Sunday, 7 December 2008

Mourning the Patriarch of Moscow

At a special requiem service in Dublin for Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All-Russia), from left: Father George Zavershinsky of the Dublin parish of the Moscow Patriarchate; Canon Patrick Comerford, representing Archbishop John Neill; and Father Michael Gogoleff, the Russian Orthodox Dean of Ireland

Patrick Comerford

Earlier today (7 November 2008) it was my privilege to represernt Archbishop John Neill at a special service in Dublin following the death of Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia, Patriarch Alexy II.

Patriarch Alexy, who died on Friday 5 December in Moscow at the age of 79, became Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia in 1990 and was the first leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in the post-Communist era.

The special service in the Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, was conducted in Russian and in English by Father Michael Gogoleff, the Russian Orthodox Dean of Ireland, and Father George Zavershinsky of the Dublin parish of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The service was also attended by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, diplomats from the Russian Embassy in Dublin, and members of the Russian, Belarussian, Ukrainian and Baltic communities.

As a member of the Church of Ireland Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, it was a privilege to represent Archbishop Neill at this time of grief in the Russian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox community is an important part of the wider Christian community in Ireland. Patriarch Alexy’s achievements include putting the Orthodox Church back at the centre of Russian life, rebuilding monasteries and churches, encouraging dioceses to establish theological seminaries and ensuring a rapid increase in the number of priests after decades of stangantion.

In his address, Father Gogoleff said the late Patriarch was deeply committed to strengthening the ecumenical relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, especially with the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church, and referred to Patriarch Alexiy’s meetings with both the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and Archbishop Martin of Dublin.

Following the death of the Patriarch of Moscow, Archbishop Alan Harper of Armagh and Archbishop Neill issued a statement expressing their sincere sympathy to the clergy and people of the Russian Orthodox Church, especially those in Ireland. They said: “We assure the people of the Russian Orthodox Church of our prayers at this time of sadness and transition.”

In a separate statement on behalf of the Church of Ireland Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, the chairman, Bishop Richard Clarke, and the secretary, Dr Kenneth Milne, said the commission had “heard with deep regret” of the death of Patriarch Alexy II. They offered the commission’s “condolences to the Russian Orthodox Church and in particular its members in Ireland.”


Patriarch Alexy, who died unexpectedly, was buried in Moscow after a funeral liturgy in the Cathedral Church of Christ the Saviour. The bells of over 600 churches in Moscow rang out to announce his death, and the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church held an urgent meeting.

Patriarch Alexy II was born Alexei Mikailovich Ridiger in 1929 in Tallinn to parents who were devout believers. In the aftermath of World War II, the Estonian Orthodox Church was absorbed into the Russian Orthodox Church. He educated at Leningrad Theological Seminary, now Saint Petersburg Theological Seminary, and was ordained deacon and priest in 1950.

His first posting was as Rector of the Church of the Theophany in Johvi, in the Diocese of Tallinn in Estonia. In 1957, he became Rector of the Cathedral of the Dormition in Tallinn and Dean of Tartu. A year later he was elevated to the rank of archpriest and in 1959 he became Dean of Tartu-Viljandi in the Diocese of Tallinn.

In 1961, at the youngest possible age of 32, he became Bishop of Tallinn and Estonia. That year he was also a member of the Russian Orthodox delegation to the New Delhi Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1961, when the Russian Orthodox Church was received into full membership of the WCC. Later, he became a President of the WCC and chairman of the Conference of European Churches.

In 1964, he was elevated to the rank of archbishop, and in 1968, at the age of 39, he became a metropolitan. When he became Metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod in 1986, he remained Bishop of Estonia. He was elected Patriarch of Moscow in 1990 and oversaw the restoration of the Russian orthodox Church to a prominent role in society with the support of President Boris Yeltsin and President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Putin, who is now Russian Prime Minister, said the Patriarch’s death was “a very tragic and sorrowful event,” adding: “Not only was he a prominent figure in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also a great statesman.”

President Medvedev, who cancelled a planned visit to Italy to return to Russia for the funeral, described Patriarch Alexy II as “an outstanding religious figure and true spiritual leader,” and said “he was also a great citizen of Russia.”

Patriarch, Alexy was seen as a unifying national figure, his moral strictures and benevolent appearance offering certainty at a time of extreme economic hardship and political upheaval in Russia. He also presided over a reunification ceremony at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow last year that ended an 80-year schism with that section of the Russian Orthodox Church that fled Russia after the 1917 Revolution.

A new Patriarch must be elected within the next six months.