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from issue no. 04 - 2008

The way forward in mercy of the sister Churches

The same love of Christ

by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray with Alexis II

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray with Alexis II

It is often said that I am a personal friend of Patriarch Alexis II... and it is definitely true! And to be sincere, our friendship is a very old one.
I met the Metropolitan Alexis II in Madrid, at the Escorial, at the end of April 1969. I had just become responsible for the Episcopal Conference of Europe, and he was part of the Presidency of the CEC, the Conference of the European Churches. And in that first meeting there was between the two of us, it has to be said, an exchange of current; he had great ecumenic plans, because what he wanted, like me, was a reconciliation between the Churches, and between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Russians in particular. And I can say that for forty years, almost every year, if we didn’t meet we wrote to each other, and our correspondence demonstrates that the ties between us were reinforced, without pause, and the common initiatives we undertook together have become concrete, up organizing in 1978 in Chantilly, in France, the first European meeting of the bishops of East and West.
I found in him a brother, demanding but truly affectionate, so understanding that in my relations I have never had any difficulty about speaking in a sincere way and without hiding anything, of doing what must be done in order to attract the affection of people. With open heart we have had many opportunities of common work, nearly everywhere in Europe, even if sometimes it was difficult, at the height of Communist regime.
In these recent years we have seen each other even more often.
I have made many journeys to Moscow, and have seen that in the collaborators of the by now Patriarch Alexis II the affection between us aroused astonishment, because it was not something sentimental, but two friends who find themselves in the common wish that their two Churches be reconciled again. I ask pardon, because I am forced to speak about myself, but I was the only Catholic invited to Moscow to participate in the great festivity for the fifteen years of the Patriarchate of Alexis II. I remember perfectly the words: “You are a good friend, and we have many reasons for being together”.
And then something that was for me very meaningful: only some months ago, as soon as he knew of the accident that happened to me, his telephone call reached me in the clinic where I lay in bed nearly paralyzed: the voice of Patriarch Alexis who comforted me in German and testified to all his friendly loyalty. A little time before that we saw each other in Paris, and I had done a lot to facilitate this historical journey of his: the first Russian Patriarch received officially in Paris, with President Sarkozy at his side...
Two distinct Churches but, we know it, sisters, truly sisters. It says a lot that two Churches acknowledge themselves sisters! And then the intimacy was such that we were able to pray a lot together, both in the chapel of his Moscow residence, as in mine in Marseilles. The chapel is the place of prayer where we felt closest to each other. The chapel, that is the place where God is, one same God, one same Christ. Certainly, nobody is perfect, we could reproach ourselves for many weaknesses, but the weakness itself was as if cancelled by the love of Christ itself.
What the Russian Church experienced under the Communist regime must never be forgotten. When one re-reads the history of that Church, especially from 1917, it is seen how much it suffered and that it fought in order to protect its faith, with its martyrs. Thus it has truly maintained its faith close to its faithful. In an atheist or secularized context it is not easy to live the faith, but perhaps in Russia more than elsewhere you can count on the faithful.
I pray a great deal for the Russian faithful. For their pastors, their metropolitans. It is necessary to have at heart all the Churches in their differences. The path of all is a path of truth, without doubt. But above all of mercy.

(Conversation with Giovanni Cubeddu, reviewed by the author)

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