Throughout Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, the pope had a great desire to visit Russia. For a number of reasons, the Russian Orthodox Church was cool to this idea and the Pope wisely decided to abide by their wishes and refrained from making the trip. The relationship was so problematic that there was never even a meeting between Pope John Paul II and Russian Patriarch Alexis, even though JPII met with just about every other Orthodox (and Protestant and non-Christian) leader in the world.
However, now there is a new Pope and a new Patriarch, and the two men know each other and have much in common personally. Furthermore, Pope Benedict – again, for a number of reasons – is seen more favorably in Russia than his predecessor. So hopes have been building that there can be a meeting between these two men – and now the influential Russian Archbishop Hilarion, the head of the patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, has confirmed that a meeting might very well take place soon. This would be an extraordinary meeting between the leaders of the two largest Christian Churches in the world and could have incredible consequences.
One thing that Archbishop Hilarion said that I found interesting, however, was that Pope Benedict is a “very reserved, traditional man who does not seek the expansion of the Catholic Church to traditionally Orthodox regions”. This seems to me to be a swipe at Pope John Paul II, who was seen as more of a “charismatic” figure whose very presence in Russia could possibly cause many Russians to consider joining the Catholic Church. I think his point about Pope Benedict not seeking expansion in Orthodox countries is true to a certain extent. The Pope does not wish to work towards the “conversion” of Orthodox believers to the Catholic Church, but instead towards a corporate reunion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. There is a difference.
Pray for the continued relations between these two Churches and that all Christians might one day be united in one communion.