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from issue no. 04 - 2008

KASPER. The relationship between the Church of Rome and the Russian Orthodox Church

“Patience is the small daughter of hope”


An interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity: “Hope for us Christians is the great Easter gift; that is why for Christians hope is not something utopian but the consequence of the reality of the Resurrection. In the Bible hope is always connected with patience also. Patience is the small daughter of hope”


Interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper by Giovanni Cubeddu


The Patriarcarch of Moscow Alexis II with Cardinal Walter Kasper, in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Kremlin, Moscow

The Patriarcarch of Moscow Alexis II with Cardinal Walter Kasper, in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Kremlin, Moscow

Eminence, at what point are we on the road that joins Moscow and Rome?
WALTER KASPER: One cannot speak of the actual relationship between the Patriarchy of Moscow and the Catholic Church without recalling our long common history, because at bottom, even though not in full communion, we are a single Church. We share the same sacraments, the same episcopate and recognize also all the sacraments of the Orthodox. Already before the Revolution, in Mogilev, in Russia there was an archbishopric and it cannot be forgotten that the Empress Catherine received the Jesuits sidelined by the Catholic Church. The 1917 Revolution caused a great tragedy for the Church, both for the Orthodox and the Catholic one, but it bequeathed us the courageous witness of many martyrs. It had been hoped that after the collapse of Communism a new history would begin but, the emergence from of catacombs by the Greek Catholic Church in the Ukraine, that had undergone great suffering, unfortunately created new misunderstandings. The document of the Papal Commission “Pro Russia” of 1992 clarified however that the Catholic Church did not want to engage in proselytism in Russia but simply to maintain a pastoral care of the local faithful in full collaboration with the Patriarchate of Moscow. That also in consequence of the document of Balamand of 1993, that clearly judged Uniatism, understood as a method, to be a fact of the past, and not useful either today or in the future for the reconciliation of the Churches. Something very important.
Up to now we have overcome many of the problems that presented themselves on lines of principle and, in order to discuss single concrete obstacles that present themselves gradually, we have instituted in Moscow a mixed commission, that has achieved good results. So in the meantime we have succeeded in re-establishing a dialogue with the Orthodox Churches all together and we are very pleased that the Russian Orthodox Church participates in it because, in our opinion, she is an important partner. Currently there are intra-Orthodox problems, between Constantinople and Moscow, regarding acknowledgment of the Church in Estonia, but they are issues in which we prefer not to take part, though insisting that they find the compromises that allow this dialogue to continue that is so important for the future of the Orthodox Church and for ours. In the globalized world it is no longer possible to have to witness controversies between the Churches. Because of this it is necessary to undertake – and we have begun to do so – a course of reconciliation, where the schism between East and West has set going a long process of separation. It is fundamental that there be a theological dialogue between the two Churches and I have the impression that we are on the right path. I don’t expect that full unity between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches will be achieved by tomorrow. It will be a long process, because an exchange at the top is not sufficient but it is fundamental that the people are involved also, and this takes time.
In his talk with 30Days His Holiness Patriarch Alexis II also mentioned a “grassroots” dialogue that gives reason for hope and is to be developed.
KASPER: Certainly, it is what has to do with practical collaboration in the field of ethical values, of social justice, human rights, the confrontation with secularism and the process of secularization that is investing Europe. On these points the two Churches have almost identical conceptions, and therefore they can and want to collaborate. The first steps have been completed, and we can approach each other further and get to know each other better, so as to overcome some of the greater obstacles, present on both sides: the prejudices, that can be overcome thanks only to personal encounters. Therefore the Patriarchate of Moscow has meritoriously begun to take up relationships with the local Catholic Churches of Milan, Paris, Vienna and others still. All this helps us to know and to appreciate each other better.
Another element is our Committee for Collaboration with the Orthodox Churches, through which we grant scholarships to young priests – on indications of the patriarch or the local bishop – to allow them to study in Rome or in various other Catholic universities for some years so that they can get to know our Church. Here the young people learn a Western language and, once returned to their own country, they usually succeed in occupying important positions, having received better training. This exchange of students will certainly be continued. We also look after the translation of many theological texts in Cyrillic, and this also helps us to understand each other better.
I would also like to mention that some beautiful friendships were already developed in the past! For example that between the Patriarch of Moscow and Cardinal Etchegaray, born well before the fall of the Soviet Union. It must be added that the relations between the CEC (Conference of European Churches) and the CCEE (Consilium Conferentiarium Episcoporum Europae) consolidate themselves more and more, and today we are in cordial relations also with the Department for Foreign Relations of the Russian Patriarchate, directed by the Metropolitan Kirill. These are the different tributaries that we hope will one day flow into the great river of the re-establishing of a full communion between the Churches.
And how do you imagine that moment?
KASPER: A full union doesn’t mean uniformist unity. The Orthodox tradition and the Latin one have at bottom the same faith but different expressions, and this diversity is also richness. Therefore nobody thinks to impose the Latin system on the Orthodox Churches or viceversa. It will perhaps be the Spirit of God to grant us this unity, but it will be a unity in pluriformity, a pluriformity in unity. At that point the next knot will be the issue of the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome, a problem that cannot be solved overnight. Long discussions will be needed, already underway in our meetings in Belgrade and Ravenna, and we will see how it will end...
I am not superficially optimistic. Hope sustains me. Because unity is for us a commandment of Our Lord, who promised that every prayer in His name will be heard. Because of this we hope in the help of God and the Holy Spirit.
Looking at the dialogue with the Orthodox, what, so far, is the most visible and mutually favorable result of the distance covered?
KASPER: According to me, looking at the two Churches, during the past century a patristic renewal has taken place, on both sides. We know the Latin Fathers better, while the Orthodox concentrate mainly on the Greek Fathers, which their tradition, as rich as ours, draws on. Because of this, we can learn a lot from the Greek patrology as they from the Latin one. Eastern patrology has a great sensibility for the Mystery of God, while the Western sensibility is more scholastic, more conceptual. Also their liturgical wealth is a great patrimony, and for me it is always a moving experience to participate in the Orthodox liturgies, either in Russia or elsewhere.
So, we can learn from one another. For example, the deep-rooted Eastern conception of the koinonìa, of the communio as structure of the Church – in Russia “Sobornost” – could be useful also to us. Certainly, we also know the concept of communio but in the past sometimes we limited ourselves to emphasizing unilaterally the aspect of the primacy, which for us is fundamental. On the other hand, primacy and koinonìa, primacy and collegiality, are not contradictory but complementary and are in a certain dialectic between themselves. The Church is not a system closed in upon itself but open, therefore the presence of these two “poles” in the Church is important. I think that we have already learned a lot – from their conception of koinonìa – and that there is much still to learn. Another aspect connected to this is the very beautiful and lively idea of the Eucharistic ecclesiology. Already in the preparatory discussions to Vatican Council II Afanasiev, considered the father of this ecclesiology, is cited. And so, during the Council, his influence was greatly felt, and this theology, strengthened above all after the Council, is now a point of encounter and of reference between our Church and the Russian Orthodox one. The Eucharistic ecclesiology affirms that where the Eucharist is celebrated there is the Church, not a part of the Church, but the Church of Jesus Christ. This is a very important point, that should be examined in depth by both sides.
The Pantocrator, Andrei Rublëv, from Deesis of Zvenigorod, Tret’jakov gallery, Moscow

