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This week : The Pope’s Visit to the Holy Land
“Aid to the Church in Need” and the dialogue with the Orthodox Church
By Eva-Maria Kolmann, ACN International
Adapted by ACN Canada
With more than 100 million members, the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest and most influential of the Orthodox Churches. Following the wish of Pope John Paul II, “Aid to the Church in Need” has made special endeavours since 1992/93 to establish a dialogue with the Orthodox Church in Russia. Father Werenfried van Straaten, the founder of “Aid to the Church in Need,” traveled twice to Russia at an advanced age in 1992 and in 1994 he met Patriarch Alexy II and numerous Orthodox bishops, to whom he promised his prayers and active assistance.
After all, the Orthodox Church in Russia, like the Catholic Church, had to start from scratch after 70 years of persecution. After the end of the Soviet Union it was the order of the day to remind Catholic Christians that the “dialogue of love” between the two Churches which the Second Vatican Council had described years beforehand as “Sister Churches” does not take place primarily on a theological and academic level, but that there is also an “ecumenism of solidarity,” as Father Werenfried called it.
The principle was clear: “After 1000 years full of misunderstandings and mutual enmity, we must all now be aware of our unity and be willing to restore it. The unity of faith and the sacraments, which was never lost. And the unity of prayer and love which we now have to achieve.” The Pope asked for detailed reports after Father Werenfried’s two Russian trips and laid great store by being kept personally informed of all developments. Pope Benedict XVI repeated this instruction to “Aid to the Church in Need”.
It was also Pope John Paul II who returned the icon of the Mother of God of Kazan to the Russian Orthodox Church. In the turmoil of the October Revolution the icon disappeared and reached the west in 1920. After an odyssey it turned up at the New York World’s Fair. The “Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima”, now known as the “World Apostolate of Fatima”, acquired the icon and took it to Fatima. In 1993 the icon reached the Vatican as a gift to Pope John Paul II. The Pope kept it in his private quarters and showed it the deepest reverence. During the devotion on the departure of the Kazanskaya he said: “How often since that day have I called on the Mother of God of Kazan, asking her to protect and guide the Russian people who venerate her, and to hasten the moment when all the disciples of her Son, recognizing one another as brothers and sisters, will be able to fully restore the compromised unity.”
As its representative at the funeral ceremony of Pope John Paul II on 8 April 2005, the Moscow Patriarchate delegated its “Minister of External Church Relations,” Metropolitan Kirill, who was to become Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia only four years later. In the same year he also attended the enthronement on 24 April of Pope Benedict XVI, during whose pontificate contact between the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate become ever closer. Numerous Russian bishops visited Pope Benedict, and high-ranking cardinals travelled to Russia. In the summer of 2006 there also appeared in Russia a translation, supported by “Aid to the Church in Need”, of Joseph Ratzinger’s “Introduction to Christianity”. This was intended to give the Russian public direct access to Ratzinger’s theology. The Russian translation was received with great interest.
A First for Russian Television
One of the high spots in the relationship between the Vatican and Russia was on 16 April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI’s 81st birthday, when for the first time a state television channel in Russia showed a documentary film about the Pope. The highlight of the film is an address by the Holy Father in which the Head of the Catholic Church turns to the Russian people for the first time in the history of television to express his great esteem. The message of greetings is directed at Patriarch Alexy II, the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Christians, the Catholic bishops and the Catholics in Russia, as well as all people living in Russia. Benedict XVI stresses in his address, delivered partly in Russian, the need primarily for internal Christian dialogue. The documentary film, the making of which was suggested and supported by “Aid to the Church in Need”, also showed important stations in the life and work of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI; the Russian public have to date known little about his life.
The significance of the film also became evident when Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was at that time Cardinal Secretary of State of the Vatican, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, the then President of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, arranged to be given personal reports a month after the broadcast on the positive reactions which the film had provoked in the Russian media and society at large.
In 2008 a hand-written letter from Pope Benedict XVI to Patriarch Alexy II also attracted considerable attention, including in the media. Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the Archbishop of Naples, delivered the letter when he visited Moscow from 30 September to 3 October at the invitation of the Patriarch. The Patriarch was evidently “much moved” by the Pope’s letter. In his reply he found warm words to say and expressed his “deepest respect and sincere good will” to the Pope. Furthermore he wrote that he was “happy about the growing perspectives for the development of good relations and a positive collaboration between our two Churches. The firm basis for this is provided by our common roots and the positions which we share with respect to the many problems the world faces today.”
On January 27, 2009 Metropolitan Kirill was elected Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. His enthronement on 1 February 2009, which took place in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, was also attended by Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Antonio Mennini, the Catholic Archbishop of Moscow, Paolo Pezzi, and the Bishop of Regensburg Ludwig Müller, who is today Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. The representatives of the Catholic Church conveyed the letter of congratulation from Pope Benedict XVI, in which the Pope expressed his “fervent hope” for a continued collaboration “in order to find ways and forms for promoting and strengthening the community in the body of Christ”, and stressed his wish for a further strengthening of the “good relations” between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. He sent the Patriarch the gift of a chalice as “a pledge of the desire to achieve complete unity soon.”
In the following years the concept of a “strategic alliance” formed steadily in the collaboration between the two Churches. This notion is based on the fact that both Churches see themselves confronted in the modern world with numerous challenges which they must face together. These include the plight and persecution suffered by Christians in countries where they are a minority, the need to deal with the matter of Islam, a growing hostility towards Christianity even in Europe, the spread of secularism, relativism and materialism, and the dwindling respect, also in the political domain, for human life and the Christian family. These and numerous other ethical questions render it essential for Christians of different denominations to raise a common voice. At a large number of meetings between senior representatives of the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches over the past few years, both sides always emphasized and still emphasize complete agreement in the area of ethics and Christian values.
One of the first meetings between Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Chairman of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) took place on 19 March 2011 at a congress organised in Germany by “Aid to the Church in Need.” In retrospect the Cardinal stressed that this meeting had been “very positive” and “important” in “emphasizing the public dimension of the dialogue with the Orthodox Church and rendering the dialogue publicly visible.”
In January 2014 Cardinal Koch highlighted in a conversation with “Aid to the Church in Need” the significance of the year 2014 for ecumenism. The meeting planned for May between Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew in Jerusalem was, he said, of “the utmost importance.”
Talking about the initial large steps in the direction of unity at the time of the Second Vatican Council, he said: “When today I read the texts from that time I am amazed at the passion for unity they express. This passion must be maintained and we must reawaken our awareness of it this year.” The President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity praised the commitment of “Aid to the Church in Need” to the dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church and highlighted the importance of the founder, Father Werenfried van Straaten, who had “dedicated himself throughout his life to the Church in Eastern Europe in particular. The fact that he extended this commitment to the Russian Orthodox Church after the collapse of the Soviet Union is very positive.”
Cardinal Koch encouraged the Catholic pastoral charity to continue cultivating the dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church.