MOSCOW, - A meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, of Moscow and all Russia, is unlikely to take place in the near future, contrary to repeated declarations of intent on both sides, Russian experts believe.
They see the main reason in the anti-ecumenical sentiment of most Orthodox Christians in Russia.
Pope Francis says he holds the Russian Orthodox Church and its spiritual traditions in high esteem.
“The Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill and myself would like to hold a meeting and both of us are making preparations for it. We are moving in this direction with a sense of responsibility and good will and the determination to eliminate all obstructions,” Pope Francis told on board a papal plane on the way from Istanbul to Rome.
In Istanbul Pope Francis met with Patriarch Bartholomew I, of Constantinople, and called upon the Catholics and Orthodox Christians for unity.
The chief of the external relations department of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hilarion, has said that “today there exists a real interest on both sides in a fruitful bilateral dialogue,” so a meeting of the heads of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church “is quite possible, but it requires thorough preparations.”
“I don’t see any reason why it could not take place during Pope Francis’s tenure,” he added.
The President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch, told Radio Vatican in an interview he hoped the Pan-Orthodox Congress due in 2016 would promote greater unity among the Orthodox churches.
“This is very important, and it will be a significant step forward in advancing the dialogue between us and the Orthodox churches,” Koch said.
The possibility of a meeting between the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia and the Pope for decades, but it has not materialized to this day although the declarations of intent by the heads of both Christian confessions have been many.
The Moscow Patriarchate is unhappy about proselytic efforts by the Catholic Church in the historically canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church and about the expansion of the Uniat Greco-Catholic Church in the West of Ukraine and theological disagreements.
Russian experts also remark that the Russian Orthodox Church leaders are determined to avoid annoying those many believers who dislike the idea of ecumenism in general and the Catholics in particular, not without certain historical reasons.
A prominent Orthodox theologian, Senior Deacon Andrey Kurayev, formulated the attitude back in 2013 in these words: “The Pope is free to come there where he is welcome by all - not only Catholics, but the secular society and the members of the country’s religious majority.”
At this point it is worth recalling a story I heard from a Russian guide in the Italian town of Bari, where the relics of St. Nicholas - one of Russia’s most revered saints, are kept inside the Basilica of San Nicola church. Groups of Russian pilgrims have regularly visited the wholly shrine over the past few years.
“Our woman guest told me she was very curious how come the Catholics have the relics of our saint on their soil,” the guide said. “And another woman worshiper got very nervous at the entrance, hesitant whether it would be appropriate for her to get inside a Catholic church.”
The preparations for a meeting between the Pope and the Russian Patriarch have continued for years. They began long ago, during the tenures of a different patriarch and a different pontiff, but the event is unlikely in the foreseeable future, says the first deputy president of the Political Technologies Centre, Aleksei Makarkin. “The Russian Orthodox Church leaders are in a very complex situation,” Makarkin told TASS.
“The Uniats in Western Ukraine are not the sole problem. The conservative wing of the parishioners and clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church are very suspicious and their attitude to Catholicism is negative. For the Orthodox public the word ecumenism is a negative label frequently used in intra-church disputes,” Makarkin said.
Catholics are in the habit of having contacts with Protestants, while in Russia many believers still see Catholicism as a threat and part of the globalization process.
Patrairch Kirill, just as his predecessor Alexy II, is obliged to respect the opinion of most parishioners.
“Prevention of a schism at home - this is the main reason why there has been no meeting between the Patriarch and the Pope to this day,” Makarkin believes.
“If one looks back on the church split in Russia in the 17th century, it happened for reasons that might seem insignificant by modern standards: minor changes to the texts in religious books and church services introduced contrary to the opinion of the flock,” Makarkin said. “This split has not been overcome to this day, though.”
He doubts that the Pan-Orthodox Congress of 2016 will be able to bring about a fundamental change to the relations between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, because all decisions require unanimity and the Russian Orthodox Church has the power to block any initiative it finds wrong or inappropriate.