From Russia with Love?

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” It’s been that kind of month for relations between Roman Catholics and the Russian Orthodox Church, which have been chilly for around 1000 years.

On the positive side, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations department, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, visited Rome last week to attend a concert where his own musical work, “Canto dell’Ascensione,” was performed for Pope Benedict XVI. Hilarion is an accomplished composer, and his works have been performed at Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. He has visited Rome often and has been outspoken in his support for the pope.

The concert and visit were the latest in a series of steps aimed at reconciliation between Catholics and Orthodox. Hilarion offered support for the pope’s program of new evangelization in de-christianized Europe, asserting that the Russian Orthodox Church will work with Rome “no longer as a competitor, but as an ally.” Asked by the Chiesa web site about this new attitude, Hilarion responded: “The first factor . . . is the person of the new pope. . .who receives ‘the positive regard of the whole of the Russian Orthodox world. . . .’ The second factor is the common view of the challenge posed to both Churches by the dechristianization of countries that in the past were the heart of Christendom. And the third reason is their mutual embrace of the grand Christian tradition, as the great highway of the new evangelization.”

Much good will between Moscow and Rome has been generated by the publication of a set of Benedict’s works on Europe by the Moscow patriarchate, and the reciprocal publication by a Vatican press of works by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I. While obstacles apparently remain to a meeting between the pope and the patriarch, a goal much cherished but never achieved by John Paul II, progress seems to have been made towards such a historic possibility.

But this year and this week have seen events that were less positive, as well. Ukraine’s new president, Victor Yanukovich, is known for his close ties to the Russian government. At Yanukovich’s inauguration in February, recent precedent was broken at a religious service to celebrate the event, formerly an ecumenical affair that included Ukrainian Orthodox churches separate from Moscow as well as Ukrainian Catholics. This year, the only religious leader present for the service was Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Given the bloody history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, which have included an important religious element – and recent efforts by the Russian government to reassert influence over Ukraine – this apparently parallel act of self-assertion by the patriarch carried strong significance. Some saw in it an example of a traditional way of acting for Orthodox churches with respect to their national governments.

Then, last week, the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine, Father Boris Gudziak, received a menacing visit from a state security official demanding that Fr. Gudziak read and sign a letter about possible student protests. The security agent said he would retain the letter, providing no copies to the university. This tactic was standard for communist secret police who sought to compromise individuals, who could then be turned into collaborators. Fr. Gudziak refused to read or sign the letter and published a complete memo of the event, on the theory that transparency is the best defense against such assaults on freedom. There is no apparent connection between this action and the Russian Orthodox Church, but the hostile attitude of the Moscow-supported Ukrainian government to institutions with reputations for supporting freedom is dangerous.

Moreover, the full intentions of Patriarch Kirill in participating in the inauguration service – in his pursuit of better relations with Rome, and in his running of the Moscow Church – are unclear. Some observers of the Russian government think him to be exceptionally powerful both inside the church and out. He has established strong central control of his church (one can wonder if he sees the disarray sometimes displayed in the Vatican as an example of how not to run a hierarchy). But Metropolitan Hilarion is a close ally of Kirill, and Hilarion has strenuously opposed powerful Russian efforts to “rehabilitate” the reputation of the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin, calling him a “spiritually-deformed monster.” Hilarion is also frank about the need for his church to do much more to meet the spiritual needs of a nation still suffering from decades of nihilistic Marxism.

So the signals from Russia are mixed. Is Patriarch Kirill taking the necessary steps to assert his church’s control over Russia and Russian populations abroad, with the aim of assuring his ability to minister effectively to their spiritual needs, or is he simply exerting political power? Is greater engagement with the Catholic Church an authentic first step in a cooperative new evangelization of Europe, or does it represent an effort to carve out respective spheres of influence?

Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have placed great stress on the critical importance of Christian unity, and Benedict sees the new evangelization of Europe as a central mission. We can hope that the positive signs will come to greater fruition. Churchill was right that Russia is a mystery. But the Paraclete whose descent we celebrated this week has a mystery all His own.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.