The following article was published in Russian in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, No. 8, August 1950, two years after the joyous occasion of the granting of autocephaly to the Polish Orthodox Church by its Mother Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
The article recounts the lamentable preceding two decades where the Polish Church was in a state of non-canonical autocephaly thanks to the interference of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which recognized the Polish Church’s self-declared autocephaly in 1924, although it was within the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church at the time.
The schism between the Russian and Polish Churches continued for twenty-four years, ending when the Polish Church offered its repentance to the Russian Church and sought to heal the existing wound, though the Patriarchate of Constantinople continued in its errors.
In light of the evangelical assessment of contemporary world events, it is absolutely inconceivable to imagine any discrepancy between Local Orthodox Churches that could be caused by motives foreign to the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). It is also impossible for this or that issue, arising between Churches, to turn into long-term misunderstandings, capable of clouding the relations of the parties, called to preserve unity in love and to set an example of evangelical unanimity to all Christians.
But history testifies that inter-Church misunderstandings are not uncommon, especially where the spirit of the love of preeminence, where the interests of the Church serve as a cover for personal interests or political calculations. In all such cases, the canonical bases of Church life are subject to distortion.
One such misunderstanding took place not long ago between the Russian and Constantinopolitan Churches on the issue of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Poland. The essence of the matter was that in 1924, the Patriarchate of Constantinople confirmed the self-declared autocephaly of the Polish Orthodox Church, which, along with other dioceses, was part of the Russian Church.
Leaving aside for now the motives by which the introduction of the autocephaly was justified by its promoters, it still remains unclear “on the basis of which canonical rules part of the all-Russian Orthodox Church could become impendent without the agreement of a Local Council and the blessing of its primate, and which canonical rules was His Holiness Meletios IV, the former Patriarch of Constantinople, guided by in considering himself entitled to extend his power to part of the Patriarchate of Russia?”1
At that time, Patriarch Tikhon, who asked this question in a letter to Metropolitan Dionizy of Warsaw and All Poland, of course, did not know that Patriarch Meletios IV, already driven out of Constantinople by the Turkish authorities, “was primarily a politician who sacrificed Church interests in the name of personal and political interests, and that his exuberant activity, often digressive from Orthodox principles, brought no little harm to the Orthodox Church.”2
According to the conditions of the time, the head of the Russian Church couldn’t have been fully aware of the fact that it was precisely Meletius IV who invented and started to bring to life the theory of the subordination of the entire Orthodox diaspora, the entire Orthodox “dispersion,” to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, by which “the Greeks,” as Prof. S. V. Troitsky explains, “began to understand Orthodox of all nationalities, including Russians, living outside the borders of the autocephalous Churches.”3
But practically, this theory of Meletius IV first made itself known in the unlawful extension of the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to the diocese of the Russian Church in Poland, and then in the affirmation by the Patriarchate of Constantinople of the self-declared autocephaly of the Polish Orthodox Church4 in favor of the then-Russophobic government of Piłsudski. Considering the question of the canonicity of this act, Prof. S. V. Troitsky wrote in 1949: “Proclaiming the autocephaly of part of the Russian Church, against the will of the supreme authority of the Russian Church, the Patriarchate of Constantinople violated the canons forbidding the bishops of one Church from interfering in the internal affairs of another, and thereby has committed a grave canonical crime.”5
The essence of this crime can be defined as a violation of the unity of Church life, as introducing—in this case—the spirit of enmity in the hitherto consonant family of the faithful of the Russian Church in favor of the anti-Russian policies of the Polish government of the time.
There is no need to dwell on this policy now, because it is very memorable for our generation, and references about the true source of the self-declared autocephaly of the Polish Church are contained in the response letter of the Bishops’ Council of the Orthodox Metropolia in Poland to Patriarch Tikhon of August 16, 1924. It says there that after the granting of autonomy to the Orthodox Church in Poland,6 its proper dispensation began. The first Bishops’ Council was held in January 1922, the second in May, and the third in mid-June. “This Council,” as it says in the letter, “was opened by a speech of the Minister-President of Poland, who expressed the government’s desire for the necessity of a hierarchical structure of the Orthodox Church in Poland and the immediate adoption, in view of the elimination in Moscow of the canonical authority of the Orthodox Church, of a decision on the independence of the Orthodox Church in Poland on the basis of autocephaly.”7
Thus, there is no longer any reason to doubt that the autocephaly of the Polish Orthodox Church arose in 1924 under the explicit pressure of the Piłsudski government, and this pressure could be dictated only by the goals of the Polonization of the Russian Orthodox population of Poland and the enslavement of the Orthodox Church to the Vatican through the Unia. It is now clear that Patriarch Meletius IV of Constantinople, for some political or other purposes, went out to meet these intentions of the Polish government, confirming the autocephaly of the Polish Orthodox Church without the Russian Mother Church, which alone had this right according to the canons.
