A leading figure in the Catholic Church in Russia made a startling statement in recent weeks.

In an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera Sept. 14, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow said that unity between the long-separated Catholic and Orthodox Churches could be accomplished in the very near future.

In fact, he said it could be a reality “within a few months.”

That would be an astonishing accomplishment, considering the fact that the split between East and West has existed for almost 1,000 years and that at times the road to communion has been full of boulders, potholes, ambushes, false exits and missing bridges.

On that road, we have stumbled over things such as the filioque clause in the creed. We have been sidetracked by the disunity among the various national churches in the Orthodox communion. Many Catholic bishops and theologians have been, and a number still are, reluctant to accept the Orthodox tradition of admitting married men to holy orders. And some Orthodox communities remain vehemently opposed to ecumenism.

But there have been hopeful signs, as well. In regards to the primacy of Peter, which is perhaps the largest apparent obstacle to unity, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, invited those not in communion with Rome to help “find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”

The pontificate of Benedict XVI has made many Orthodox leaders optimistic: His work as a theologian is greatly admired in Orthodox circles, and he is without the burden of the difficult political history between Poland and Russia, which hindered Polish Pope John Paul II from making as much progress.

And the election of Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church, a man seen as more open to the West than his predecessor, has also encouraged those who hope for unity.

There’s another factor that bodes well for future developments, as well: Orthodox and Catholics are finding that they share common concerns, particularly the increasing secularization of Western society. Patriarch Kirill said recently that “Catholics understand that Orthodox are their allies. And Orthodox are more and more coming to understand that Catholics are their allies in the face of hostile and nonreligious secularism.”

Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk, president of the Department for External Church Affairs of the Patriarchate of Moscow, has expressed his hope for a “united Catholic-Orthodox response to the challenges of secularism, liberalism and relativism.”

This takes us back to what Archbishop Pezzi said recently. “On issues of modernity, Catholics and Orthodox Christians feel the same way,” he said. “Nothing separates us on bioethics, the family and the protection of life.”

There seems to be less and less that separates us on other issues, as well. Orthodox are closer to Rome than perhaps any other church or faith community. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches have the same seven sacraments, valid apostolic succession and valid priesthood. Except for the primacy of the papacy, we believe the same tenets of faith. We venerate many of the same saints. We shared everything for the first millennium of Christianity (including the Church Fathers) and much else since the split of 1054. Several centuries later, many Orthodox reunited with Rome, bringing with them their rich liturgical traditions, Christ-centered and Marian theology and hesychastic spirituality as Byzantine Catholics.

If fighting secularism, especially in Europe, is emerging as a major point of collaboration between our two Churches, it is perhaps providential that Pope Benedict is visiting the Czech Republic in the wake of Archbishop Pezzi’s hopeful remarks. As Edward Pentin, the Register’s Rome correspondent, says in his front-page article this week, the former Communist country is now considered to be one of the most secular in Europe.

Speaking Sept. 13, papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that although the Czech people have a great and ancient cultural tradition, mostly formed by Christianity, it is becoming increasingly secular, and “religious practice is confined to a minority.”

According to the 2001 census, 59% of the Czech people were unaffiliated with any religion, while 26.8% were Catholic.

The Orthodox Church is a small minority in the region, but its history looms as large as the Catholic Church. It traces its roots back to Sts. Cyril and Methodius, apostles to the Slavs, who came here in the ninth century.

It’s interesting that Cyril’s namesake, Kirill, is now Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, and that the Orthodox Church in the Czech Republic now comes under his jurisdiction. It was Pope John Paul II who declared Cyril and his brother co-patrons of Europe along with St. Benedict, whose namesake now sits on the chair of Peter.

As Pope Benedict preaches the Gospel this weekend in the Czech Republic, a country that sits between East and West, and as both Churches prepare to celebrate the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, a feast day on which traditionally a high-ranking Vatican official visits the Patriarchate of Constantinople, let us pray with greater intensity that a path to unity will be made clearer. The issues have divided us for 1,000 years. It must be obvious to all by now that human effort is insufficient to arrive at a solution. Only God can enlighten our minds to see the path we must follow so that all may be one.

In the face of an increasingly secularized and aggressively secularizing culture, a united response from the two great traditions of the Church is more urgent than ever.

Many have said that the Church must breathe with both lungs, East and West. If it does, a new breath of fresh air can sweep through Europe.