prominent Russian Orthodox prelate has raised hopes of a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Russian Patriarch Alexy 11 but said that much depends on the right preparation and the leaders' goodwill. "I think this meeting will take place one day but it's not clear when," Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna said. "It is very difficult to predict because it very much depends on the goodwill of both the Pope and the Patriarch, but also on the good work of their aides who must prepare the agenda."
Such a meeting would be momentous, representing a true thaw in relations which have been frozen for nearly 1,000 years. For this reason Bishop Hilarion stressed that it should not simply be a shaking of bands, but rather "a meeting which marks a breakthrough". The bishop added that he detected an "amelioration" in relations in recent months, and acknowledged that "contacts have intensified" since the election of Benedict XVI. Russians find him easier to deal with than a Polish pope, and they respect him as a theologian.
However, any such meeting is likely to be held on neutral territory, rather than Rome or Moscow, the bishop said, and he believed it would have to be well-prepared. A previously scheduled meeting with Pope John Paul II was cancelled at the last minute because officials had failed to establish a common position beforehand. Now, however, there is common ground, particularly when it comes to evangelising in the face of radical secularism.
But large obstacles loom, too. The main one is the continuing allegation of proselytism by Catholics in Russia. Moscow is particularly sensitive to any attempts to convert citizens to anything other than the established Russian Orthodox religion. The Vatican has rejected the accusation, insisting that the Church created a diocesan structure on Russian territory in 2002 to serve the small Catholic minority there rather than to proselytise.
Some put such Orthodox sensitivities down to fragility after the Communist era: others say it's because of an innate bolshiness and lack of charity among Orthodox leaders. (When the latter reason was put to Bishop Hilarion, he sat in awkward silence, unable to respond. Eventually he said rather wealdy: "Sometimes things happen which can be qualified as proselytism; there should be some kind of acceptable conduct between the two churches".) But another hindrance is not with the Catholic Church, but within Russian Orthodoxy itself. The Patriarch is pulled in opposite directions by those suspicious of ecumenism and others, including many in government, who want the Church to reach out to the rest of the world.
Bishop Hilarion played down the importance of Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to the Pope. scheduled for March 13, in helping to bring about a meeting. Although Mr Putin has said he is willing to do all that he can to realise the encounter, Bishop Hilarion pointed out the visit will be a state occasion rather than ecclesiastical one. "I don't think that the Pope and the Patriarch need an intermediary," he said.
ishop Hilarion is an impressive yet self-effacing charac ter. Not only is he the Russian Orthodox bishop for Vienna but he's also the Church's representative to Europe. He holds doctorates in both philosophy and theology from Oxford and Paris. is the author of over 500 theological and ecclesiological publications and is an accomplished violinist, pianist and composer.
As well as taking part in a joint Catholic-Orthodox theological meeting in Rome, he was also here to arrange a concert of The Passion According to St Matthew, a major work for choir and orchestra to be performed at prestigious venues in Moscow and Rome at the end of the month. The work is, as you might have guessed, Bishop Hilarion's own composition. And if that doesn't make you feel queasy, he's only just turned 40.
Movie-maker James Cameron's much-slated "discovery" of Jesus's tomb may have been the latest, mosi brazen attack on the Church, but another could be about to take place when, on March 20, Lord Archer comes tc Rome to publish his new book, The Gospel According to Judas. The book has been written in close collaboration with a leading Catholic biblical scholar, which will either help acquit it of any attack against the Church, or make it all the more insidious However, the timing of both Cameron and Archer's publicity r important to note: both will have occurred during Lent, a time when attacks on the Church are traditionally strongest.
Rome Correspondent: Edward Pentin E-mail: [email protected]