The Holy See and Patriarchate of Moscow

The Holy See and Patriarchate of Moscow

Józef M. Maj, S.J.

Journey of reciprocal knowledge and reconciliation

In reviewing the 2004 agenda of the events that marked the bilateral contact between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow, it can be said that our mutual relations have broadened considerably. The intensity of these relations reveals the determination and desire to continue on the path of dialogue, understanding and collaboration, even in a context in which differences of opinion and of the perception of what would hinder harmonious interecclesial relations remain.

The clarification required, that is, the way to overcome these divergences, whether real or perceived, will be achieved in the indispensable atmosphere of reciprocal respect, purged of every historical, cultural or confessional preconception. The parties involved in the dialogue must endeavour to achieve this goal.

The first event in these notes, in chronological order, was the visit to Moscow of Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, from 17 to 23 February 2004, invited by the Catholic Bishops of the Russian Federation. His visit included consequential meetings with the Country's Catholic Bishops, with the clergy of Mother of God Archdiocese, with the Catholic Community of Moscow and with the Catholic organizations involved in various ways in the pastoral work of the Catholic Church in Moscow.

The visit entailed a further important aspect that is always a feature of Holy See representatives to countries where a local Orthodox Church is present; indeed, the ecclesial significance of these meetings is not limited to the Catholic community. They cannot but involve interecclesial contact, as is only right, and strive for closer cohesion and deeper communion among Christians.

During the February 2004 visit that was motivated by esteem for the Russian Orthodox Church, Cardinal Kasper was received in audience by His Holiness Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and of All the Russias.

Contacts were followed up with bilateral conversations between Cardinal Kasper and Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who is President of the Patriarchal Department for Foreign Ecclesiastical Relations. This was an opportunity to reaffirm the convergence of Catholic and Orthodox positions on the Christian values the two Churches transmit, which have shaped Europe.

The positions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the moral context and their almost convergent views on the social teaching of the Church could have greater bearing on the future features of the Continent and contribute to a clearer Christian witness in the world.
During the conversations, two topics were addressed that the Patriarchate of Moscow has been lamenting for some time as the greatest obstacle to the normalization of relations with the Holy See: the alleged proselytism of the Catholic Church in the Russian Federation and the spread of the so-called "Uniatism", as well as the alleged injustice and persecution that the Orthodox in communion with the Patriarchate of Moscow are purported to have suffered in Western Ukraine at the hands of the faithful of the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine.

In bilateral conversations between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow on 21 November 1999, it had been established that the situation of relations in Ukraine would be handled by a local Joint Commission that included representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine.

Therefore, during the conversations in February 2004, the Catholic side had new hopes that this Commission would be reactivated.
In addressing the topic of the alleged proselytism, respect for the 1,000-year old tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church and appreciation of her role in Russian culture and society was reaffirmed. This approach of the Holy See excludes any trace of proselytism, which is moreover rejected by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council; there has never been nor is there a strategy that aims to "invade" Russia.

In this regard, the Catholic side advanced a proposal that was accepted: the creation of a "Joint Working Group" whose task would be to examine individual cases concerning the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church present in Russia which the Patriarchate of Moscow claims give rise to misunderstandings, in order to seek the appropriate solutions at a local level.

Academic collaboration of Catholic and Orthodox Churches

During his stay in Moscow in February 2004, Cardinal Kasper visited the famous Monastery at Sergeev Posad, the heart of Russian Orthodoxy, and the adjacent complex of Moscow's Seminary and Theological Academy.

It became apparent at a meeting with the academic and administrative authorities that the Academy was eager to collaborate with the Pontifical Universities and Faculties of Theology. This collaboration would involve an exchange of students and professors and the sending of books, as well as other initiatives.

The Holy See confirmed its unreserved willingness to collaborate in all areas the Orthodox Church considers indispensable for the formation of her candidates to the priesthood, to ensure that she can properly carry out her mission in Russian territory and in the Independent States, thereby confronting the pastoral challenges that today's society requires her to take up.

This collaborative project has already begun. In fact, for the academic year 2004-2005, the Catholic Committee for Cultural Collaboration, an institution of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has awarded eight scholarships to candidates from the Patriarchate of Moscow who have chosen a specialization; five are enrolled at Pontifical Universities in Rome. In addition, thanks to a special donation, the Committee has been able to offer the complete collection of Oriental Petrology to Moscow's Library of Academic Theology.

In 2004, the above-mentioned Joint Working Group of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in the Russian Federation held two meetings in Moscow, on 5-6 May and 22-23 September 2004. They constituted a platform for an exchange of information and clarifications, intending to seek solutions to those situations that might create misunderstandings or even mutual suspicion due to different sensibilities and pastoral approaches.

