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.