Russia not hospitable for Pope Francis


President Putin met with Pope Francis; Patriarch Kirill watched nervously

by Alexander Soldatov

Novaia Gazeta, 4-5 July 2019


Inter-state relations of Russia and the Vatican present a unique case in the history of diplomacy. While regularly (approximately every three years) visiting the city-state in response to invitations of its monarch-pontiff, the president of the Russian Federation does not treat his counterpart with a return invitation. In response to the papal hospitality, "native" Russian hospitality is not offered. Although, it would seem, the protocol of meetings of heads of state does not permit such "one-sidedness." Russia and the Vatican recognize one another as independent states and equal subjects of international law, having had diplomatic relations since 1990. In that time, the heads of the U.S.S.R. and the R.F. have visited the Vatican nine times.


Although the situation in which the head of a sovereign state recognized by Russia is "banned from entering" Russia would seem to invite a grandiose international scandal, it does not seem to surprise anybody and hardly offends. Its inter-confessional sensitivity is evident. On the eve of another (the third in history) meeting of Vladimir Putin with Pope Francis in the Apostolic Palace, on 3 July an aide to the president for issues of foreign policy, Yury Ushakov, explained as usual why also this time the head of Russia will not propose for the head of the Vatican to make a return visit. The whole issue is in the dual status of the pope: "Since the Roman pope is not only the head of the Vatican state, but also the head of the Roman Catholic Church, this question must be viewed by us, in particular, along with representatives of our church."


The wording "our church" on the part of the Kremlin sounds strange. As is known, according to the Russian constitution, all religious associations in the country are separated from the state and equal before the law. That means that for the Kremlin the Russian Catholic Church is also "ours," which would hardly tell against a long-expected arrival of the pontiff to visit the hundreds of thousands of Russian Catholics. Probably an absolute majority of "our" religious organizations would simply welcome such a visit. Only the Russian Orthodox Church is opposed, while it actively converges with the Holy See in a "left-handed way" by developing many different forms of Orthodox-Catholic cooperation.


And it is in this that the "duality" of Patriarch Kirill's position consists. Since the time of his church youth, he has sincerely respected the Roman Catholic Church. The point is that the spiritual father of the current patriarch, who gave him his "start in life," Metropolitan Nikodim, in his mature years, while being an archimandrite, became a sincere Catholic. (Which, however, did not prevent his becoming a bishop in the RPTs inasmuch as the time of his ministry, the 1960s and 1970s, was an epoch of the rapid flourishing of ecumenism). He devoted his dissertation to the "pinkish" (sympathetic to the left) Pope John XIII, attended many sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), zealously defended Catholic doctrines, and died in the Vatican at a reception with Pope John Paul I in 1978.


When the future Kirill (at the time still Volodya Gundiaev) was Nikodim's personal secretary, he took him to Rome with himself. Several years later, having become the representative of the RPTs to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Kirill expanded his acquaintance with Catholic tradition and was imbued with the deepest respect for it. He did much for a convergence with Catholicism in the position of the head of the Department for External Church Relations of the RPTs, and yet more in the position of patriarch. The summit of this activity was the Havana meeting of 2016, at which Kirill and Francis signed a declaration of friendship, mutual aid, and further convergence. And soon Catholic prelates brought the left rib of St. Nicholas to Russia, which Patriarch Kirill represented as an important symbol of the unity of the two churches.


However, the ordinary church people in Russia view all of this ecumenical activity, to put it mildly, with hostility. The Havana declaration nearly provoked a massive schism in the RPTs, when there again appeared dozens of "noncommemorating" priests and individual bishops (for example, Bishop of Bancheny Longin) even anathematized Catholics from the pulpit, hinting at a "fall into heresy" of the patriarch himself. In the conservative Orthodox mind it is Catholicism and especially the pope that are the original sources of all those "destructive processes" that are associated by a Russian patriot with the word "West."


In such conditions, Patriarch Kirill and the like-minded ecumenical Metropolitan Ilarion do not even dare to hint at the possibility of a visit to Russia by the pope. And without their sanction, it seems, President Putin is powerless in this matter.


Mikhail Gorbachev visited the Vatican for the first time in December 1989, when the Polish Pope John Paul II was comparatively young and active, with whose spiritual influence the bloodless collapse of the soviet bloc is often associated. Boris Yeltsin met with John Paul II in 1991 and 1998 (when he invited him to the Russian Federation!), and Vladimir Putin, in 2000 and 2003; in 2007 he met with Benedict XVI, and in 2013 and 2015, with Francis. Dmitry Medvedev visited the Vatican in the capacity of president in 2009. (tr. by PDS, posted 4 July 2019)


Russian original posted on Credo.Press portal, 4 July 2019

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