The Distance Between the First and Third Rome

MOSCOW/ROME: For a decade, Pope John Paul II has been flying in circles around Mother Russia: one day he visits the Baltics or his homeland of Poland; the next, Orthodox Romania and Georgia. In June, 2001 Pope John Paul II will visit Ukraine and Armenia, both parts of the former Soviet Union and both still watched over warily by Russia’s Orthodox Church. Karol Wojtyla, the first Slavic Pope in history, has long dreamed of visiting Moscow; indeed he may see such a visit as putting the finishing touch on his long, turbulent pontificate. But, a decade after communism’s collapse, it is Russia’s churchmen, not its politicians, who are blocking the way.

From Khrushchev onward, Moscow’s rulers eyed the Vatican suspiciously but not without interest. Kremlin leaders instinctively understood the benefits of normalising relations with the Holy See for Soviet propaganda and foreign policy, and meetings between the Pope and Andrei Gromyko and Nikolai Podgorny did take place. Not until 1989, however, did Mikhail Gorbachev dare establish official relations with the Vatican, inviting Pope John Paul II to visit the Soviet Union.

Boris Yeltsin repeated the invitation in 1991, and Vladimir Putin did the same on his visit to Rome soon after his inauguration as Russia’s president. No papal visit to Moscow has taken place, however, because Russia’s Orthodox Church remains opposed.

The Russian Orthodox attitude is voiced repeatedly by Patriarch Alexy II and his closest aides, including the Patriarchy’s “foreign minister,” Metropolitan Kyrill. Before the announcement of the Papal visit to Ukraine, the Italian newspaper "Corriera della Sera" quoted Patriarch Alexy II as admitting that a papal visit was possible, but only if “persecution” of Russian Orthodoxy by Catholics in western Ukraine and proselytising by Catholic clergy on the "canonic territory" of the Russian Orthodox church came to an end. Although seemingly hardline, these two conditions are a step forward for the Patriarch from his notorious statement of a few years ago, when he said that a true Orthodox Christian must not even pick mushrooms in the same forest as a Catholic.