Warm words hint at further Vatican-Moscow thaw

May 30, 2008

Cardinal Walter Kasper and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy meet in Moscow, 29 May 2008/Alexander NatruskinWith some news events, not much happens but the atmosphere is so striking that it’s worth mentioning all the same. That was the case in Moscow this week as Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, met Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II.

Though this was an unofficial visit, the patriarch and the cardinal both took care to use language noticeable for its friendly, accommodating and even warm tone in their greetings – a continuation of what is seen as a “thaw” and “emerging cooperation” between the two churches.

“I am convinced of the necessity in an Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, based on the coincidence of our positions on many of the issues facing the Christian world today,” Alexiy told Kasper. “I believe (your) interest in the life and traditions of the (Orthodox) Church will turn out to be important between our two Churches.”

For his part, Kasper returned the greeting in kind: “We have met more than once now, but each time I meet with you I do so with great happiness. And I hope this meeting will enable further development in our relations, contacts and cooperation.”

He also brought a personal message from Pope Benedict who praised the “growing closeness between us, accompanied by the shared desire to promote authentic Christian values and to witness to our Lord in ever deeper communion.”

In private the two men discussed issues of religious education at Catholic orphanages for those baptised Russian Orthodox and the spread of the Uniate faith in western Ukraine, an area seen by Moscow as within Russian Orthodoxy’s canonical territory.

St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square, 18 Jan 2008/Mikhail VoskresenskiyThe elephant in the room, which the two men did not discuss in front of reporters, was whether the formerly frosty relations between the two churches had thawed enough to facilitate a future meeting between Alexiy and Benedict, something the Pope is actively seeking. Only last October, the Russians walked out of a theological dialogue meeting with the Catholic Church in Ravenna, Italy in protest over a doctrinal issue.

“Nothing concrete was said about this, but there was a confirmation on principle that a meeting is possible,” a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church told reporters after the meeting. “But, as His Holiness the Patriarch said, this kind of meeting has to be well planned so that it isn’t just a photo-opportunity.”

While in Russia, Kasper also toured Orthodox dioceses in Nizhny Novgorod, Smolensk and Kazan to pray at icons there before stopping in Moscow, a gesture seen as a welcome sign of respect for the Russian church.

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