08/27/2022, 11.36
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Kirill's no and what's left of dialogue

Fear that some voices in the Orthodox world in Nur-Sultan would launch accusations of "philetism," also weighed on unwillingness to meet in Kazakhstan.  But Russian culture and tradition are a universal heritage of Christendom. And when the bombs are silenced (hopefully sooner than later ) and rebuilding begins, the embrace between Francis and Kirill will be more necessary than ever.

So there will be no second historic meeting between Pope Francis and Moscow Patriarch Kirill, already postponed several times in this year of war and "madness," as the pontiff keeps repeating.

The two leaders were supposed to cross paths in Nur-Sultan, the capital of the "neutral" country of Kazakhstan, at the World Congress of Religions on Sept. 14-15, but Moscow has let it be known that Kirill will not attend the ecumenical assembly, as he had initially communicated.

The meeting could have remained only formal, sitting next to the other representatives of religions, without occupying the whole stage with a two-way conversation.

This very dimension was considered inappropriate by the Russian Orthodox, who justified the renunciation on the grounds that the new embrace, after the one in Cuba in 2016, "needs very detailed preparation," and cannot be reduced to a handshake and a group photo.

In fact, such motivation echoes the patriarchal reluctance of the first half of the 2000s, when the dialogue between Moscow and Rome had practically broken down.

At the time there was also talk of "preparations to be completed" and "problems to be solved," referring obsessively to accusations of Catholic proselytism on Russia's territories and Greek Catholic Uniatism on Ukrainian ones, which the patriarchate considered obstacles to relations with the Holy See.

The last years of John Paul II's pontificate, and all of Benedict XVI's, moreover coincided with the restoration of Orthodoxy as the "state religion" under the new Putin regime, and the expulsion of several missionaries from Russia in 2002, in retaliation for the formal establishment of four Russian Catholic dioceses, marked the freezing of relations for a long time.

The proselytizing issue was gradually resolved, after the most active Catholic bishops and priests were removed, leaving the more cautious and "diplomatic" ones in Russia. The activities of Catholics came under the scrutiny of a joint Catholic-Orthodox commission, an idea that Kirill had still proposed as "foreign" metropolitan in the early 1990s but which had not been taken up by the Vatican.

Catholic facilities in Russia have remained those open in the Yeltsin period, indeed several of them have been closed or reduced to a minimum of initiatives: educational and scholastic works have been almost completely depowered, in fact there is only one private Catholic Jesuit school in Siberian Tomsk far away, while especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg Catholics remain confined within the walls of parish buildings, at most making a few hundred meters in the street during the Corpus Christi procession.

The loyal disposition of Catholics in Russia toward the Orthodox Church and state structures has calmed the situation within the country, where there are no tensions at the local level and there is often an atmosphere of fraternal closeness, if not outright cooperation.

Latin parishes are attended by faithful of Polish, German, and Lithuanian origin, but also by many foreigners, such as Africans and South Americans living in Russia for study and work (a legacy of Soviet times), as well as Catholic Armenians who fled the Caucasian wars of the 1990s (they are that part of the mountain Armenian population that had embraced Catholicism under the protection of the French and Austrians still at the time of the genocide in the early 1900s, the so-called "Frankish Armenians," who were very active in the life of Russian Catholicism).

In 30 years, however, the Russian Catholic community has grown in awareness and maturity of faith, leaving in the background the ethnic connotations that justify its historical presence in the country.

There are still cases of Catholics active in social and political fields, or in the world of culture and information, but even here without particular friction with the national-orthodox majority that supports the Putin system. In recent days, a Catholic municipal deputy from the Moscow suburbs, liberal Konstantin Jankauskas, was fined for publishing Pope Francis' Marian prayer for peace in Ukraine on Facebook, which was considered "discrediting the armed forces."

But at the same time a far more influential Catholic deputy in the State Duma, Anatolij Vybornyj, who regularly attends Masses arriving with pomp and circumstance in his official car, also displayed in the cathedral his election posters with the Putinian Z and an inscription praising the United Russia party, "which has become a great magnet attracting people who intend to help the Russian Fatherland."

The situation regarding the "Uniates" is quite different. The Moscow Patriarchate considers them the main enemies on Orthodox "canonical territory," inspiring the Kiev Maidan revolution in 2014 and Ukrainian "neo-Nazi" ideology, recalling the collaborationist Stepan Bandera of Hitler's time, who was precisely a Greek Catholic.

The Holy See has maintained a cautious attitude toward them, making it clear that it does not support the anti-Russian excesses of a Church that is nonetheless autonomous in its own administration, as is the case with the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches.

On the other hand, the Holy Father has shown full solidarity during these six months of war with all the victims, making his closeness to the Greek Catholics felt on several occasions, starting with Major Archbishop Svjatoslav Ševčuk, whom the pope has known since his time in Argentina and who keeps in daily contact with the Holy See's bodies.

Beyond relations with Catholics and the pope himself, the patriarch's problem is his increasingly total isolation even in the Orthodox world, after completely breaking off relations with the patriarch of Constantinople over Ukrainian autocephaly, and especially after scandalizing the whole world with explicit and "metaphysical" support for Putin's war.

Many Orthodox theologians from various parts of the world accuse the Moscow Patriarchate of "philetist" heresy, as religious nationalism is called, which in this case is even projected on imperial dimensions.

From the autocephalous Church of Kiev, along with many bishops and priests, Metropolitan Epifanyj repeatedly calls on the Ecumenical Patriarchate to subject Kirill to a canonical trial to deprive him of the patriarchal seat, and it is clear that the head of the Russian Orthodox has no intention of exposing himself in contexts where someone might resonate accusations and claims against him, as could have happened even in Nur-Sultan.

After all, Kazakh President Tokaev has not been afraid to hold expansionist aims against Putin himself, who would also like to annex Kazakhstan, in an eastern parallel with Ukraine.

After the Havana meeting, Russian Catholics and Orthodox had agreed to resume active cooperation in the humanitarian and cultural fields, without dwelling on doctrinal and historical diatribes, which should be left to the past.

Now mistrusts and grudges prevail again, but it is hoped that the door of dialogue will not be closed completely: the Russian Orthodox culture and tradition are a universal heritage of the whole of Christendom, and one cannot leave these treasures at the mercy of the aims of the powerful.

If the Russians also enlist Rublev's Trinity in the regiment of fighters against the West and the entire world, this does not mean that the sacred icon loses its character as a symbol of faith for all peoples.

And above all, humanitarian cooperation will be the true dimension of relations between Christians of all denominations, and all people of good will, when the bombs and missiles are silenced-hopefully as soon as possible-and homes, squares and souls have to be rebuilt.

Then yes, a new embrace between Francis and Kirill will be needed, and no longer in neutral and distant places, but in the heart of the martyred land of Kiev, or the pacified Kremlin of Moscow, or under the blessing of St. Peter's dome.


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