The Pantocrator, Andrei Rublëv, from Deesis of Zvenigorod, Tret’jakov gallery, Moscow

Canon 34 of the Canoni apostolici remains central in the fraternal confrontation with the Orthodox.
KASPER: Canon 34 is most important because it asserts that a protos, a primate, must always act and decide in communion with the other bishops, and viceversa. To apply this canon, also at a universal level, is I believe one of the ways possible in order to obtain a solution to the question of the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. Because to all the Orthodox Churches it is clear that the Bishop of Rome is the first of the bishops, but there must be agreement about what it concretely means to be the first at universal level. We are only at the beginning of this discussion. We laid a certain foundation at the last meeting in Ravenna, in October 2007, but the discourse is still open. As I have said, nobody thinks to impose the Latin system on the Orthodox Churches, but we hope perhaps that in the wake of this canon perhaps one day, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, a solution can be found, that respects the essential elements of the two Churches.
You once spoke about the “realism of hope”.
KASPER: Hope for us Christians is the great Paschal gift; because of this, hope for Christians is not something utopian but the consequence of the truth of the Resurrection. Hope in the Bible is always connected to patience also. Patience is the small daughter of hope. But time is needed, things must mature. We must take the steps that are already possible today with courage, continuing however to respect those who, above all in the Russian Orthodox Church, remain suspicious with regard to “ecumenism”, considered a negative expression. Enough to advance with caution, and hopefully with courage, because the worldwide situation is such as to render constant the desire of a common voice of the Church and that all Christians can participate in the same chalice.
How will the theological dialogue continue?
KASPER: It’s necessary to start from an exact concept of dialogue, that does not mean either indifference and relativism nor the imposition of one’s own position on the other. Dialogue presupposes reciprocity, also respect for the otherness of the other. On these bases dialogue is not only an exchange of ideas but of gifts; through dialogue we can enrich ourselves in turn and grow in our own faith. The dogmas, that are binding for our Churches, leave space for such a conception of dialogue. Because the dogmas, at bottom, are a doxology towards God. In the first place for the Orthodox Churches dogma is not only a conceptualization of the Gospel. The Gospel is also a mystery that cannot be completely conceptualized. Saint Thomas Aquinas defines dogma as a perceptio of the divine truth that shows God beyond itself, and that is turned towards God. Dogma recognizes that God is always greater than our concepts, therefore we sing the Credo during the mass. A conceptual system cannot be sung, instead we sing the Credo. Which means that it is not a conceptual system, but a prayer, of praise towards God. Praise that opens up to Mystery.


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