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March 29, 2007
Signs of a Thaw in the East?
For more than 900 years, Catholics and Orthodox have been separated. Are there signs that the two great traditions could draw closer together?
By Dr. Robert Moynihan
In 1054 -- nearly 1,000 years ago -- the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope of Rome excommunicated each other. This effectively divided Europe into two parts, the Latin (Catholic) West and the Greek (Orthodox) East.
The two Churches are still divided today.
But Pope John Paul II, and now Benedict XVI, have made it very clear that bringing the two Churches closer together is very high on the agenda of the Holy See.
In 1917, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children at Fatima, Portugal, she disclosed a secret: that "in the end" Russia would be "converted" and "a period of peace" would be granted to the world.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union (on Christmas Day) in 1991. But the 15 years since have not seen the "conversion" of Russia.
Still, there are many signs that the Orthodox are seeking better relations with Rome. Let me mention a few.
Sign #1: Jean-Francois Thiry, a Catholic theologian from Belgium who lives in Moscow, heads a small publishing house which publishes Catholic books in Russian in cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. He is part of the working group for problems between the Moscow Patriarchate and Catholic Church. On January 26, the group met in the Moscow Patriarchate's Pilgrim Center. After the meeting, Thiry said the atmosphere in the relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is "improving."
Sign #2: From September 18 to 25 in Belgrade, Serbia, 60 ecumenical experts met to initiate what Pope Benedict XVI has described as a "new phase in dialogue." Theologians from 10 Orthodox churches, including the Russian Orthodox Church, attended. There was a dispute. Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria protested against the use of voting instead of consensus. But the meeting did not break down, and another meeting was scheduled for Ravenna, Italy, later this year.
Sign #3: The election of this Pope, Benedict XVI. Many of the Orthodox dialogue experts know him, have read his works and trust him as a theologian. Some Orthodox, for historical reasons, viewed Pope John Paul's Polish background as an obstacle.
Sign #4: The shared reaction to the film The Da Vinci Code. Father Igor Vyzhanov, a Russian Orthodox priest who serves in the Moscow Patriarchate, said: "This is a book that offends Christians. All over the world, we are seeing propaganda for this work. What is this? We (Russian Orthodox) and the Catholics have the same view of such things. Nobody has the right to offend belief. There is freedom, but not freedom to slander others."
Sign #5: Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign department, met in Rome on May 18, 2006, with the Pope. After meeting Benedict, he told journalists that Orthodox and Catholic believers need to work together "to preserve Christianity in Europe."
Sign #6: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's book Introduction to Christianity has been published in Russian for the first time. The book, written in 1968 by the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI, includes a foreword by Kirill.
Sign #7: The Catholic Archbishop of Moscow, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, head of the Diocese of the Mother of God in Moscow, says he is certain problems in the Orthodox-Catholic relationship will be overcome. In a November letter to Metropolitan Kirill, he said: "The respect for the little flock of Russian Catholics that you displayed during our recent private conversation strengthens my confidence that the misunderstandings and problems existing in our relations will be resolved."
Sign #8: From May 2 to 6, 2006, in Vienna, Austria, the conference "To Give a Soul to Europe" brought 60 leading Catholic and Russian Orthodox leaders together, including Cardinals Schoenborn of Vienna, Policarpo of Lisbon and Poupard of the Vatican curia. This remarkable gathering revealed a hope for Europe’s future the two Churches share.
Still, deep-seated suspicions of the Vatican still linger in influential quarters of the Russian Orthodox Church clergy and among the faithful. And that is why the last sign is so important.
Sign #9: Bishop Alfeyev, so critical of the proceedings at Belgrade, has now proposed to bring a great Russian orchestra and choir to Rome on March 29 to perform a work of music he has composed on "The Passion According to St. Matthew."
The concert will first be performed in Moscow on March 27, in the presence of Patriarch Alexi II. Then the musicians, conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev, Russia’s most distinguished conductor, will fly to Rome to perform the concert a second time.
If one of the most critical of the Russian Orthodox bishops wants to bring his music to Rome just before Easter -- celebrated this year on the same Sunday in both Churches -- may a spiritual awakening be occurring in Russia which will have incalculable consequences?
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