There really seemed to be some ecumenical hope for Catholics and Orthodox at the beginning of 2002. A Russian Orthodox choir, personally sent by Patriarch Alexei of Moscow, sang for Pope John Paul in Rome. And as the Orthodox celebrated the Nativity of Our Lord, the Pope called for a new energy along the difficult path of unity. For the disunity between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church is the one that matters most to Pope John Paul — and many Catholics — for it is still the 1054 schism that holds back the Church's mission, preventing the Church from "breathing with both lungs" the hope and love of the Gospel of Christ. Perhaps it seemed that at least one of the Pope's two final dreams, of visiting Moscow and Beijing, would be realised this year. But now his Russian dream seems to have evaporated in a polluted atmosphere of misunderstandings and distrust, partly created by bad diplomacy.
In Moscow, in Saratov, and most recently in Pskov, there have been effective protests against Catholic activity. In Pskov last week, the building permission for the Catholic Cathedral was hastily withdrawn; the Orthodox Archbishop Evsevij had written a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling on Pun "not to offend the Russian people by a continuous Catholic presence", and this was the direct result. The fact that Pskov's Catholic parish dated back to 1802 cut no ice, nor did the fact that Catholics numbered well over a million in Russian territories pre-1918. Even now, some estimates of those of Catholic ethnic background on Russian territory claim over one million — according to one Vatican estimate, the figure is 1.4 million, with about one million in western Siberia and approximately 300,000 in western European Russia.
What has caused this freeze in the Russian relationship and the frosty attitude to Catholics in some parts of Russia? The events leading up to this chill reveal a lot about underlying attitudes on both sides. Reports from Assisi — and those on that "interfaith express" in late January — indicate that a real opportunity was presented to those in the Vatican who wanted to change diplomatic tack and see a more direct and active approach in support of Catholics in Russia. When Pope John Paul II received Metropolitan Pitrim of Volokolamsk and Yuriev, and Bishop Hilarion of Keith, in audience, the Orthodox delegation presented an ecumenical impasse to a possible papal visit to Russia: before such a visit, they wanted the problems of proselytism and the so-called "Uniates" (Eastern Rite Catholics) to be addressed. Not long after this meeting, the decision came from the Vatican to upgrade the four apostolic Catholic administrations in Russia and Siberia to full dioceses. This then provoked Putin's government, which had been distancing itself more and more from the Soviet ways of some in the Patriarchate, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation stated: "It causes regret that such an important decision was taken without due consideration of the opinion of the Russian The Patriarchate reacted with real anger, and Patriarch Alexei said: "The formation of such a church in Russia means a challenge to Orthodoxy which has been rooted in the country for centuries."
Yet interestingly, just as an invitation to Cardinal Walter Kasper was being withdrawn by Moscow, the Patriarch challenged the Vatican to "work together rather than be at enmity", and cited "good rela tions" with Catholic dioceses, parishes, monasteries and organisations.
The misunderstandings, tension, frustrations and barely disguised aggression seem to hark back to the Cold War era. For the Orthodox, there is a defensive need to shield Holy Russia from the onslaught of the West, with which the Catholic Church is identified. There is a deep historical lack of trust, and understanding. For many Russians, despite what some polls may indicate, it would be hard, if not impossible, to welcome a Polish Pope in Moscow. Geoffrey Hosking in his seminal work, Russia and the Russians, speaks of the "fear that Poland was a dagger menacing Russia" — and even today all Catholics are viewed through a Polish prism.
At the Vatican, there are arguments over the best way forward to minister to Catholics in Russia, seemingly compounded by a lack of respect for all that the Orthodox and Russians have faced during the 20th century, and perhaps a patronising attitude that the Orthodox may have a beautiful liturgy but they have not had their Vatican II, or really discovered the social Gospel.
So what now? If the Church is to "breathe again with both lungs", then the ecumenical operation will take a long time and be a delicate one, performed with patience and perseverance. But it will be worth it — to bring hope to the spiritual wastelands of the East and beyond.
From the Catholic side, we are not helped by any emotional drama, such as at the video-link broadcast to the youth by the Pope in the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Moscow at the beginning of March, when Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewcz fell to his knees and shouted out: "Dear Pope, we are waiting for you in Moscow!" This sort of action can only lead to misunderstanding.
The cool nerve of those such as the Catholic Bishop Jerzy Mazur in Irkutsk is needed. He told an Aid to the Church in Need conference at Westminster last autumn: "Ecumenical dialogue is perhaps the most difficult field we face in the life of the Catholic Church in Russia ... This process demands a lot of time and I hope that the small initiatives already started in different places would spread all over including a wider circle of Catholics and Orthodox."
Despite the misunderstandings on both sides, there is Easter hope of a unified witness to Christ. "Christian solidarity must be manifested in action ... It is important for Europe and the entire world that the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church engage in dialogue and learn to respond jointly to the challenges of today's world." Words of the Pope? No. Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk.