To Russia, With Hope

VATICAN CITY — When Cardinal Walter Kasper travels to Moscow on Feb. 16 to meet the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei II, there will be some thorny issues to discuss. Relations between the two Churches are at their lowest point in many years.

Cardinal Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, will make a five-day visit. This will be the highest-level visit by Vatican officials in four years.

A scheduled visit by Cardinal Kasper two years ago was cancelled following Orthodox outrage over the Vatican's decision to upgrade its four apostolic administrations in Russia to dioceses. Any prospect of a visit to Russia by Pope John Paul II was put off by the move.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Catholic Church has been steadily re-establishing its structures in Russia.

Up until then, there were just 10 parishes and eight priests in the whole country. Today, according to the Vatican, there are 784,000 Catholics in the Russian Federation, which is the largest country in the world and has a population of just a little more than 146 million.

The four Catholic dioceses contain a total of 300 parishes, which are served by 246 priests, most of them foreign. Many Catholics are of Polish, German or Lithuanian descent.

The decision in 2002 by the Vatican to upgrade the four apostolic administrations in Moscow, Sara-tov, Novosibirsk and Irkutsk to full-fledged diocese status, and to elevate former apostolic administrator Msgr. Tadeusz Kondrusiwicz to metropolitan archbishop of Moscow, drew a storm of protest from the Orthodox patriarchate.

Patriarch Alexei and the Holy Synod released a statement describing the move as “unfriendly” and claiming the Catholic Church sees Russia as a field for missionary activity.

Since then, relations between Rome and Moscow have shown few signs of improvement. The Orthodox Church constantly accuses Catholics of proselytizing in what it calls its “canonical territory,” often citing Ukraine — which John Paul visited in 2001 — as an example. The revival of the Greek Catholic Church in Western Ukraine in the last years of Soviet rule has been a contentious issue for the Orthodox.

Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said problems arise because “in the new situation in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism, the Catholic presence is more visible, and this is sometimes perceived as a threat by the Orthodox. They have a wider concept of proselytism than we do in the West, and therefore tensions do arise.”

Indeed, Patriarch Alexei told the Register, “If proselytizing continues and the situation in Ukraine does not improve, then progress will be difficult. We are waiting for concrete gestures and steps on the part of the Vatican.”

Harsh History

When Stalin incorporated Western Ukraine into the Soviet Union in 1944, Catholics there were brutally put down. Thousands were killed, imprisoned or deported and all the churches were closed.

Moscow religious-affairs journalist Andrei Zolotov said those in communion with Rome are seen as an obstacle to Christian unity.

“The uniates are seen as traitors. They are not a bridge between East and West. They are a problem. Rome has always wanted to conquer us, one way or the other, and it has used various ways to try to do this. What they really want is to turn the Orthodox Church into the uniate Church.”

Father George Jagodzinski, a Polish Divine Word Missionary working in Moscow, dismisses the allegation that Catholics are proselytizing.

“I have never had any intention to convert any Orthodox to Catholicism,” he said. “But we have to ask, what does it mean to be Orthodox? Last Easter Sunday only 1.2% of the population attended Orthodox services in Moscow. If this is not an indication of Orthodox belief, then what is? The patriarch can claim it is an Orthodox country, but it isn't.”

Having emerged from 70 years of atheistic communism, the Russian Orthodox Church is seeking to place itself at the heart of Russian life once again. In 1988 it had 7,000 churches. Now it has 24,000.

The Russian Orthodox Church sees the Catholic Church as expansionist and encroaching on Orthodox territory. Tellingly, the formal definition of “traditional” religions in Russia drawn up in 1997 by the interreligious council includes Orthodox, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists but not Catholics.

Melt in the Ice?

At a local level there are some signs Catholic-Orthodox relations are not as frosty as they are at the official level.

Both the Vatican and the Orthodox Patriarchate support Radio Sofia. Based in northeast Moscow, the station broadcasts for 17 hours a day with one hour being devoted to Catholic programming. Local radio stations across Russia also take up the programs.

Victor Khroul, editor of The Light of the Gospel, a Catholic weekly newspaper produced in Moscow, said the relationship between Catholic and Orthodox lay people is quite good, but official relations between Moscow and the Vatican are not so good.

““Personally, I feel that our position in Moscow is too weak,” he continued. “We have to take care of the Catholic community here first of all and then, as a secondary thing, try to establish good relations with the Orthodox. We have a phobia of being accused of proselytizing. Any Russian who converts to Catholicism is considered to be a victim of proselytizing.”

The Catholic Church continues to establish new structures. A former nightclub in southeast Moscow is currently being converted by Divine Word Missionaries into the Church of St. Olga. At the moment, the city's estimated 60,000 Catholics, most of whom are foreign, have only two churches, St. Louis of France and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, for the seven parishes. New churches have also been built in the city of Tver, north of Moscow, and in Siberia.

Bleak news is not likely to dampen Pope John Paul II's spirit, however. In a Jan. 25 Angelus message during Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, he said, “The unity of Christians has been a constant desire of my pontificate and it continues to be a demanding priority of my ministry.

“Let us never lessen our commitment to pray for unity and to seek it incessantly! Obstacles, difficulties, and even misunderstandings and failures, cannot and must not discourage us, as ‘confidence in reaching, also in history, the full and visible communion of all Christians’ rests not on our human capacities, but on the prayer of our common Lord.”

Greg Watts is based in London.

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