By Peter Anderson

Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, venerate the icon of the Mother of God of Kazan (Aug. 28, 2004 – CNS photo from Reuters)

Anyone who has worked extensively in the field of ecumenical relations knows that the road to Christian unity is not smooth. There is progress, and then there are setbacks. There are moments of joy, and then there are disappointments. If one were to graph progress in ecumenical relations, it would not be a straight line but rather peaks and valleys which hopefully gradually ascend. This has been especially true of relations between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church (also referred to as the “Moscow Patriarchate,” as it is under the authority of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia).

The Catholic Church’s involvement in ecumenism had its beginning at the Second Vatican Council. Orthodox and Protestant Churches were invited to send observers to the Council. Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) was an observer for the Moscow Patriarchate and developed a love of the Catholic Church. In 1969, he wrote a 656-page dissertation on “John XXIII, Bringer of Christian Unity.” Metropolitan Nikodim attended the installation of Pope John Paul I in September 1978 and died in the arms of this Pope when being received by the latter in his study. During the time of Nikodim, there were excellent relations between the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate.

With the fall of Communism beginning in 1989, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church arose from the catacombs and began claiming its churches that had been given to the Orthodox by the Communist government. This created great tensions between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Catholic Church. In April 1991, Pope John Paul II appointed two Catholic bishops for Russia, and in February 2002 established four Catholic dioceses in the Russian Federation. Both of these actions brought strong protests by the Moscow Patriarchate which considered Russia to be its exclusive canonical territory. Tensions were further increased by the desire of Pope John Paul II to make a personal visit to Russia to return his beloved Kazan icon of the Blessed Mother.

The year 2004 saw a turning point in the relations between the two Churches. The Kazan icon was given by Pope John Paul II to Russian Patriarch Alexy without insisting on a papal visit. On April 19, 2005, the day of the election of Pope Benedict XVI, Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) of the Moscow Patriarchate proposed a “European Catholic-Orthodox Alliance,” so that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches could “speak with one voice” on all major social and ethical issues facing Europe. In January 2009, Metropolitan Kirill, whose spiritual mentor had been Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov), was elected head of the Moscow Patriarchate. Two months later, Bishop Hilarion became a metropolitan and the head of external Church affairs for the Moscow Patriarchate.

Under Metropolitan Hilarion, an extensive series of cultural and other exchanges between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Catholic Church have occurred. ITV publisher Robert Moynihan and the Urbi and Orbi Foundation have contributed greatly to these exchanges. The goodwill created set the stage for the first meeting in history between a Pope and a Russian patriarch — the meeting in Havana between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in February 2016. Another high point was the 2017 tour of the relics of St. Nicholas from Bari, Italy to Russia, where the relics were venerated by over two million people.

Now there are new tensions between the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A planned meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in June was postponed by the Vatican, and the Moscow Patriarchate has objected to comments made by the Pope to an Italian newspaper.

Yes, this is indeed a bump in the road. However, Christian unity will never be obtained without perseverance, and one cannot be easily discouraged.

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