02/19/2004, 00.00
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Rome and Moscow: advances and disappointments in building relations

by Vladimir Rozanskij
Russian Orthodoxy seems to prefer conflict to unity with Rome. Cardinal Kasper's visit to Moscow marks the end of large-scale ecumenical projects. Below we report the analysis of an expert on contemporary Russia.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Cardinal Kasper's visit to Moscow this week signifies a decisive turn in relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches. Such relations over the last 15 years have changed from once being naïvely optimistic to now being bitterly disappointing.   

For the first time no concrete objective is on the discussion table during talks scheduled with the Catholic cardinal and his Orthodox counterpart, Metropolitan Kirill.  

As for the rest, with language more adapted to politics than to inter-Christian relations, Moscow has been quick to point out that such talks are "unofficial". Above all, the possibility of a papal trip to Russia is not even implied –the dream of every Vatican diplomat traveling east since the fall of the iron curtain. 

This is how today's reality is spelled out between the Holy See and its relations with the Patriarchate of Moscow. As Kasper himself stated quite clearly during a sermon delivered yesterday to Catholics gathering at Moscow's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception: "We are not getting our hopes up."

Kasper is convinced that "even small steps can be made in the right direction, like exchanging friendly greetings, gestures of friendship, showing a smiling face, offering prayers for forgiveness for one's mistakes, helping others in need –all this can produce miracles."

Yet he also admits coming to Moscow particularly to encourage Catholic faithful, who have been severely repressed in recent years based on charges of "proselytism" brought forward by Orthodox Church members. 

 "The fact that I am here in Russia, in this very Cathedral, for the fourth time is proof of my esteem and affection for you and all Catholics in Moscow and Russia," he said during his homily. "It proves that you and your small flock have not been forgotten. You belong to the vast communion of Christ's Church found throughout the world." 

Just like during Soviet times

For some years now Russian Catholics have began experiencing the same tensions felt during the Soviet period when simply being Catholic meant problems at work, school and with neighbors.

Cardinal Kasper is quite aware that Catholics themselves may be partly responsible for this climate of hostility and gently warned faithful: "We must be careful. The Lord's Prayer doesn't say 'My Father' but rather 'Our Father'. We share one Father, one that loves not just me, but also my neighbor, who allows the sun to shine for both good and evil people, over Russia and Poland, for Catholics, Greek-Rite Catholics, Orthodox and Evangelical Christians alike. There is one single Father for Christians and Muslims. We are all part of a large family under one heavenly Father."  

In Kasper's words we understand the spirit which pervades not only the top rungs of the Vatican hierarchy –starting with John Paul II himself –and all those who take to heart building relations with Russia and the Orthodox Church.

Until now, two stances have been taken in various ways by the Catholic Church: one being a hard-line approach and the other being definitely more open to dialog. Yet both approaches have hit the impenetrable hard wall of the Orthodox opposition. No one bothers to fool himself any longer about finding a solution to "problems" impeding the normalization of relations, in that there in an effective lack of will to find an answer.    

Making relations difficult are not in fact the proselyte activism of some Polish priests or the big dreams of some Ukrainian Uniates. Such issues, which are also of historical-cultural significance, can be in reality considered secondary or even marginal, since Russian Catholics form a tiny minority and have no chance of "conquering" the Orthodox. And Unites, deep down, represent a problem from another country.     

Nor are the problems at hand linked to the persons involved. John Paul II has known quite well how to overcome other obstacles of his pontificate. He went to pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; he even visited Muslim mosques, not to mention his participation at the "Assisi meetings". Church officials who have paid witness to Moscow relations (e.g. Cardinals Cassidy and Kasper and the papal nuncios Colasuonno, Bukovsky, Zur and Mennini) have used all possible diplomatic prudence and care to build relations with Moscow (which often proved insufficient).

Even the Orthodox Church has shown no signs of "personal" barriers. Patriarch Alexy II and Metropolitan Kirill are, among Orthodox hierarchy, the most accustomed to ecumenical relations attempted since the days of Breznev. Such is the case that it is uncertain whether any of their successors will make improvements in this field. If Bartholomew, the patriarch of Constantinople (despite being one of the most transparent super partes personalities in the ecumenical movement) pronounces anathemas and threatens an end to dialog between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, then it is clear that we are dealing with something much more than a contentious local issue over the number of churches and faithful to be divvyed up.


Orthodoxy: a "third alternative"

The truth is that today, generally speaking from global perspective, Orthodox need show their opposition in order to be noticed –especially the Russian Orthodox. The Russian philosopher Solov'ev used to say that when Russian Orthodoxy is involved in social competition it becomes the "antechamber of Islam" in that that its Christian message is emptied of its concern for man's freedom, for him playing a leading role in history.     

Orthodoxy tries to wedge itself right between Protestant-Catholic "Western Christianity" and the world's eastern religions, beginning right with Islam, in order to justify itself as a "third alternative". Being neither eastern nor western, it rises up to call itself "the superior religion" of the third millennium.

This is certainly the psychological makeup of Russian Orthodoxy, determined largely by post-communist social and political changes. Thanks to its dominating position in terms of numbers and geography, Russian Orthodoxy drags the rest of the Orthodox world with itself (even if not entirely).

It is still not a given that such a prospect will be successful, but the impression now is that there is now way of stopping it. It is forging the course of history not only in terms of ecumenical dialog, but also in terms of world politics.  

It is not about "getting through the long night" while waiting for Orthodox to lighten their demands, or finding perhaps some magic form of diplomacy to make the sun shine bright again over the two "Sister Churches". Nor should one think it is  a matter of waiting for a generational change to occur among popes and patriarchs, cardinals and metropolitans: the Orthodox do not want reconciliation with Catholics, they see  who no advantage in it and hope for the contrary in a "new era" of Eastern Christianity.   

Catholics now see it as virtually useless to pursue the Orthodox Church, while on the other had relations with Protestants seem to get ever simpler. There are no more vain hopes, as Cardinal Kasper puts it: when history passes you up, stick close to your own and hope that the others don't come to destroy you. The rest –as any simple believer, whether Catholic or Orthodox, knows all too well –is up to God. 
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