A RECENT high-profile visit by a cardinal from Rome, as a papal emissary, brought to Moscow a taste of centuries-old Church battles and medieval intrigue. Walter Cardinal Kasper, head of the pontifical council for the promotion of Christian unity, deliberated with officials of the Russian Orthodox Church on issues of an extremely sensitive nature.
The talks culminated in the cardinal being given a rather reluctant and delayed audience by Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The dialogue centred on the dispute that began with the `Great Schism' in A.D. 1054 when the two churches ex-communicated each other's followers. Today, the dispute is rearing up once again. The intra-church politics that fuels it is as lethal as church politics ever was.
The issue of immediate concern is Pope John Paul II's desire to visit Moscow, an opportunity for which has been denied time and again by the Orthodox Church. The cardinal's visit was a peace offering on the part of Rome. On the whole the talks remained inconclusive, the only gain being the possibility of setting up a commission to look into the differences between the two churches. Cardinal Kasper failed to secure an assurance on Pope John Paul II's visit.
The tensions between the two churches deepened after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The Orthodox Church feels increasingly threatened by the aggressive proselytising undertaken by the Vatican in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Two developments have become particularly contentious. In 2001, Pope John Paul II announced the creation of four new dioceses in Russia. The Vatican proceeded to raise the status of four Catholic missions in Russia to full bishoprics and `forgot' to inform the Russian Orthodox Church about the move. This antagonised the Russian Orthodoxy. The Patriarch told a news agency: "We still believe that the ecclesiastical principle on relations between the churches as between sisters, established by the Second Vatican council, should be followed. However, of late this principle has not been functioning, and we have received an impression that the Roman Catholic Church has given it up. The Vatican has forgotten the agreement that when creating its new structures on the canonic territory of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church should notify heads of the Russian Church."
If the establishment of Catholic dioceses on Orthodox territory is one source of strain in the relations, another is the imminent creation of a Greek Catholic patriarchate in Kiev, Ukraine. Tensions arose with Pope John Paul II's visit to Ukraine in 2002 and his support for the creation of the patriarchate.. In fact, Cardinal Kasper presented a memorandum on the establishment of a patriarchate before his Moscow visit. Fourteen Russian Orthodox churches made their opposition clear. They construed the move as an attack on Orthodoxy and something that would irreversibly damage the relations between the two churches. In a widely publicised comment, the Patriarch indicated that "the creation of a patriarchate of Kiev will destroy our relations for decades".
The tension surrounding the patriarchate has a history spanning centuries. The Greek Catholic Church broke away from Russian Orthodoxy 400 years ago. However, despite recognising Rome's authority, it continues to retain Orthodox ritual (eastern rite ritual). The Russian Orthodox Church has traditionally viewed its members as renegades. However, the roots of the current tension lie in a 1946 development in which Joseph Stalin gave the Greek Catholics in Ukraine the options of exile, imprisonment and conversion to Orthodoxy. Consequently, many Catholics disappeared and the Moscow patriarchate took possession of all Greek Catholic churches. The situation changed after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Catholics forcibly took back the churches. The Greek Catholic church in western Ukraine has been accused of assaulting Orthodox priests, scaring believers and demolishing churches.
Expressing his displeasure at the current state of affairs, Alexy II told the press that "many of those who today serve in the Greek Catholic Church have received education in our ecclesiastical schools. Throughout the 1950s, after the War, Greek Catholics received spiritual fare in our Orthodox churches." However, he added: "When religious freedom came, they should have expressed their gratitude to their sister church. Instead, a wave of wild nationalism destroyed three Orthodox episcopates in Lvov, Ivano-Frankovsk and Ternopol." He further complained that "Orthodox Christians were driven out of their churches, priests were beaten, relics desecrated, churches taken by force." He criticised the Roman Catholic Church for "trying so stubbornly to move the cathedra of the Greek Roman Church from Lvov to Kiev and to establish a patriarchy." He also criticised the aggressive proselytising by the Roman Catholic Church within both Russia and the CIS. The Orthodoxy views Rome's backing of the Greek Catholic Church as evidence of attempts at poaching on the territory of a sister church.
The fact remains that Russia, the CIS and Eastern Europe, after the collapse of the socialist system, constitute one of the most fertile grounds for Christianity. Both the churches are aware of this and the battle is for the "soul" of this vast territory.