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Interview with the Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia

2004 February 11
by Paul Vallely

Relations between the Roman Catholic and Russia Orthodox churches are worse now than at any time since the Second Vatican Council. Next week the highest-level Vatican delegation for four years goes to Moscow to seek to heal the breach. On the eve of the visit the Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia gives a rare interview to Paul Vallely, Associate Editor of The Independent.



Who, in a Christian country, at any rate, could object to this: a number of children are found living on the streets in sub-zero temperatures, the police pick them up and take them to a Catholic orphanage where they are given physical and emotional care. Who could object? His Holiness Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, that’s who.

Next week Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, will travel to Russia to meet the Patriarch. It will be the highest-level visit by Vatican officials in four years. The aim of the five-day trip visit is to ease the strains between Rome and Moscow which are at their lowest point since before the Second Vatican Council. Two years ago a visit by the cardinal was cancelled by the Moscow Patriarchate outraged by what it called aggressive Catholic missionary activity in Russian Orthodoxy’s “canonical territory” across the former Soviet Union.

The cardinal will face a delicate task in his bridge-building, as was made clear by Patriarch Alexei in a rare interview – his first for two years – on the eve of the cardinal’s visit. In it he forcefully condemns the practice of “children who have been baptised in Orthodoxy being converted to Catholicism”. He says that churches in communion with Rome have turned hundreds of thousands of Orthodox believers in Ukraine into a “humiliated minority” and complains that on a wave of “wild nationalism Orthodox Christians were banished from their churches, clergy were beaten and holy objects of the Orthodox Church were defiled. One could imagine something like that happening in the dark Middle Ages, but when something like this is happening in the late twentieth century in regard to a sister Church something like this is hard and even impossible to understand.” And he makes clear that he faces pressure from his flock to continue blocking a visit by John Paul II to Russia, the only major country which the ailing Pope is said still to crave to visit.

The depth of resentment against Catholicism in Russia is something which takes a Western visitor by surprise. It is a complex phenomenon bound up with the slow process of forming a post-communist identity in which Orthodox plays an ambiguous role. Polls show that the majority of the population call themselves Orthodox. But they also show that more people say they are Orthodox than say they believe in God. The paradox speaks to something deep in the Russian soul. “If you are not Orthodox, you cannot be Russian,” as one priest said, quoting Dostoevsky. The Orthodox Church is usually named third, after President Vladimir Putin and the army, in polls asking “Who do you trust?”

“If we look back to our 1000 years of history everything has an Orthodox foundation,” the Patriarch said. “Russia and the former Soviet Union are in the process of liberation from the trend of state atheism. And today many people are consciously returning to their roots. The mass opening of new parishes is not a top-down development. It’s the demand of the people at the grassroots level. When we were celebrating the millennium of Christianity in Russia in 1988 there were in all of the Soviet Union about 7,000 churches and 21 monasteries. Today there are more than 24,000 churches and 638 monasteries. We used to have three theological seminaries and two theological academies. Today we have five theological academies, 33 theological seminaries, 44 theological colleges, one theological institute, two theological universities and 14 pastoral courses.

“We disagree with the statement we hear in the West sometimes that we live in the post-Christian era. In the former Soviet Union there is a return to Christian values, and in this we are backed by 1,000 years of Christian holy Russia,” he said, adding that it is a mistake for the preamble to the European Union constitution to omit mention of Christianity. “It is wrong to rewrite history today and deny your roots for the sake of contemporary ideology.”

But there is ideology too in the Russian ultra-nationalist myth, embraced by many of the Orthodox clerics that I met in a week in the country, that pre-Soviet Russia was homogeneously Orthodox, with just a few Catholics at its extremities. This is the foundation on which rests the assertion that both Protestants and Catholics are practising “spiritual aggression” against Orthodoxy’s canonical territory.

There is a different intellectual paradigm too; where the West has since the Enlightenment treated religion, like politics and economics, as a laissez-faire business in which individuals make choices. Orthodoxy has a model which is far more centred in a collectivist authoritarian sense of community. There was an illustration of that in the highly indignant Orthodox priest who complained to me about Baptists hiring halls to hold mission evenings which they advertised as ‘Christian’ events. The Orthodox were outraged. ‘Christian’ and ‘Orthodox’ are synonymous, the Russian cleric told me, so the Baptists were perpetrating a deliberate con, tricking people into thinking they were coming to an Orthodox event.

