A monument to Pope John Paul II is to be unveiled in Moscow in a couple weeks.
It will be a modest sculpture, presented by the Polish Embassy and erected not somewhere in the middle of a central square, but in the courtyard of the Library of Foreign Languages, where it will share the quiet space with the likenesses of Charles Dickens, Heinrich Heine, Raoul Wallenberg and several other predominantly European figures. In a way, there should be nothing outstanding about this event.
Yet in a broader context, it could be seen as a symbolic act, signifying an absolutely new atmosphere in the relations between the Vatican and Russia, Poland and Russia, and the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches. Just several years ago, erecting a monument to Pope John Paul in Moscow would have been unthinkable – or scandalous, if somebody had dared. Today, it appears almost inevitable and natural. Business as usual.
Yesterday, September 29, Pope Benedict XVI received in Castel Gandolfo Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeev, the highest-ranking Russian Orthodox official in charge of relations with other churches and the closest aide to Patriarch Kirill. It was at least their third meeting since the new leadership was installed in the Moscow Patriarchate in the beginning of 2009. Three days earlier, Patriarch Kirill received in Moscow the papal legate Josef Cardinal Tomko, who came to lead the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of Moscow’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. As a part of the celebrations, a monument to Mother Teresa of Calcutta was opened near the cathedral – around the same time, unfortunately, that the Moscow city authorities destroyed one of the buildings belonging to her Missionaries of Charity after the sisters had lost a court case over its legality. But due to the protests around the destruction, we found out that both Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion had interceded with the authorities on behalf of the Catholic order, though to no avail.
September 30 also happens to be the day when many Russian women mark their name day. Faith (Vera), Hope (Nadezhda), Love (Lyubov) and their mother Sophia were early Roman martyrs who became particularly beloved in Russia (all the Nadyas, Lyubas and Sonyas are diminutives of these names). So the most popular Orthodox website, Orthodoxy in the World, led on Friday with a piece on a pilgrimage to the village of Eschau in Alsace, France, where the relics of these early Christian saints are kept in a Roman Catholic church. Pilgrimages to Rome and other early Christian holy sites in Europe – be it the Crown of Thorns in Paris or the Shroud of Turin – have in recent years become increasingly popular among Russian Orthodox Christians for the first time in history on such a large scale. On the other hand, several months ago, a group of 240 young Christians from Europe – mainly Catholic, but also Protestant – came to several Moscow parishes for an unprecedented pilgrimage to experience the Orthodox Holy Week and Easter.
There is a paradox here. Or something mystical, if you will.
The charismatic Pope John Paul II – who was predisposed to relations with the Christian East, who was widely credited with contributing to the demise of the atheist Soviet system, who spoke Russian and had wanted to come – could never do it. He had an invitation from the Russian government, but not from the Russian Orthodox Church. After his death, relations improved markedly and he finally arrives here, but in bronze. Why?
Indeed, the period of 1990s and early 2000s, when his pontificate coincided with what came to be known as “Russian religious revival,” was the low point in relations between the world’s two biggest churches in the past 50 or 60 years. There was a severe conflict in Western Ukraine, where Byzantine rite Catholics were actively reclaiming their dominant status and properties from the Orthodox Church, which in 1946 took them over, under the aegis of Stalin’s NKVD. It was so bad, in fact, that on occasions it led to violence and the hierarchy was unable – or unwilling – to do anything about it. And there were accusations of “proselytizing” in Russia, as the nearly defunct Roman Catholic communities used foreign aide to build grand new churches in Russian cities, especially in Siberia, where both the Tsarist and Soviet governments had once exiled thousands of Poles.
In the early 1990s, the Moscow Patriarchate was on the defensive against a legion of foreign missionaries who came here to “convert Godless Russia.” Of them, Roman Catholics were clearly not the biggest, but they were the only centuries-old threat and the only group the Orthodox takes seriously in the ecclesiological sense. The common claim was that the Roman Catholic Church was planning an expansion eastwards. Why else, then, was it building these large churches in Russia, much bigger than the actual needs of their small communities, Russian Orthodox officials at the time asked. In a lower voice, they complained about the “Polish lobby” in the Vatican aiming to “take a revenge” for centuries of “Russian oppression.” The widespread, grassroots anti-ecumenical movement in Russia accused the church leadership of “ecumenism heresy.” The late Patriarch Alexy II may have wanted to meet with the Pope, but could never afford it. “My flock would have not understood me,” he said in an interview. The Catholic Church always insisted that it was here only to serve the existing Catholics, and that it never poached believers intentionally but received those coming of their own will.
The situation was confusing and utterly unfair. But one thing was clear: the ecumenism of the 1960s that generated the concept of “Sister Churches” and all sorts of theological dialogues and niceties grossly failed the test of real competition on the ground once the Soviet constraints on religious activities were lifted.
Then, in 2005, Pope John Paul II died. One after another, the messages from Moscow to the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI were showing a markedly different style – praising Josef Ratzinger as an outstanding theologian and expressing hopes for improved relations. The Vatican responded by moving away from Moscow a highly visible Roman Catholic archbishop and persona non grata for the Moscow Patriarchate. In 2006, an Orthodox-Catholic conference in Vienna called “Return Soul to Europe” proclaimed a new agenda: it was no longer about the theological dialogue, no longer about the bickering about proselytizing. It was now about defending the Christian heritage of Europe and giving a common Christian witness to the increasingly secularized world.
In 2009, Metropolitan Kirill Gundyaev – for long the external relations chief of the Russian Orthodox Church and widely perceived as an admirer of Rome – was elected Patriarch of Moscow, and the new phase in relations became even more visible. The new “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeev, proclaimed a new goal of a “strategic union” with the Roman Catholic Church in policy, if not in faith. The grassroots anti-Catholicism has not disappeared, of course, but has found itself in much lesser demand. On the other hand, the Moscow Patriarchate and the Roman Catholic Church in Poland are working on a reconciliation document that would attempt to bury the age-old mutual grievances between Russians and Poles.
I am certain that, barring extraordinary developments, in a year or two we will see the first ever meeting of the Pope and Moscow Patriarch in a third country.
So is it just the personalities of leaders who make such changes in the relations between the world’s two biggest religious bodies? The answer is “Yes, but...” Personalities do matter. But so does the weight of centuries of tragic history – such as the relationship between Russia and Poland – which bears heavily on the people involved. On the other hand, it is simply a more stable era for intra-Christian relations. The period of the 1990s is over and the new internal boundaries are largely set, while the external challenges, from both Islam and secularism, are all the more pressing.
As for the late Pope, one can probably feel sorry that Karol Wojtyla never realized his dream of coming to Moscow during his lifetime. But there is something very Christian about the fact that the Blessed John Paul had to die in order to come here.
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