By Peter Anderson
On June 7, 2022, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, chaired by Patriarch Kirill, made a startling decision. It removed Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) from his position as Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations, the second most important position in the Church after the Patriarch. Metropolitan Hilarion also lost his position as a permanent member of the Holy Synod. Metropolitan Hilarion had held these positions since 2009. He was replaced by Metropolitan Anthony of Korsun, age 37, who had been responsible for the Orthodox Church’s parishes in Western Europe.
Metropolitan Hilarion’s new assignment is to be the administrator of the Church’s diocese of Budapest-Hungary. The diocese only has a total of 11 active priests and four deacons. Very early in his career, Metropolitan Hilarion had been responsible for all of the Russian Orthodox parishes in Austria and Hungary, so he has some familiarity with the area. He is also a good friend of Cardinal Péter Erdő, the Catholic primate of Hungary. However, the transfer can only be viewed as a humiliating demotion. For Hilarion, the Synod’s decision did not even include the usual expression of gratitude for his 13 years of service in his previous assignment.
In addition to his major responsibilities, Hilarion was also the pastor of a Moscow parish, named Mother of God “Joy of All Who Sorrow.” In saying farewell to his parishioners on June 13, he stated that he had been informed that his transfer was not connected with any shortcomings in the activities of the Department of External Church Relations, but rather the transfer was “required by the current socio-political situation.” Presumably, this was a reference to Ukraine. It appears that the decision to transfer Hilarion was made very suddenly – an indication that the decision may have been ordered by an authority outside of the Church.
Unlike Patriarch Kirill, who has made strong statements favoring Russia in the war in Ukraine, Metropolitan Hilarion had remained silent about the war except for statements relating to relief for refugees and other humanitarian help. On January 29, Hilarion had been asked in an interview about “rumors of a possible war between Russia and Ukraine.” He responded, “I am deeply convinced that war is not a method to solve pent-up political problems.” The fact that Metropolitan Hilarion failed to endorse Russia’s war in Ukraine may well be the reason why he was removed from his high-profile position.
Metropolitan Hilarion has now assumed his new position in Budapest. However, in his exile, he has not been silent but has used the Internet extensively to speak on strictly religious subjects. To do this, he has used primarily the website Jesus Portal (https://jesus-portal.ru/) which he founded a number of years ago. On July 26 the Jesus Portal posted on YouTube a 5-minute video in which the Metropolitan describes his new life in Budapest. The YouTube website records that there have been over 188,000 views of this video and also shows over 1,000 favorable comments in regard to the video. One comment, typical of many, is: “We hope that your sermons will continue to nourish us spiritually. Your place of stay is not important for us at all, the main thing is that the Lord is with you.”
Although in exile, Metropolitan Hilarion is still only 56 years old, and one cannot say that his important role in the Church is over. Recall that Saint Athanasius of Alexandria was exiled on five different occasions! One must wait and see what Our Lord plans next for Metropolitan Hilarion.