In Sunday, Patriarch Kirill consecrated a new Russian Orthodox cathedral in Paris. The building – nicknamed “St Vladimir’s”, after the man who ultimately bankrolled it -is at the heart of an enormous Russian “spiritual and cultural centre” on the Seine’s Left Bank, between the Eiffel Tower and the invalids. Beneath the cathedral’s five gilded domes are a primary school, an auditorium, an exhibition space, offices, apartments, a bookshop and a cafe.
The French capital already has a Russian Orthodox cathedral. But it is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch ate of Constantinople and frequented by descendants of White Russians, who fled their homeland after the 1917 Revolution. The Moscow Patriarchate therefore built its new spiritual hub from scratch. Holy Trinity Cathedral, to give it its proper name, is now arguably the most eye-catching Orthodox church in Paris.
Everyone recognises that the cathedral is more than a pastoral base for France’s roughly 200,000 Russian Orthodox Christians. It is also a symbol of Russia’s wealth, prestige and cultural confidence. Michel Eltchaninoff, author of Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine (“Inside the head of Vladirnir Putin”), describes the cathedral as “a seductive statement of power, imposed by a country which boasts of its Christian roots on the capital of a secular state judged to be enfeebled by multiculturalism and spiritual amnesia”.
France is not the only country in which Russia is projecting this vision. In October, Patriarch Kiri II consecrated the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints in London. He told those present, who included Prince Michael of Kent and the Archbishop of Canterbury, that at a time of diplomatic difficulty the Russian Orthodox Church was willing to play a role in international relations. “Through faith, through the Church, the soul of a nation is manifested,” he said.
The Russian Church’s new-found assertiveness isn’t limited to European capitals. In February, Patriarch Kirill took a 12-day trip to Latin America. He met his flock in Paraguay, Chile and Brazil (at a cost of 20 million roubles – £250,000 – according to the Moscow Times). But the visit almost ended in disaster: en route to Antarctica his cockpit window smashed to pieces and the plane had to turn back. He made it on the second attempt, visited the continent’s only Russian Orthodox church and was photographed frolicking with penguins.
The point of all this jet-setting is clear: to establish the Patriarch of Moscow as a global Christian leader. Patriarch Kirill began his Latin American journey with a historic meeting with Pope Francis in the antiseptic setting of Havana airport. The Pope’s advisers reportedly pushed for an ecclesiastical location. The Patriarch’s team apparently refused – not only, one suspects, because of theological reservations, but also because the two men would appear more equal in a secular environment.
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