Patriarch Kirill In His Own Words is a collection of 366 excerpts from the writings, speeches, presentations, and interviews of the current Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia from 1980 to 2016.
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in the United States and Sts. Cyril and Methodius Theological Institute for Post-Graduate Studies in Moscow recently published the book, edited by Chad Hatfield, to commemorate the Patriarch’s seventieth birthday.
While the book is similar to the collections A Year With John Paul II: Daily Meditations from His Writings and Prayers, Benedictus: Day by Day With Pope Benedict XVI, and Through the Year With Pope Francis: Daily Reflections, it also seems more serious in content and intent; in addition, the book is part of a series of profiles on significant Orthodox figures.
Unlike these other collections, the English version of Patriarch Kirill In His Own Words has the additional task of presenting the Patriarch, who was enthroned in 2009, in a new light, and perhaps even in a first light, to American readers who may only know of him vaguely through news reports or his political positions.
Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Hilarion Alfeyev, who is also rector of Sts. Cyril and Methodius and head of external relations for the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, speaks to this definite aim in his introduction for the book.
Russians know Patriarch Kirill first hand, Metropolitan Hilarion says, but Americans know him mostly distorted through the prism of journalists’ views, often politicized and subjective. This book seeks to correct this view.
Although the book covers far more than this – dialogue with other Christians, persecution of Christians in the Middle East, terrorism, repentance, and morality, for example – I find that three overarching images of the Patriarch emerge from his words collected in this book. Here we see him as a man deeply influenced by his grandfather’s suffering, fully in love with liturgy, and completely convinced that there is nothing more important in this life than serving God.
The influence of his grandfather
Patriarch Kirill’s grandfather, Fr. Vasily Gundyaev, was exiled by the Soviets seven times and by his count was imprisoned in forty-seven different prisons, including the infamous Solovki prison camp, which Solzhenitsyn wrote about in The Gulag Archipelago, and Bulgakov mentions in relation to hell in The Master and Margarita.
In a revealing passage the Patriarch states that he owes his entire outlook on life to his grandfather – the understanding that without God we can do nothing:
He left a powerful and bright trace in my soul. I would listen to his stories attentively and, still being a child, I was struck by how calmly he would speak of his unimaginable sufferings. He always emphasized that without God’s help he not only would never have become a priest, but he would not have remained alive.
Despite the trials, Patriarch Kirill writes in another passage, his grandfather raised his children – including the Patriarch’s father, also a priest – gave an orphan a home, and spoke out against the closing of churches by the Soviets. His grandfather, he says, was a courageous man whose life confessed his faith.
Liturgy, the most important task
In another revealing passage, Patriarch Kirill speaks of how he came to understand the importance of liturgy. As a theological student, he missed liturgy on the Dormition of the Mother of God, one of the most important of the Church’s feasts, to prepare for an exam.
His spiritual father, Metropolitan Nikodim Rostov, confronted him about why he missed. After he gave his answer, the Metropolitan told him:
You will never make it and you will never achieve anything if you do your tasks at the expense of liturgy.
These words, the Patriarch says, have stayed with him all his life.
Later, Metropolitan Nikodim celebrated two secret liturgies, one at the wall where Solovki prisoners were executed and the other at the then closed monastery of Valaam at a defaced church.
Celebrating these liturgies could have led to the Metropolitan’s arrest, or he might have been mocked and witnessed the Holy Eucharist blasphemed. Despite the potential danger, the Metropolitan felt it his duty to celebrate the liturgy at these sites.
For Patriarch Kirill, they were transformative:
And these two secret liturgies, in which I had the good fortune to assist, continue to live in my memory as the most powerful religious experiences of my life.
In another excerpt, he writes:
I am deeply convinced that for a bishop, a monk, and for a parish priest as well, the celebration of the liturgy is the most important task because it is the liturgy that raises us beyond the everyday, arming us with spiritual power and helping us to have the right view of the everyday problems we encounter in fulfilling our duties. . . .
Nothing is more important than serving God
It is only through the power of God that we are saved, Patriarch Kirill writes. Because of this, there is nothing more important in our lives than serving God.
Our ultimate task in life, therefore, is to respond to God’s love with our obedience, trust, and willingness to follow his commandments. If we do this, Patriarch Kirill writes:
We will be able to put the priorities of our lives in the correct order and we will be able to tread the paths of our lives in peace and tranquility.
In his own life, Patriarch Kirill sees serving God as inextricably linked with celebrating liturgy:
[M]y life’s work is serving God, and in the heart of this work is serving the Divine Liturgy. Anything else is secondary.
Although a book such as this one is published to put its subject in the best light possible, the words here have an authenticity that should overcome any hesitancy one might have to accept them for what they are – the honest words of a man who has committed his life to Christ and has expressed this commitment eloquently for some thirty-five years.
What the Patriarch’s own words reveal a deep, disciplined thinker about the faith and his own journey of faith.
And about faith, the spiritual father of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russia Federation has much to say to all Christians.