Report on Russian Orthodox Church-Catholic Church Relations

Author: Fr Jozef M. Maj. S.J.

Report on Russian Orthodox Church-Catholic Church Relations

Fr Jozef M. Maj. S.J.
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Promoting Unity, Building the Peace

A look at the events that unfolded on the scene of interecclesial relations in the course of the year 2003, and particularly on relations between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow, could lead observers who are awaiting decisive and courageous steps in common witness from the Catholic and Orthodox Churches to think that it is a slow and ascending journey.

Such impressions, nonetheless, can be disproved in a certain way by the announcement made last 22 January: "Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, receiving the invitation of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of the Russian Federation, will visit Moscow this 16 February (2004)".

The Cardinal was set to meet Catholic Bishops present in the Russian Federation as well as the Catholic Community at Moscow and, as the announcement revealed, "during this visit, which is animated also by heartfelt respect for the Russian Orthodox Church, he will be received in audience by His Holiness Alexis II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, and will have a meeting with the Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Kirill, the President of the Department for Ecclesiastical Foreign Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow, in view of the ecumenical dialogue between the two Churches".

This announcement opens new prospects for all contacts between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church and for the quality of their relations internationally and locally.

Spirit of exchange and enrichment

These last relations have had a noteworthy force in the course of the past year. The initiatives promoted by the Pontifical Representative in the Russian Federation are especially remembered, thanks to which the climate of such relations has notably improved on the local level and reciprocal trust has grown, an indispensable condition for every further bilateral contact.

In this context the regular meetings of the Pontifical Representative with the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, His Holiness Alexis II, are recorded, together with the other institutions of the Patriarchate, such as the Department for Ecclesiastical Foreign Relations, led by the Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Kirill.

The Nuncio's visits to Catholic communities spread throughout the territory of this great Country are no less important. In the course of such visits, alongside meetings with the civil Authorities, there is also among the priorities a visit to the local Orthodox bishop. In many cases such encounters foster the already-existing collaboration or favour the start of other forms of meeting and collaboration between the Orthodox and Catholic communities, aimed at eliminating and overcoming mutual prejudices inherited from the past or that have arisen following misunderstandings and interpretations of events that have affected both Churches.

At the level of contacts between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow, we note the regular exchange of epistles between Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Alexis II, or that of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Department for Ecclesiastical Foreign Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow. The Presidents of these bodies, Cardinal Walter Kasper and the Metropolitan Kirill, respectively, have met on two occasions: 19 March 2003 at Geneva and in the first days of September at Aachen in Germany.

The Catholic Committee of Cultural Collaboration has continued to provide monetary support for the educational institutions of the Patriarchate of Moscow stationed in various countries of the Community of the Independent States, and support has been maintained for those institutions that, by preserving their autonomy and maintaining their own Orthodox inspiration through editorial and educational activity and conferences and summer courses on theology, work with the participation of Catholic experts for Orthodoxy in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and for a meeting and collaboration between Catholics and Orthodox in a spirit of mutual exchange and enrichment.

The Russian Orthodox Church

Throughout 2003, various Catholic organizations continued to offer their fraternal support and help for the Russian Orthodox Church, including such agencies as Kirche in Not and Renovabis. These agencies' activity cannot be interpreted as an isolated and independent choice; rather, they express the entire solidarity of the Catholic faithful which arises and is nourished from the teaching of the Catholic Church and the Holy Father. Any sort of attempt to deny the intrinsic, ecclesial dimension of the solidarity that the agencies or the Catholic faithful promote would mean that one is trying to reduce it to a mere act which, noble as it may be, would be left void of its testimonial value to brotherly love, respect and high regard for the Russian Orthodox Church.

The brief overview just presented of relations between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church does not desire to close with a statement, but rather, desires to open itself up to those testimonies that the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church are called to give today to Europe and the World.

The recent Address delivered by Pope John Paul II on 12 January 2004 to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See offers some ideas that could serve as a point for common reflection and an eventual and more meaningful cooperation with the Patriarchate of Moscow. Obviously, it is not collaboration dictated by any sort of pragmatism; rather, it is that ecumenical commitment which aims at overcoming divisions and permits the respective faithful to live and experience the numerous bonds of communion by which they are already united between themselves.

Only by this reality will a living witness be able to spring up in a position to extend itself at every level of ecclesial life; a witness that will more convincingly spread those Christian values on which Europe's identity is founded.

The common commitment

It is precisely our Continent which is above all in need of a renewal and a common commitment by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The Christian identity of Europe and the values that have formed it through the centuries are today having a difficult time finding a place in the area of the important European structures and social life of certain Countries.

Although, as the Holy Father affirmed in the aforementioned Address, "Everyone may agree to respect the religious sentiment of individuals, but the same cannot be said of the 'religious factor', that is, the social dimension of religions; here the engagements made in the context of what was formerly known as the 'Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe' have been forgotten" (Address to the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See, 12 January 2004; L'Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 21 January 2004, p. 3).

Such a tendency, which wishes to ignore "what Christianity has contributed to the culture and institutions of the Continent: the dignity of the human being, freedom, the sense of the universal, schools and universities, social services", addresses in a particular way the Churches regarding their presence and role in affirming Gospel values in today's Europe.

This commitment becomes more urgent in the face of the tendency towards laicism that wishes to reduce the presence of religion to the private sector and to propose life models that are inconsistent with a religious view on life.

Under the various atheistic regimes and ideologies, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, together with other Christian communities, have already undergone long periods of limitations and restrictions accompanied by persecutions, whose devastating consequences on life have been felt up to our day by many societies. Among these consequences, it is enough to mention: signs of social injustice, the break-down of families, and the loss of moral values and propagation of alternative lifestyles that attempt to present as a way of life a modern society free from any bond with natural law.

In the face of these challenges, the Holy Father has said that as Christians: "All together, we can effectively contribute to respect for life, to safeguarding the dignity of the human person and his or her inalienable rights, to social justice and to the preservation of the environment".

Bond between unity and peace

Lastly, in the perspective of common action between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, a concern for world peace cannot be lacking.

Peace always remains an imperative for Christians, and wherever it is threatened, in the Middle East or elsewhere, these same people cannot shrink from their duty to act together by investing all their spiritual forces to achieve it.

But there also exists here interdependence between the unity of Christians and their commitment to peace. In fact, as the Holy Father notes: "We do not give sufficient importance to the pacifying influence that Christians could have, were they united, on their own community as well as on civil society".

And he adds, "If I say this, it is not only to remind all who claim to be followers of Christ of the pressing need to set out with determination on the road that leads to the unity that Christ desired, but also to point out to the leaders of societies the resources they could find in the Christian heritage as well as among those who practise it".

Unity, therefore, is not an optional accessory; rather, it is an essential quality of the vocation of Christians and their presence in the world. This calling in a certain way conditions the Lord's ardent prayer: "so that the world may believe" (Jn 17:21), and the efficacy of that particular mission which they must complete towards humanity as a whole.

In order for such a mission to proceed, the unique contribution that both the Catholic Church and Russian Orthodox Church can offer must not be lacking.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 May 2004, page 10

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