ORTHODOX. How to restart discussions between the Patriarchate of Moscow and Rome
An interview with Kirill, Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad: “Today, despite the unchanged position of the Russian Orthodox Church, our relations have gone back to the period prior to the Vatican II Council. There’s nothing to do but hope, beg and work so that the good things already achieved in our relations don’t become a thing of the distant future”
by Gianni Valente
On the barometer of relations between Rome and Moscow the needle seems stuck on frost and storm. In the first half of 2003 new differences have again thickened the wall of dissatisfaction that has risen over the last ten years between the Holy See and the Patriarchate that heads the numerically and politically most important Church in Orthodoxy. And in the most recent arguments, with the Patriarch Aleksij II afflicted by lasting problems of health, a leading role has been taken from the Department for External Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow. From there have come broadsides aimed at the Vatican’s recent “Russian policy”. Such as the two notes published at the same time last 19 May to protest against the institution of two new Catholic dioceses in Kazakhstan and to manifest its niet on the rumors, described as «stupefying», of a possible stay by the Pope on Russian territory, during the possible trip to Mongolia to give back to the Orthodox Church the copy of the icon of Kazan kept in the papal apartments.
Kirill Gundjaev, Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad
Kirill Gundjaev, Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, is the deus ex machina of the influential department of the Orthodox Church. He performs his role with great ability, weaving relationships throughout the world and conceiving all the initiatives of public consequence introduced by the Orthodox Patriarchate.
In the interview that follows, many replies give a sense of the blind alley in which ecumenical dialogue has been stuck over recent years. But between the lines there are hints of new aspects (for example the explicitly positive reception toward the new Vatican representative in Russia) that could change the scenario in the not distant future.
In the arguments following the setting up of Catholic dioceses on Russian territory, already last year, the Catholics also brought up the issue of the civil rights and of the freedom of self-administration that a democratic system must guarantee to the various religious communities. How do you view the recourse to similar legal matters in relations between sister Churches?
KIRILL: I don’t hide the fact that such reasoning on the Catholic part has aroused and continues to arouse perplexity on our side. How do legal rules come in when we are speaking of dialogue between the Churches, or more exactly of negation of the principles of dialogue? The fact that Vatican takes a decision to set up its own diocese on our territory, where the Orthodox are the confessional majority, without any consultation with the Russian Orthodox Church, forces us to doubt the real dedication of Rome to the idea of the bettering of inter-ecclesial relations. After betraying such incapacity for relations with the “sister Church”, any talk on the “legal aspect” of the problem or on “human rights” seems a mystification, an attempt to derail discussion.
I am deeply convinced that our Churches must conduct an open and honest dialogue. And there is no doubt that every community of believers has the right to set itself up freely in accord with the civil laws of the one or the other country. But our impression when Catholic dioceses are set up is profoundly different than we get when Buddhist, Moslem or Protestant communities are set up. The Vatican itself has declared many times that it considers the Orthodox Church as a “sister”, with whom it has the intention of collaborating and not of competing. This, according to the interpretation of the Protocol signed by the representatives of the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow during the bilateral negotiations of Geneva in 1992, means that the more important decisions, that touch the interests of the Orthodox and of the Catholics, are to be taken after mutual consultation. Not long ago the Vatican created two new dioceses in Kazakhstan, one of which is a central archdiocese, which means in fact the formation in this country of a centralized ecclesiastical structure parallel to the analogous structure of the Patriarchate of Moscow. Vatican leaders should have foreseen a negative reaction from the Orthodox, yet there was no consultation with us on the matter, like what happened last year for the dioceses set up in Russia.
Bishop Jerzy Mazur, expelled from Russia after the arguments over the new Catholic dioceses, has been appointed to lead a diocese in Poland. For more than a year the Holy See had insisted that he be allowed to return to his diocese in Siberia. Isn’t his transfer to Poland a sign perhaps that the Holy See wants to put aside the recent differences with the Russian Church?
KIRILL: The question of the issue of visas to foreign citizens by the Russian authorities is absolutely unconnected with the Orthodox-Catholic problem and thence cannot become matter of discussion between our Churches. The Russian Orthodox Church made no move whatsoever for depriving the Catholic priests of visas. As far as I know, these are problems that some single individuals have with Russian law. We believe that the transfer of Bishop Jerzy Mazur from one see to another is an internal affair of the Vatican that has nothing to do with relations between the two Churches.
