Standing Together Against Secularism

Catholic-Orthodox relations continue to improve.

Catholic-Orthodox relations, which had already been advancing since Pope Benedict XVI’s election in 2005, have accelerated sharply this year. But after a thousand years of division, is unity really in sight?

Debate about the real possibility of full communion was fuelled by a September 14 interview in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera with the Catholic archbishop of Moscow, Paolo Pezzi. The Italian archbishop gave a surprisingly upbeat assessment of Catholic-Orthodox relations, saying reunification had “never been so close” and could even be achieved “within a few months.”

Archbishop Pezzi, 49, whose official title is Metropolitan Archbishop of the Mother of God Archdiocese in Moscow, went on to say that he believed the path to rapprochement was “at its peak,” and that there were “no real obstacles” to full communion. “Nothing separates us on bioethics, the family, and the protection of life,” he said. And although he acknowledged the issue of papal primacy to be a sticking point, he believed reaching an agreement “didn’t seem impossible.”

While it seems clear that real obstacles to unity do in fact still exist, and patching them up in a matter months seems, at the very least, overly optimistic, prospects for union with the Orthodox did increase with the election of Pope Benedict XVI, whose work as a theologian and sympathy for traditional liturgy is greatly admired in Orthodox circles. Benedict is also without the burden of the difficult political history between Poland and Russia, which hindered Polish Pope John Paul II from making as much progress as he would have liked with the Orthodox. Furthermore, Benedict XVI has made strides in reaching out to the Orthodox, meeting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople on several occasions.

This year, relations were given an extra boost following leadership changes in the Russian Orthodox Church, ones that herald a new era of greater openness and willingness to dialogue. Being the largest of the national churches in the Orthodox Church, this development is especially significant.

Patriarch Kirill I, elected to succeed the late Alexy II as head of the Russian Orthodox Church in January of this year, comes to the position after serving more than 20 years as the Church’s chief ecumenist and director of external relations. During that time, he built up many friendly relations with senior Holy See officials, including Pope Benedict, whom he has already met three times.

On hearing of his election, the Holy Father and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity were not reticent in expressing their joy. Although observing that “difficulties still remain,” a Vatican statement noted a willingness to cooperate in bearing “witness to Christian values” without forgetting the goal of full communion. A Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at the time that Kirill was “in many ways, the hopedfor candidate” and someone “who’s more open to rapprochement with us than some of his colleagues—and certainly the last patriarch.” However, the Vatican seemed then to be under no illusion that full communion was a long way off, and officials still say it’s too early to tell if Kirill will improve relations to any great extent.


But a less-noticed yet significant development took place soon afterwards, when Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk was appointed as Kirill’s successor as director of external relations. Like the patriarch, the archbishop has many friends at the Vatican, having previously been the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative to Europe. Aged just 43 and Oxford- and Paris-educated, he’s not only a highly accomplished theologian, but also—like Benedict XVI— an expert on the liturgy. He is even a composer who wrote a major work for choir and orchestra performed to great acclaim in Rome in 2007.

Moreover, Archbishop Hilarion comes across as considerably more conciliatory and charitable than the often staid Russian Orthodox leaders of the past. Evidence of this was seen in September, when he made his first official visit to the Vatican in his new role. In an address to the Sant’Egidio community on September 17, he used the warmest of words to discuss not only the close friendship between the two Churches, but also the importance of working together in facing common challenges such as those involving life issues and moral relativism.

“It’s time to pass from confrontation to solidarity, mutual respect, and esteem,” he said. “We live in a de-Christianized world, in a time that some define— mistakenly—as post-Christian.” Archbishop Hilarion added that the future of humanity depends on the response of both Churches. “More than ever before,” he said, “we Christians must stand together.” Sant’Egidio’s leaders were visibly stunned by the beauty of his message.

The Vatican didn’t issue a statement concerning Archbishop Hilarion’s September 18 meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, but unofficial accounts say it went well. The Interfax news agency reported that the two leaders spoke about “cooperation between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in the area of moral values and of culture.” Thanks to a reduction of the tensions that plagued relations during the early part of the decade, discussions with the Vatican were “very calm” according to Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican’s Christian Unity Council.

