Roman Catholic reporting about union between Rome and Orthodoxy tends to be over optimistic. The Catholics seem to want union much more than the Orthodox do. A clearer assessment might be that Moscow sees cooperation with Rome as necessary to re-Christianize Europe, to help Europe rediscover its moral and religious moorings. Nevertheless, a significant thaw is occurring.
“The Lefebvrists, the Anglicans… will it be the Orthodox next?” asked one slightly bewildered Catholic priest recently. Pope Benedict XVI is turning out to be ecumenically audacious. For this he has faced criticism, misunderstanding and accusations of insensitivity. But Pope Benedict and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church seem now to be making progress in preparing the ground to overcome the Great Schism of 1054.
When I was in Russia late last year the Nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, commented on the imperative aim of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to build “a dialogue of truth and charity” with the Orthodox. He emphasised how vital this was and thanked Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for its work in supporting Catholic, Orthodox and ecumenical projects in Russia:
“We have to encourage the Catholic community to show solidarity to the Orthodox. The initiative of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI is so important. Thank you for all that the charity does for the Church and for building relations with the Orthodox, in line with the will of the Holy Father… and Our Lord!”
He continued, reflecting on the great sufferings of all Christians in Soviet times: “We must find courage to turn the pages of history.”
But it is not only Catholics who wish to “turn the pages of history” and establish an understanding, with a deeper respect.
Archpriest Fr Igor Vyzhanov, Secretary for inter-Christian Affairs at the Moscow Patriarchate, told me: “We have a common heritage, a common mission and challenges in common – both Catholics and Orthodox. We need your prayers and charity.”
Fr Igor accompanied Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, who is head of the External Affairs Department of the Russian Orthodox Church, to a meeting at Castel Gandolfo with Pope Benedict XVI in late September. When asked about the continuing tense situation between churches in Ukraine – where the faithful of the Eastern Rite (Greek) Catholic Church suffered so much and where there is a raw sensitivity and a politically territorial religious viewpoint on both sides – Archpriest Igor recognised the scale of the challenges: “There is much hurt and there are very painful memories on both sides and the question is how a way forward can be found. But we must foster a solution with the Greek Catholics in Ukraine – and we both call for the need for dialogue.”
So what underlies these recent changes in attitude? Where has this new energy come from, pushing towards a mutual recognition and some theological and ecclesial agreement? The difficult meetings of the International Joint Commission for Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue Theological Commission, the publishing of books and articles, as well as cultural and diplomatic exchanges, are definitely leading to a greater openness. Indeed, one sign of this is a forthcoming exhibition with lectures this spring 2010 in Rome entitled Days of Russian Spiritual Culture – and it is thought likely that the Holy Father will make a point of attending. Additionally, the projects supported by Aid to the Church in Need have helped to build bridges of charity – including the publishing of social teaching documents by the Russian Orthodox Church and the sponsoring of a television programme on the Holy Father, with a personal message from Pope Benedict in Russian, broadcast across Russia in 2008. Barriers of mistrust and superstition are coming down – as common social and religious challenges are faced – and some of the wounds of atheism are beginning to heal.
Read the complete article on the Catholic Herald website.