But the animus is strongest against Catholicism. Not that there is much genuine theological disagreement. Progress has been made on the ancient filioque dispute, with the US Catholic-Orthodox commission issuing an agreed statement and the Pope showing readiness to drop the disputed clause from the Creed at celebrations which bring Orthodox and Catholics together. But to the Orthodox the mutual anathemas pronounced by the two Churches in 1054 hold good (even though they have been formally withdrawn by each side), as perhaps does even the division of the Holy Roman Empire made by Constantine in the fourth century. The Pope may have spoken of Christianity breathing with two lungs, East and West. But the Russians fear that Roman imperialism is still at work. The phrase ‘Catholic invasion of holy Russia’ is one I heard more than once.

Many things feed this. For a start more than 80 per cent of Russia’s 200 Catholic parishes are served by foreign priests. Most of them are better educated and equipped with greater pastoral experience than their Orthodox counterparts, huge numbers of whom are only recently ordained. Then there was the decision by Rome in February 2002 to dissolve its four “apostolic administrations” in Russia and replace them with fully fledged dioceses. What particularly incensed Moscow was the Vatican’s decision to turn Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, head of the Catholic bishops’ conference in Russia, from an “apostolic administrator” into a “metropolitan archbishop” thus, according to the Patriarchate, making Russia a province of the Roman Catholic Church.

Rome pleaded that its intentions were innocent; Cardinal Kasper at the time said: “There was no consultation, but they were informed. I must say that I didn’t foresee the extent of the problem, because I thought it was just a changing of names and nothing else.” Patriarch Alexei insists this is disingenuous.

“In a unilateral step four Roman Catholic dioceses were formed in the territory of the Russian Federation. When Russia was declared a metropolitan province – and Archbishop Kondrusiewicz was promoted to Metropolitan in Moscow – these relations cooled down and spoiled,” he said. Rome had given undertakings not to take such steps without consultation but “unfortunately that agreement was on paper only”. “Many missionary orders work in Russia today, especially in the shelters and orphanages for children organised by these orders, where children who have been baptised in Orthodoxy are being converted to Catholicism.”

Could not an invitation for the Pope to visit Russia be the occasion for resolving the dispute? The pontiff had indicated as much at the end of last year at his meeting with President Putin in the Vatican, at which he had brought to his study a celebrated Russian Orthodox icon of Our Lady of Kazan, which he hinted he would like personally to return to Russia in time for the millennium celebrations of the city of Kazan next year. The Patriarch was dismissive.

“This is one of many copies of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan from the end of the eighteenth century,” he said. “It is painted by a provincial iconographer. Neither in its size nor dating is it identical to the wonder-making icon which had been stolen. Almost every church in Russia has an icon of Our Lady of Kazan. I think there is an unhealthy hype around the icon in the Vatican. I do not think it would make sense to make a connection between the return of this icon – which I hope will be returned to Russia at some point – with the visit of Pope John Paul II.

What about a meeting between Pope and Patriach elsewhere? “There was a plan to have such a meeting in 1997 in Austria – but our attempt was to do something more than just to meet in front of TV cameras and demonstrate to the public that there are no problems among us. We do have problems. Relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church unfortunately are not at their best today because of the proselytising activity of the Roman Catholic Church being carried out in both Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries.”

The depth of resentment of Catholic ‘proselytising’ is far from confined to senior officials of the Moscow Patriarchate. I heard similar views expressed, in far more bitter language, in ordinary parishes. In the interview Patriarch Alexei acknowledged that the strong feelings of ordinary Orthodox believers were a real stumbling block. “I myself also need to justify meeting the Pope. If I simply meet with him in front of TV cameras, then there will be no concrete improvement in our relationship. My flock will not understand me. That is why we are saying that such a meeting must be proceeded by concrete steps to improve the relationship between our Churches.”

