National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 14, 2003

Putin plays up unity, downplays papal trip

It’s a sign of how much things have changed over John Paul’s 25-year reign that a Russian leader could visit the Vatican this week and rate little more than a footnote in the world’s press.

Gone are the heady days of December 1989, when the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raissa formed a stirring climax to Europe’s bloodless revolution. Endless commentary surrounded every detail, including the fact that Raissa wore red rather than the customary black, and pronounced Russian icons superior to Michelangelo’s famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

By way of contrast, the Nov. 5 late afternoon visit of Vladimir Putin, his second to John Paul, was mostly business as usual.

Two points seem clear about Putin’s attitude. First, he is committed to good relations with the West, and sees rapprochement with the Vatican as part of that effort. Second, he is unwilling to move forward without the blessing of his own major religious constituency, the Russian Orthodox church, which does not appear to be in the mood for détente.

Word From Rome
This week John Allen interviews cardinals who head the Vatican's congregations for saints' causes and Evangelization of Peoples. Read the column at

Thus while Putin has made commitments to religious freedom, the fledgling Catholic community in Russia still faces harassment on visas for clergy (celibate priests cannot gain permanent residency or citizenship through marriage), authorization to construct churches and carry out its ministries. In a typical incident in April 2002, after an Orthodox archbishop objected to building a Catholic church in Pskov, city authorities placed a “temporary ban.” After five months, the ban was lifted when Catholics agreed to scale down their plans.

The Orthodox, scarred by decades of life in a police state and deeply fearful of the West, accuse the Catholic church of “proselytizing” in Russia, and of encouraging the expansion of the Greek Catholic church in Ukraine. Patriarch Alexy II has taken the position that until these disputes are resolved, no progress is possible. Among other things, that means John Paul’s long-desired trip to Moscow appears off the table.

In a telling sign, Putin himself downplayed the idea of a papal trip.

“My personal position is that it’s important to make every effort in favor of unity among the various Christian confessions,” Putin told Corriere della Sera. “Christianity is at the base of European culture and European identity. Thus I consider my objective not so much making it possible for the pope to come to Russia, so much as favoring Christian unity with every opportune step.”

Putin and John Paul spent 35 minutes alone, then were joined for five minutes by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Sodano showed Putin the famed Madonna of Kazan, a Russian Orthodox icon that for complex historical reasons is currently in the pope’s private chapel. Putin, in a traditional Orthodox act of devotion, kissed the icon.

John Paul, speaking in Russian, praised Putin’s ecumenical concern.

“I want to thank President Putin for everything he is doing to bring the Orthodox and Catholic churches together, and for peace in the world,” he said.

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, November 14, 2003

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