2007-03-11 21:51:00

The meeting of Vladimir Putin and Benedict XVI will be a meeting between two Christians, each of whom bears high responsibility for the lives of the others

On the threshold of Russian president’s visit to Italy, during which he is going to meet the head of the Holy See, the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria gave some comment on this event in his interview for the Interfax-Religion.

- Does the Russian Orthodox Church expect anything of the meeting between President Putin and Pope Benedict XVI?

- I dare to hope that this meeting will help some further warming in relationships between the Vatican and Russia. It is going to be a meeting of the two heads of their respective states, both of whom have a handful of common tasks to deal with. However, it is also going to be a meeting between two Christians, each of whom bears high responsibility for the lives of the others.

Nowadays, the whole long-established people’s life-mode is traumatized due to total liberalization of morals influenced by secular and atheistic ideology. The most fundamental features of human existence, such as family and birthgiving are no longer enjoy priority in among the modern person’s values and are therefore put under threat. This results in an extreme demographic crisis that both Russia and Western European nations are facing.

In this circumstances Russia and the Vatican have many things to do jointly to defend traditional moral values, and I hope that the meeting between the Russian President Putin and Pope Benedict will contribute into our common cause.

- What do you think has changed in state contacts between Russia and the Vatican after coming of Vladimir Putin and Benedict XVI?

- I don’t think I can speak about intergovernmental affairs, but it looks like some positive changes in relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church are about to happen during the current pontificate. Of course the most painful problems, such as the Unia and proselytism still remain unsolved. But now we have a working mechanism for regular consultations, our bilateral commission is active, and our contacts on various levels obviously bring forth their results too.

The conference ‘Give a soul to Europe’ held in Vienna in May 2006 may serve a good example of positive cooperation between the two Churches. The conference organized jointly by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate revealed many viewpoints we had in common. There has been growing understanding that Orthodox and Catholics face the same challenges, such as militant secularism and relativism, ungodliness and immorality. All these challenges ought to be dealt with in cooperation.

- Is it possible that this meeting results in a warmer relationship between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Holy See?

- The Moscow Patriarchate and the Roman Catholic Church pursue a free dialogue without any state mediation. Still exchange of state visits between Russia and the Vatican will definitely help improving the climate of the Russian-Vatican relations.

I would like to remind you of what I often tell the Western audience: the Russian Orthodox Church is not only Russia’s church since more than half of her parishes lay outside the territory of the Russian Federation. So the Russian Church’s interests and Russia’s ones ought not to be fully identified. Moral and spiritual influence of the Russian Orthodox Church extends over millions of people not in Russia alone, but also beyond her borders - in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Baltic and Central Asian countries, and in among the so-called ‘Diaspora.’

In today’s Russia the church is no longer a state department as it used to be under the imperial Holy Synod. The church is free. The state does not interfere into ecclesiastical affairs while the church refrains from any direct involvement into the political process. Though separated from state, our church still is no way separated from society and people. Our current situation offers us a unique opportunity for partnership and cooperation between church and state in Russia, and this partnership is already present on different levels.

So, I believe that during his talks with Pope Benedict XVI, Russian president will keep in mind not solely national interests of the Russian state, but also the position of the Russian Orthodox Church regarding the whole set of issues between Moscow and the Vatican.

- What will this meeting mean for the European Christianity in general?

- Christianity is having its uneasy times in Europe now. On the one hand, some Eastern European countries experience an unprecedented religious revival. They open thousands of new churches, hundreds of monasteries, dozens of theological schools. On the other hand, in the Western European countries religious indifference increases, churchgoing falls, and fewer and fewer young people enter seminaries and monastic houses. The Western Christianity evidently suffers a crisis, maybe the most severe one in its history.

In this situation both Orthodox and Catholics should realize that they are allies, not contenders, before the outer world. This approach excludes any form of proselytizing and opens a large space for cooperation. Still I think that voices urging to reestablish the Eucharistic communion in the nearest future, which are often heard from both sides, are rather utopist. My experience in the Catholic-Orthodox Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue tells me that it would be pretty difficult to achieve any serious shift on theological level.

However nothing prevents us from intensifying our cooperation in order to defend traditional Christian values in Europe and worldwide even before theological dialogue comes to a result or all existing problems are solved. Let theological dialogue continue, let problems be dealt with by the existing bilateral commissions and boards, since our relationships may not be reduced to our internal problems when we face so severe challenges demanding an urgent common respond.

Benedict and Patriarch Alexy, which they claim may be held soon on a ‘neutral’ soil, in Vienna for instance. Does this rumor have any ground under it, and when such a meeting might be practically held?

- I think that if such a meeting is to be ever held, it should be held on a truly neutral soil, which means neither in Russia nor in the Vatican. It is too early now to propose any dates, because the most important thing is to prepare this meeting carefully.

Ten years ago there was a plan for a meeting between Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Alexy II. The date and time were already arranged. But it was cancelled as it became clear that there would not be any compromise on the hottest topics, the Unia and proselytism.

I think neither Catholics nor Orthodox are interested in having that experience once again. That is why we first need to solve the existing problems, to overcome our difficulties in order to reach understanding on key issues. If we succeed it will make a meeting of the pope and the patriarch possible, and not as a protocol show, but as an historic event, which will become a break-forward in our bilateral relations.

As for holding this event in Vienna, I may tell you that neither me nor, I think, Cardinal Schonborn, nor the apostolic nuncio in Austria whom I met recently, are aware of such a meeting being arranged. Had it been prepared, we as Orthodox and Catholic bishops in Vienna would have been informed.

- During President Putin’s coming to Bari, will there be any talks about giving Russian St. Nicholas church to the Moscow Patriarchate?

- I have no information about that either because this issue lays beyond by responsibility as representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions. I hope that the question of giving the Russian Orthodox Church the free and perpetual hold of St. Nicholas’ will be solved in a positive direction since it will be an act of historic justice and it will also help the church to more efficiently receive thousands of pilgrims who every day come to the city of Bari in order to venerate the relics of St. Nicholas.