Russian Orthodox-Papal Meeting:
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI met with a key official of the Russian Orthodox Church amid signs of a significant improvement in relations.
The Vatican provided no details of the pope's encounter Sept. 18 with Russian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion, president of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations. The private meeting took place at the pope's summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.
Archbishop Hilarion was in Rome for five days of meetings and talks with Vatican officials and Catholic groups, at the invitation of Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's chief ecumenist.
Speaking to Vatican Radio Sept. 17, Cardinal Kasper said the church's relations with the Russian Orthodox had improved appreciably under Pope Benedict, and that the Moscow patriarchate was expected to participate in a major dialogue session with the Vatican in mid-October.
"Pope Benedict is highly regarded by the Russian Orthodox Church for his moral positions and also because he doesn't take into account political correctness. They esteem him highly, and this helps our relations," Cardinal Kasper said.
Cardinal Kasper, who is president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, held lengthy talks with Archbishop Hilarion during his visit. The cardinal said the reduction in tensions from a few years ago was evident in the "very calm conversation" they had about a number of issues, including theological and practical problems.
Perhaps most importantly, the Russian Orthodox will be returning to the plenary meeting of the international Catholic-Orthodox theological commission in Cyprus in October, which will take up the topic of the historic role of the bishop of Rome. The Russian Orthodox delegation walked out of the commission's last plenary session in 2007 in an inter-Orthodox dispute that has since been resolved, Cardinal Kasper said.
Cardinal Kasper said he had suggested that the Orthodox churches form some kind of bishops' conference at the European level that would constitute a "direct partner of cooperation" in such dialogue encounters. This will be a topic of discussion in coming months, he said.
The cardinal said he discussed with Archbishop Hilarion other areas of collaboration, including "problems of the cultural and social field, and also the question of Christian values in Europe: the family, homosexuality, social justice and so on."
Cardinal Kasper said Catholics and Orthodox have "more or less the same positions" on these issues and can "give common witness, so our voice will be stronger than when we speak alone."
Cardinal Kasper said chances had improved for a meeting between Pope Benedict and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who was elected last January. But the cardinal said such a meeting was not on the immediate agenda, and would probably not take place in Moscow or Rome.
Another Vatican source said a papal visit to Moscow was probably still "years away."
Before his election, Patriarch Kirill served almost 20 years as chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church's department for ecumenical relations. In that position, he had met Pope Benedict three times.
Cardinal Kasper said tensions over the status and evangelizing activities of the Roman Catholic Church in the Moscow patriarchate had been largely overcome. A joint commission has been established to deal with problems and it works very well, the cardinal said, and Italian-born Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow is "very highly regarded" by the Orthodox.
Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow may have gotten a little ahead of himself in his comments on Catholic-Orthodox unity, given in a recent interview which we reported on here. However, his hopeful tone, and his conviction that progress is being made towards unity, are well founded.
The Vatican is taking a more measured line than the Catholic archbishop of Moscow, and is stressing that, as well as resolving outstanding theological problems, plenty of trust still needs to be built up between the two Churches before unity can be considered. However, it concedes that clear progress is being made.
If proof were needed of this improvement, one need look no further than a speech given by Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk, effectively the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign minister, at this evening’s prayers at the Sant’Egidio community in Rome.
Archbishop Hilarion, 43, is on a five-day visit to Rome, and will be received by Pope Benedict XVI tomorrow in private audience. Like Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, he is new to his position, and also in common with the patriarch, he has many built up many friends in Rome thanks to his previous position (Archbishop Hilarion was formerly the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative to Europe and took over from Kirill the role of “foreign minister” following Kirill’s election this year as Patriarch).
Below is the speech Archbishop Hilarion gave this evening in flawless Italian. Note I didn’t have the official text, so this is a rough translation. I’ve highlighted the parts in bold which I thought were particularly poignant.
Dear brothers and sisters of the community of Sant’Egidio,
It is with great joy that I have come this evening to be among you.
I am happy to be close to you once again and especially to see you once again, my friends Professor Andrea Riccardi and Bishop Vincenzo Paglia. I greet with joy the bishops who are present and I greet with love all of you who have come tonight to this church. Through you I would like to greet the whole community of Sant’Egidio throughout the world.
I would like to transmit to you the blessings and greetings of His Holiness, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.
In his name, and also from myself and all of us who are present with you, I would like to tell you of the esteem and love that we have for your community. We esteem your love towards the poor, we treasure your work towards them and also those in need; the actions that you do in this city and in other cities to give food to the homeless, and the care which all the community of Sant’Egidio has for those who are on the margins of society.
With this commitment of yours, with this Christian ministry towards the poor, you practice the Gospel. In life, man suffers, and it’s here you find the face of the Lord. Through serving all the poor, you serve Him who said that what you do to each of my little brothers, you do to me.
We have great admiration for your contribution to dialogue, especially that between Christians those of different religions. And we are especially pleased and happy with the relationship of understanding and mutual esteem that has been established between your community and our Russian Orthodox Church.
We live in a de-Christianized world, in a time that some define—mistakenly—as post-Christian. Contemporary society, with its practical materialism and moral relativism, is a challenge to us all. The future of humanity depends on our response, as Christians, to this challenge, and maybe even whether life continues on our planet.
It is a common challenge and also our answer must be common. Only together can we put forward all the spiritual and moral value of the Christian faith; only together can we offer our Christian vision for the family, only together can we affirm our concept of social justice, of a more equal distribution of goods.
These moral values are traditional because they have been affirmed by Christians for 20 centuries and have formed our cultural and European civilization. They are, at the same time, very new and modern, because the Gospel of Jesus is eternally new and modern.
With this common challenge, the contemporary world challenges us, and we Christians must be together. It’s time to pass from confrontation to solidarity, mutual respect, and esteem. I would say without hesitating that we must pass to mutual love, living out Jesus’s commandment to love one another.
As Jesus said, all will know you are disciples of mine if you have love for the other. This is what our preaching demands and it can be effective, it can be convincing, also in our contemporary world, if we are able to live this mutual love among us as Christians.
With these sentiments, I thank you once again for having invited us and I repeat to you my joy of being here tonight. And in order to express concretely our fraternal love for all the community of Sant’Egidio, I would like to give you this Russian icon of Our Lady.
I pray to the Mother of God to bless you all, and to protect and support you always in your commitment to love the Lord, serving every neighbor, and especially the poor and the disadvantaged.