Pope John Paul II is ready to travel to Moscow
before the end of the year-- if he receives an invitation from Russian
Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II.
Russia's new President Vladimir Putin will visit the Vatican on June 5. He is
expected to bring an official invitation from the government of Russia for the
Pope to visit that country. Church officials have not excluded the possibility
that Putin might also bring a similar message from the Orthodox Patriarch.
Whether or not it comes from Putin, insiders at the Vatican are anticipating
that an invitation from the Russian Orthodox Church could soon be
forthcoming. And it is clear that in the absence of such an invitation from the
Orthodox, Pope John Paul would not accept an invitation from the Russian
The Holy Father clearly wants to visit Moscow as soon as possible. He
regularly reads a Russian-language Bible-- a gift from former Russian
President Boris Yeltsin-- in order to maintain his familiarity with that
language. And the Pontiff has frequently voiced his hope that the Eastern
and Western Christian churches can draw together at the dawn of the 3rd
millennium. The Orthodox Church centered in Moscow is by far the world's
largest Eastern Christian body.
However, to date the Pope's efforts to reach out to the Russian Orthodox
Church have been frustrated. Twice the Vatican has set up tentative
meetings between the Pope and Patriarch Alexei; each time-- in September
1996 and June 1997-- the Russian leader backed away from the plans just
before the meeting would have taken place. In each case, the Patriarch cited
familiar Orthodox complaints against the Catholic Church: the conflicts
between Ukrainian Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholics, and the efforts by
Catholic missionaries to gain converts in traditionally Orthodox lands such as
However, in recent months there have been signs of progress on those
embattled fronts. A joint Catholic-Orthodox commission has been established
to resolve disputes between the two churches in Ukraine. And at a recent
conference in Turin, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk-- the second-ranking
prelate in the Russian Orthodox Church-- announced that "we no longer have
any fear of missionaries."
At that same meeting, Metropolitan Kirill said that a meeting between Pope
and Patriarch would be "a fundamental event" and "a new page in Christian
history." He added: "We cannot allow the opportunity to escape us."
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