Head of Russian Orthodox Church laid to rest

Patriarch Aleksy II’s successor will be chosen by the council of the Russian orthodox church in late January. The man who led the church for 18 years died at the age of 79 last Friday week. He was buried on Tuesday after an elaborate funeral service in Mo

The Russian Orthodox Church in New York has held a service of mourning for the Patriarch.

A service has been also held at a house temple in the late Patriarch’s central Moscow residence.

A source from the Church has said that the Patriarch died from suspected heart failure, although this hasn't been confirmed. Aleksy II's health reportedly deteriorated after a visit to Kiev in July. In September he underwent a heart operation in a German hospital.

But this didn’t stop him from working. When in Germany, he used the opportunity to meet the local Orthodox community and performed a liturgy in Munich’s Cathedral of New Martyrs and Confessors.

And the day before his death he held a divine service in the Cathedral of Assumption of the Moscow Kremlin to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas fast.

An emergency session of the Synod will decide on the date of the funeral service on Saturday. A source hinted Aleksy will be buried in the Epiphany Cathedral in Yelokhov in Moscow, on Tuesday.

The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church now has a maximum of six months to elect a successor.

They will have to choose a new procedure for the elections, since it has changed several times in the 20th century. During Communist rule, the head of the Church was de facto appointed by the party leadership. Aleksy himself was elected in a secret ballot contested by three candidates.

Until a successor is chosen, the Synod will choose an acting Patriarch called a locum or ‘place-holder’.

In his last interview the Patriarch talked about his long history with the Russian Orthodox Church, his efforts to protect it from Soviet bureaucrats, international relations, the war in South Ossetia, and the world economic crisis. He spoke to the Vesti TV channel at the end of October. To watch the interview, please follow the link.

World grieves for spiritual leader

Bells of Orthodox churches tolled to announce the death of Patriarch Aleksy II. Requiem services are being performed across the world to commemorate the departed leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Patriarch Aleksy II (L) and Metropolitan Laurus 
            (AFP Photo / Pool).  Click to enlarge
Patriarch Aleksy II (L) and Metropolitan Laurus (AFP Photo / Pool). Click to enlarge

Meanwhile, condolences have flooded in.

Dmitry Medvedev postponed his visit to Italy when the news broke about Aleksy’s death. The President will now return directly to Moscow from the Indian capital, Delhi.

In an address to the nation, Medvedev praised Aleksy’s successful reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church and said his death was a great loss to the country and for him personally.

According to the President, the Patriarch was “a true shepherd, whose whole life was an example of spiritual resolve and high deeds. He was with his congregation in the times of persecution and in the time of the revival of the faith.”

“We all deeply grieve the loss. We will always remember his spiritual help, wisdom and boundless devotion to his country and his people.”

The death of Patriarch Aleksy II is “a tragic, sad event and a great loss,” said Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is known to be a devout believer. Putin strongly supported the Orthodox Church during his presidency. He said Aleksy was “full of light” and “a real Patriarch.”

The head of the Russian spiritual mission to Jerusalem, Archimandrite Tikhon, said. “We all know that his good and great deeds had a huge impact and left a long memory among the people and world Christianity. We pray that God embrace the soul of Aleksy II and grace the Orthodox Church.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said he will remember Aleksy II as a personal friend and a friend of the Church of England: “He was a leader of big scale, of great experience, determination and courage, who led his church through a period of serious challenges in Russian history with a firm hand.”

AFP Photo / Stephane De Sakutin.  Click to   
AFP Photo / Stephane De Sakutin. Click to enlarge

The Roman Catholic Church said the news of the Patriarch’s death was deeply saddening. Brian Farrel from the Pope Council of Christian Unity said: “Aleksy’s lot was leading the Russian Orthodox Church in a time of great change, and being a great Patriarch, he managed to accomplish this mission with faith in God and a feeling of great responsibility and love to the Russian people.”

Deputy Head of the Mufti Council of Russia, Damir Gizatullin, praised the Patriarch’s role in forging friendship between faiths.

“Aleksy II was one of the grandest members of Orthodox Christianity and a man who fostered interconfessional dialogue in our country and abroad,” he said.

Russia’s chief Rabbi Adolf Shaevich praised Aleksy II for his “education, personal humility and dignity”. He said the Patriarch’s death “hurt every heart in Russia in spite of their confession or nationality. All his life was dedicated to the spiritual revival of Russia and its citizens.”

The head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilya II, has sent his condolences, describing Aleksy II as a warm friend of the Georgian people.

“Aleksy was a great spiritual leader,” he said. “He was a friend of the Georgian church and the Georgian people. We express our deep condolences to all Orthodox believers, especially to the Holy Synod and the clergy of Russia.”

The spokesman for the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna told how the Romanov family is grieving over Aleksy’s death: “It’s a terrible strike for Orthodox Christians. The imperial family has lost its spiritual father and a wise friend.”

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has sent official condolences to the Russian Orthodox Church. “During his visit to Ukraine, Aleksy II inspired our compatriots by his deep faith and struck us with his balanced approach and wisdom,” he said.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said: “The selfless and relentless service of Aleksy II will be remembered in history. He had a rare understanding of the need for revival and devoted all his long life as a preacher and a shepherd to this great goal. He never meddled in politics, but in the time of need cast his low but convincing voice to defend social justice and protect the miserable ones.”

