Historical considerations on the Moscow Patriarchate: parts 1 & 2

Part I

The attraction that some political and religious circles have fallen into in regard to the Moscow Patriarchate is accompanied by a profound ignorance of its history. These brief observations are intended to bridge this gap.

The fundamental point of departure is the seventeenth Ecumenical Council of the Church, which took place in Florence in 1439 under Pope Eugene IV. The grand assembly was attended by a large group of about 700 persons from Constantinople, under the leadership of Emperor John VIII Palaeologus and Patriarch Joseph II with his clergy. Also with them was the Greek monk Isidore (1385–1463), metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus’ (Russia). The metropolitan of Kiev, who did not have the title of patriarch, was designated by Constantinople and had jurisdiction over the city of Moscow, which, until the fifteenth century, played no significant part in Russian religious history.

A great event took place in Florence. On 6 July 1439, the signing of the decree Laetentur caeli et exultet terra put an end to the Eastern Schism which had divided the Catholic Church of Rome from the self-proclaimed “Orthodox” Church of Constantinople in 1054. The papal bull concluded with this solemn dogmatic definition, signed by the Byzantine emperor, the patriarch of Constantinople and the Greek fathers:

“We likewise define that the holy Apostolic See, and the Roman Pontiff, hold the primacy throughout the entire world; and that the Roman Pontiff himself is the successor of blessed Peter, the chief of the Apostles, and the true vicar of Christ, and that he is the head of the entire Church, and the father and teacher of all Christians; and that full power was given to him in blessed Peter by our Lord Jesus Christ, to feed, rule, and govern the universal Church; just as is contained in the acts of the ecumenical Councils and in the sacred canons.”1

This was an authentic return to the sources. In fact, the origins of Rus’ dated back to the baptism of St Vladimir, which took place in 988, when Constantinople was still united with Rome and the State of Kiev was part of a single Res publica Christiana, under the direction of the Supreme Pontiff. On 5 May 1988, John Paul II said that:

“The baptism of Saint Vladimir and of Kievan Rus’, a thousand years ago, is rightly considered today as an immense gift from God to all the Eastern Slavs, starting with the Ukrainian and Belarusian peoples. Even after the separation of the Church of Constantinople, these two peoples considered Rome as the only mother of the whole Christian family. Precisely for this reason, Isidore, metropolitan of Kiev and of all Rus’, did not distance himself from the most authentic traditions of his Church when, in 1439, at the ecumenical Council of Florence, he signed the decree of union between the Greek Church and the Latin Church!”

On 18 December 1439, Eugene IV rewarded with the cardinal’s purple the work that Archbishop Isidore of Kiev had done on behalf of union with Rome. After the closing of the council, the pope sent Isidore as his legate to Russia to implement the decree of Florence. Isidore ran into difficulty, not in Kiev and its nine suffragan bishoprics, but in Moscow, where he met with strong hostility from Prince Basil (Vasili) II (1415–1462). On 19 March 1441, during his first Mass at the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Ascension, Isidore explicitly named the pope during the liturgical prayers and read the decree of union aloud, carrying a large Catholic cross at the head of the procession. He also delivered to Basil a letter in which Eugene IV asked him to support the spread of Catholicism in the Russian lands. But the prince of Moscow rejected the decisions of the Council of Florence and had the metropolitan of Kiev arrested. Isidore managed to get away and flee to Rome, while Basil elevated Bishop Jonah of Moscow to metropolitan of Russia, separating himself from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which had reunited with Rome. This political decision was the first step towards the autocephaly of the Russian church, still independent from the Greek one.

After returning to Rome, Isidore carried out two missions to Constantinople: the first in 1444 on behalf of Eugene IV; the second by order of Nicholas V in December 1452, just before the city fell. On 28 May 1453, Constantinople came under Turkish attack, the Byzantine Empire dissolved, and Hagia Sophia, the greatest temple of the East, was turned into a mosque. It was not only the end of the Empire, it was also the end of that patriarchate of Constantinople which had wanted to throw in its lot with the Byzantine Empire.

In the days of the siege, Isidore of Kiev once again miraculously managed to save himself and return to Rome. Callixtus III conferred on him the archbishopric of Nicosia in 1456, and Pius II the Latin Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1458. Although he held these offices, to which was added in 1461 that of Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals, he lived the last years of his life in economic hardship: he had used up all his goods for the defence of Constantinople, whose fall inflicted the keenest pain on him. This champion of the Faith and defender of the Fatherland died in Rome on 27 April 1463 and was buried in St Peter’s Basilica, not far from the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles whose Primacy he had strenuously upheld. The terrible impression left in him by the catastrophe of Byzantium is preserved in an Epistula lugubris et maesta.2

After the fall of Constantinople, Moscow wanted to proclaim itself heir to its political and religious role. In 1472, the marriage of the grand duke of Moscow, Ivan III, with Princess Sophia, granddaughter of the last Emperor of the East, Constantine XI Palaeologus, who died on the ramparts of Constantinople in 1453, seemed to clinch this decision.

