Rome-Moscow Relations Begin New Era

Orthodox Archbishop Offers to Help Europe Fight Secularism

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By Robert Moynihan

WASHINGTON, D.C., DEC. 14, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Things are moving on the Eastern front. And more movement may be coming soon, as an old winter chill in Rome-Moscow relations seems to be thawing, with profound consequences for Europe and the entire world.

Vatican observers have been following these developments with great attention. "For Rome and Moscow, It's Spring Again," the respected Italian Vatican observer Sandro Magister noted in a Dec. 11 column.

This improvement in relations is due in part to many quiet steps taken by the Vatican under the direction of Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's chief ecumenist, who led the Vatican delegation to a week-long theological dialogue in Cyprus, and by Archbishop Antonio Mennini, the Pope's very able nuncio to Moscow.

Magister, however, was commenting on two key recent events: (1) the upgrading of relations between the Holy See and Russia, and (2) the publication in Russia, for the first time ever, of a collection of Benedict XVI's homilies.

And this "springtime" has a goal, Magister argues: "the defense of the Christian tradition" in Europe and around the world.

So what we have, essentially, is the announcement of a new alliance on the world stage between two powers that have long distrusted each other: Rome and Russia.

Incredible as it may seem -- given that just 20 years ago Russia was the atheist, Church-persecuting Soviet Union -- this is what seems to be occurring right before our eyes.


On Dec. 9, following a meeting in the Vatican between the Pope and the president of Russia, Dimitri Medvedev, Russia and the Vatican announced "the establishment of diplomatic relations between them, at the level of apostolic nunciature on the part of the Holy See, and of embassy on the part of the Russian Federation."

The week before, Benedict XVI had received Medvedev in audience at the Vatican and gave him a copy, in Russian, of the encyclical "Caritas in Veritate."

On Dec. 2, the day before Medvedev met with the Pope, a book published by the Patriarchate of Moscow containing the main speeches about Europe made over the past 10 years by Joseph Ratzinger, as cardinal and Pope, was presented in Rome.

The entire volume is in two languages, Italian and Russian -- again, a sign of the ever-closer relations between Russia and Rome.

Kindred spirit

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk, the head of the patriarchate's department for external Church relations, wrote the introduction for the book. The archbishop is an increasingly important figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, and in the Orthodox world. (The previous occupant of this post, Kirill, was elected patriarch of Moscow earlier this year, which suggests the possible future importance of Archbishop Hilarion himself.)

In his introduction, Archbishop Hilarion, 43, sets forth his vision for Europe, and the new "alliance" needed to realize that vision. It is a remarkable text, which we can only touch upon here.

Magister was so impressed by this introduction that he wrote: "Those who expect an Orthodox Church removed from time, made up only of remote traditions and archaic liturgies, will come away shaken from reading the introduction to this book. [...]

"The image that emerges from it is that of a Russian Orthodox Church that refuses to let itself be locked up in a ghetto, but on the contrary hurls itself against the secularist onslaught with all the peaceful weapons at its disposal, not excluding civil disobedience against laws 'that oblige the commission of a sin in the eyes of God.'"

Those in the West, both in Europe and in the United States, who feel that unjust laws have been passed that cannot be countenanced by Christians, will find a kindred spirit in Archbishop Hilarion.

The title of the Orthodox archbishop's text is, "The Help That the Russian Orthodox Church Can Give to Europe."

It begins with a very candid, and deeply felt, lamentation by an Orthodox leader for the closing of Catholic and Protestant churches in Western Europe.

"When traveling in Europe, especially in the traditionally Protestant countries, I am always astonished at seeing not a few churches abandoned by their congregations, especially the ones turned into pubs, clubs, shops, or places of profane activities of yet another kind," Archbishop Hilarion writes. "There is something profoundly deplorable in this sad spectacle.

"I come from a country in which for many decades the churches were used for nonreligious purposes. Many places of worship were completely destroyed. […] Why has the space for religion in Western society been reduced in such a significant way in recent decades?"

Help for the West

Then Archbishop Hilarion makes his main point: Russia can help. Russia can come to the rescue of the West.