The success of Archbishop Hilarion’s visit naturally led to talk of the longhoped for meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch—a pre-requisite to any possible reunification. Cardinal Kasper said the encounter—which would be the first since the Great Schism of 1054—was not on the immediate agenda, and would probably not take place in Moscow or Rome, but in some “neutral” place (Hungary, Austria, Cyprus, and Belarus are possibilities). Both the Orthodox and the Vatican want the meeting, according to sources, and there is, importantly, a positive feeling about it on both sides. The most
likely venue is said to be Belarus, but neither the Vatican nor the Orthodox wish to hurry the meeting as significant issues have to be dealt with first, and the encounter must be prepared well.


For the moment, both Churches are looking toward the next joint theological commission meeting in Cyprus in October, when the difficult issue of papal primacy will be further discussed. The Vatican is pleased that the Russian Orthodox are willing to participate (they walked out of the last meeting in Ravenna) but it’s too early to say what progress is likely to be made as the Moscow patriarchate is still studying the relevant documents, in particular one prepared last year in Crete about primacy in the first millennium. If the parties reach no agreement on this issue, the Vatican is hopeful discussions can continue in one or two years’ time. Significantly, Archbishop Hilarion’s visit appeared to go some way to tempering a key obstacle that has held up a rapprochement, namely accusations of Catholic proselytism of Russian Orthodox following the fall of communism. The Vatican frequently denied the charge and has even gone out of its way to order the few Catholic dioceses in Russia not to accept converts from the Orthodox Church. But according to an Interfax report, Archbishop Hilarion still claimed in his conversation with the Pope that three Orthodox dioceses in Western Ukraine had been “almost eliminated as a result of coercive actions of Greek Catholics in late 1980s and early 1990s.” He also called for practical steps to be taken to improve the situation there.

But such concerns are far less serious than they were, and this is especially noteworthy as Kirill was widely considered to have been behind these accusations, which coincided with his wish to establish a fundamentally Orthodox civilization and state. If true, this may also indicate a lessening on the part of the Russian Orthodox faithful of a perception that the continuing Westernization of their country threatens their cultures and norms.

Despite practicing Orthodox being few in number, many Russians see their own traditions, religion, and national conscience as coming under attack since communism fell. Catholic missionaries who took advantage of the new freedom to come to Russia were also caught up in these perceptions, and Russians tended to group them together, regardless of whether they were Catholics or proselytizing Protestants.

This need to preserve their cultural identity, coupled with the lack of an Orthodox Second Vatican Council, are important reasons for the recent difficulties in Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations and the slow progress toward reconciliation—not least because this mentality has been prevalent among ordinary Orthodox followers as well as some bishops. (Some in the Orthodox hierarchy are cautious about even talking of unity or collaborating on common values for fear of provoking reactions from within their own Church.)

The Russian Orthodox hierarchy also has the handicaps of a Church closely intertwined with the state and allegations that a significant number of Orthodox leaders are ex-KGB agents. Material from the KGB archives examined in 1992 by a parliamentary committee, led by Father Gleb Yakunin (a dissident priest), claimed that most of the Church hierarchy was infiltrated by the secret police. Kirill was alleged to be an agent codenamed Mikhailov.

But despite being a strident voice of Russian nationalism in the face of Western influences, Patriarch Kirill has sought to put a distance between the Church and Russia’s communist past, and to assert the Church’s independence from the state. Recently he has been using his influence in legislative matters to promote anti-Stalinist and anti-Bolshevik actions, moves which have upset some in the Kremlin. This, say some observers, is why the Orthodox Church is currently keen to have the Catholic Church as an ally.

With all these factors in mind, the Vatican is proceeding to dialogue slowly and with great sensitivity, striving to understand the situation facing the Russian Orthodox’s point of view and especially in the light of Russia’s painful recent history. The priority for Rome is to focus on building trust, to avoid new splits and misunderstandings, and to be constantly aware that after a thousand-year division, prejudices as well as theological questions still need to be overcome.

While many still consider unity a far-off dream, and Archbishop Pezzi’s assessment of the time-frame in which it may be achieved is probably overambitious, recent developments do provide new reason to hope that in time the Church may “breathe with her two lungs, east and west,” as Pope John Paul II enjoined. For the moment at least, prospects for full communion are stronger than they have ever been in the history of the Church.


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About Edward Pentin 0 Articles
Edward Pentin is Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register and has reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for numerous publications, including Newsweek, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review.