To no one’s surprise, Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, locum tenens of the Patriarchate of Moscow since the death of Alexy II in December and head of the same Patriarchate’s powerful Department for External Relations, has been elected Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.
The new Patriarch was born Vladimir Gundyaev in 1946, and has been varyingly described as a liberal and a conservative, as a moderniser and as a traditionalist. The Russian press reports that he was persecuted even as a child for his faith (he reportedly refused to join the Communist Party’s Young Pioneers). He has hosted a weekly TV program since 1994, and is reputed to be a good preacher and a prolific author with a firm grasp of both pastoral needs and international issues. On the other hand, there have been reports of his involvement in improper financial dealings from 1994-1997 related to the importation of cigarettes into Russia (hence the nickname, “Tobacco Metropolitan”). And some Orthodox have accused him of less-than-edifying behavior towards his rivals in the hierarchy.
There are expectations of more cordial relations between Moscow and Rome now that Kirill (who met Pope Benedict XVI in December 2007) has been elevated to the Patriarchate; indeed, he has faced sharp criticism in Russia for allegedly being too close to the Catholics and for continuing to advocate ecumenical dialogue with Rome. At the same time, it should be kept in mind that Kirill spent part of 2008 expanding the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church in Latin America and striking up alliances with various leftist regimes there (apparently in the interest of getting them to help with the construction of more Russian Orthodox churches). He has also made clear that there will be no doctrinal compromises with Rome.
Although he is known to enjoy cordial relations with the Kremlin, he is expected to establish greater independence from it – a position already foreshadowed when the Moscow Patriarchy refused to support the recent war with Georgia. Shortly before the patriarchal elections, he called for "mutual non-interference" between Church and State.
Of interest to Catholic Traditionalists is Kirill’s public opposition to calls for liturgical reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church – including, among other things, recent proposals within that Church to replace Church Slavonic with the vernacular (modern Russian) in the liturgy. Another point of interest: he is a protégé and spiritual son of the late Metropolitan Nikodim Rotov, who collapsed and died during an audience with Pope John Paul I (who gave Nikodim absolution)