"The Russian Orthodox Church, with its unique experience of surviving the harshest persecutions, struggling against militant atheism, reemerging from the ghetto when the political situation changed, recovering its place in society and redefining its social responsibilities, can therefore be of help to Europe," he writes.

Then he draws a line in the sand.

"The totalitarian dictatorship of the past cannot be replaced with a new dictatorship of pan-European government mechanisms. […] The countries of Orthodox tradition, for example, do not accept laws that legalize euthanasia, homosexual marriage, drug trafficking, the maintenance of brothels, pornography, and so on."

In short, the archbishop is saying that the Orthodox, including the Russian Orthodox Church which he represents, are ready to fight for Christian values in the West, alongside Catholics and Protestants.

And Archbishop Hilarion does not exclude disobedience against unjust laws.

"Obviously, disobedience of civil law is an extreme measure that a particular Church might adopt in exceptional circumstances," he writes. "It is nonetheless a possibility that must not be excluded a priori, in case a system of secularized values should become the only one operating in Europe."

Was this a random, unrepresentative text, out of the mainstream?

Well, one indication that it is not merely a stray opinion, but rather part of a growing consensus, is that the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano saw fit to publish Archbishop Hilarion's text almost in its entirety on Dec. 2.

John Thavis, the distinguished Vaticanist for Catholic News Service -- of the U.S. bishops' conference -- wrote Dec. 11: "The Russian Orthodox Church has come forward to propose a strategic alliance with the Catholic Church aimed, in effect, at saving Europe's soul from 'Western post-Christian humanism.' The offer came in an introduction written by Russian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion to a book of speeches by Benedict XVI on Europe's spiritual crisis, published in Russian by the Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate. In an unusual move, the Vatican newspaper published almost the entire introduction in its Dec. 2 edition."

Thavis notes that Archbishop Hilarion's proposal comes precisely as 140 Christian leaders in the United States met in New York and issued the "Manhattan Declaration" pledging renewed zeal in defending the unborn, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and protecting religious freedom.

And, Thavis summed up, "Vatican officials made no formal response to the archbishop's text, but read it with great interest."

St. Gregory of Nazianzus

This introduction by Archbishop Hilarion should not come as a surprise. During the last four years, the archbishop has spoken publicly a number of times of such an alliance. In fact, in May 2006 the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate held a weeklong conference in Vienna, which I attended, outlining the framework for such cooperation.

Last month, I traveled to Russia and met with Archbishop Hilarion and his close associates.

One of them is Leonid Sevastianov, 31, the executive director of the Russian Orthodox St. Gregory of Nazianzus Charitable Foundation, established a few weeks ago with the blessing of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill to help carry out Archbishop Hilarion's vision of working with Western Christians on behalf of Christian values.

"We want your help, the help of Catholics, and of Western Europeans and Americans," Sevastianov told me. "Patriarch Kirill has called for the moral renewal of Russia, through a return to the deep values of the Christian faith. This is our vision." (Forbes magazine in November named Patriarch Kirill as one of the most powerful leaders in Russia today.)

St. Gregory of Nazianzus was a theologian in the 300s, well before the division of the Church into East and West, and so is venerated both by the Catholics and by the Orthodox. He is a Father of the Church for all Christians.

The co-founders of this new foundation are Archbishop Hilarion and Vadim Yakunin, one of the wealthiest businessmen in Russia.

Other wealthy Russians are also prepared to support this foundation. But participation by Americans and Western Europeans would also be very much appreciated, Archbishop Hilarion and Sevastianov told me.

"We want to try to attract the attention of religious believers, in Russia and abroad, who believe in traditional Christian values, and who want to contribute to making society more just and more moral," Sevastianov said.

"We want to promote the idea of the unity between the West and Russia on the basis of common Christian roots."

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Robert Moynihan is founder and editor of the monthly magazine Inside the Vatican. He is the author of the book "Let God's Light Shine Forth: the Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI" (2005, Doubleday). Moynihan's blog can be found at www.insidethevatican.com. He can be reached at: editor@insidethevatican.com.