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Patriarch Alexy II and dialogue.

Part I: Russia and Ukraine


Moscow--It has been a longstanding wish of Pope John Paul II to heal the 1000-year-old rift between Rome and the Churches of the East, now known as the Orthodox Churches.

In the past several years, the Pope has visited several countries with Orthodox majorities, such as Armenia, Georgia and Romania, and has received warm welcomes from the Patriarchs there, even in Greece. But his wish to visit Moscow and meet with Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church has not been granted. Hopes of such a visit were set back further in 2002 when the Vatican decided to restore the four Catholic "apostolic administrations" in Russia to their pre-1919 status of full-fledged dioceses. This led to more negative reactions from Russian Orthodoxy, including the standard accusations against Catholics of "proselytism," or "forced conversions". It also led to the cancellation of a scheduled visit to Moscow by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the expulsion or denial of visas to several Catholic priests and one bishop working in Russia.

Tensions had cooled somewhat by February 17, 2004, when Cardinal Kasper finally made it to Moscow for talks with Metropolitan Kirill of the Orthodox ecumenical office and eventually with Patriarch Alexei II. The Cardinal left Moscow with an agreement to set up a joint commission to consider solutions to the issues dividing the Churches and to plan exchanges of students and faculty between the separate seminaries.


One Orthodox/Catholic problem that Kasper's visit still left unresolved was the situation in Ukraine. When Ukraine became an independent state in 1989, the Moscow Patriarch decided to continue to claim it as part of its canonical territory--not least because the majority of its active believers were there--instead of permitting Ukraine to have its own national Patriarch as in all other Orthodox countries. But with independence, millions of Ukrainians reverted to their original Greek Catholic Byzantine-rite Church which had been suppressed by Stalin in 1946. Ukrainian Orthodoxy, in its turn, split into three parts: one part loyal to Moscow, one part to Kyiv, and one part Autocephalus Ukrainian Orthodox. The Catholics are the ones accused of "poaching" converts, by those Ukrainian Orthodox who are still part of the Moscow Patriarchate. That is how the Patriarch interprets the action of Eastern-rite Catholics who leave the Orthodox church imposed upon them by Stalin and return to their original heritage.

Catholic Patriarch?

It is traditional among the mature Eastern Churches for their chief archbishop in each country to be accorded the status of Patriarch. The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Cardinal, Lubomir Husar of Lviv, had asked the Pope to bestow this status on the Greek Catholics of Ukraine, now numbering five to six million. The Moscow Orthodox, however, have made it plain that any such decision would result in the complete breakdown of ecumenical dialogue with them. Moscow threatens further opposition as well as difficulties for the Latin-rite Catholics living in Russia and for both Latin and Eastern-rite Catholics in other Orthodox countries.

John Paul, who fully appreciates the heroic fidelity of the Ukrainian Catholics shown in the face of persecution and suffering in the past century, has indicated his sympathy with their aspirations. However, he recently said that due to Orthodox opposition, he must ask them to be patient.

Cardinal Husar who favours direct contact between his Church and the Orthodox rather than via Rome, accepted the Pope's "not yet" decision and said in June 2004, "We certainly do not wish our patriarchate recognized at the expense of someone else" (Zenit, N.C. Register, Tablet).

Madonna of Kazan

Pope John Paul made another move to improve relations with Moscow by returning the icon of the Madonna of Kazan, which has been in the Pope's private chapel for the last decade. This painting, one of two copies, has been dated to the thirteenth century and has been the talisman credited with helping Russians achieve victory over their enemies in the past. Stolen from its cathedral in 1904, it was eventually donated to the Pope in 1993 by a group of Catholics who bought it at an auction.

John Paul had hoped to return the icon in person during a visit to Kazan, the capital of Fatarstan, but this proved impossible due to his own ill health. The icon, therefore, was handed over by Cardinals Walter Kasper and Theodore McCarrick to Patriarch Alexei II in a three-hour religious ceremony last August.

A month earlier, another religious icon was also returned to its original location in Russia by members of the American Orthodox community who decided to return it when they reconciled with their Russian brethren. On July 8, 2004, the Virgin of Tikhvin came back to the monastery of the Assumption in a small town north-west of St. Petersburg. Transported by armoured train, the icon was accompanied from the station by a procession of 10,000 pilgrims.

Reputed to have miraculous properties--two medical cures were reported while it was on exhibition at the Orthodox cathedral in Moscow--the icon of the Virgin Mary is said to have been painted by St. Luke. Originally kept in Jerusalem, it has also been venerated in Constantinople before being brought to Russia in the fourteenth century.

