Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, has said he will “in all probability” visit Moscow in August to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and the heads of the Russian Orthodox Church.
According to Italian media reports, the Vatican’s number two told reporters in Rome on Wednesday that the Holy See is “verifying whether this visit will take place.” He added that it has been “planned for a long time and now all the conditions are in place.”
"I believe I will meet President Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church's top officials because this needs to be a high-level visit," the Italian Holy See diplomat continued.
His expected trip follows the historic meeting in Cuba in February 2016 between Pope Francis and head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.
The Vatican has been keen to build on that encounter, the first between a Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch since Eastern Orthodoxy split with Rome in the Great Schism of 1054.
That visit took place amid concerted efforts on the part of the Russian Orthodox to expand its influence in Russia and Ukraine, according to representatives of Patriarch Kirill in a report by Adkronos news agency.
On the part of the Kremlin, the meeting was important to reduce Russia’s isolation amid western sanctions over Ukraine and criticism for its Syria bombing campaign, according to many observers.
Francis has met Putin twice at the Vatican, in November 2013 and June 2015, and Cardinal Parolin’s probable visit to Moscow is just the latest attempt by the Holy See to make the most of improved relations to build bridges with both the Russian Orthodox and the Kremlin. In particular, it wants to help construct a lasting peace between Russia and Ukraine, and work together on helping to protect persecuted Christians.
From the point of view of Russia, where church and state are very closely intertwined, such a visit will be useful in burnishing its negative global image as the conflict in Ukraine continues — what Cardinal Parolin has called a “silent war” which many mistakenly think is over — and criticism of its support for Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad.
Both the Catholic and Orthodox churches are also keen on presenting a united front in the face of growing secularism in the developed world.
But a sticking point has been Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Church has frequently complained about the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest of the Eastern Catholic churches. The Moscow patriarchate has argued it is interfering in the “canonical territory” of the Russian Orthodox, something Ukrainian Catholics have long denied.
In comments to the Register June 23, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, therefore signaled a cautious note on improving relations, stressing that their long and painful history with Moscow continues to be strongly felt among Ukrainian Catholics at a local level, even if many say relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches have arguably never been better.
Some have also criticized the Holy See for taking too much of a pragmatic attitude in its relations with Russia at the expense of Ukrainian Catholics’ concerns (they were unhappy, for example, with parts of the joint declaration signed in Havana).
The Ukrainian Catholics are also not alone: members of the Russian Catholic Church have also expressed concern they may be forgotten by Vatican officials anxious to improve relations with Moscow. According to a June 6 report in the Wall Street Journal, they had asked Pope Francis for reassurances, and appealed to the Vatican for help in strengthening their community, but as of early this month, they had not received a reply.
However, speaking on behalf of Ukrainian Catholics, Archbishop Shevchuk said the Pope had reassured him personally that he “never rejects or sacrifices one part of the Church to achieve his goals.” He also said the Holy Father had, “on many occasions,” shown his “love and support” for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
Asked whether, despite the obstacles, the Catholic and Orthodox could effectively collaborate in resisting secularist ideologies in the West, Archbishop Shevchuk said it is conditional on Christians being “authentic bearers of divine grace.” He said they should not be selling arms or “taking part in aggression” but rather incarnating “Gospel values in our own culture” and be “missionaries of divine mercy, peace, and reconciliation.”