The Vatican Secretary of State visited Russia as part of the Vatican’s commitment to improving relations with the largest Eastern Orthodox country in the world.
Even before his historic (and controversial) meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana, Cuba on February 12, 2015, Pope Francis has shown an interest in currying favor with the Orthodox, even going so far as to praise the Orthodox Church’s synodal style of governance in his first official document, Evangelii Gaudium.
Areas of Mutual Concern
During Cardinal Parolin’s visit with both Orthodox leaders and Russian state officials from August 21-24, including President Vladimir Putin, both sides discussed areas of mutual concern, particularly the plight of Christians in the Middle East. In reporting on his meeting with Orthodox leaders, Parolin expressed hope that improved relations between Catholics and Orthodox would open the due to future collaborations on academic and humanitarian projects. Parolin noted, however, that despite Orthodoxy’s dominance in Russia, many Russians remain nominally Orthodox.
Indeed, according to a Pew Research Center study published on May 10, Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe, 71% of Russian citizens identify as Orthodox and yet only 6% of Orthodox Christians in Russia attend church weekly. (Orthodox median church attendance in Central and Eastern Europe overall is 10%.) Moreover, according to the Russian Orthodox news service, Pravoslavie.Ru, only around 4.3 million Russians took part in this year’s Paschal (Easter) services—or roughly 3% of the Russian population. This is unsettling given that the Russian Orthodox Church oversees approximately 150 million souls worldwide, or roughly 60% of the global Eastern Orthodox population.
The Ukrainian Question
With regard to one of the thornier religious and political issues of the day, namely the ongoing conflict in Ukraine which has received the backing of both the Russian state and Russian Orthodox Church, Cardinal Parolin said “for now there is no news,” but that the “Ukrainian question” is of “great concern for the Holy See.” Parolin further noted that the Vatican has an ongoing humanitarian interest in Ukraine, but failed to discuss the pertinent issue of what, if anything, the Vatican is prepared to do to defend the rights of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC).
Despite some overtures from the Russian Orthodox Church that it is willing to recognize the right of the UGCC to exist, Orthodox leaders, including Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department of External Church Relations, have rarely missed an opportunity to disparage the UGCC in recent years. According to the Russian Orthodox Church’s expansionist ideology, dubbed “Russian World,” all of Russia and indeed Ukraine as well belong to it by right. The existence of the UGCC—that is a fully autonomous church that carries in its bosom the Byzantine-Slavic heritage of the East and remains in communion with Rome—is an affront to this ideology and, according to Russian Orthodox Church officials, an obstacle to theological dialogue with Rome and eventual unity.
Catholicism in Russia Today
Today, Catholicism has only a minority presence in Russia, with current estimates placing the total number at 773,000. Most of those Catholics belong to the Latin Catholic Church rather than the Russian Greek Catholic Church (RGCC), which was established by Pope St. Pius X in the early 20th century to allow Orthodox to convert to Catholicism without abandoning their native spiritual and liturgical traditions. The RGCC, which was violently persecuted during the Soviet era, has a very limited presence in Russia and the Vatican has not seen it fit to provide this longstanding church with its own hierarch. Like the UGCC, the RGCC is perceived by the Russian Orthodox Church as an affront to its territorial claims. Catholicism, whether Latin or Greek, is not officially recognized by the Russian state.
Where Vatican/Russian relations go in the future remains to be seen. Will Pope Francis and other members of the curia come to the defense of Greco-Catholics living in Ukraine and Russia? It seems doubtful at this point that the Vatican has any burning desire to evangelize the Russian people, particularly those who, through either ignorance or disgust at the manner in which the Russian state dictates the behavior of the Orthodox Church, remain unchurched. But what then is the value of improved diplomatic relations if the cost is the souls of millions of people? Does Pope Francis or Cardinal Parolin have anything to say about that?
Though likely unintentional, it is fitting that the first full day of Cardinal Parolin’s visit, August 22, is also the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Let us pray for the day when Russia will finally be consecrated to the Immaculate Heart in accordance with the Blessed Virgin’s instructions at Fatima.