The monastery that housed it was built by Ivan the Terrible in 1560 but closed by the Communists in 1917. Seized by the Germans in 1944, the icon was rescued by the Orthodox Bishop of Riga who sent it to the United States.

Dictatorial powers for Putin

Since the late summer, political events have made the Russian government more autocratic. After a brief visit to Beslan on September 5, 2004, where Chechen terrorists killed 350 children, teachers and parents in a raid on a primary school, Vladimir Putin gave himself new powers which resemble those of an absolute ruler. He abolished direct elections of both governors and parliament (Duma). From now on, he himself will appoint the 89 governors from now on. As for the Duma, electoral ridings will be abolished in favour of (appointed?) party "leaders" who will compose lists of those who may stand for office.

Over the last two years President Putin has also closed down certain independent media, and placed other radio and TV media under state control. In the business-world, he is in the process of renationalizing the large oil and gas producers, bringing them, too, under the Kremlin's control.

Mr. Putin has also announced a new policy of "pre-emptive war" and direct intervention in the pursuit of "terrorists." (Globe, Post, Star, Sept. 14-19, 2004).


The renewed political absolutism will no doubt have its impact on the Orthodox Church whose Patriarch has acted all along as the head of a department of state as has been the historical tradition in Russia, especially from Peter the Great (1672-1725) onu'ards. Meanwhile, currently Russians remain profoundly secular with no more than two or three per cent of them practising Orthodoxy (First Things. May 2004. p. 15).

Part II: Constantinople

Rome -- In June, 2004, Pope John Paul II met again with His Holiness Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The Patriarch, who ranks "first among equals" in the Orthodox Church, participated in the Mass celebrated in St. Peter's Square on June 29, the feast of SS Peter and Paul. His visit extended to July 2 and commemorated the 40th anniversary of the 1964 meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. At that time, the mutual excommunications of 1054 were revoked.

In November of the same year, 1964, the Council fathers approved the decree Unitatis Redintegratio in which it was affirmed that the promotion of unity among all Christians was one of the principal objectives of the Council. Notable steps have been taken toward ecumenism, such as the Week of Prayer for the Unity of Christians, and the formation of associations and ecclesial communities dedicated to the reciprocal knowledge and friendship between Christians of different confessions.

In the course of his welcome address to the Patriarch, the Pope expressed his "indignation and sorrow" at the memory of the sack of Constantinople by an army of Crusaders in 1204.

Search for unity

The Pope and the Patriarch delivered a joint homily at the June 29 Mass. The Pope made the point that the Catholic Church was irrevocably committed to ecumenism. This commitment "is not a matter of vague neighbourly relationship but of the indissoluble bond of theological faith, which is why our future is not one of division but of communion ... No problem should stop us," he said. "Rather, let us go forward in hope."

The Patriarch, while expressing his disappointment at the lack of full communion between the Churches, pointed out that the desired unity of the Churches "is not a worldly union like that of the unions of states, or of corporations of persons and structures through which a higher level of organizational union is created. This is very easy to achieve." Rather, the union "to which the churches aspire is a spiritual quest ..." He echoed the words of the Pope when he said that reconciliation "is not a levelling out of the traditions, customs and habits of all the faithful that is sought," but living "in common the person of the one, unique and unchanging Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit."

At the end of the visit, Pope and Patriarch signed a joint declaration of re-commitment to the "great cause of full communion of Christians." Before leaving Rome, Bartholomew invited the Pope to again visit Fanar, the see of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, Turkey. John Paul has accepted the invitation, for which no date was specified.

Despite the atmosphere of fraternal goodwill on view during this visit, Catholic/Orthodox reconciliation makes slow progress and suffers many setbacks. It was Patriarch Bartholomew himself who wrote the Pope on November 29, 2003, the feast of St. Andrew, Russia's patron saint, advising him against establishing the Ukrainian patriarchate on the grounds that it risked breaking ecumenical dialogue.

In Rome, Fr. Dimitri Sakalas, a Vatican expert on Orthodox relations, while retaining optimism for progress, is realistic in regarding various problems, and not merely those of theology. One impediment, he noted, is the Orthodox attitude to the Greek Catholic Churches which they would like to see suppressed. Another is a lack of "reciprocity" by the Orthodox on various canonical and pastoral issues such as mixed marriages (Zenit, June 28, 2004).
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Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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