extraordinary to hear Hilarion speaking to Cardinals and Bishops at the recent Extraordinary General Synod on the Family in Rome denouncing once again the Ukranian Catholic Church for Uniatism and proselytism:
"Uniatism is not the way to Unity... It does not bring the Orthodox and the Catholics any closer to each other; on the contrary, it divides us." Moreover, Ukranian Catholics are accused of not only "tearing away the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine from their Mother Church, the Moscow Patriarchate, with which Ukraine has been bound by age-old blood ties" but of "entering into active cooperation with the Orthodox schismatic groups."
(specific reference here to the Ukranian Orthodox-Kiev Church which strongly opposes the Moscow Patriarchate on canonical grounds and more recently for Russian churchmen's sanctioning Putin's shameful invasion of independent Ukraine.)
Ukranian Catholics can well deal with the historical and political charges made by the Moscow Patriarch Kyril's foreign minister and leading theologian. Ukranian Catholics do not regard themselves as Russians. All Catholics, however, can profit from Metropolitan Hilarion's many addresses wherein he has engaged in trenchant criticisms of the secular humanism dominating the political order of the European Union, deplored the secularization of liturgical worship in the West, excoriated the theological liberalism dominating Anglicanism, and insisted on the need for all professed Christians to engage in the re-christianization of the West.
They can also benefit from the Metropolitan's candid revealing the fractious nature of the divisions in modern Eastern Orthodoxy, and the doctrinal and jurisdictional disputes leading to real schisms among them. Similarly disclosed to the world is the utter inability of the various Orthodox Churches separated from the indefectible See of Rome, "Head of all the Churches of God", to resolve the nature of the hierarchical structure of the Church as founded by Christ.