Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow With the Holy See

Author: Rev. Josef M. Maj, S.J.


Rev. Józef M. Maj, S.J.
Official of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Different understandings of local, universal Church

Relations with the Patriarchate of Moscow suffered from a period of tension during the past year [2002], yet various kinds of relations continued, and now one can hope for improved relations.

Creation of dioceses to ensure regular ecclesial structures for Catholics

On 11 February 2002, the Holy See raised the four Apostolic Administrations in the Russian Federation to the rank of Diocese. This decision—concerning exclusively the provision of regular ecclesiastical service to Catholics, since a diocese can provide this better in Catholic, as well as in Orthodox ecclesial life, provoked the negative reaction of the Patriarchate of Moscow. In fact, the transformation of the Apostolic Administrations into Dioceses was interpreted as a move toward proselytism; the organization of the four dioceses into a metropolitan province was perceived by the Patriarchate as creating, on the national level, a parallel Church to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Consequently, a meeting of the delegations of the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow scheduled to take place in Moscow on 21 February 2002, was cancelled and, as the Patriarchate of Moscow clarified, postponed until a more favourable date.

In the discussion, which took place "at long range", both parties explained their reasons. Moreover the ecclesial situation was worsened by the intervention of extra-ecclesial whose task is that of safeguarding the full exercise of religious freedom rather than the exploitation of a crisis.

Universality of the Catholic Church

Apart from what has been written on this topic, it seems useful to pinpoint what is at the root of the recent misunderstanding between Rome and Moscow. The basic problem seems to lie in two different ways of living ecclesial realities, and two different ways of identifying the universal andthe local dimensions of the Church. The Catholic Church is a universal Church constituted "inand from particular Churches"(Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, n. 23). By virtue of this universal dimension which is proper to her, she carries out her mission, transcending any boundary and not limited to a specific people or culture. She does so in accord with the Lord's words: "Gotherefore and make disciples of all the nations" (Mt 28,19).

However, it should be clear right away that in the Russian Federation,"The Catholic Church desires to carry out her duties with regardto the Catholicfaithful in Russia, longdeprivedof pastoral care, just as she wants the Orthodox Church to beable to carry out her proper mission,which she is called to carryout inher own country" (L'Osservatore Romano dailyedition, Relazione con il Patriarcato di Mosca,27 January 2002, p. 7). The spirit that guides the activity of the Catholic Church is expressed in the Document issued by the former Pontifical Commission "Pro-Russia" on 1 June 1992, with the title "General principles and practical norms for coordinating the evangelizing activity and the ecumenical activity of the Catholic Church in Russia and in the other countries of the CSI".According to this document, "today more than ever, the apostolic activity of the Catholic Church in the territories of the CSI must have an ecumenical dimension". As was the case then, so now too these directives that were designed to keep the necessary balance between pastoral activity and the ecumenical approach still apply.

Through dioceses churches provide pastoral care

On the part of the Catholic Church, the desire to fulfil her duties to the Catholic faithful entails being able to respond to their pastoral needs with the means and structure proper to the tradition and to the canonical order in force in the Catholic Church. The diocese is the structure through which the Catholic Church, and likewise the Russian Orthodox Church, carry out their ecclesial mission. Consequently, the establishment of four Catholic dioceses in the Russian Federation as a metropolitan province was not done with an intention that could give reason for the accusations of proselytism that were raised against the Holy See. Furthermore, such a step did not constitute an attempt to replace with an "ecclesiastical province of the Catholic Church" a "particular Church" [that is the Russian Orthodox Church's self definition] nor was there any wish to take over the mission that this "particular Church" has carried out for centuries in a specific cultural context. A special respect for this mission and for the role that this Church carries out in the Russian nation is reflected in the names given to the four Catholic dioceses: they are not linked to the cities that have or might in the future have an Orthodox Bishop of their own, but to the names of the cathedrals. One might have hoped that in this procedure one might recognize not just an act of courtesy but the deep sensitivity which must define relations between the Churches.

Common critique of proselytism

In this context, it seems rightto repeat the words of the Holy Father John Paul II to a Delegation of the Orthodox Church of Romania led by Patriarch Teoctist which visited Rome last October. The Pope referred to the problem of the proselytism which both Churches suffer due to the activity of a number of religious movements which are often

devoid of any ecclesial character, and also to those mutual ways of behaving that could damage correct interecclesial relations: "We have the principles of conduct that have been formulated in the common texts, and which, for the Catholic Church, are still valid. We too are concerned by the proselytism of new communities or religious movements, which have no roots in history and are invading countries and regions where the traditional Churches are present and where the Gospel has been preached for centuries. The Catholic Church is also having this sad experience in various parts of the world.

"For her part, the Catholic Church recognizes the mission which the Orthodox Churches are called to carry out in the countries where they have been rooted for centuries. She desires nothing else than to help this mission and collaborate with it, as well as to be able to carry out her own pastoral task for her faithful and for those who turn freely to her. To strengthen this attitude, the Catholic Church has sought to sustain and to assist the mission of the Orthodox Churches in their native countries, and the pastoral activity of many communities living side by side in the diaspora with Catholic communities. However, where problems or misunderstandings arise, it is necessary to face them by means of a fraternal and frank dialogue, seeking solutions that can involve the two parties reciprocally. The Catholic Church is always available for such a dialogue so as to bear an ever more credible Christian witnesstogether" (Address, 12 October 2002, n. 4; ORE, 16October, p. 4). The Catholic Church applies this approach to the Orthodox Churches in general and, without making any distinction, to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ongoing dialogue, signs of improvement

Today, after long months of accusations concerning the presumed proselytising activity of the Catholic Church in Russia and reproaches based on assumptions or unfortunate appearances rather than on actual events, there seem to be signs of a more realistic evaluation which could bring about positive developments in the relations between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow.

The difficulties and misunderstandings which have arisen between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Holy See in the past year do not give the full picture of their relations. Although the atmosphere created has disturbed many Catholics in many parts of the world, the Holy See, through the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has worked to encourage all the initiatives of collaboration and contact which the Catholic Church, at various levels, has established with the Russian Orthodox Church and her institutions and organizations. Many of the Catholic dioceses and Catholic funding agencies such as Aid to the Church in Need and Renovabis,have acted with the explicit approval of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Their activity also corresponds to the Holy Father's ardent desire to realize the exchange of gifts and fraternal relations with the Russian Orthodox Church that will be able to offer an effective, beneficial witness, to restore a truly Christian face to Europe. In this context one can also mention the visits of the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Ukraine (19-25 October 2002). In Kyiv, in the absence of H.B. Volodymyr, Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine, he visited several of the Metropolitan's representatives, including Bishop Mitrofan, Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine of the Patriarchate of Moscow; in Belarus (14-18 December), where the Cardinal was able to have many cordial and fruitful meetings with the Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk, Philaret, Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus.

'Resume relations in fraternal charity'

Finally, one should mention the correspondence between the Holy Father John Paul II and the Patriarch of Moscow and All the Russias, Alexis II. This exchange of letters has not changed, and this should be considered not only as of great importance, but also as a source of hope for the full and constructive resumption of relations between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow. In this perspective one can interpret the message the Patriarch Alexis II sent the Holy Father for the celebration of Christmas. Among other things, he wrote: "Let us resume our relations in fraternal charity".This is undeniably a gesture of openness and availability that is to be appreciated. Through the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Holy See will welcome it with the willingness that in these months it has always shown.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 February 2003, page 8

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