Intense cultural exchanges between Russians and Catholics in the Vatican and in Italy
by Vladimir Rozanskij

Today an exhibition opens in Rome on "The new martyrs and confessors of the Russian Orthodox Church". In addition to theological dialogue, unity sought through solidarity with the poor and the persecuted, and mutual cultural enrichment. A formation course for priests of the Moscow Patriarchate concluded in Rome. "Pilgrimage and religious tourism" at the meeting of the Dialogue Group between the Catholic Church in Italy and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - An exhibition on "The new martyrs and confessors of the Russian Orthodox Church" opens today, May 30 in the Lateran Palace in Rome. Two delegates for culture from the Patriarchate and the Vatican will be present, Metropolitan Tikhon (Ševkunov) of Pskov and Card. Gianfranco Ravasi. The multiplication of these opportunities for meeting and dialogue is the result of intense work and the renewed climate in relations between Russian Catholics and Orthodox, born of the encounter between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in 2016.

These relations pursue two apparently "secondary" purposes, with respect to true theological dialogue: solidarity with the poor and the persecuted, and mutual cultural enrichment. The conviction of the Orthodox, shared by many Catholics, is that nothing is served by insisting on models demanding of "reunification" among the Churches,  rather it is much more fruitful to engage in the practice of charity, friendship and mutual knowledge.

These opportunities have multiplied: in recent days (19-26 May) the so-called "Third Summer Institute" was concluded, a training course for priests of the Moscow Patriarchate, held in Rome thanks to the collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, presided over by Cardinal Kurt Koch. The Russian delegation, made up of about 15 people, was led by Bishop Arsenij of Jurevsk, vicar of Nizhny Novgorod's eparchy, and represented the Department for Foreign Affairs of the Patriarchate together with the Institute of Specialization and Doctoral Research  "Cyril and Methodius", again organized by the patriarchate of Moscow.

The program of the meetings included a visit to shared Christian sanctuaries, meetings and courses on the activities of the main institutions of the Catholic Church, and meetings with various high representatives of the Roman Curia. The group was also received for a two-hour interview with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See (see photo 2).

On May 20th there was a visit to the basilica of St. Clement, where the prayer of Moleben was recited over the remains of the holy teacher of the Slavic language, the monk Constantine-Cyril, for the Catholics patron of Europe together with his brother Methodius. Next year 2019 will mark 1150 years since the death of the two brothers considered "equal to the apostles".

On May 23, the group attended Pope Francis' general audience in St. Peter’s Square, greeting the pontiff at the conclusion (see photo 1). The Pope himself underlined the importance of dialogue among Christians, exchanging gifts with his Russian guests. The next day, Bishop Arsenij presided over the solemn liturgy in honour of Cyril and Methodius along with the whole delegation and the faithful of the church of St. Catherine Martyr, the Russian Orthodox church built on the slopes of the Janiculum Hill. The next "Summer Institute" foresees a similar trip to Russia for the selected representatives of the Catholic Church, in the autumn of 2018.

After the conclusion of the course for priests, the session of the Group of bilateral dialogue between the Catholic Church in Italy and the Russian Orthodox Church was held, on the theme "Pilgrimage and religious tourism".  This meeting was also attended by a large delegation of the Moscow Patriarchate, led by Metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeev), head of the Department for Foreign Affairs, together with Bishop Antonij of Vienna and Budapest, who heads the office in charge of the Russian Churches' structures abroad and various other members of various patriarchate organs. On the Catholic side, the group was led by the Secretary of the Conference of Italian Bishops (CEI), Msgr. Nunzio Galantino, together with the bishop delegated for ecumenism, Msgr. Ambrogio Spreafico and other members of Italian institutions engaged in dialogue with the Orthodox and Russia.

Archbishop Galantino underlined the importance of pilgrimages between the two countries, to enhance the traditional friendship between Italians and Russians. Metropolitan Ilarion also recalled the great history of cultural relations between Russia and Italy, rooted precisely in fidelity to Christian values. He insisted on the importance of the pilgrimage to Rome, and the visit to his very important universal Christian sanctuaries. The head of foreign affairs of the Russian Church also wanted to highlight the importance of common attention to the suffering of Christians persecuted in the Middle East, and to the destruction of their ancient sanctuaries, which require the unified action of all the Churches not to be left behind in ruins.

The Russian-Italian dialogue meeting included in the context of the Forum for Dialogue between the civil societies of Russia and Italy, an initiative designed by President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2004, which gave rise to several events in the course of these years. In 2013, a Working Group between the Churches of the two countries was establsihed, whose first working session took place in February 2017 on the theme "Lay and religious art as a tool for strengthening consensus and mutual understanding between the peoples ".