The resulting misunderstanding was aggravated by the fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople remained as if aloof from the conflict, and Metropolitan Dionizy took upon himself the thankless task of justifying the self-declared autocephaly of the Polish Church headed by him by the difficulties in relations with Moscow, and other motives incompatible with canonical obedience to the Mother Church.
But, covering these motives, the pressure of the government and the desire for Church independence facilitated by it, he was aware of the illegitimacy of his relationship to the Mother Church and in the further correspondence, first with the Patriarchal Locum Tenens, and then his Deputy Metropolitan Sergius, sometimes recalled his duty in relation to the Mother Church,8 promising at the first opportunity to obtain a blessing from it for the independent existence of the Polish Orthodox Church, already confirmed in autocephaly, in his opinion, by the other Orthodox Churches.
Judging by the letters, Metropolitan Dionizy’ pangs of conscience were replaced by the consciousness of the accomplished fact, with which he tried to defend himself from canonical accusations from Metropolitan Sergius. But attempts at this defense were extremely weak and collapsed at the first contact with the crushing arguments of Metropolitan Sergius. He wrote to Metropolitan Dionizy that the temporary autonomy granted by Patriarch Tikhon to all the Church associations9 “gave the Polish Church a completely painless way out of any difficulties” and that “there was no need to turn to a foreign Patriarch for the confirmation of the Metropolitan, in violation of the canons.”10
In response to these arguments, Metropolitan Dionizy wrote: “The contents of your last letter are such that I don’t see the possibility of officially answering it. After all, our autocephaly has already been proclaimed in fact, and this has to be considered.”11
Met. Dionizy. Photo: fotopaterik.org But the fact of the matter is that there was no canonical autocephaly and Metropolitan Dionizy was defending a self-declared schism, which the Orthodox flock of Poland did not want at all. The Deputy Patriarchal Locum Tenens Metropolitan Sergius patiently demonstrated to him and fraternally persuaded him to abandon this undertaking, destructive for the Church, and not to artificially and forcibly tear the Orthodox flock in Poland from its age-old union with the Russian Church and thus not expose it to the miseries of internal Church anarchy. He wrote to Metropolitan Dionizy: “Let your coming council discuss the question of autocephaly, even if it makes a conclusion about the rights to autocephaly and on the desirability of introducing the latter, but let it solemnly and courageously renounce the unlawful autocephaly, and invite the Orthodox flock in Poland to remain in canonical communion with the Moscow Patriarchate and await a lawful, not self-declared autocephaly from a lawful source—from the Local Council of the holy Russian Orthodox Church —salvific, not destructive.”12
From these exhortations of Metropolitan Sergius it is clear that nothing impossible or exceeding the measure of the archpastoral duty and courage was required of Metropolitan Dionizy, that the Deputy Head of the Russian Church mourned not the seizure of the Church province, but the “arbitrary destruction of Church unity.” He even admitted the possibility of autocephaly for the Polish Church, but urged Metropolitan DIonizy about the need for a legitimate path to it through the conciliar decision of the Mother Church.
The further course of the matter showed that Metropolitan Dionizy preferred to take the unlawful autocephaly and because of this remained in disunity with the Mother Church until the end of the Second World War. During this time, Metropolitan Dionizy’s attitude did not change at all. But the political changes that occurred in Poland after its liberation from the fascist invaders clarified the canonical consciousness of the Polish Church, which reminded it of the need to resume relations with the Mother Church of Russia.
But this time the flock was ahead of the pastor, and the Ruling Board for the management of the affairs of the Polish Orthodox Church authorized a special delegation to go to Moscow, to His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy [I], to ask his blessing for the autocephalous existence of the Orthodox Church in Poland. The delegation stated that the Polish Church recognizes the autocephaly given it by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1924 as non-canonical and invalid, and asks the Russian Church to grant it canonical autocephaly.