But though ‘proselytising’ – which the Catholics insist is just “good pastoral work” – is always the first issue raised, the most dramatic language is always prompted over the issue of the Eastern Catholic Churches in Ukraine which the Orthodox call the ‘Uniates’ and who, to Russians, represent submission to papal authority.

“Until today the wounds inflicted by the Greek Catholics in the western area of Ukraine are not healed,” the Patriarch said. “Today hundreds of thousands are Orthodox believers in Ukraine are a humiliated minority. The Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine was banned by Stalin and during the post-war period, both those who returned to the Orthodox Church and those who remained Uniates, received pastoral care in the Orthodox churches which remained in the western Ukraine. When religious freedom came to Russia, including the republics of the former Soviet Union, I think we should have used the principle proclaimed by Vatican II, which called the Orthodox churches sister Churches. On the wave of wild nationalism Orthodox Christians were banished from their churches, clergy were beaten and holy objects of the Orthodox Church were defiled. One could imagine something like that happening in the dark Middle Ages, but when something like this is happening in the late twentieth century in regard to a sister Church something like this is hard and even impossible to understand. Unfortunately, during the past decade nothing has been done for the Orthodox to receive equal rights with Catholics in the western Ukraine.”

Contrast the vigour of that complaint with the much more emollient tone Patriarch Alexei adopted when speaks of the Anglican Communion, a church with which Orthodoxy has serious theological disagreements. The Patriach faced these squarely. The ordination of women, he said, was a probelm – “ a thousand years of tradition and the word of the Bible should be respected and not changed to satisfy some temporal developments in the views of people”. And he has broken ties with the Episcopalian Church in the United States of America after it consecrated the openly gay Gene Robinson as a bishop – “the ordination of a homosexual bishop makes any communications with him or those who elected him impossible”.

Yet despite that his tone was conciliatory: “I don’t think we should lump together all the bishops of the Anglican Communion and suggest that they all approve these trends”. He spoke admiringly of the views of the Bishop of Gibraltar, who supervises the Anglican parishes in Moscow and St Petersburg, and of the Archbishop of Canterbury with whom “we had a very warm meeting and conversation”. And he concluded: “It’s hard for me to issue recommendations to the Anglican Communion. I think we should continue to meet.”

Continuing to meet has been far from the approach he has adopted in recent years to Rome, with which there seem to be deeper disputes than the merely theological. Patriarch Alexei insists that the problems are not of his making.

“Do not think I am anti-Catholic. We have no prejudice against the Roman Catholic Church and its hierarchy. The Russian Orthodox Church is ready for dialogue and it’s ready for solving the issues which are complicating relations between the two Churches today. But we do not see positive steps on the Vatican’s part. It’s the opposite. We see a very strong trend, and that is something that’s likely to happen, for the see of the Archbishop of Lvov to be transferred to Kiev and the proclamation of a Greek Catholic patriarch ate in the Ukraine.

“It is our profound conviction that there has to be concrete steps. If proselytising in Russia continues and the situation in western Ukraine does not improve – and it’s the other way round, they’re expanding to the east and south of Ukraine – we’ve said that many times and wrote about it many times and we’re waiting. We are waiting for concrete gestures and goodwill steps on the part of the Vatican.”

Was he, perhaps, waiting for a new incumbent on the throne of St Peter? “No, we’re not waiting for a new Pope. I’m sure the current Pope is very well aware of the issues.”

Cardinal Kasper, it seems, will have an uphill struggle in Moscow this week. Whether or not he will offer the concrete steps to reconciliation Moscow requires is not clear. He has, in the past, shown signs of the openness required. “Variety is a sign of richness – not a mistake, failure or weakness,” he has said. “No one has the whole truth; that is only found all together.”

But he has also revealed the extent to which the Vatican is wedded to the Enlightenment value system so alien to Moscow. “The Russian Orthodox have a very vague and expansive understanding of proselytism, which is also a certain fear due to the fact that they feel they are weak. And, therefore, they resent it when we do good pastoral work and sometimes they see it as proselytism, “ he has also said. “But it is very clear that proselytism is not our strategy or politics. This is a question of religious freedom. And this is the main problem: recognising religious freedom. For us it is a fundamental human right.”

How things go in Moscow next week will pretty much turn on which of these two contrasting approaches he makes paramount.


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