Pope Benedict to Moscow?

16 June 2006

From this week's issue of the Italian weekly magazine Panorama.
Here is a translation - by the papa Ratzinger forum.

Setting the stage for a Moscow visit

By Ignacio Ingrao

After the visit to Poland and the scheduled trip to Istanbul, Papa Ratzinger now hopes to enter St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow. To do this, he has an ace up his sleeve: the proposal of a joint declaration with Alexei II, Patriarch of all the Russias, in defense of the Christian roots of Europe.

Benedict XVI's road to Moscow goes through Poland. One development in the Pope's recent trip there which passed almost unnoticed was his encouner with Archbishop Jeremiasz, head of some 500,000 Orthodox Christians who live in Poland.

Karol Wojtyla's nationality had been one of the principal obstacles to making a historic trip to Russia, and the German Pope has apparently decided to start from Poland to realize what had seemed to be an impossible dream till the present: a meeting in Moscow with Alexei II.

Joseph Ratzinger wanted Cardinal Walter Kasper with him in Poland - Kasper being the principal actor so far in the Church's dialog with the Orthodox churches.

The Orthodox community has not remained indifferent to Benedict XVI's attentions. At the end of the ecumenical prayer in the Luterhan cathedral of Warsaw, Archbishop Jeremiasz did something outside protocol which indicated his state of mind: he gave his own personal rosary to the Pope as a token of reconciliation.

In the following months, new stages are foreseen in Benedict's efforts at rapprocchement with Moscow.

The first one will take place in Moscow on July 2-4. A vanguard of six cardinals - among them Kasper himself; Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical councils for culture and inter-religious dialog; Roger Etchegaray and Theodore McCarrick - will be attending a summti of religious leaders promoted by the Moscow Patriarchate on the occasion of Russia's turn to take the presidency of the G8, the council of the world's 8 top industrialized nations. The cardinals will be meeting with Alexei II.

"The summit will allow religious authorities to insist once again on the need to work together against pseudo-religious ideas which only serve to divide mankind, against terrorism and violence, in favor of consolidating the ethical principles about and the family," the Patriarch said in a statement that indicated the topics for discussion.

The next stage will be in Belgrade, Serbia, from September 18-25, for the resumption of meetings by the official commission for theological dialog between Catholics and Orthodox churches. It has been six years since the commission met last, paralyzed by major differences encountered.

Papa Ratzinger has reconstituted the Catholic panel and the commission is now under the joint chairmanship of Cardinal Kasper and the Orthodox Metropolitan of Pergamon (Greece), Johannis Zizioulas.

At first glance, the theme of the Belgrade meeting is workmanlike: "Ecclesiological and canonical consequences of the sacramental structure of the Church: Conciliarity and authority".

Actually, it covers the most divisive questions which have kept the Catholic and Orthodox churches apart for 10 centuries: the authority and primacy of the Pope; the problem of Uniatism (the orthodox churches who have reunified with Rome); and the reciprocal recognition of sacraments [performed in each other's churches].

The success of the Belgrade talks will determine the future of the Catholic-Orthodox reunification which Ratzinger identified as one of his priorities from the very start of his Pontificate.

The two sides of the commission have been at work since November 2005 preparing the documents that will be discussed in Belgrade, hoping they will be able to come out with joint declarations.

The third stage of the road to Moscow will take place on November 30, when the Pope visits the ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul. Constantinople (as the Orthodox still refer to it) could be the door through which Benedict will enter Moscow.

Howeever, Cardinal Kasper told Panorama recently, with a smile: "This trip to Russia is a fixation with you journalists. First, there are so many other items to discuss with the Patriachate of Moscow. Only afterwards can we start to talk about an eventual meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch."

Kasper was referring to the preconditions stated by the Patriarchate of Moscow for such a meeting. Among these, above all, the question of what Moscow calls 'proselytism': it accuses the Catholic Church of being too active in Russia in seeking conversions through the promise of material aid or psychological pressures. In turn, however, Russian Catholics complain that they are being marginalized and 'crushed' by the national Orthodox church.

The second concern of the Moscow Patriarchate is Uniatism, in particular as it refers to the restitution of church assets seized by the Communists. [In other words, would assets seized from churches which were Russian Orthodox at the time be returned to them now that they are reunited with the Catholic Church, or to the Russian Orthodox Church?]

Rather intricate problems, obviously. But Ratzinger has the ace that may cause the Moscow Patriarchate to let down its defenses: the proposal of a holy alliance in defense of the Christian roots of the continent.

"To give back a soul to Europe" - this was the theme of the encounter directly inspired by the Pope which took place in Vienna on May 3-5 recently. Meeting as guests of the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, one of the Pope's most influential advisers, were representatives of the Pontifical council for culture and the department of external relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, headed by the Number-2 man in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, Metropolitan Kiril of Smolensk.

The theme was discussed between Metropolitan Kiril and the Pope when they met at the Vatican on May 18. The thaw is under way and it is giving rise to unprecedented hopes.