It was in the years of Martin Luther’s revolt that the conception of Moscow as the “Third Rome” was expressed. The manifesto of this ideology was the Letter (1523) of the monk Philotheus of the Pskov monastery to the grand prince of Moscow, Basil III (Vasili III Ivanovich). In this brief theological-political treatise, Philotheus interprets Russian history according to a providential plan, which saw the “fall” of both the first and the second Rome. The first, ancient Rome, had abandoned the Orthodox faith between the ninth and tenth centuries, forfeiting its prerogatives; the second, Constantinople, had ended up in the hands of the Turks, just retribution for having entered into union with Rome. Their historic role was to be taken up by Moscow. This is how the Russian monk puts it:

“The church of ancient Rome delivered itself into the arms of the impious heresy of Apollinaris. The new Rome, the Church of Constantinople, is under the power of the Turks. Now there arises the holy and apostolic church of the third Rome … Two Romes have fallen, the third stands, there will not be a fourth”.

From that time on, a visceral theological and political hatred against the Church of Rome and Western Christianity developed in Russia. With Ivan “the Terrible” IV (1530–1584), Orthodox Christianity became a sort of national religion. Russia presented itself as the sanctuary of the true faith, and the Kremlin was the fortress that contained the founding myth of the Third Rome. In 1589, under his successor Feodor I (1557–1598) came the founding of the Moscow Patriarchate, with which Russia embarked on the path of religious autocephaly.3 The constitution of the Moscow Patriarchate was both the point of arrival and the point of departure of an apostasy no less serious than that of Martin Luther.

Part II

In the Catholic Church, the origin of the patriarchates dates back to the Council of Nicaea (325), which afforded a special supremacy to the bishops of Alexandria in Egypt and of Antioch, under that of Rome. At the Council of Constantinople (381), the bishop of Constantinople was added to the ranks of the patriarchs, and at the Council of Chalcedon (451), the bishop of Jerusalem. The decision on the legitimacy of the title of patriarch was always ascribed to the Supreme Pontiff, and still today the Code of the Eastern Churches reserves to the supreme authority of the Church of Rome the institution, restoration and alteration of patriarchal Churches (canons 55–62).

The patriarchate of Constantinople, which, under Photius, had already excommunicated the pope for adding the formula “Filioque” to the Creed in 867, then, under Michael Cerularius, definitively broke off union with the Church of Rome in 1054. In 1439, the schism was healed at the Council of Florence, when the church of Byzantium, under patriarch of Constantinople, Joseph II, returned to the Roman faith. His successors, Metrophanes II and Gregory III Mammas, remained faithful to union with Rome. There is little information about Athanasius II, the last patriarch before the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Turks in 1453, but we know that Mehmed II, out of hatred for the Catholic Church, restored the schismatic patriarchate in 1454, imposing Gennadius II as head of the Byzantine Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

In Russia as well, the princes of Moscow, from Basil II to Ivan IV, who took the title of Tsar in 1547, imposed the Greek-schismatic religion. In 1584, after the death of Ivan IV and the accession of Tsar Feodor I, the latter’s councillor, Boris Godunov, went about building up the prestige of the kingdom, establishing a Moscow Patriarchate. The opportunity came when the patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremias II, arrived in Moscow to ask for help against the Turkish oppressors. The patriarch was placed under house arrest and told he would not be set free unless he granted canonical recognition to the new patriarchal see. In January 1589, at a local council held in the Kremlin in the presence of the Tsar and the Boyar Duma, Jeremias was forced to elevate Metropolitan Iov (Job) to first patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. Fr Stefano Caprio observes that this act officially established the first form of autocephaly within Orthodoxy, changingits ecclesiological nature from ecumenical to ethnic.

“Considering that the other Orthodox Churches were in a state of subjection to the Ottoman Turks, it is understandable why Moscow has since then regarded itself as not simply one of the many national patriarchs, but the church most representative of the entire Orthodox world.”

The establishment of the Moscow Patriarchate was an eminently political act, in the ideological perspective of a “Third Rome”, which took up the legacy of Byzantine caesaropapism against Rome and against the Turks. But if the Patriarchate of Constantinople had been subordinated to the state, in Moscow it was itself created by the state.

