Pray Brethren

Pray Brethren

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Road to Constantinople Passes Through Moscow

In the wake of Vladimir Putin's visit with Pope Francis last week, many were hoping Francis would be formally invited to Moscow to meet with the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a central leader in the Orthodox world. While no such invitation was extended, it is very important for us to not overlook the checkered history between Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

In 1204, Catholic crusaders sacked Constantinople and established the Latin Empire which lasted until the Byzantines recaptured the city in 1261. The Byzantine Empire, which had lasted for almost a thousand years, was now in its twilight as the Muslim Turks slowly strangled what little life the empire had left. The resulting enmity between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church festered for centuries. As historian Alan Palmer writes:
In 1452 a Byzantine official, critical of his Emperor's attempts to reunite the Eastern church with Rome, is said to have remarked, "It would be better to see the royal turban of the Turks in the midst of this city [Constantinople] that the Latin mitre."
Less than a year later the official got his way as the city capitulated to the Muslim forces of the Ottoman Empire. Many Christians, however, welcomed the Turkic invaders, finding more religious tolerance from the Turks than from their Catholic brethren. Indeed, two hundred and fifty years after the Ottoman conquest, a Holy League of Catholic powers began the liberation of the Balkans, bringing with them renewed Catholic clergy resumed imposing Latin practices upon them. After twenty-five years of liberation in southern Greece, however, the Greeks gladly welcomed the return of the Ottomans. The Muslims of 1713 were still preferable to the proselytizing Latins.

While tensions remain between the Orthodox the Catholic Church three hundred years later, there is something else which 1713 and 2013 share in common: the rise of a strong Orthodox Russia. In 1713, Russia was emerging as an international power under the leadership of Peter the Great, who officially proclaimed the Russian Empire in 1721. The new Orthodox Christian nation to the north succeeded in energizing the Orthodox Christians in Ottoman lands - which helped ensure Ottoman decline and its new status as "the sick man of Europe."

As a strong Orthodox Russia reemerges out of the ashes of atheist communism, we cannot overlook its status as a standard bearer of a renewed Christian civilization. As it renewed the vigor of Christians in Islamic lands in 1713 and sought to protect the Holy Land in the Crimea War, Orthodox Russia today is playing a central role in Middle East while building up the faithful at home. As the Catholic Church seeks a rapprochement with the Orthodox, the road to Constantinople runs again through Moscow.

Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis reverence and image of Mary. How many representatives of other major powers have you seen do this?