ROME, FEB. 19, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The ice is melting in relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, and there is good will for cooperation, says the president of the Pontifical Council for Promotion Christian Unity.
In an interview with Gerard O’Connell for Our Sunday Visitor, Cardinal Walter Kasper said relations with the Russian Orthodox Church are much better than when he began as president of that Vatican dicastery. And he discussed what lies ahead on the path toward unity.
“Very soon after I was appointed as president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity [March 2001], the four Catholic dioceses in Russia were established, and this caused a profound crisis with the Russian Orthodox Church,” Cardinal Kasper explained. “In the meantime the situation has improved; it’s no longer ice, the ice is melting.
“We are of the opinion that a personal encounter between the Pope and Patriarch Alexy II would be very helpful for the further development of our relations. The Moscow Patriarchate has never in principle excluded such an encounter, but it claims that some problems have to be resolved beforehand, i.e., the problem of what they call proselytism and uniatism.
“We are working to solve these problems and we hope we are able to do so even though there are different approaches and concerns. At this moment the Moscow Patriarchate is interested in cooperating on the questions relating to the Christian roots and values of Europe.”
The two questions of “proselytism” and “uniatism” are the two main issues blocking a possible meeting between the Pope and the patriarch, the cardinal affirmed.
“We have explained several times what we mean and what we do not mean with regard to these two problems. In particular, we have explained that the Catholic Church too does not accept proselytism,” the cardinal said. “But the problem is that we have a different understanding of this term.”
Cardinal Kasper clarified: “This problem is linked with the Russian Orthodox understanding of their canonical territory. The Catholic Church recognizes that Russia has a longstanding Christian tradition and culture. We recognize all the sacraments, the episcopate and the priesthood of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Thus, while Catholic Christians living in Russia may clearly give witness of their Catholic faith, there cannot be an evangelization as such, as this can only be undertaken in a pagan context. Therefore, it is not our policy or strategy to convert the Orthodox to the Catholic Church. […] We do not undertake missionary work in Russia as we do in the pagan regions of the world. We want to collaborate with the Russian Orthodox in missionary work and in evangelization, which is needed in modern Russia after more then 70 years of atheistic propaganda and education.”
But despite work to clarify the terms, Cardinal Kasper said he has the “impression that doubts still remain, because I feel they think that there is a discrepancy between what we are saying and what we are doing.”
“For this reason, two or three years ago, I was very active in setting up a joint commission to investigate complaints,” the pontifical council president stated. “If a complaint is valid, then we have to change; but if it is not correct, then the given complaint should be retracted. This commission works well and could solve some concrete problems.
“When I was in Kiev only one week ago I had the impression that now, thanks to God, something is moving and the situation is slowly improving also between the Orthodox under Moscow and the Greek Catholics, even though relations — by virtue of historical reasons — are still difficult.
“I had a very friendly meeting with Metropolitan Vladimir. We were able to inaugurate St. Clement Ecumenical Center with the blessing of Metropolitan Vladimir from the Russian Orthodox Church, of Cardinal Lubomyr Husar from the Greek Catholic Church, and of Cardinal Marian Jarworski from the Latin Catholic Church.
“This accord is in itself a little miracle. This center is still a small plant, but it is set to grow. I hope it will become a common reference and meeting point, a place of dialogue and communication between the Churches.”
Still, the cardinal confirmed, the problem of uniatism still remains.
“We say that ‘uniatism,’ understood as a method, today and in the future, is no longer a means of achieving Church unity,” Cardinal Kasper said. “But the so-called uniate Churches, which emerged in the past under circumstances very different from today, are a historical reality and have a right to exist.
“But they must open themselves to ecumenical relations with the Orthodox mother Churches. As I see it, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is ready to do so, and has a good ecumenical program in the academy of Leopoli. Finally, we agreed that both sides should recognize the religious freedom of individual Christians who by reason of their conscience want to join another Church.”
Cardinal Kasper agreed that there is still debate over alleged Catholic proselytism in what the Russian Orthodox consider their canonical territory.
There was even, he said, a statement made by Metropolitan Kirill regarding a wish that Benedict XVI would abolish the four dioceses established by John Paul II, a statement Cardinal Kasper called “very surprising.”
“But,” the cardinal said, “during [the metropolitan’s] recent visit in Rome he did not mention this point. I think it must be clear also to him that the Holy See cannot and will not step back.
“It is hard to see a qualitative difference between our Catholic dioceses in Russia and the Russian Orthodox dioceses in the West. The Russian Orthodox Church should therefore look at nurturing the same openness that we offer to Russian Orthodox Christians and to their parishes and dioceses here in Western Europe and in America.”
In any case, Cardinal Kasper said, “I am convinced the dialogue will now go on. Each Church has to face the reality that there is no realistic and responsible alternative to dialogue in today’s world. Faced with the challenge of secularization, Christians have to stand together and give common witness of their faith and of Christian values.”
“Patriarch Alexy II has expressed several times his high esteem for Benedict XVI, as a theologian with a profound understanding of the Church Fathers and as a Pope who stands for conservative values, conservative understood in the positive meaning of the term,” the cardinal affirmed. “Letters and greetings are regularly exchanged between them, and both are committed to improving relations.”