By Paul Goble
A senior Russian hierarch close to Patriarch Kirill said in Rome last week that “the time has come to take decisive steps in the direction of full unity” between Russian Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church, the latest indication that Kirill wants at a minimum far closer ties with the Vatican than did any of his predecessors.
Speaking to a meeting of Orthodox and Catholic hierarchs and activists, Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Slutsk, the Patriarchal exarch of Belarus, said that the “commonality of views” of the two churches “on many questions” means that “the time has come to take decisive steps toward full unity.”
Filaret’s words were reported by the Vatican and reproduced in the Russian-language “Sibirskaya Katolicheskaya gazeta” which focused on his call for taking “joint steps toward unity” and reported as well that he hopes Patriarch Kirill and Pope Benedict XVI will meet soon (sibcatholic.ru/2010/05/07/nastalo-vremya-predprinyat-sovmestnye-shagi-k-edinstvu/).
The paper also noted that later in May, the Vatican will host “Days of Russian Culture and Spirituality, at which among other things, there will be a performance of music composed by Metropolitan Ilarion Alfeyev, the head of the Patriarchate’s External Relations Department, the post which Kirill occupied for many years before his elevation.
Since becoming patriarch, Kirill has repeatedly suggested that he is interested in closer ties with the Vatican so that the two churches can work together in opposition to secularism and modernism in Europe and elsewhere. And he and his aides have indicated that he views the conservative German pope as someone he can work with.
But just how far either side is in fact prepared to proceed with efforts to overcome a split that has lasted almost a thousand years is far from clear. Kirill faces opposition within the Orthodox Church from those who believe that ecumenism is bad, even if most observers grant that the Patriarch benefits from establishing such ties.
And the Pope also faces internal opposition in the Curia and from many Catholics who are suspicious of Russian intentions regarding Catholics and especially Uniate groups in the East but also who view Orthodox positions on a variety of theological and moral questions as problematic.
Consequently, it is quite possible, as one religious news portal headlined its report about Filaret’s remarks, that the metropolitan’s words are simply a form of “church politeness” rather than a real breakthrough, all the more so because Orthodox sites did not report them in the same way