Given the large Orthodox population in Poland and the loyalty of its flock to Orthodoxy, His Holiness the Patriarch and the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church granted the request of the Polish Church and granted it the right to autocephaly in a joint meeting of June 22, 1948.
This decision was preceded by the following appeal of the delegation to His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy [I] and the Holy Synod under him:
“1. The Polish Autonomous Church recognizes the autocephaly of the Polish Church, proclaimed by the tomos of Patriarch Gregory VII of Constantinople of November 13, 1924 (No. 4588), as non-canonical and invalid and asks the blessing of the Mother Russian Church for canonical autocephaly.
2. In view of the fact that Metropolitan Dionizy of the Polish Church is separated from the Mother Russian Orthodox Church and has repeatedly stated in letters to the Patriarch of Moscow that the Polish Church received canonical autocephaly from the Church of Constantinople, the Polish Church cannot continue prayerful and liturgical communion with him and from henceforth will not elevate his name during the Divine services as the name of its primate.
3. Similarly, the Polish Church ceases prayerful communion with all priests and laity of the Polish Church sharing in the mentioned error of Metropolitan Dionizy, from henceforth until their repentance.”
In response to this appeal, there followed the following decree of His Holiness the Patriarch and the Holy Synod:
“1. Taking into account the Polish Church’s renunciation of its non-canonical autocephaly, His Holiness the Patriarch and the Holy Synod now restore canonical prayerful and liturgical communion with it and give it the right to full independent governance.
2. As per the approval of the autocephaly of the Polish Church by the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Polish Church elects the head of its own Church. The Polish Church thus receives the arrangement required by the canons for autocephaly.”13
By this act, soon confirmed by the consensus of all the ruling hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church,14 the history of the canonical misunderstanding between the Russian and Constantinople Patriarchates on one hand, and between the Russian and Polish Churches on the other, came to an end. The mistake made twenty-five years ago by Metropolitan Dionizy was corrected in 1948 in the Moscow Patriarchate. The interference of the Patriarch of Constantinople in the internal affairs of the Russian Church was unnecessary, and the patience of the Russian Church was rewarded by the birth of the autocephalous Polish Orthodox Church, now independent in solving its own internal affairs, in particular, in the matter of electing its primate.
As expected, the Orthodox flock in Poland received the news of the canonical approval of the autocephaly of the Polish Church with satisfaction and relief, and its interim Deputy Head Archbishop Timothy of Białystok and Velsk expressed deep gratitude to His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy [I] and the entire Bishops’ Council on behalf of the entire Church. “I believe,” wrote Archbishop Timothy on December 4, 1918, “that the young autocephalous Orthodox Polish Church, in close prayerful communion with the older sister Russian Church and strengthened by its holy prayers, will overcome all hardship and difficulties, and will improve its internal life and make its strong contribution to the salvific work of establishing peace, goodness, and justice on earth.”
Thus the Polish Orthodox Church was pacified, but its former head Metropolitan Dionizy apparently persisted in his mistake, finding himself separated from Church life, which, with the help of the Mother Church, entered into the normal course of canonical autocephaly. Finding himself in the position of a shepherd abandoned by his sheep, he sent the following letter to His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy [I], marked August 22, 1948:
“Your Holiness, Vladyka Patriarch Alexei! To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses—with these words of the holy Old Testament prophet, full of humiliation, sorrows, and contrition for their sins, I appeal to Your Holiness and ask you to be my primate and intercessor before the Great Mother Church.
My soul cannot bear the reproach that has befallen me from Your Holiness together with the Holy Synod, and it is the duty of my conscience to beseech you to accept my sincere, although overdue, repentance for all transgressions against the Mother Church.
Conscious of the temporality and canonical incompleteness of the autocephaly granted by His Holiness the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1924, I recognize and confess the holy necessity of the blessing of the great Mother Russian Church upon the autocephalous existence of its young daughter—the Polish Orthodox Church.
I filially entreat Your Holiness not to deprive me of future liturgical and canonical communion with the great Mother Russian Church, which reared me and raised me to the height of the episcopate, nor with its most faithful daughter Polish Church, with which I am bound by a twenty-five-year campaign of hierarchical ministry and labor.
