One of the late Pope John Paul II’s unfulfilled dreams was to visit Moscow and forge a rapprochement with the Orthodox Church. But, although he was invited to Moscow by Russia’s three most recent presidents – Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, and Mikhail Gorbachev – opposition to the visit by Orthodox Patriarch Alexi prevented the Pope from making the journey before he died. Will Pope Benedict XVI achieve the breakthrough that his friend and predecessor failed to realize?
Despite the recent return to Russia of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan that once hung in John Paul’s bedroom, relations between the Vatican and the Patriarchate remain strained. So Putin, who usually seems omnipotent, remains wary of issuing an invitation to Pope Benedict. That wariness is reinforced by a new political factor: a defense of Orthodoxy has become a pillar of the national idea on which Putin seeks to base the legitimacy of his regime.
This is one reason why Putin was one of the few leading heads of state to miss attending Pope John Paul’s funeral. Although the Orthodox Church did send a delegation, immediately after the funeral Patriarch Alexi warned that the disagreements between the two branches of Christianity go much deeper than the former Pope’s Polish nationality, which was always a particular sore spot for Russian Orthodox Slavs.
Russians saw John Paul’s Polish nationality as linking him to a long history of perceived oppression of Russian Orthodoxy. No less a figure than Alexander Pushkin wrote in 1836 that “Orthodoxy has always been persecuted by Catholic fanaticism….Their missionaries cursed the Orthodox Church, with hypocrisy and threats tried to recruit into Catholicism not only ordinary people but Orthodox priests as well.” Those Russians who continue to view the Catholic Church as a threat regularly quote these lines.
Pope Benedict, being from Germany, a predominantly Protestant country, does not carry the weight of this bitter history. Perhaps this is one reason why Alexi responded positively to Benedict’s first speech urging reconciliation, saying that he hopes that this will improve “Orthodox-Catholic relations on the post-Soviet territory.”
This positive spirit can be nurtured by Russia’s government, which usually has cordial relations with the Vatican. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has many projects for which he thinks the Vatican can be of help, particularly in advancing the cause of reconciliation and creating a “partnership between civilizations.”
Recently, another key Vatican figure, Cardinal Walter Casper, the head of the Council for Christian Unity, called for a Catholic-Orthodox high level meeting that would address unifying both branches of Christianity. Cardinal Casper is well regarded in Russia for being the man who returned Our Lady of Kazan to its homeland. In his public speeches, Casper more than once suggested that the Vatican considers Christian unification its main goal, and – most important from the Orthodox perspective -- that “unity does not have to mean sameness.”
The fact that Pope Benedict and Cardinal Casper are both Germans is important, because Russian-German relations are perhaps warmer now than they have ever been. Putin, in particular, is at home in the German language, having spent many years in East Germany during his days as a KGB agent. Moreover, unlike Pope John Paul II, who, as a Pole, always saw communist Russia as an oppressor, Benedict carries the German sense of guilt stemming from the country’s Nazi past and its brutal invasion of Russia.
In both Rome and Moscow, there is growing hope that a road to Christian unity can be built, but it is increasingly clear that the road can be completed only by passing through Berlin.