While the Joint Working Group may be considered a temporary means in the normalization of contacts between the Catholic Church in the Russian Federation and the Orthodox Church of that Country, it has made an appreciable contribution as had been hoped. Indeed, although for the time being they are infrequent, meetings between Catholic and Orthodox Bishops in various parts of this immense Country have been taking place.

There is a well-founded hope that these meetings of the Bishops as well as of the clergy, wherever the Catholic Church is present, may become a regular feature of daily and ecclesial life. Only in this way will it be possible to uproot reciprocal prejudices and develop a more regular and permanent collaboration between the two Churches. This can only benefit the society and Country of which the Orthodox and Catholic faithful are an integral part.

Sacred Icon of Mother of God of Kazan, a symbol of unity

The second event that brought relations with the Patriarchate of Moscow in 2004 into the limelight was the Holy Father's decision to give to Patriarch Alexei II, and to the Orthodox Church and the Russian People, the Icon of the Mother of God of Kazan that Pope John Paul II had cherished and venerated in his apartment for 11 years.

A Holy See Delegation led by Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., U.S.A., conveyed a Message to the Patriarch from the Pope and accompanied the Icon on its journey back to Russia.

The Icon's consignment took place on 28 August in the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Kremlin. It was overflowing with the faithful, devoutly participating in the Divine Liturgy at which the Patriarch himself presided.

In his Letter to the Patriarch, the Holy Father wrote:

"By a mysterious design of Divine Providence, during the long years of her pilgrimage the Mother of God in her sacred Icon known as Kazanskaya has gathered about her the Orthodox faithful and their Catholic brethren from other parts of the world, who have fervently prayed for the Church and the People whom she has protected down the centuries.

"More recently, Divine Providence made it possible for the people and the Church in Russia to recover their freedom and for the wall separating Eastern Europe from Western Europe to fall.

"Despite the division which sadly still persists between Christians, this sacred Icon appears as a symbol of the unity of the followers of the Only-begotten Son of God, the One to whom she herself leads us" (25 August 2004, L'Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 1 September 2004, p. 3).

In the same Message, the Pope said: "The Bishop of Rome has prayed before this sacred Icon, asking that the day may come when we will all be united and able to proclaim to the world, with one voice and in visible communion, the salvation of our one Lord and his triumph over the evil and impious forces which seek to damage our faith and our witness of unity" (ibid.).

Gratitude and hope for Orthodox-Catholic relations

On receiving the sacred Icon from Cardinal Kasper, the Patriarch, among other things, responded with these significant words: "I cordially thank you, Your Eminence and all the members of the Delegation of the Roman Catholic Church, and through you, your Primate, Pope John Paul II and the entire Church for the image of the Mother of God of Kazan that has been consigned to us....

"Today, Russia is encountering one of the most venerated images of the Icon of the Mother of God of Kazan. This image has made a long and arduous journey through many countries and cities. Orthodox and Catholic faithful have prayed before it, as well as Christians of other denominations. It has been carefully looked after in the Vatican and has consequently kindled in many Catholic faithful love for the All Holy Virgin Mary, for Russia and for the Russian Church and her culture and spiritual heritage. After many years, in accordance with God's will, this revered image is returning home....

"I ask you, Your Eminence, kindly to convey to His Holiness Pope John Paul II, our profound gratitude for the gift that you have brought us".

In a Letter thanking the Holy Father, Patriarch Alexei II expressed the same sentiments of gratitude and hope for relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, for a greater Christian witness and for the preaching of Christian values in Europe and throughout the world (28 August 2004, cf. ORE, 8 September 2004, p. 2).

Since we have mentioned here the desires and hopes that Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Alexei exchanged on the occasion of the return to Russia of the Icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, and especially mindful of the suspicion that still persists, let us once again cite the words of the Holy Father. In expressing his sentiments and those of the Catholic Church, he outlined the most direct route:

"May the ancient image of the Mother of the Lord tell His Holiness Alexei II and the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Successor of Peter's affection for them and for all the faithful entrusted to their care.

"May it speak of his esteem for the great spiritual tradition of which the Holy Russian Church is custodian.

"May it speak of the desire and firm determination of the Pope of Rome to progress with them on the journey of reciprocal knowledge and reconciliation, to hasten the day of that full unity of believers for which the Lord Jesus ardently prayed (cf. Jn 17:20-22)" (28 August 2004, ORE, 1 September 2004, p. 2).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 June 2005, page 8

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