Through the mouth of the Psalmist, I appeal to our Holiness: Give ear to my words, O Lord. Hearken unto the voice of my cry. For there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared!
The same thoughts and feelings fill me, a sinner, at the present time, and I am cruelly tormented and suffer. Nevertheless, I do not lose hope and firmly hope and believe in the all-forgiving love of Your Holiness and the great Mother Russian Church: I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope (Ps. 129:5).
The lowest novice of Your Holiness, Metropolitan Dionizy
(Letter of Metropolitan Dionizy of August 22, 1948)”
His Holiness the Patriarch and the Hoy Synod, having heard the “sincere repentance in all transgressions committed against the Mother Church” in former Metropolitan of Warsaw Dionizy’s letter to the Patriarch, and his earnest petition for the removal of the reproach of the Mother Church placed upon him and for his acceptance in canonical communion, resolved:
“1. To grant the petition of Metropolitan Dionizy and, for the sake of his sincere repentance, to consider his canonical communion with the Mother Russian Church restored.
2. To consider it possible, considering his thirty-five years of service in the episcopal dignity, to leave him in the rank of Metropolitan, but without the title of ‘His Beatitude’ assigned to him during the period of his exit from the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.
3. To inform His Eminence Metropolitan Dionizy about the resolution of the Patriarch of Moscow and the Episcopate of the Russian Orthodox Church of June 22, 1948 on the granting of the right to autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Poland.”15
As can be seen from the resolution, His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy [I] and the Holy Synod recognized Metropolitan Dionizy as a penitent bishop, inasmuch as he recognized, in his letter of August 22, that he was burdened with reproach from the Mother Church for the transgressions he committed against it. The sincere tone of this confession, which was beyond any doubt, made them receive the repentance of Metropolitan Dionizy with full sympathy and understanding of his “painful and sorrowful situation” and restore him to communion with the Mother Russian Church.
Recognizing in his letter “the temporality and canonical incompleteness of the autocephaly granted by His Holiness the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1924,” and confessing “the holy necessity of the blessing of the great Mother Russian Church upon the autocephalous existence of its young daughter—the Polish Orthodox Church,” Metropolitan Dionizy renounced recognition of the non-canonical autocephaly given by Patriarch Gregory VII and renounced what he received from the Patriarch in connection with autocephaly, in particular, the title of “His Beatitude.” Therefore, leaving His Eminence Dionizy in the rank of Metropolitan in consideration of his thirty-five-year ministry as a bishop, the Holy Synod did not recognize him with the title “His Beatitude,” given to him in connection with the non-canonical autocephaly.
The Synod also did not recognize Metropolitan Dionizy as the head of the Polish Church, since he also enjoyed this headship non-canonically, without the blessing of the Mother Church. Additionally, the reunification of Metropolitan Dionizy with the Russian Church occurred after the Polish Church was given lawful autocephaly, by virtue of which the election of its head became its own internal affair.
It would seem that the history of the misunderstanding caused by the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s interference in the internal affairs of the Russian Church could be considered finished, because the Orthodox Church in Poland renounced the self-proclaimed autocephaly of 1924 and received canonical autocephaly from the Mother Church in 1948. I would also like to think that, in connection with such an instructive outcome of the matter, the canonical consciousness of the Church of Constantinople should be clarified to the extent necessary for a sound assessment of the lesson received.
But in reality, it turned out that the misunderstanding had not come to an end, although it ceased to be a fact of Church life. In February of this year, Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople addressed Patriarch Alexiy [I] of Moscow and All Russia with an epistle from which it can be concluded that the Patriarchal Throne of the Second Rome did not learn the lesson taught it in the canonical failure of the tomos of Gregory VII and remained convinced that “with the recognition by the Russian Church of the Polish Church’s need for autocephaly, the canonical participation of all Local Churches is fully realized.”16
According to the opinion of Patriarch Athenagoras, the Russian Church only joined the recognition of the autocephaly of the Polish Church granted to it by the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1924, and thereby approved its intervention in its affairs and recognized the self-proclaimed act of the Polish Church as canonical and salvific, despite its own protests coming from Patriarch Tikhon and his successors at the head of the Russian Church. But these protests not only were, but continue to be an expression of the canonical consciousness of the Russian Church, but in light of the events of 1948, remain a testimony to the correctness of its canonical position in the matter under consideration.
