Catholic / Orthodox Relations
Russian Orthodox-Catholic Relations To Worsen?
Catholic World News, 2/6/2001
Moscow - "If the Vatican really does ignore the request to postpone the papal visit to Ukraine things can't improve," said Igor Vyzhanov, spokesman for Orthodox-Catholic relations at the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations. "They are already getting worse and worse."
In recent years Pope John Paul II has made official visits to the predominantly Orthodox countries of Romania and Georgia-- but only with the agreement of the local Orthodox hierarchy. In the case of the scheduled papal visit to Ukraine this June, such agreement has not been sought from the Russian Orthodox Church. In a January 22 written request to Pope John Paul II to postpone the visit, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan), explained that it would create the false impression that the conflict between Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholics in West Ukraine had been resolved. Patriarch Aleksei II has repeatedly stated that this conflict and alleged proselytism by the Catholic Church in Russia constitute the main obstacles to an improvement in Orthodox-Catholic relations.

However, Father Igor Kovalevsky, chancellor of the Apostolic Administration for Catholics of European Russia, questioned the validity of the obstacles to dialogue continually cited by the patriarch. In Ukraine, in his view, the Moscow Patriarchate's problems over jurisdiction were rather with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, while, he maintained, the Catholic Church was nowhere engaging in proselytism: "We are just trying to function normally in Russia and provide for our minority here-- if I proselytized in my parish then I would have three times as many parishioners."

The reasons for the Moscow Patriarchate's accusations, as understood by Russian Catholic clergy, are various. Father Kovalevsky cited a widespread tribal attitude to religion: "A Russian must be Orthodox, a Tatar-- Muslim, a German-- Lutheran." Catholic priest Father Andrei Udovenko rejected the associated view that a Russian Catholic must therefore be the result of proselytism: "If a person was baptized Orthodox but never went to church then it is alright for him to become Catholic, and vice versa. If a person is truly Orthodox then he won't leave-- Orthodoxy can't mean very much to him if he abandons it so readily."

According to Vyzhanov, however, Catholics misunderstand Orthodox objections. He pointed to a recent report from the Rome-based Catholic news agency Zenit which claimed that "the Russian Orthodox Church is opposed to the presence of the Eastern rite in Orthodox lands and to the return of their property expropriated under Stalin." He exclaimed, "This is a lie. We are against the persecution of Orthodox-- the situation in West Ukraine is like in Northern Ireland, where the Catholics are the minority." When told that during a recent visit to West Ukraine there was no evidence for more than a handful of local conflicts, Vyzhanov expressed genuine surprise, remarking, "But our bishop there constantly tells us that there are problems."
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