MOSCOW (Sputnik) – Monday marks the beginning of the four-day visit of Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin to Russia, during which he is expected to hold meetings with Russian leadership and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Roman Catholic Church is the biggest Christian Church uniting Catholic believers around the world. It is strictly centralized and hierarchical despite the existence of dozens of Local Catholic Churches in various countries. The Head of the Roman Catholic Church is the Pope, also known as the Pontiff, who has his residence in the Vatican.
Since the late 18th century and until 1917, Russia hosted the Apostolic Nunciature (embassy). The Metropolitan of the Roman Catholic Church in the Russian Empire was the Archbishop of Mogilev, who had his residence in St. Petersburg.
Under the Russo-Vatican Concordat of 1847, the Pope was recognized as the head of the Russian Catholics. In 1866, Russia broke off the Concordat unilaterally. The decision of St. Petersburg resulted in a situation whereby the Catholics of Russia and the Kingdom of Poland maintained contacts with the Roman Curia through the country’s interior ministers. All Catholic bishops were also appointed by the Russian emperors in agreement with the Pope.
After the October Revolution that took place in 1917, the Catholic priesthood came under the decree of the Soviet government on the separation of the Church from the State and the School from the Church issued on January 23, 1918 (on February 5, according to the Gregorian calendar).
In the USSR, there were two Roman Catholic hierarchies: the Lithuanian (the bishop’s jurisdiction extended only to Lithuania) and the Latvian (the Riga Archbishopric Ordinate ruled the Catholic Diocese in Latvia and dealt with Catholics in the entire USSR apart from Belarus, where an independent Minsk Diocese was formed in 1989).
Relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church reached a new level after the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965, which introduced substantive amendments to the social doctrine and the ecumenical principles of the Catholic Church and officially recognized the Orthodox Church. This enabled the Orthodox Church to start an official dialogue with the Catholic Church in 1980. A Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church has also been created.
Relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Moscow Patriarchate became tense in the early 1990s. The main problem was Catholic proselytism in Russia and other member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as well as a conflict between Orthodox believers and Greek Catholics also known as Uniats in Western Ukraine.
By Catholic proselytism, the Moscow Patriarchate means “actions by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, directed at involving Russians lacking a historical link with that [Catholic] Church but belonging to the Orthodox tradition by baptism and cultural roots into the liturgical and other church practices.”
Another problem was caused by tensions in relations between the Orthodox believers and Greek Catholics in Ukraine. The problem was aggravated by the Uniats overrunning three eparchies of the Moscow Patriarchate in Western Ukraine at the turn of the 1990s, the transition of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church center from Lviv to Kiev, its persistent desire to obtain the status of a Patriarchate, the expansion of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church mission to the traditionally Orthodox Eastern and Southern Ukraine, and the support the Uniats were giving to the Old Believers.
A Joint Working Group was established in 2004 to consider problems in relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
The unsolved problems in the relations between the two Churches were the reason why Pope John Paul II’s visit to Russia never took place and why the meeting between the Pope and Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexy II scheduled to be held in 1997 in Austria’s Graz, was canceled. During preliminary talks in 1997, the parties drafted a joint statement which, among other things, renounced Greek Catholicism as a means for reunifying the Churches and the Catholic proselytism in Russia and other CIS countries. But at the last moment, the top hierarchs of the Roman Catholic Church decided to drop these essential points from the joint document. This made the nearly organized meeting absolutely senseless.
The bilateral conflict became exacerbated in 2002, when Pope John Paul II decided to raise the status of the Catholic Church’s administrations in Russia to a diocese. This unfriendly step called forth a response from the Russian government, the Russian Orthodox Church and the public. The Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexy II, the Holy Synod, the Foreign Ministry, the country’s parliament and a number of influential public organizations, politicians, public and religious figures issued a statement on the issue. The Russian Orthodox Church was supported by representatives of other traditional faiths in Russia.
There is still the Uniate problem that prevents the two Churches from finally normalizing their relations. The situation has worsened as a result of recent events in Ukraine, in which Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church members are directly involved in anti-Russia activism and harbor anti-Russia sentiment.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s relations with the Roman Catholic Church are based on the Main Principles Guiding the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church toward the Non-Orthodoxy, which declare as the most important goal the “restoration of the God-ordained unity of Christians (John 17, 21), which is part of the design of God and belongs to the very essence of Christianity. This is a task of prime importance for the Orthodox Church at all levels of its existence.”
Apart from the nunciature-mediated dialogue, there are direct high-level contacts between President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity Cardinal Kurt Koch and Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s External Church Relations Department, Metropolitan Hilarion. Planned meetings on cultural relations and student exchanges are held every year. Hilarion attends the most important events in the life of the Roman Catholic Church.
Cooperation is being promoted with the Pontifical Council for Culture, which includes several Orthodox hierarchs.
In February 2015, a working group for cultural cooperation was launched based on agreements reached between the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
On February 12, 2016, Cuba hosted the historic meeting between the Primates of the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches. Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis signed a joint declaration in Havana, which called on the world community to join efforts for the defense of Christians in the Middle East, Africa and other regions.
In 2016, the two Churches implemented several cultural cooperation projects, including the Roma Aeterna: Masterpieces of the Vatican Pinacoteca exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which was attended by 163,000 people.
The historic meeting of Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis resulted in another event: the holy relics of St. Nicholas were brought from Bari, Italy to Russia, which was a unique event in the last 930 years. The artifact arrived in Moscow on May 21, 2017, and was deposited at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. On July 13, the relics were transferred to the St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. Almost 2.5 million pilgrims venerated the relics while they were in Russia.