VATICAN CITY — In line with Pope Benedict XVI’s desire for the Catholic and Orthodox Churches to work together to confront the problems of Western secularism, leaders of the Neocatechumenal Way met with a key Russian Orthodox leader to discuss how the movement could teach methods of evangelization to Orthodox priests.

Kiko Argüello, Carmen Hernández and Father Mario Pezzi, founding leaders of the Neocatechumenal Way, met in Moscow Oct. 19 with Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, president of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate’s Foreign Relations Department.

Argüello said that they presented a proposal in which Orthodox priests would be taught the movement’s principles of evangelization, and have the opportunity to undergo training.

“We explained to him that the Way hopes that the people’s faith will grow, so that a change will take place in them and they will be able to love,” said Argüello. “We have come to Russia to show our love.”

Father Pezzi stressed the Way’s intention is not “to engage in proselytism.” He said that they were received “very cordially,” and that Metropolitan Kirill had been informed that Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was aware of their visit.

The initiative, which has taken the Neocatechumenal Way several years to develop, grew out of a shared Catholic-Orthodox concern for growing secularism in Europe. The continent, Argüello said, is “abandoning Christ, and society is increasingly penetrated by individualism where what is important is the satisfaction of the ‘ego,’ the delight of our ‘I.’”

‘Caution’

Said Argüello, “Few people come to church; that is why God is preparing a new evangelization. And the Russian Orthodox Church knows that there must be a different way of catechizing.”

In a statement Oct. 25, Metropolitan Kirill’s spokesman, Father Igor Vyzhanov, said the Russian Orthodox Church treated the Way’s proposals “with great caution.”

Speaking the same day to the Register, Father Vyzhanov said that the Neocatechumenal Way and the Orthodox must take time to become better acquainted, and that it is “still very early and premature to speak about agreements.”

But, he added, “We share the same position on these issues, and we’re absolutely open and ready for cooperation in this area.”

The Oct. 19 meeting was the first with Metropolitan Kirill and, contrary to some reports, no agreement was reached between the two parties regarding the training of Orthodox priests. The encounter was arranged when the movement’s leaders and Orthodox representatives met at a Vienna conference in May.

“They contacted us, said they wanted to come and see us, so we thought, ‘Why not?’” Father Vyzhanov said. “We wanted to find out more and speak with the people — we’re open to Catholics here and have had meetings with other Catholic groups, such as members of the Focolare movement and the Jesuit order.”

Vatican officials have cautiously welcomed the initiative and are waiting to see what methods the Neocatechumenal Way will propose. The officials stressed that dealing with the Orthodox is always a delicate issue, as Moscow is naturally conservative and is often suspicious of much that originates from the West.

Orthodox leaders also look negatively upon the reforms made by the Second Vatican Council, seeing them largely as external changes to the liturgy to which they have expressed disapproval.

Moscow is very proud of its tradition and any help can be viewed with suspicion, especially if they don’t have enough knowledge of each other,” said one Vatican official.

Aid to Unity?

According to Father Vyzhanov, Moscow is also acting cautiously because of disagreement that he said exists within the Catholic Church over the Neocatechemunal Way’s “methods.”

But assuming the Neocatechemunal Way’s offer to work with Russian Orthodox priests becomes a reality, will it advance the cause of reunification with the Orthodox?

“It depends on what we mean by the word unity,” said Father Vyzhanov. “In the course of the past thousand years, so many differences have appeared that it’s still very hard to speak about complete unity. We must do our best to work together, to do what is possible.”

The Orthodox consider relations with the Catholic Church good internationally but frequently poor locally, especially in Russia, after recent allegations of proselytism of Orthodox by Catholics there and in  Ukraine.

A spokesman for Metropolitan Kirill said it’s wrong to say there are atheists in Russia — except for followers of other religions, all are baptized Orthodox even if they don’t practice. “They may not practice but still continue to adhere to Christian identity.” But he did say that evangelization “without the consent” of the majority Church in Russia — the Orthodox — is considered “unfriendly.”

Regarding evangelizing followers of other religions, he said that Catholic missionaries never aim their activities at these groups, “they only try to evangelize the Orthodox.” 

“When speaking of evangelization, this is quite a delicate matter because the identity of religious communities in Russia is tied up with their national identity, so evangelization can cause ethnic tensions.”

He stressed that the Neocatechumenal Way is quite different to anything that exists in the Orthodox Church, and he said that’s also true in the Latin Rite Church. But he said the Orthodox are keeping in touch, and he’ll visit a Neocatechumenal Way community in Moscow, and speak with priests there.

“The most crucial work must be done here in Russia,” Father Vyzhanov said, adding that enmity and prejudices exist on both sides.

Speculation has risen in recent weeks of a possible Moscow meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II.

Father Vyzhanov, who is secretary of Inter-Christian Relations in the Orthodox Department for Foreign Affairs, did not rule out the possibility.

“We haven’t had any talks about that although, at the same time, the patriarch has himself said many times that a visit is possible and has never denied the possibility, but it must be well prepared,” he said. “Conditions are good internationally, but they’re not good here in Russia where we need a thaw in relations.”

He said it was “hard to say” whether a visit by Benedict XVI could help precipitate such a thaw.

“Journalists like to push these events,” Father Vyzhanov said, “but we bureaucrats must be cautious.”

(Zenit contributed to this report.)

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.