Observations on the Pope Francis-Hilarion meeting, and other news
By Peter Anderson
May 1, 2023
Pope Francis has now completed his second visit to Hungary, April 28-30.
Prior to the trip, there was speculation as to whether Pope Francis would meet with Metropolitan Hilarion, who in June 2022 had been suddenly and unexpectedly demoted by the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate and assigned to Budapest.
The official program of the visit did not include such a meeting.
In a press briefing before the visit, Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni had stated that he could not say anything about meetings that were not on the official program, but he acknowledged that a meeting with the Metropolitan was possible.
On April 29, the second day of the Pope’s stay in Budapest, a meeting between the Pope and the Metropolitan did in fact take place.
The Vatican News report gave few details about the meeting. (link) It stated: “As reported by the Holy See, the audience, which took place with the help of an interpreter, was cordial and lasted about 20 minutes. The Holy Father greeted the Metropolitan with a hug and kissed his Panagia, the enkolpion worn by Eastern Orthodox bishops.”
The website of the Metropolitan’s diocese gave further information. (link)
It included the following: “The venue of the meeting was the Apostolic Nunciature in Budapest. Michael Wallace Banach, Titular Archbishop of Memphis, Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See, took part in the discussion. During the conversation, Metropolitan Hilarion explained to Pope Francis the life of the Hungarian Orthodox Diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate, its social and educational activities, as well as its cooperation with the Esztergom-Budapest Archdiocese and representatives of other Christian denominations. In memory of the meeting, Metropolitan Hilarion presented Pope Francis with four volumes of his six-volume monograph ’Jesus Christ. Life and Teaching,’ translated into Italian.”
I assume that Archbishop Banach, an American, acted as the interpreter, with Metropolitan Hilarion speaking English and the Pope Italian.
On the Pope’s return flight to Rome on April 30, the Pope followed his usual practice of meeting with journalists. The official transcript of the questions by journalists and the Pope’s answers in Italian may be read at (link).
An unofficial English transcript is found at (link).
A video of the Pope’s remarks can be watched at (link).
The meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion was raised in two questions by Eliana Ruggiero, a journalist for the Italian news agency AGI. The following are excerpts from the transcript:
[Eliana Ruggiero, AGI]: ….Then, in recent days, you also met Metropolitan Hilarion: Can Hilarion and Orbán himself become channels of openness towards Moscow to accelerate a peace process for Ukraine, or to make a meeting between you and President Putin possible? Thank you.
[Holy Father]….Ah, yes, Hilarion: Hilarion is someone I respect very much, and we have always had a good relationship. And he was kind enough to come and see me, then he came to the Mass, and I saw him here at the airport as well. Hilarion is an intelligent person with whom one can talk, and these relationships need to be maintained, because if we talk about ecumenism — I like this, I don’t like this — we must have an outstretched hand with everyone, even receive their hand.
With Patriarch Kirill I have spoken only once since the war began, 40 minutes via zoom, then through Anthony, who is in Hilarion’s place now, who comes to see me. He is a bishop who was a parish priest in Rome and knows the environment well, and always through him I am in connection with Kirill.
There was a meeting that we were to have in Jerusalem in July or June last year, but it was suspended because of the war: that will have to take place. And then, with the Russians I have a good relationship with the ambassador who is now leaving; he has been the ambassador in the Vatican for seven years, he is a great man, a man comme il faut, a serious, cultured and balanced person. My relationship with the Russians is mainly with this ambassador…..
[Eliana Ruggiero]: If somehow Hilarion and also Orbán could accelerate the peace process in Ukraine and also make a meeting between you and Putin possible, if they could act “as intermediaries”?
[Holy Father]: You can imagine that in this meeting we not only talked about Little Red Riding Hood, right? We talked about all these things. We talked about this because everyone is interested in the road to peace. I am willing. I am willing to do whatever needs to be done. Also, there is a mission going on now, but it is not public yet. Let’s see how… When it is public I will talk about it.
In other answers given to journalists, Pope Francis confirmed that he will be visiting Mongolia (this fall).
He also stated that the Holy See is willing to be an intermediary in bringing back to Ukraine children taken to Russia.
Some media have connected the meeting between Pope Francis and Metropolitan Hilarion with the Pope’s remarks about a yet undisclosed peace mission and about a meeting between the Pope and Patriarch Kirill “that will have to take place.”
