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from issue no. 02 - 2004

The politic of small steps

by Gianni Valente

«Since we recognize the Orthodox Church to be true and its sacraments authentic, we cannot deliberately engage in a policy or strategy of conversion of Orthodox Christians». The words, pronounced on 18 February by Cardinal Walter Kasper in Moscow, in the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, on the occasion of the public meeting with the Catholic bishops of the Russian Federation and the Catholic clergy of the Moscow area, well express the intentions which inspired the Cardinal, head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, at the beginning of the recent “ice-breaking” visit to Russia made by him and two representatives of the Vatican Department for ecumenism (the Secretary, Monsignor Brian Farrell and Father Josef Maj). The outcome of the mission, intended to re-open dialogue between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow, was described by the German Cardinal in soberly positive terms in a broadcast from Vatican Radio: «Only in the near future we see whether the tone of the polemics calms down and whether we will achieve dialogue, collaboration. I think that it is, in any case, a first step».
Old grudges. The intensive agenda of meetings of the Vatican delegation ended on 22 February with the audience granted by the Patriarch to Cardinal Kasper and the Vatican representative to the Russian Federation, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, at the Chisty Pereulok residence. Before the confidential discussion took place, in a procedure which departed from the ritual and not agreed on with the guests, and in the presence of some journalists, Alexis I expatiated for more than a quarter of an hour, recapitulating in animated tones, the factors that in these last years have fed the recurrent ecumenical freeze between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Holy See, such as the missionary activity of the Catholics in the territory of the former Soviet Union. After these well-known complaints and Cardinal Kasper’s reply, the meeting assumed a more relaxed and constructive aspect.
A united Orthodox front. Kasper’s discussions with the heads of the Russian Church (especially the one held on 19 February with Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, responsible for the Department of Foreign Relations of the Patriarchate) also dealt with the mooted hypothesis of an imminent recognition of the rank of Patriarchate to the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Eastern rite. Over the last weeks, at the request of Alexis, the fourteen patriarchs and archbishops who lead the autonomous Orthodox Churches wrote letters full of theological and canonical arguments to demonstrate their own united opposition to the possibility. The entire dossier of letters of the Orthodox Primates, summarized also on the internet site of the Patriarchate of Moscow, was sent to Rome before Kasper’s visit began. In Moscow the Cardinal assured his interlocutors that the unanimous position of the Orthodox churches on this point «was taken into serious consideration by the highest authorities of the Catholic Church» and that «it is the desire of the Holy See to maintain and reinforce further positive relations with the Orthodox Churches», as stated in the Cardinal’s communiqué released by the Vatican Press Office on 21 February.
Concrete results. The same communiqué announces the future formation of a «joint work group composed of representatives of both the Churches» to deal with the open questions between the parties and «to formulate proposed solution». A choice agreed upon in the “working” meeting which took place between the Vatican delegation and Metropolitan Kirill. It is to be noted that already in 1999 there was an unsuccessful attempt to deal with the “Ukrainian complaints” by creating an ad hoc commission, with the involvement also of representatives of the local Greek-Catholic Church. Also in the very cordial meeting of the Vatican representatives with the Ecclesiastic Academy of the Patriarchate of Moscow the procedures were set up for concrete collaboration between Catholic and Orthodox cultural institutions on the academic and theological level, through the exchange of professors and scholarships. The Orthodox representatives also asked for support in the work of renewing the book collections of the ecclesiastic libraries, not least to expedite the removal of old texts of anti-catholic bias.
Pontifical invitation. Meanwhile in a letter written on 16 January, John Paul II replied to two recent letters in past months by the Ecumenic Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I (cf. 30Days, no.1, January 2004, p.19). In the first, dated 29 November, the Patriarch reaffirmed, on the basis of old conciliar canons, the historical and canonical prerogatives of the ancient Patriarchates of the Eastern Churches, rebutting the text sent by the Vatican to the Patriarchate of Moscow (and from there “redirected” to the heads of the other Orthodox Churches) in which texts were offered for theological discussion on the institution of the patriarchate, not least so as to check the canonical legitimacy of any eventual future recognition of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Patriarchate. Then at the beginning of January, the primus inter pares of the Orthodox Patriarchs sent another message to the Pope on fortieth anniversary of the historical meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenic Patriarch Athenagoras.
In the cordial letter of reply which spent some days on the Greek language website of the Ecumenic Patriarchate, the Pope reiterates the fact that the ministry of unity was entrusted by «Christ Himself» in an altogether particular way to the Bishop of Rome, also to resolve controversial questions such as those raised by Bartholomew in the issue of the historical-theological status of the of the Patriarchates. John Paul II recognizes that the confrontation between legitimate opinions about the life of the Church can be an expression of “love for the Bride of Christ”, as long as it does not compromise the apostolic depositum which the successors of the apostles are called on to watch over. And he concludes by inviting the Patriarch to Rome «for the feast of saints Peter and Paul, on 29 June next», to celebrate together the fortieth anniversary of the meeting between Paul VI and Athenagoras and to discuss the controversial questions.

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