In recent months the possibility has again been mooted that the Pope recognize to the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church the rank of Patriarchate. What do you think of the possibility?
KIRILL: Obviously we are well informed about the plans of the Greek-Catholics, in so far as they are openly broadcast. Furthermore the Greek-Catholics already speak of their head, Cardinal Husar, as “patriarch” in their rites. Let me immediately say that the Russian Orthodox Church is absolutely contrary to these plans. The overwhelming majority of believers in the Ukraine belongs to our Church. The Greek-Catholics in this country represent only a confessional minority. They live mostly in three regions of the Ukraine, those of Leopolis, Ternopol and Ivano-Frankivsk. So it’s hard to understand why the leadership of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church intends to move to Kiev, in the Orthodox east of the Ukraine, where there are no or very few Greek-Catholics. Because of its strictly local character, the Greek-Catholic Church cannot claim the status of Ukrainian national Church.
The desire of the Greek-Catholics to have a patriarch in the Ukraine causes similar perplexity. Ukraine is a prevalently Orthodox country, hence it already has a patriarch who is the historical heir to the head of the Church of Kiev: he is the Patriarch of Moscow and of all the Russias. So the question arises as to the purpose of creating in the Ukraine a self-appointed parallel patriarchate; we see in these plans the intention of the Greek-Catholics to present themselves as a kind of “national” Church, hence as alternative to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Something that contradicts the spirit of the relations proclaimed by the Vatican towards the Orthodox Church understood as “sister”. The inevitable result of such a step would be a catastrophic worsening in the relations between our two Churches.
In setting up their own patriarchate in Kiev, where the “baptism of the Rus” occurred in 988, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics would see the confirmation of their own continuity with that “first see” of Christianity in Eastern Europe from which the Patriarchate of Moscow also claims its own historical and canonical legitimacy. Which consequences would this case of contested inheritance result in?
KIRILL: I’m convinced that that is the real purpose of the present efforts of the Greek-Catholics: the expansionist nature of their plans is obvious. That nature is also confirmed by the continual attempts to establish the eastern united Church in the western and southern regions of the Ukraine, as also in Russia and in Kazakhstan, often using for the purpose already compromised Orthodox proselytes.
In general, it seems that the Ukrainian Uniatists aren’t much concerned that their pretensions have no historical basis. The sole heir to the historical see of Kiev is the Patriarchate of Moscow. According to the decision of the Patriarch of Constantinople Jeremiah II, later backed by the other Patriarchs of the East, the Russian Church received the new status of Patriarchate in 1589, and its head received the title of Patriarch of Moscow and all the Russias. The term “of all the Russias” entails jurisdiction over the territory of the actual Ukraine and of Bielorussia. I remember that the Union of Brest, that some west Russian bishops concluded in arbitrary fashion with Rome, took place in 1596, seven years after the event mentioned above.
After it was signed, the Union was viewed in an extremely negative way by the majority of the priests and believers of western Russia. From the beginning it was of a local nature and was imposed with crude violence. No Greek-Catholic bishop ever had a title parallel to the title of the Patriarch, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The apparition of this parallelism in the 21st century is absolutely incomprehensible. It can be understood only as an attempt of revive the ecclesiology of the time of the Crusades, when, as is known, Catholic patriarchies parallel to the Orthodox ones were founded in the East.
Are there Catholic circles and individual churchmen who seem to you particularly prejudiced toward the Russian Orthodox Church?
Monsignor Antonio Mennini, representative of the Holy See to the Russian Federation, greeting Patriarch Aleksij II, 20 February 2003
KIRILL: I don’t so much want to speak about those who are destroying our relations as to stress that many hierarchs, theologians and Catholic priests suffer as we do for what has happened and remain, despite everything, loyal to the line of Vatican Council II.
Both you and the Patriarch have received the new representative of the Holy See to the Russian Federation Antonio Mennini, something that did not happen to his immediate predecessors. What is your assessment of the first months of his mission?
KIRILL: The recently appointed representative of the Holy See to the Russian Federation, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, proclaimed from the outset his dedication to the cause of bettering the relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church. We would very much like to trust in the sincerity of his declarations, hoping that does the possible, in so far as it depends on him, to change the situation for the better.
In recent times, various Russians and even foreign political figures, such as the Italian President of the Council Silvio Berlusconi, have stated a wish to encourage reconciliation between the Patriarchate of Moscow and Holy See. What do you think of such offers of “mediation” coming from the world of politics?
