So, my gentle readers, please allow me to flash back to a recent news story that I intended to discuss, but travel got in the way. This was a story that may or may not have been important, but we really don’t know because it centered on a private meeting between Pope Francis and a very symbolic Russian Orthodox leader.
Why to I say that Metropolitan Hilarion of Budapest is a highly”symbolic” Orthodox leader, especially at this point in the hellish conflict between Russia and Ukraine?
To explain my use of “symbolic,” we need to look at the Associated Press story that ran with this headline: “Pope in Hungary meets with Ukrainian refugees, Russian envoy.”
Ah, but was Metropolitan Hilarion a “Russian envoy,” in this case? Hold that thought, because things get more complex in the AP lede:
BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Pope Francis plunged into both sides of Russia’s war with Ukraine on Saturday, greeting some of the 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees who have fled across the border to Hungary during a public prayer service and then meeting privately with an envoy of the Russian Orthodox Church that has strongly supported the war.
First, an important point of grammar in the final clause of that sentence, as in “meeting privately with an envoy of the Russian Orthodox Church that has strongly supported the war.” I added the bold italics, stressing that this is “that,” rather than “who.”
As we will see, if appears that the AP team covering this event knew anything about the personal history of Hilarion. Then again, AP may have — for for some reason — chosen to omit some interesting and potentially important information.
Hold that thought (again), as we read some material that appears later in this story:
Immediately after greeting and encouraging the refugees, Francis … met with the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative in Hungary, Metropolitan Hilarion, who developed close relations with the Vatican during his years as the Russian church’s foreign minister. The Vatican said the 20-minute meeting at the Holy See’s embassy in Budapest was “cordial.”
The Russian church’s strong support for the Kremlin’s war has rankled the Vatican and prevented a second papal meeting with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Francis and Kirill had a 2016 encounter in Cuba that marked the first between a pope and the head of the Russian church. They had planned a second one in June, but the meeting has been indefinitely postponed over Kirill’s support for the war.
In a statement, Hilarion’s office said that he briefed Francis on the social and educational activities of the Russian church in Hungary and its relations with the Catholic Church here. He said that he gave the pope an Italian translation of a six-volume opus on the life of Christ.
OK, here is the crucial question: What is Metropolitan Hilarion doing in Budapest, leading a tiny flock of Russian Orthodox believers there?
Why ask? Hilarion was, at one time, arguably the second most visible and powerful leader in the Russian Orthodox Church. This is the kind of man, at his relatively young age, who is mentioned as a potential patriarch.
Maybe the New York Times has a clue? Consider this byte from “Pope Reveals He’s Working on Secret ‘Mission’ of Peace in Ukraine.”
The pope’s remarks to reporters aboard the papal plane returning from a three-day trip to Budapest did not specify what the “not yet public” mission entailed. But Francis said he had privately discussed the situation with both Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and with the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Budapest, Metropolitan Hilarion.
“In these meetings we did not just talk about Little Red Riding Hood,” Francis said. “We spoke of all these things. Everyone is interested in the road to peace.”
Once again, what is Hilarion doing in Budapest, in the context of the bitter fighting in Ukraine? Is he there mere as “the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church”?
The short answer: “No.”
By the way, if there are any Orthodox readers out there who speak Russian, let me ask: Do you catch content between the lines of this video?