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan was among the many leaders to send their condolences.

“The Armenian people loved and deeply respected the Russian Patriarch.  He did a lot to develop links between the Russian Orthodox and Armenian churches.  We value the work he did to help build peace in the Caucasus,” he said.

The beginning of Aleksy II’s patriarchy was the time of revival for both the Russian Orthodox Church and the state. He worked side by side with Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin to revive the country after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Naina Yeltsina, the widow of Boris Yeltsin shares her memories of the close relationship between their family and the Patriarch. She says he was “an amazing person”.

“He had very warm eyes and you could see his goodness through them. He had such an aura around him, that after spending time with him you felt like a changed person. It is hard to express with words. But it really was like a miracle. It is such a great loss, impossible to describe. There are no words to explain the pain that you feel when you lose someone. And I think everybody feels it, because he was a person who filled souls with hope,” she said.

Author of Orthodox revival

Aleksy the Second will be remembered as the first Patriarch of a new Russia.

He led the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church after Soviet repressions and united it with foreign congregations following a 90 year split after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

The son of a priest, Aleksey Ridiger was born in Tallinn, Estonia, on February, 23, 1929.

Before enrolling in a theological seminary, the future patriarch served as an altar boy and subdeaconed in his father’s parish.

AFP Photo / Alexander Nemenov.  Click to   
AFP Photo / Alexander Nemenov. Click to enlarge

Ordained in 1950, he returned to Estonia and was later appointed Bishop of Tallinn and all Estonia.

For more than 25 years he worked in a conference of European churches, a body set up at the height of the Cold War to promote dialogue and friendship with other churches around the continent.

During the 1980s, Aleksy did much to rehabilitate church relations with the Soviet state.

For decades the church had been brutally repressed in the Soviet Union, which promoted an atheist society.

From 50,000 active churches in tsarist times, there were only 7000 left after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

But with the introduction of the policy of Glasnost, or Openness, late in the 1980s, new political and social freedoms marked a revival.

A ban on religious imagery on television was lifted, meaning citizens were able to watch church services for the very first time.

And some confiscated church property was returned by the government.

In 1988, Russia marked a thousand years since its conversion to Christianity

It was the first time in Soviet history that the government supported church celebrations.

AFP Photo / Mikhail Klinetyev.  Click to   
AFP Photo / Mikhail Klinetyev. Click to enlarge

Just two years later Aleksy was formally installed as Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia.

While the Soviet Union was falling apart, Aleksy dedicated himself to keeping the church together.

He travelled widely, visiting more than 100 dioceses as Patriarch and encouraged congregations to come back to the fold.

A noted academic, he had hundreds of articles published in both religious and secular press worldwide. He placed great emphasis on the education of the clergy, overseeing the building of new theological schools and colleges.

And at the end of 2006 there were more than 27,000 active parishes throughout the old territory of the Soviet Union.

He also remained active internationally, presiding over the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia in May 2007.

The two churches had separated in the early 1920s.

But relationships with other faiths proved more difficult.

Aleksy refused to meet with Vatican Popes, accusing the Catholic Church of aggressive missionary policies in both Russia and traditionally Orthodox former Soviet republics.

However, he did pay the first official visit to France.

Aleksy spoke at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe saying that human rights are often used to undermine Christian morality.

At home, Aleksy was criticised for the church’s quest for dominance over other religions and interference in secular life.

Aleksy was a prominent and highly public figure, and all Russian Presidents in modern history have sought his blessing for the post.

In times of harsh economic reforms and shifts in public values, Aleksy stood firm as a beacon of morality and faith.

Black ribbons instead of ceremonial occasion

The news of the Russian Patriarch's death led to President Dmitry Medvedev cancelling plans to take part in a ceremony in the Italian city of Bari.

A Russian Orthodox Mission there, which has belonged to Italy for the last seven decades, was to be handed over to the Russian church.

People come to St. Nicholas Basilica in Bari almost every day. The news about the Patriarch’s demise reached the basilica just before morning service.

“His death is a tragedy,” says Father Vladimir, before adding that he’d never expected they “would have to conduct his memorial service”.

In the late 1960s, long before he became Patriarch, Aleksy II visited this basilica and preyed before St Nicholas’ relics. But during the first years of his leadership, relations between Orthodox and Catholic churches were strained. The Patriarch accused the Vatican of seeking converts in the Orthodox domain – one of the reasons why Aleksy II never met with the Pope.

However, over the past few years the two churches have solved many of their disagreements. The Vatican has even petitioned the Italian authorities to hand back the building of St Nicholas’ basilica to the Russian Orthodox Church. The ceremony was scheduled for Saturday, but instead of fixing flowers Mother Natalya is adjusting black ribbons.

“The passing of the Patriarch is a loss of the spiritual father for the entire church. But for us it’s an even greater loss, as we work in the Patriarch’s church, a place where a holy Patriarch is the superior and the head,” says Mother Natalya.

With St Nicholas as an example, many in Bari know good deeds don't stop with a person's death. Aleksy II worked wonders during his life, and many there believe his death may not be the end.