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Unexpected détente in Italy


Try to imagine Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s No. 2, showing up at a Yankees game and joining the crowd in the “Star Spangled Banner,” and you’ll have some sense of how improbable was the Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Italian visit of Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kalingrad.

Less spectacularly, another leader from a different part of the Orthodox world, Patriarch Teocist of Romania, is also currently in Rome for a weeklong series of meetings and public events.

The occasion for Kirill’s trip was a conference on “Sanctity and Charity in the Christianity of East and West,” sponsored by the Roman Catholic community of Sant’Egidio, held in Terni, an hour north of Rome. Most remarkably, Kirill, known as a hawk in the Catholic-Orthodox relationship, then joined Sant’Egidio in Rome for a prayer service at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere Oct. 2.

Among his Catholic hosts, Kirill spoke words of reconciliation.

“The Holy Spirit is moving in the churches of the East and in the churches of the West,” he said in brief remarks before a dinner on the second evening of the conference. “This is a fact, and whoever doesn’t see it is blind.”

Kirill heads the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow patriarchate, making him the second-highest official of the Russian Orthodox church, and his trip came at a time when relations between Rome and Moscow often resemble the saber-rattling standoff between Washington and Baghdad.

In April, the Russian government blocked the Catholic bishop of St. Joseph’s diocese in Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia, Polish-born Jerzy Mazur, from re-entering the country. Since then, authorities have revoked the visas of an Italian priest, Fr. Stefano Caprio, and Slovak Fr. Stanislav Krajniak. Another Polish priest, Fr. Jaroslaw Wiszniewski, was detained as he returned from a trip to Japan in mid-September, and refused entry. Others among Russia’s 600,000 Catholics have reported harassment, including denial of permits to build churches. Orthodox officials deny involvement, but those claims are greeted with deep skepticism in Vatican corridors.

In March, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, lost his patience in public, firing off an article in Civilità Cattolica accusing the Orthodox of moving down a “blind alley” and suggesting that their concept of “canonical territory” was tantamount to heresy.

The present crisis was actually triggered in February, when Pope John Paul II decided to elevate four apostolic administrations in Russia to the status of full dioceses. Tensions, however, run much deeper, reflecting East-West recrimination that reaches back in some sense to the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Kirill has long been Moscow’s point man in the verbal jousting with Rome. In February 2001, for example, ahead of John Paul’s visit to Ukraine, Kirill described the Catholic-Orthodox relationship as being in a state of “cold war.”

In fact, Vatican sources say that the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II, has sometimes sent messages through back channels telling the Vatican to disregard some of his inflammatory public statements about the Catholic church because they were designed to appease hardliners in his own Orthodox synod. Some analysts on the Catholic side regard Kirill as a leading figure among those hardliners.

Given this context, the Sant’Egidio gathering in Terni seemed nearly miraculous.

Catholic and Russian Orthodox figures took turns giving talks on monks and holy men and women from the two traditions who illustrate the link between sanctity and concern for the poor. For example, Orthodox priest Dimitrij Rumjancev spoke on St. Ioann of Kronstadt, a 19th-century Orthodox saint, while Catholic Fr. Tomas Spídlik told the story of Padre Pio.

Kirill gave a spirited talk, referring to the need for “bilateral relations” between Orthodox and Catholics, and the importance of “collaboration before this world of today.” He then told the story of the oppression of the Russian Orthodox church during the Soviet period, which he referred to as a “true and proper genocide.”

The most striking moment came when Kirill revealed that his own father, a railroad mechanic, had been sent to a Soviet prison camp simply because he went to church and sang in the choir. Kirill said this sort of suffering was widespread, but added the “miracle” was that the Orthodox church’s crucifixion actually became a source of strength, because the example of these new martyrs has renewed the faith of millions of Russians.

While the heads of the Franciscan and Benedictine orders were on hand to share the stage with Kirill, as well as Catholic Bishop Vincenzio Paglia of Terni, a longtime leader in the Sant’Egidio community, no Vatican official made the trip. This absence appeared significant, since Pope John Paul II typically misses no opportunity to celebrate Orthodox visitors as part of his campaign to encourage the Christian church to “breathe with both lungs.”

In fact, sources told NCR that the second section of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, responsible for relations with foreign governments, was not pleased with the welcome being shown to Kirill while Russia is tossing Catholic priests out of the country. Pressure was applied by the second section to avoid, or at least downplay, the joint prayer on Oct. 2, and in the end the event lacked the publicity that usually characterizes this sort of Sant’Egidio initiative.

Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio community, seemed philosophical about it all.

“Ecumenism is a journey, and in my experience it’s made up of long, slow steps,” he told NCR in Terni. “It takes patience.”

Meantime another Catholic-Orthodox relationship, this one with the Romanians, seems to be flowering.

Patriarch Teocist arrived in Rome Oct. 8 for a weeklong visit, and was immediately whisked on stage with John Paul II at a thanksgiving Mass in St. Peter’s Square for newly canonized saint Josemaría Escriva. He, too, took part in an ecumenical prayer with Sant’Egidio (this one broadly publicized).

Teocist and John Paul II were expected to sign a joint theological declaration Oct. 12, followed by another ecumenical celebration led by, among others, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

The concluding event was to take place in an Oct. 13 Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. John Paul and Teocist were to share the Liturgy of the Word and to profess the creed in Romanian, then separate for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Related Web site

International Association for Mission Studies

National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2002