By Paul De Maeyer
ROME, FEB. 21, 2011 (Zenit.org).- “Welcome, Mr. President, this meeting of ours is very important,” Benedict XVI told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last Thursday when the president visited the Pope in the Vatican.
These words underscore something of the visit’s significance, Medvedev’s first after the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Russia. It was at their first meeting in December 2009 that the president and Pope agreed to upgrade existing ties to the level of full diplomatic relations.
The customary press release from the Vatican’s press office described Thursday’s meeting in positive terms: “In the course of the cordial discussions,” the brief note says, “the parties expressed their pleasure at the good state of bilateral relations and highlighted their desire to strengthen them, also in the wake of the establishment of full diplomatic relations.”
“The broad-ranging collaboration,” the note continues, “between the Holy See and the Russian Federation was recognized, both in the promotion of specifically human and Christian values, and in the cultural and social field. Subsequently, emphasis was given to the positive contribution interreligious dialogue can make to society.”
The press release reflects the extraordinary process of building ties between the geographically largest country in the world and the smallest — a process that began on Dec. 1, 1989, with the historic visit to Pope John Paul II by the secretary-general of the Soviet Union’s Communist party, Mikhail Gorbachev, the man of “perestroika” and “glasnost.” This process culminated last summer with the exchange of ambassadors.
But while the first meeting between a Russian head of state and a Roman Pontiff occurred already more than 20 years ago, one between the leader of the Catholic Church and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church has yet to take place. Indeed, under the previous patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Alexy II, the relations between Rome and Moscow were at times cool. The great dream of John Paul II to be able to meet Alexy II — even on “neutral” territory if it were necessary — never happened because of the patriarch’s “no.”
Alexy II, a native of Tallinn, Estonia, distrusted the first Slavic Pontiff in history and was extremely critical of “Catholic proselytism” in the regions of the ex-Soviet Union. Pope Wojtyla contributed to the dissolution of that in his own way.
In an interview published in September 2002 in the Italian weekly “Famiglia Cristiana,” Alexy II called the Holy See’s move to transform apostolic administrations into dioceses an “unpleasant decision” and “only one of the manifestations of the vast expansionist strategy of the Church of Rome.”
“The Catholics always note the presence in Russia of an enormous quantity of ‘non-believers’ who are supposed to constitute a kind of propitious terrain for missionary work, a mass of people that stands in perennial expectation of Catholic ‘workers,’ sowers and harvesters. It is an unacceptable idea for the Orthodox Church,” the patriarch said.
Another thorn in the side of the Moscow patriarchate was the developments in Ukraine, where the fall of the USSR permitted the rebirth of the Greek-Catholic Church. What made the Orthodox world especially furious was the plan to elevate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to the status of a patriarchate. On Nov. 1, 2003, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I finally sent a letter directly to John Paul II to express his strong disagreement and irritation.
A first positive change occurred with the election of Benedict XVI to the Throne of Peter, under whose leadership there has been no more talk of a new patriarchate. In an interview published at the end of April 2008 in the daily Russian newspaper “Kommersant,” Alexy II praised the new German Pontiff for his “powerful intellect.”
“The whole Christian world,” he said, “including the Orthodox world, respects him. Without a doubt there are theological differences. But in what regards the view of modern society, of secularization and moral relativism, of the dangerous erosion of Christian doctrine and on many contemporary problems our perspectives are very close.”
After the death of Alexy II in December 2008, the election of the metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Cyril, as patriarch of Moscow, was a second turn. As the chairman of the Moscow patriarchate’s foreign relations department, Cyril already had met Benedict XVI in the Vatican on three occasions. The last time was that same December during the patronal feast of the Russian Orthodox parish of St. Catherine of Alexandria in Rome.
Interviewed by L’Osservatore Romano after that meeting, Cyril described as “very positive” the state of relations between the patriarchate of Moscow and the Catholic Church. “There were so many important topics on our agenda,” he said. “I am thinking of the promotion of fundamental values for the life of the person, which today concerns the whole of humanity and not just Russia.”
“We need one another,” he continued. “We must not forget that Jesus Christ called for the unity of his disciples. We are one family. In fact, we share the same values.”
These are very significant words. Just as the Kremlin recognizes in the Orthodox Church a partner to re-launch post-Soviet Russia, faced with phenomena such as a fall in the birth rate and the scourge of alcoholism, this statement illustrates how in turn the patriarchate sees the Catholic Church as an ally in the battle against the crisis of values.
Cyril confirmed a great harmony with Benedict XVI in the report he presented Feb. 2, 2010, to his bishops on the occasion of the first anniversary of his enthronement. In regard to the various questions that are at the heart of Catholics and Orthodox, “Benedict took positions very close to those of the Orthodox,” said Cyril. “And this is demonstrated in his addresses, in his messages as well as in the opinions of other representatives of the Roman Catholic Church with whom we have contacts” (L’Osservatore Romano, Feb. 4, 2010).
Hence, the times seem more than ever ripe for a meeting between Benedict XVI and Cyril I. But this does not mean it will happen soon. “Perhaps in two years time,” one Russia-Vatican scholar, Robert Moynihan, told ZENIT a few days ago. “But there are many forces opposed to this developing alliance, so there are likely to be many potholes and obstacles on the road toward truly effective and culture-changing Russian-Vatican collaboration.”
We’ll let you know
The first to temper the enthusiasm was the present number two of the foreign relations department of the Moscow Patriarchate, Archpriest Nikolay Balashov.
Speaking with the Interfax agency the day of Medvedev’s Vatican visit, Balashov said that a patriarch-Pope meeting will happen when “the time comes” and that such an event should not be linked to the president’s stop in Rome.
“The Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church maintain a regime of constant communication and consultations at various levels,” the priest stated. “And when, in the view of both parties, the time comes for the meeting between the leaders of two Churches, we will notify the international community.”