The response of the Catholic Church was not long in coming. In 1569, the Union of Lublin had brought about a vast state uniting the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also welcomed members of the Orthodox episcopate who, under the missionary drive of the Counter-Reformation, had begun to look to Rome as a religious point of reference. They were called Ruthenians (from “Rus’”), because they came from the regions of White Russia and Little Russia, corresponding to the present nations of Belarus and Ukraine.

The Greek patriarch Jeremias, after being forced to recognise Iov as patriarch of Moscow, returned to Constantinople, disavowed him and, in August 1589, consecrated Archbishop Michael Rahoza metropolitan of Kiev, Galicia and all Russia. In 1590, Rahoza signed a document, with the Ruthenian bishops, petitioning for union with the Catholic Church, on the condition that the Byzantine rite and the canonical norms for clerics be preserved.

The negotiations with the Holy See came to a happy end: on 23 December 1595, Pope Clement VIII gathered the cardinals present in Rome, the entire court, and the diplomatic corps in the Hall of Constantine at the Apostolic Palace for a solemn ceremony. The two bishops nationis Russorum seu Ruthenorum, Hypatius Pociej and Cyril Terletskyi — representing Metropolitan Rahoza and the other Ruthenian bishops — abjured the schism and made a public profession of Catholic faith according to a formula that included those of the Councils of Nicaea, Florence and Trent. The pope’s eyes, the historian Ludwig von Pastor writes, were shining with tears of joy. 

“Today a joy fills our heart on account of your return to the Church, that cannot be expressed in words. We render special thanks to the immortal God, Who, by means of the Holy Spirit, has guided your minds so as to lead you to seek a refuge in the Holy Roman Church, your mother, and the mother of all the faithful, who lovingly welcomes you once more among her sons.”5

A commemorative medal immortalised the important event that, a century and a half after the union of Florence, restored the bond of unity between the Russian Church and the Roman Church.

Clement VIII announced this to the whole Church with the apostolic constitution, Magnus Dominus et laudabilis nimis, and with the apostolic letter, Benedictus sit Pastor of 7 February 1596, declared that the customs and legitimate rites of the Ruthenian Church, already permitted by the Council of Florence, could be preserved inviolate. The union was officially proclaimed in Brest on the river Bug on 16 October 1596.6

With the Union of Brest, the Ukrainian and Belarusian episcopate wanted to break the relationship of subjection to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and instead of taking the path of autocephaly, as the Patriarchate of Moscow had done, submitted to the authority of the Roman Pontiff. Giovanni Codevilla rightly recalls that the Church of Kiev had never formally separated from Rome and that the aspiration for the reunion of the Churches had never wavered.7 The agreement signed between the Ruthenian Church and the Holy See gave rise to the Eastern Rite Catholic Church, of which the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church are now part. The re-establishment of full communion with the See of Rome has been called to mind by many popes, including Pius XII, in the encyclical Orientales omnes Ecclesias of 23 December 1945, and John Paul II, in the apostolic letter of 12 November 1995 for the fourth centenary of the Union of Brest.

Not many years later, the return to Rome was consecrated by the blood of a martyr. On 12 November 1623, Josaphat Kuncewicz, archbishop of Polotsk and of Vitebsk, was killed by schismatics who shot him with arrows and then struck him with a huge axe. In the Vatican basilica, on 29 June 1867, in the presence of about 500 bishops, archbishops, metropolitans and patriarchs of various rites gathered from all over the world, Pius IX proclaimed him a saint, stating: 

“God grant, O Saint Josaphat, that the blood you shed for the Church of Christ be a pledge of that union with this Holy Apostolic See, for which you ever yearned, and which day and night you implored with fervent prayer from God, supreme Goodness and Power. And in order that this may come true, our deep desire is to have you as an assiduous intercessor with God Himself and with the Court of Heaven.”

The body of Saint Josaphat, like that of fellow champion of the faith, Isidore of Kiev, awaits the resurrection of the dead in the basilica of St Peter, where it rests beneath the altar of St Basil the Great.

This series will continue next week with part 3.


  1. Heinrich Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma (Herder, St Louis, 1957) p 220.
  2. Patrologia Graeca, XLIX, col 944 ff.
  3. This is brilliantly analysed in: Giovanni Codevilla, Chiesa e Impero in Russia. Dalla Rusdi Kiev alla Federazione russa (Jaca Book, Milan, 2012).
  4. Stefano Caprio, Russia: fede e cultura (Rome, 2010) p 97.
  5. History of the Popes, vol. XXIV (Herder, St Louis, 1951) p 135.
  6. See Oscar Halecki, From Florence to Brest: 1439–1596 (Fordham University Press, New York, 1958) for a broad exposition of the historical events.
  7. Chiesa e Impero in Russia (Jaca Book, Milan, 2011) p 66.