The Local Churches now agree with this position of the Russian Orthodox Church, inasmuch as they, including Constantinople, have recognized the autocephalous existence of the Polish Church granted it by the Mother Russian Church. As for the “canonical participation of all the Local Churches” on the recognition of the non-canonical autocephaly of 1924, this participation simply did not exist. In 1949, Prof. S. V. Troitsky wrote about this: “Despite the fact that the Polish government organized a special trip of Metropolitan Dionizy to the East to convince the other autocephalous Churches to recognize Polish autocephaly, this attempt failed. Some Churches answered evasively, others, for example the Serbian and Bulgarian, categorically refused to recognize the non-canonical autocephaly of the Polish Church, and Patriarch Gregory of Antioch twice wrote to Metropolitan Anthony that such interference, in addition to the request and contrary to the desire and will of the lawful Church authority of the All-Russian Patriarch, is unacceptable” (Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, 1949, No. 12, p. 52).
The absence of unanimous participation of the Local Churches in recognizing the given autocephaly could not be compensated for by the involvement of the Church of Constantinople, which in no way has the right to proclaim autocephaly outside its jurisdiction. This clearly follows from Canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical Council, Canon 39 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, and Canon 24 (17) of the Council of Carthage.
If the part of the Russian Church in Poland allowed itself to turn to the See of Constantinople for the confirmation of its autocephaly, then from the point of view of the latter, it was subject not to encouragement but admonishment. In any case, the Patriarchate of Constantinople should have ascertained exactly how the Mother Russian Church felt about the intentions of its daughter Polish Church, especially since this attitude was expressed many times.
But the Church of Constantinople acted contrary to the canonical truth of inter-Church relations and gave a new reason for it to be accused of imitating the first Rome.
And the duty to help other Churches finding themselves in difficult circumstances does not protect it from this accusation. But precisely this motive is voiced in the last epistle of Patriarch Athenagoras, who writes that the See of Constantinople, “due to the obligation to help the Church regions finding themselves in difficulties, blessed the autocephaly of the Polish Orthodox Church in November 1924,” allegedly “fulfilling all the conditions stipulated for it by the holy canons.”
Recalling the known position that “the consequence of aid cannot be to limit the rights of the one being helped,” that is, in the given cause the rights of the Russian Church, we must again point to the self-declaration of the then-head of the Polish Church Metropolitan Dionizy, who at that time acted against the will of the majority of the bishops and laity and contrary to the instructions of the head of the Russian Church, in both cases violating the Church canons.
Therefore, now that there is a documented confession of Metropolitan Dionizy of the transgressions he committed against the Mother Church, where he himself condemned the self-proclaimed autocephaly of 1924 and recognized the lawful autocephaly of 1948, Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople’s letter must be read with amazement, where he writes that “His Beatitude the Archbishop of Warsaw and All Poland and beloved in Christ brother Dionizy was already recognized twenty-five years ago by all the patriarchal and autocephalous Sister Churches as the canonical head of the Polish Orthodox Church” and that therefore Patriarch Alexiy [I] of Moscow and All Russia must make “every effort for His Beatitude to continue his fruitful ministry in the most holy sister Polish Church”…
When you read these lines, it sounds as though there was never was any interference from the See of Constantinople in other spheres, no self-declared autocephaly approved by them, no renunciation of it by the Polish Church, no act of reunion and recognition of the last by the Russian Church and that Metropolitan Dionizy absolutely did not repent, and the Patriarch of Moscow did not remove the canonical sanction from him. The intercession of Patriarch Athenagoras becomes some kind of new and incomprehensible misunderstanding.
But in his response letter, His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy [I] calmly notes that “recent events in the Polish Orthodox Church” are “completely unknown” to Patriarch Athenagoras, and further points to the changes that occurred in the situation in the Polish Church in connection with its renunciation of the non-canonical autocephaly of 1924. Basically, these changes come down to the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church, according to its rights as the Mother Church, granted the Polish Orthodox Church autocephaly, by virtue of which the entire internal order and election of the primate are now its own internal affairs.
From the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, No. 8, August 1950