Moscow (AsiaNews) The meeting with Aleksij II "was cordial and tranquil" with the Patriarch calling for intensified meetings between the Catholic and Orthodox sides, especially when problems arise. It was very different from the "cold" reception of the last visit by a Vatican delegation in February, and all thanks to the Pope's help who "backed the journey all the way". This is how Card. Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, assessed the Vatican delegation's visit to Moscow.
AsiaNews interviewed him before he left the Russian capital for Rome.
Your Eminence, you were in Moscow last February. How different was this visit compared to the last one? Has there been any progress in Catholic-Orthodox relations?
My February visit was a first step. It was hard to overcome doubts, but since then we have made a great stride. The atmosphere is now more cordial and tranquil, and people are prepared to move forward. This is important for our Churches, Europe and the world. There is one reason for this. Behind the visit there was the Holy Father's will. He wanted it and was our spiritual support throughout.
What signs of progress are discernable? How do you assess them?
The meeting with His Holiness Patriarch Aleksij II was different from February's. He and I agreed to his suggestion that our delegations meet more often. The Patriarch said: "When problems arise, we must deal with them immediately; otherwise, they can grow out of proportion."
Did the Patriarch tell you that?
Yes, he did! This time he was very much interested in finding ways to solve mutual problems.
In February we had decided to set up a local joint commission to deal with issues between us. This commission met for the first time back in May in Moscow.
Does this mean that the commission will be working harder after the last meeting with the Patriarch?
Yes, it does! Although a precise date has not been announced yet, the next meeting is scheduled for late September. The Patriarch suggested that the commission work on setting up regular top-level meetings . . .
At the level of Pope and Patriarch? Of bishops . . .?
Of cardinals, metropolitans, bishops . . .
Will Russia's Catholic bishops take part in such meetings?
Of course! It's normal that local bishops and the archbishop of Moscow take part in the talks. I even suggested that, if they want, we can invite a delegation representing the Moscow Patriarchate and the Orthodox Synod to Rome to make direct contact with us and Vatican departments. However, although we talked about many things nothing was decided yet since they were not on the formal agenda.
In your opinion how will relations between the two Churches evolve?
We shall go forward. And I hope Our Lady shall help us. It was She who played the leading role at the meeting, not us. She knows how to push things forward and will help us improve our mutual relations. Indeed, the main difference between this meeting and that of February was the icon of Kazan. It touched the hearts of ordinary Russians. This visit was not just diplomacy in action and hopefully it will significantly change the situation.
Moscow Catholics complained that they were not allowed to view and pray before Our Lady of Kazan whilst Catholics in Rome did so for a whole day in St. Peter's Basilica . . .
I understand, of course! But people must realise that we had to take into consideration both sides' sensibilities. It's true that it meant a sacrifice for Russian Catholics, but I beg them to understand that there is no forgiveness and reconciliation without sacrifice. This is the life of the Church.
Your Eminence, Patriarch Aleksij and Father Chaplin, Vice-President of the department of external church relations of the Moscow Patriarchate said that they "expect concrete and meaningful steps" from the Vatican. Such steps should convince the Orthodox side of the Catholics' real intent vis-à-vis improving relations. However, no concrete detail has been provided. What can you say about it?
The commission will discuss Orthodox complaints about alleged "proselytising". We told them: "Give us concrete examples and we shall determine whether they are real or not. Only if there is demonstrable proof shall we change our ways." These are the only concrete steps we can take.
The other issue was that of the "Uniate Church". It is a difficult problem because we must all accept that the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church is free to make its own decisions. Still, the Pope stated his position on the issue quite clearly even if it was not easy to do.**
*Director of Svet Evangelia
**The reference here is to the Pope's statement concerning Ukrainian Greek-Catholics. The Holy Father said that their desire to see their Church elevated to the status of Patriarchate is legitimate but that it can happen only when Providence wills it.