By Elise Harris
After a joint meeting during Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s visit to Russia this week, both he and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill said the trip marks “a new stage” in relations between their Churches.
This stage, they said, is thanks not only to Pope Francis’ meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Havana in February 2016, but is also due to the loaning of the relics of St. Nicholas to Russia over the summer, drawing millions of Orthodox faithful for veneration.
Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, was welcomed to Patriarch Kirill’s residence at the monastery of St. Daniel Aug. 22, where the two met as part of Cardinal Parolin’s Aug. 21-24 visit to Moscow.
Taking place 18 months after meeting between Francis and Patriarch Kirill, Parolin’s visit marks the first time a Vatican Secretary of State has traveled to Moscow in 18 years.
According to an Aug. 23 statement from the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, at the beginning of the meeting Patriarch Kirill said the meeting between he and Cardinal Parolin was possible due to “the development of relations between the Russian Federation and the Holy See.”
“But it is with still greater satisfaction that I see the development of relations between our Churches,” he said, noting that his meeting with Pope Francis provided new impetus for cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church.
“This fact testifies that a new stage has indeed begun in our relations with events of great importance, which have been possible because in Havana we agreed our positions on many current issues,” he said, adding that “this communion of positions allows us to build plans and give them real content.”
Cardinal Parolin echoed the sentiment, offering Pope Francis’ greeting to “my brother Kirill,” and affirming the patriarch’s observation that the Havana encounter “has laid the foundation for a new stage in the relationship between our Churches, giving new impetus to these relations,” according to Vatican Radio.
A key highlight of the conversation between the two was the transfer of the relics of St. Nicholas of Bari, one of the most revered saints in the Russian Orthodox Church, to Moscow earlier this summer.
Consisting of several fragments of his ribs, the relics were flown on a chartered plane to Moscow, where they stayed in the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior from May 22-July 12 before going to St. Petersburg from July 13-28, marking the first time in nearly 1,000 years that the relics of the 4th century saint had been moved from their resting place in Bari.
Calling the visit of the relics an “exceptional event for the story of our Churches,” Cardinal Parolin said the event is an example of “the ecumenism of sanctity, it’s true, it exists.”
“The saints unite us because they are close to God and so it is they who help us to overcome the difficulties of past relations due to previous situations, and to always walk more rapidly toward fraternal embrace and Eucharistic communion,” he said.
According to the statement from the patriarchate, more than 2.3 million Orthodox faithful from all over Russia cued up to venerate the relics, at times waiting 6-10 hours to get in. Many elderly and sick also came, and were able to skip the long lines.
Patriarch Kirill noted that when they waived goodbye to the relics, he told his faithful that “neither ecclesiastical diplomacy nor government diplomacy could do as much for the development of relations between the Catholic world and the Orthodox world as what St. Nicholas did.”
St Nicholas, he said, “has entered into the history of relations between our Churches as a particularly brilliant and luminous page. It is a spiritual consequence of our meeting in Havana.”
As with prior meetings Cardinal Parolin had this week, other key talking points between the two were conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, and the need to seek peaceful solutions while working together to provide humanitarian aid.
On the crisis in Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill stressed that the Church “can play no other role than that of pacification when people are in conflict with each other,” and voiced gratitude for the fact that “our Churches share much the same position on the role of the Church in the conflict in Ukraine.”
Cardinal Parolin voiced much the same point of view in his meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, President of the Department for External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, the day before.
In his comments, Patriarch Kirill noted that “conflicts do not last forever and sooner or later they end,” but questioned that “if all social efforts are involved in the conflict, then who will pick up the stones?”
“I appreciate very much the fact that once again we have found mutual understanding on the role that our Churches must play in the reconciliation of the population in Ukraine,” he said.
When it comes to the Middle East, mention was made of the agreement the two Churches found on conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa during last year’s meeting in Havana.
“The collaboration between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in providing humanitarian assistance to the populations suffering due to conflicts in the Middle East can be an important factor of unity,” Patriarch Kirill said, adding that cooperation in providing aid can provide a basis for common projects in the Middle East in the future.
Following his meeting with the patriarch, Cardinal Parolin visited Putin at the presidential residence in Sochi, nearly 900 miles southwest of Saratov.
During their hour-long meeting “carried out in a positive and cordial climate, one of respect and listening to each other,” they had an “open exchange of views on various subject matters relating to international and bilateral relations,” according to a statement from the Holy See press office.
They exchanged gifts, with Cardinal Parolin giving the Russian president a bronze olive branch as a symbol of peace, and Putin giving the Vatican secretary of state a set of collector coins commemorating the 2014 Olympics, which were held in Sochi.
Cardinal Parolin is travelling back to Moscow, where he will say a private Mass at the nunciature Aug. 24 before his return to Rome.