hilarionA senior Russian Orthodox leader has said the idea of a meeting between Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill and Pope Benedict could be moving towards the preparation stage. Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the “foreign minister” of the Russian church, made clear that neither a date nor a location for such the long-awaited meeting was under discussion. But given the glacial pace at which progress on this issue is made, even the change in tone from Moscow is worth noting.

There has never been a meeting between a pope and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the Orthodox Churches that make up the second biggest Christian family after Roman Catholicism. The late Pope John Paul II wanted to make history with a visit to Russia, but strains between the Vatican and Moscow over alleged Catholic proselytising in the former Soviet Union got in the way. (Photo: Archbishop Hilarion in Brussels, 11 May 2009/Francois Lenoir)

The election of Pope Benedict in 2005 and of Patriarch Kirill early this year seemed to close that chapter of the churches’ bilateral relations and open a new one moving towards a possible meeting. But despite the warmer tone in comments from each side, problems still remained.  Only last month, Hilarion denied reports of an impending meeting and said relations needed a “radical improvement.”

kasperThe Interfax news agency quoted Hilarion as telling reporters in Moscow: “Today it can be said that we are moving to a moment when it becomes possible to prepare a meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow … There are no specific plans for the venue or timing of such a meeting but on both sides there is a desire to prepare it.” (Photo: Cardinal Kasper in Moscow, 29 May 2008/Alexander Natruskin)

Hilarion added with approval that that Benedict is “a very reserved, traditional man who does not seek the expansion of the Catholic Church to traditionally Orthodox regions.”