Unexpected Detente in Italy: Russian Orthodox Hardliner Attends Catholic-Hosted Conference. (World)

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Unexpected Detente in Italy: Russian Orthodox Hardliner Attends Catholic-Hosted Conference. (World)


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


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 Fast 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 Civilita 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. …

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