VATICAN CITY — In a highly symbolic event, the Vatican has co-hosted a Rome concert with new music composed by a senior Russian Orthodox bishop.

“The Passion According to Matthew,” the work of Bishop Hilarion of Vienna, Austria, was performed March 29 to a large audience at St. Cecilia Auditorium, appropriately located on the Via della Conciliazione (Street of Reconciliation), the main boulevard leading to St. Peter’s Basilica.

The four-part, two-hour work for soloists, choir and orchestra had made its premiere two days earlier, in Moscow in the presence of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II. The Rome concert was hosted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, called the concert “an extraordinary and unique event.” Speaking to reporters a day before the Rome performance, the French cardinal said he hoped it would “help further the way of collaboration and the way of communion between the Churches.”

Such a musical composition, written in the Orthodox tradition and performed in the city that represents the heart of Catholicism, is an “eloquent instrument of ecumenical dialogue and striking cultural exchange,” Cardinal Poupard said.

The cardinal said the concert also marked another important step in the ongoing process of fostering greater awareness and understanding between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, which he said are already “deeply involved on a path of reciprocal respect, dialogue and collaboration.”

Cardinal Poupard also noted the “happy coincidence” that Easter was being celebrated on the same day this year by both Churches. Since the third century, the Russian Orthodox have celebrated Easter according to the Julian Calendar, whereas the Catholic, Protestant and some Orthodox Churches use the Gregorian Calendar that was brought into   effect by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century to provide a more accurate date for Easter.

“The dates for Easter don’t always coincide,” Archbishop Innokentij di Korsun of Italy’s Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, told the Register. “But we have one faith, a common faith, a common cross, a common Savior.”

In a March 29 interview on Vatican Radio, Bishop Hilarion said he was thrilled his work was performed in a year Easter falls on a common date.

“This underlines the fact that the deep meaning of our faith is the same and that our religious experience is really the resurrection of Christ,” he said.

“I think that ecumenical relationships need not only be strengthened through official meetings or theological discussions,” Bishop Hilarion continued. “We must, above all, understand, value and love our traditions, [and] Church music is a necessary part of our tradition.”

Bishop Hilarion’s musical accomplishments are all the more notable because his musical training is limited.

“I studied music for 15 years from when I was a child,” he told the Register. “Then I abandoned music for 20 years and only recently, for no particular reason, returned to musical composition and one of the things I composed was the ‘Passion According to St. Matthew.’”

The work, sponsored by Russia’s largest oil company Lukoil and Inside the Vatican magazine, was performed by Russia’s State Tretyakov Gallery choir and the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra. The conductor was Vladimir Fedoseyev, the acclaimed chief conductor for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

Dignitaries in attendance at the Rome concert included Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and Nikolay Sadchikov, the Russian Ambassador to the Holy See.

Bishop Hilarion

At just 41, Bishop Hilarion has an impressive résumé, leading some Orthodox observers to consider him as a possible future patriarch. After entering the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1987, he studied in Moscow where he later taught homiletics, dogmatic theology, New Testament studies and Byzantine Greek.

Hilarion has two doctorates, one from Oxford and the other from St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. He served six years as Secretary for Inter-Christian Affairs of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate before taking up his current position and has authored more than 300 publications on theology and ecclesiology, in six different languages.

In his interview with Vatican Radio, Bishop Hilarion stressed that “details” separate Catholics and Orthodox.

“We have difficulties in Church politics and theology that we’ve inherited from the past,” he said. “But we mustn’t forget that Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection lie at the heart of our faith.”

(CNS contributed to this report)

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.