VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI met with a key official of the Russian Orthodox Church amid signs of a significant improvement in relations.
The Vatican provided no details of the pope’s encounter Sept. 18 with Russian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion, president of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations. The private meeting took place at the pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.
Archbishop Hilarion was in Rome for five days of meetings and talks with Vatican officials and Catholic groups, at the invitation of Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s chief ecumenist.
Speaking to Vatican Radio Sept. 17, Cardinal Kasper said the church’s relations with the Russian Orthodox had improved appreciably under Pope Benedict, and that the Moscow patriarchate was expected to participate in a major dialogue session with the Vatican in mid-October.
“Pope Benedict is highly regarded by the Russian Orthodox Church for his moral positions and also because he doesn’t take into account political correctness. They esteem him highly, and this helps our relations,” Cardinal Kasper said.
Cardinal Kasper, who is president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, held lengthy talks with Archbishop Hilarion during his visit. The cardinal said the reduction in tensions from a few years ago was evident in the “very calm conversation” they had about a number of issues, including theological and practical problems.
Perhaps most importantly, the Russian Orthodox will be returning to the plenary meeting of the international Catholic-Orthodox theological commission in Cyprus in October, which will take up the topic of the historic role of the bishop of Rome. The Russian Orthodox delegation walked out of the commission’s last plenary session in 2007 in an inter-Orthodox dispute that has since been resolved, Cardinal Kasper said.
Cardinal Kasper said he had suggested that the Orthodox churches form some kind of bishops’ conference at the European level that would constitute a “direct partner of cooperation” in such dialogue encounters. This will be a topic of discussion in coming months, he said.
The cardinal said he discussed with Archbishop Hilarion other areas of collaboration, including “problems of the cultural and social field, and also the question of Christian values in Europe: the family, homosexuality, social justice and so on.”
Cardinal Kasper said Catholics and Orthodox have “more or less the same positions” on these issues and can “give common witness, so our voice will be stronger than when we speak alone.”
Cardinal Kasper said chances had improved for a meeting between Pope Benedict and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who was elected last January. But the cardinal said such a meeting was not on the immediate agenda, and would probably not take place in Moscow or Rome.
Another Vatican source said a papal visit to Moscow was probably still “years away.”
Before his election, Patriarch Kirill served almost 20 years as chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for ecumenical relations. In that position, he had met Pope Benedict three times.
Cardinal Kasper said tensions over the status and evangelizing activities of the Roman Catholic Church in the Moscow patriarchate had been largely overcome. A joint commission has been established to deal with problems and it works very well, the cardinal said, and Italian-born Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow is “very highly regarded” by the Orthodox.