Perhaps in response to such speculation, the Jesus-Portal, with which Metropolitan Hilarion is closely connected, posted on May 1 a 8-minute YouTube video entitled “What I told the Pope yesterday.” (link)
The Metropolitan speaks in the video in Russian, but the Rome website Il Sismografo has provided an Italian translation at (link) (for English, use the Google translation tool).
The address by the Metropolitan includes the following: “I answer for those who are interested: there was nothing [at the meeting] concerning bilateral relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. No political issues were discussed. The meeting was of a personal nature between two old friends.”
Other facts support what the Metropolitan stated.
First, in the mere 20 minutes of the meeting, it would be very difficult to cover not only the various subjects mentioned on the website of the Hungarian Diocese, but also the complex Ukrainian situation, considering also the time needed for translation.
Second, in the last answer quoted above relating to a discussion of the peace process in Ukraine, the Pope referred to “this meeting” — in the singular and not in the plural. It would appear that the reference to “we talked about all these things” relates to the Pope’s meeting with Orbán and not Hilarion.
Third, Hilarion has avoided the subject of Ukraine since his arrival in Budapest. His sermons and communications, as far as I can determine, relate to strictly religious subjects. As far as I know, Hilarion has given no media interviews since his arrival in Budapest, perhaps due to his desire to avoid questions relating to Ukraine and the reason for his exile.
As time goes on, I have become more and more convinced that Metropolitan Hilarion suffered his humiliating demotion and exile precisely because he opposed the invasion of Ukraine. As an exile, he is not a good conduit to the leadership in Moscow, and I do not believe that he would desire to assume that role.
The reason that Pope Francis met with Metropolitan Hilarion is because, in the Pope’s words, Hilarion “is someone that I respect very much.”
In this regard, the Pope’s action may be similar to those of Patriarch Porfirije of Serbia, who also respects Metropolitan Hilarion and who invited the Metropolitan to be with him for a number of days last fall.
Although assigned to a very minor position far from the power centers in Moscow, Hilarion has not faded into oblivion as the Budapest meeting with Pope Francis demonstrates.
The most-read Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera has expressed an interesting thought with respect to the meeting between the Pope and the Metropolitan. (link)
The article states that Hilarion was “sent to Hungary for his anti-war positions while Patriarch Kirill blessed the invasion of Ukraine.”
It also states: “Hilarion [before his demotion] was the most likely candidate to succeed Kirill. And it could still be so in the future, if in the end Putin, and with him the current patriarch, end up in disgrace.”
I have also commented in the past that the demotion of Hilarion not only had the effect of greatly decreasing the likelihood of his becoming patriarch, but also greatly enhanced the chances of Metropolitan Tikhon of Pskov, who has a very close personal relationship with President Putin, to be the next patriarch.
In other news, there continues to be great uncertainty as to how the situation involving the Kyiv Lavra will be resolved.
The Zelensky administration appears to be reluctant to evict the UOC from the Lower Lavra without judicial approval. The court’s consideration of the UOC’s lawsuit challenging the termination of its lease to the Lower Lavra has been postponed until May 19. (link)
The court has also postponed the hearing on the lawsuit brought by the Reserve against the UOC until June 5.
Whatever the result, the court’s decisions in these two cases will almost certainly be appealed by one of the parties. The inspection of the property by the Reserve commission is continuing without violent confrontations. Although it appeared initially that the commission was sealing all structures after their inspection, it now appears that at least churches and living quarters are not being sealed after inspection. See, for example, (link)
On May 1 the commission examined the two dormitory buildings (Nos. 55 and 60) of the UOC Theological Academy, found them in good condition, and apparently did not seal them. (link)
The acting director of the Reserve has indicated that the Reserve may have difficulty paying for the cost of maintaining returned structures due to limited funds caused by the war. (link)
With respect to North Macedonia, Metropolitan Petar of the Orthodox Church in that country commented on the negotiations between the Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate concerning the issuance of a tomos of autocephaly. (link)
It appears that two major issues are the insistence of the Phanar that the word “Macedonia” not be used in the title of the Church even internally and that the Church’s jurisdiction be limited to the country of North Macedonia.
On April 27, Patriarch Kirill spoke to Archbishop Stefan, the primate of the Church, by telephone. (link)
In Africa, Archbishop Makarios of Nairobi returned to Kenya after a very long period of medical absence in Cyprus. (link)
On April 27, the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Antioch “expressed their solidarity with the faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church who are suffering from the scourge of war and the injustice of religious persecution.” (link)
—Peter Anderson, Seattle USA