The Russian Orthodox Church

Of great interest to those who study Eastern Orthodoxy is the Russian Orthodox Church, otherwise known as the Moscow Patriarchate. It has a long and venerable history with prominent heroes like Sts. Cyril and Methodius who created the Cyrillic alphabet and translated the Sacred Scriptures into the Slavic language. As our study of the Patriarchate of Constantinople indicated, there was a time when the whole world was Christian and there was great unity among all those who professed belief in Christ and were part of the great communion of churches which traced their origin to the Apostles.

The patriarchal system of government was in place for a thousand years and the identification of the Church of the East and the West was mostly geographical and political, based on whether it was part of the Western Roman Empire with its capital in Rome or the Eastern Roman Empire with its capital in Constantinople (the New Rome).

The Russian Orthodox Church attributes its origin to St. Andrew and the conversion of Vladimir the Great in 988 at Rus, the capital of the modern Ukraine. With time Moscow became the capital city of what is called Russia today and it was nicknamed “The Third Rome”. From the time of its foundation until shortly after the Ecumenical Council of Florence in the 15th century, the Russian Orthodox Church was under the patriarchate of Constantinople. Today it is in full communion with all the Eastern Orthodox Churches, but it has its own patriarchate.

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) should not be confused with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR) headquartered in New York, which was instituted in the 1920’s by Russian communities outside Communist Russia who refused to recognize the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate headed by Metropolitan Sergiy Stragorodsky. The two Churches reconciled on May 17, 2007; the ROCOR is now a self-governing part of the Russian Orthodox Church. The ROC also should not be confused with the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), an Eastern Orthodox Church in North America.

Salient Facts

The Russian Orthodox Church is said to be the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the world; including all the autocephalous churches under its umbrella (e.g. Romanian, Serbian, etc.) it numbers over 150 million worldwide, which is half of the 300 million estimated adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Among the Christian churches, the Russian Orthodox Church is second only to the Roman Catholic Church in terms of numbers (Catholics number over a billion members.)

Monks, especially those from the monastery of St. Sergius, have had a lasting and important influence on the Russian Orthodox Church, as is true of monks in other Eastern Orthodox Churches. The authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, like that of other Eastern Orthodox Churches, is at the local levels with the priest and local congregation. It is considerably more collegial than the Catholic Church, and this is also true at the level of the bishops in synod. On the other hand, the patriarch is not another pope. He is “the first among equals” and the highest level of authority in the Church is vested in the Holy Synod which includes 7 permanent members and is chaired by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Primate of the Moscow Patriarchate.

“Although the Patriarch of Moscow has extensive powers, unlike the Pope he does not have direct authority over matters pertaining to faith. Some of the most fundamental issues (such as the ones responsible for the Catholic-Orthodox split) cannot be adequately and definitively addressed by a meeting of the Local Council and have to be dealt with by a council of representatives from all Eastern Orthodox Churches. The last time such a council was held was in 787. In 787 there was only a single Christian church. The split into Western and Eastern parts occurred with the Great Schism in the 11th century.” (Wikipedia Encyclopedia)

The Russian Revolution

We will not be able to go into the long and involved history of how Russia became dominant and the Ukraine became subordinate, and the ups and downs of the Russian Orthodox Church, including times of great religious fervor and decline, when the monks of St. Sergius brought religious reform to clergy and laity alike. However, we will add a few words about the Communist Revolution and its aftermath with the continuing growth of Orthodoxy in Russia since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As I indicated above, there were those who refused to accept the authority of those appointed to the Patriarchate of Moscow under the Stalinist regime and these communities were “on their own” for the duration. They were reconciled with the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007 and were given autocephalous (self-governing) status.

Catholic/Russian Orthodox Relations

The Orthodox-Roman Catholic Dialogue takes place with all the Orthodox Churches at the international level, and has two components: the dialogue of bishops and the dialogue of theologians. Generally speaking, they will not make decisions alone but will postpone such decisions until they can be made together. However there are a number of agreed statements that express common ground which are held by all the participants in the dialogues. The meeting in the 1990’s at Belamand on Uniatism did not receive this kind of consensus. Since the fall of Communism in Russia, there has been a great interest in moving toward Christian unity and relations have improved steadily. This began with Alexy II who died at the age of 69 on December 5, 2008. The present patriarch is Kiril I, “Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus” who was enthroned on February 1, 2009. He is very knowledgeable of ecumenical matters, having served as one of the Presidents of the World Council of Churches when he was Archbishop of Smolensk and Kaliningrad beginning on December 26, 1984. He appointed as his “ecumenical officer” (Head of External Relations) Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, formerly the bishop of Vienna in Austria, who is also an ecumenist.

Though relations have been cordial and there is genuine hope that the Pope (or his successor) may be able to visit the Patriarchate of Moscow at some future time, some tensions have emerged as a result of the creation of Catholic dioceses in Russia, later giving them an archbishop and metropolitan relations with the Vatican. This was seen as proselytism (“sheep stealing”) by the Orthodox and they let their feelings be known as a consequence.


Having studied both the Ancient/Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches in these several articles, it is rather easy to see how they dialogue with the Vatican and both how they differ and how they are alike. The Russian Orthodox Church enjoys a newfound freedom in the third millennium. It suffered persecution and domination under the Communist rule and continues to build the trust which is necessary to its mission.

While its relationship to Rome is more politicized than that of Constantinople, Moscow enjoys friendly relations with Rome, and a great deal of understanding was generated by Blessed John Paul II. Benedict XVI continues to promote these fraternal and cordial relations. Because the dialogue with the Orthodox Churches brings all of them together with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. They celebrate the unity of “almost full communion” at the Vatican and at the Phanar (in Istanbul/Constantinople) in prayer and some liturgical participation.

We have tried to indicate that theologically the Orthodox Churches are considered to be “sister churches” in a sense that is beyond the “real but imperfect” relation which the Catholic Church has with the churches of the Reformation and others of the West. This is the fundamental reason why according to Canon Law (#844, ¶ 2) for spiritual need and respecting the sensitivities of Orthodox communions, Eucharistic sharing is possible under certain conditions.

Though we have given a brief introduction to the Orthodox Churches in these articles, there is much more to be said and studied. I have learned much in researching these materials; I hope that you have as well.
(This article appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Bread Broken and Shared)