09/15/2017, 12.17
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Catholic-Orthodox dialogue resumes. Moscow has a greater weight

by Vladimir Rozanskij

The Russian Orthodox return to the fore in the Joint Commission and focus on uniatism and "Primacy and Communion in the Second Millennium." Metropolitan Ioannis Zizioulas, historian of dialogue, replaced due to age limit. The fruits of the meeting at Cuba between Francis and Kirill and the visit of Card. Parolin to Moscow.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - At the end of a summer of intense contacts and visits between the representatives of the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow, the renewed understanding between Russians and Catholics seems to lead to the desired result: the resurgence of the official dialogue between Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches, which in recent years had come to a halt on numerous occasions.

The Moscow Patriarchate press office this week issued the results of the last session of the Coordinating Committee of the Mixed Commission for the Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue, which took place from September 5 to 9 in the island of Leros (Greece). Usually, the content of these sessions is not rendered public, except for those who work on it. News on progress in the dialogue is rather focused on top-level official meetings, and is circulated by co-presidents and their spokespersons. At present the Commission comprises Catholic Card. Kurt Koch, and Archbishop of Telmessos Job Getcha representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Koch chairs the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in Rome; Getcha replaced the metropolitan of Pergamon Ioannis Zizioulas, a historian of Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism and a major living orthodox theologian. Archbishop Job, also a renowned theologian, but much younger (43 years old against Zizioulas 86), is a Ukrainian-Canadian who represents the orthodox diaspora in the world.   

The stages of and obstacles to dialogue

The Commission was convened after the Second Vatican Council, with a particularly fruitful phase of work in the 1980s, producing two documents that seemed to pave the way for achieving, if not full, at least a broad mutual recognition between Rome and the Churches of Byzantine tradition, up to sacramental communion. Preceded by the Lima document of 1982 Lima on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, approved by the Faith and Constitution Commission of the World Council of Churches, the texts contained the content in the same session of the Munich Session on "The Mystery of the Church: Church and Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Most Holy Trinity ", and then complete the common agreement on" Faith, Sacraments and Church Unity "in Bari in 1987. Mutual recognition of the validity of the sacraments seemed to be one step away, an indispensable condition for healing the wounds between the Churches. The Russians were enthusiastic about the work, indeed they had been somewhat outdated, thanks to the bilateral contacts between Russian and Catholic Orthodox which started right after the end of the Council.

The fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of that decade, with the social, cultural and political consequences that followed, also led to an abrupt halt of ecumenical progress, especially on the part of the Russian Church. In the uncertainty of the post-communist "religious revival", Moscow's patriarchy became firmly rooted in the question of the sacramental intercommunion. In 1992 it returned to prohibiting Catholics scattered abroad for Russia, and lacking their own churches and priests, to communicate at Orthodox liturgies; permission was granted in 1969 as a sign of fraternal availability in times of persecution, in conjunction with the first ecumenical talks, but Moscow's patriarchy now considered it superseded.

The crisis of Uniatism and primacy

In fact, it was the problem of the "Ukrainian question" that created difficulties: since 1990, the "united" Greek Catholics had begun to recover the churches that had been taken from them in the pseudo-synod of L'vov of 1946, organized by Stalin and Chrushchev, who had been forced to join forces with Russian Orthodoxy. Moscow did not intend to hand these churches back to the uniates, or at least ask for a new balance, but the process had already started and was ungovernable, not even by the Vatican.

The Russian patriarch then called for the issue to be put on the agenda of the official dialogue, and in 1993 the Mixed Commission approved in Balamand (Lebanon) a document on "Uniatism, a method of union of the past and current search for full Communion". The condemnation of the Uniatism, however, failed to heal the situation in Ukraine, where the tension between Russian, local orthodox and Greek-Catholic orthodox has always remained high, thus constituting one of the factors of the social and military conflict of recent years .

Since 1993 the Commission has therefore been at an impasse, with the first attempt at a solution coming almost 15 years later, with the meeting of Ravenna in 2007, where the central topic of ecumenical dialogue,  was the primacy . Already John Paul II, at the end of the encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint, had stated that he wanted to revise this aspect of ecclesiastical discipline; the same intention was reiterated by his successor Benedict XVI. In his Presidency of the Council for the Unity of Christians, also Card. Walter Kasper has devoted all his energies to this theme. Ravenna's paper on "The ecclesiological and canonical consequences of the sacramental nature of the Church - ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority" remained unfortunately pending, endorsed by the Commission, but only after the Russians abandoned the work, stating that it did not consider it appropriate for discussion.

In the last decade, representatives of the Patriarchate of Moscow have in fact torpedoed every attempt to resume discussions on the matter, considering it useless and dangerous, as it would further aggravate the dissent not only between Catholics and Orthodox but also within Orthodoxy itself, extending the concept of primacy also to the East. This would have exalted the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch, "primus inter pares" among the orthodox hierarchs, at the expense of the other Patriarchs (especially of Moscow). In fact. the metropolitan Zizioulas, author of Ravenna's text, was considered by the Russians as one of the main obstacles to be removed, and his retirement is certainly one of the factors of the new turning point.

From Cuba a new beginning

Last year, the Pan-Orthodox Council was held in Crete, which should have clarified any misunderstanding between the Byzantine Churches, but the attempt failed again, as a result of the retreat of Russians, along with Bulgarians and Georgians. 2016, however, presented another great opportunity: the meeting in Cuba between Pope Francis and the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill. Since then, contacts between Russians and Catholics have intensified, not only and not so much thanks to the generic declaration of intent signed in Havana, but above all in the common organization of humanitarian actions in favor of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

Russians and Catholics exchanged  several symbolic gestures of great cultural and spiritual value last year, such as the exhibition of Russian icons in the Vatican, the interviews between historians and academics on relations between Rome and Moscow and above all the pilgrimage of the relics of Saint Nicholas to Russia this summer. To crown this new phase, was the official visit of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See, who met with Patriarch Kirill and President Putin in August, prefiguring a new phase of intense collaboration. Immediately after him, in fact, at the beginning of September, a delegation of representatives of Catholic institutes and structures involved in ecumenical relations, was received with full honors by the Patriarch and the entire Permanent Synod of Bishops, the decision-making body of the Russian Church.

The Russian Orthodox rule

In this new phase, the theme of primacy in the ancient Church appears to be definitively set aside, to move to the subject "Primacy and communion in the second millennium and to our day." The continuity with Ravenna's text is only apparent: the ancient primacy must be a common element of universal ecclesiology; instead, the second millennium presents papal pretensions and schisms, beginning with that of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople. The Russians received baptism precisely at that time, but did not participate in the schism, and may therefore arise as arbitrators between the First and the Second Rome.

In addition, as the statement issued by the Moscow Patriarchate emphasized, the Russians insisted on returning to the question of the Uniatism, resuming the Balamand paper and the other discussions of the late 1990s on the subject. The Catholic Church seemed to have closed that confrontation for years, but perhaps willingness to reopen the matter was expressed. Pope Francis many symbolic gestures which show that his desire to set aside the robes of the "primacy", have further inspired the new ecumenical turning, which seems to be dominated by Russian Orthodoxy.

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