KIRILL: Judging not on the basis of the rumors, widely spread by the press in recent times, but beginning from the real declarations, it’s to be noticed that the representatives of the Russian authorities leave to the Churches the responsibility for resolving their misunderstandings between themselves. I think the situation is similar in Italy also. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church are not representatives of two countries in collision. We have perfectly adequate channels for our relations, that at official level have never been broken off. When, however, it’s a matter of fulfilling mutual obligations, we unfortunately see that our Catholic counterpart employs a twin track policy: they say one thing but in practice they make something entirely different of it. It seems to me that a positive solution of the existing problems doesn’t depend on letting one or the other state structures take part to the negotiation process, but rather in the sincere wish of the Catholic side to overcome existing problems.
The representatives of the Patriarchate of Moscow at the last moment cancelled their participation in the symposium on the primacy of the successor of Peter, organized in Rome last May by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. What way of exercising the Petrine primacy might favor unity between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches?
KIRILL: It was planned at the start that our representatives would also take part in the symposium, but after the Vatican announced on 17 May the creation of new diocese in Kazakhstan, without having consulted the Orthodox Russian Church, the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church took the decision to abstain from the forum. We could not allow the illusion of “good relations” when serious damage is being inflicted on those relations.
The actions of the heads of the Roman-Catholic Church caused pain and deep disappointment in the Orthodox flock of our Church. And the role of the Pontiff, in my opinion, should consist of the ability to heal these wounds in dynamic fashion. Efforts must be made to show our faithful that the Vatican is not an enemy, and that its appeals for dialogue are sincere.
Preventive consultation with the Russian Orthodox Church are necessary before taking decisions linked with changes in the administrative status of Catholic structures in all the countries of the CSI. There needs to be control on the activities of the religious orders in those countries, so that their presence matches real pastoral needs. The practice of conscripting children and adolescences baptized in Orthodoxy into Catholic organizations, in hostels or other structures where they are made to participate in Catholic religious functions, in communion, in spiritual help from Catholic clergy, is inadmissible. A robust stand is absolutely necessary by the Vatican on expansion of the mission of the Greek-Catholics into central and eastern Ukraine, regions where the Greek-Catholic Church has never existed, even less so in Russia and Kazakhstan.
Finally there must be guarantee of the rights of the faithful of the Canonical Orthodox Church in the western Ukraine, even if to do so requires a firm stance against the views of the Russophobe nationalist politicians and schismatic pseudo-Orthodox. Those would be concrete footsteps, after which it would be possible to assess the real intentions of the Vatican to thaw the ice that has spread, not by our fault, in the sphere of Orthodox-Catholic relations.
In the recent encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia the Pope has stated that in particular circumstances it is licit to administer the eucharistic sacrament to Orthodox believers in Catholic ceremonies and vice versa (eucharistic hospitality). What do you think of this recognition of the substantial unity between Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches in the essential things of the faith?
KIRILL: In the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia there effectively are affirmations according to which, in situations of particular necessity, it is allowed to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist and that of penance to people not in full communion with the Roman-Catholic Church. The same idea is also to be found in the encyclical Ut unum sint, and earlier still similar principles were set out at the Vatican II Council. The encyclical doesn’t put the accent on the mutual hospitality of Catholics and Orthodox, it speaks generically of «Churches or ecclesial communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church» (4, 45). That in no way means recognition of the fullness and validity of the sacraments in the non-Catholic ecclesial communities. The authentic sacrament of the Eucharist, according to the traditional Catholic presentation, occurs only in those communities that are in sacramental communion with the Roman See. The Eucharist itself is thought of as the sacrament of communion with the successor of the apostle Peter, as stated in the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia. So I wouldn’t speak of real progress in the doctrinal sphere as regards the Orthodox Church. The recent encyclical confirms Catholic conceptions of the “secondary” nature of ecclesiality in Orthodoxy.
Certainly, in the ’sixties and ’eighties of the 20th century we came a long way together, and it enabled us to make the most of the positive elements safeguarded in each of our differing ecclesial traditions, and in particular the diverse jurisdictions in pastoral care according to the respective territories. Today, despite the unchanged position of the Russian Orthodox Church, our relations have gone back to the period prior to the Vatican II Council. There’s nothing to do but hope, beg and work so that the good things already achieved in our relations don’t become a thing of the distant future.