Pope Benedict XVI is turning out to be ecumenically audacious. For this he has faced criticism, misunderstanding and accusations of insensitivity.
But Pope Benedict and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church seem now to be making progress in preparing the ground to overcome the Great Schism of 1054.
When I was in Russia late last year the Nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, commented on the imperative aim of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to build "a dialogue of truth and charity" with the Orthodox.
He emphasised how vital this was and thanked Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for its work in supporting Catholic, Orthodox and ecumenical projects in Russia:
"We have to encourage the Catholic community to show solidarity to the Orthodox. The initiative of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI is so important. Thank you for all that the charity does for the Church and for building relations with the Orthodox, in line with the will of the Holy Father... and Our Lord!"
He continued, reflecting on the great sufferings of all Christians in Soviet times: "We must find courage to turn the pages of history."
But it is not only Catholics who wish to "turn the pages of history" and establish an understanding, with a deeper respect.
Archpriest Fr Igor Vyzhanov, Secretary for inter-Christian Affairs at the Moscow Patriarchate, told me: "We have a common heritage, a common mission and challenges in common - both Catholics and Orthodox. We need your prayers and charity."
Fr Igor accompanied Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, who is head of the External Affairs Department of the Russian Orthodox Church, to a meeting at Castel Gandolfo with Pope Benedict XVI in late September. When asked about the continuing tense situation between churches in Ukraine - where the faithful of the Eastern Rite (Greek) Catholic Church suffered so much and where there is a raw sensitivity and a politically territorial religious viewpoint on both sides - Archpriest Igor recognised the scale of the challenges: "There is much hurt and there are very painful memories on both sides and the question is how a way forward can be found. But we must foster a solution with the Greek Catholics in Ukraine - and we both call for the need for dialogue."
So what underlies these recent changes in attitude? Where has this new energy come from, pushing towards a mutual recognition and some theological and ecclesial agreement? The difficult meetings of the International Joint Commission for Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue Theological Commission, the publishing of books and articles, as well as cultural and diplomatic exchanges, are definitely leading to a greater openness.
Indeed, one sign of this is a forthcoming exhibition with lectures this spring 2010 in Rome entitled Days of Russian Spiritual Culture - and it is thought likely that the Holy Father will make a point of attending. Additionally, the projects supported by Aid to the Church in Need have helped to build bridges of charity - including the publishing of social teaching documents by the Russian Orthodox Church and the sponsoring of a television programme on the Holy Father, with a personal message from Pope Benedict in Russian, broadcast across Russia in 2008.
Barriers of mistrust and superstition are coming down - as common social and religious challenges are faced - and some of the wounds of atheism are beginning to heal.
Above all, it is the personalities involved at the top of the ecclesial trees who are encouraging a growing closeness. It is almost as though both Patriarch Kirill and Pope Benedict, through their theological studies and meetings prior to their elevation to office, were being prepared for a big fraternal gesture between the Orthodox and Catholic communities.
Patriarch Kirill hand-picked Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev as his successor as head of the External Relations Department of the Patriarchate, the post he himself previously held. While the Patriarch is cautious and measured in what he says, it is fascinating to hear what Archbishop Hilarion says.
In Rome in September he said: "We support the Pope in his commitment to the defence of Christian values. We also support him when his courageous declarations arouse negative reactions on the part of politicians or public figures or they are criticised and sometimes misrepresented by some in the mass media. We believe that he has the duty to witness to the truth and we are therefore with him even when his word encounters opposition.
"Personally, I hope that sooner or later the meeting that many are awaiting between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow will take place. I can say with responsibility that on both sides there is the desire to prepare a meeting with great care."
Pope Benedict's theological grounding, his studies, his lecturing and his time at the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith seem to have prepared him to be a bold pope who wishes to heal theological divides. Time and again he emphasises the common ground.
The Holy Father summed up his deep respect for Orthodoxy late last year when he told Archbishop Anastas, head of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania late that we have "a common profession of the Nicene - Constantinopolitan creed; a common baptism for the remission of sins and for incorporation into Christ and the Church; the legacy of the first Ecumenical Councils; the real if imperfect communion which we already share, and the common desire and collaborative efforts to build upon what already exists".
In Russia the Catholic Church is seen in a different light from the Nineties when there was a great deal of suspicion and mistrust. Even in late 2001 Catholics were seen by the Orthodox to be triumphalistic and insensitive in establishing dioceses in Russia, without any consultation, just after the interfaith Assisi gathering with Pope John Paul II.
Now Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has opened many doors and helped deepen respect for the Holy Father, Pope Benedict. Additionally, Italian diplomatic skills and ways seem to be to the fore.
The Nuncio Archbishop Mennini has built good relationships - which led to the recent proposal from President Medvedev to upgrade the status of the Holy See so that the Vatican has full diplomatic relations with Russia.
Archbishop Paolo Pezzi in Moscow and all the Catholic bishops are also working wherever they can to improve understanding and co-operation with the local Orthodox bishops.
Fr Pietro Scalini, the rector of the Catholic seminary in St Petersburg, told me that he has Orthodox lecturers and how there is a growing understanding, even if it is not easy at times.
"As the Pope has called the Church to breathe with both lungs, our presence here enables communication and knowing each other," he said. "I have taught a lot of Orthodox here, who come to learn. Our presence may help unity. It is not our aim to spread the Gospel - it relies on God."
Why does all this matter? So that Christ can be proclaimed with two lungs in today's world - breathed, lived, spoken of and witnessed to with real energy and power. For Catholics and Orthodox need each other.
Both Cardinal Kasper and Archbishop Hilarion have spoken about the importance of the social teachings of the Church and the Liturgy. Indeed, Archbishop Hilarion has not held back at times with his comments: "Only united will we be able to propose to the world the spiritual and moral values of the Christian faith; together we will be able to offer our Christian vision of the family, of procreation, of a human love made not only for pleasure; to confirm our concept of social justice, of a more equitable distribution of goods, of a commitment to safeguarding the environment, for the defence of human life and its dignity.
Therefore, the time has come to move from a failure to meet and competition, to solidarity, mutual respect and esteem; I would say, without a doubt, that we must move to mutual love. Our Christian preaching can have effect, can be convincing in our contemporary world, if we are able to live this mutual love between us, Christians."
He has also written: "Orthodox divine services are a priceless treasure that we must carefully guard... 'divine wisdom accessible to simple, loving hearts' (St John of Kronstadt)."
He added sadly that "since the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, services in some Catholic churches have become little different from Protestant ones".
Looking around Moscow, the visitor will see numerous Orthodox churches. There were just 40 functioning churches in Moscow during Soviet times, but now there are 400 churches for a population of perhaps 10 million. Surveys indicate that over 70 per cent of Russians claim to be Orthodox, even if only perhaps four to seven per cent attend the Liturgy regularly.
There is a real feeling of Russian identity associated with the Orthodox Church and the Patriarch is recognised as an important diplomatic figure of influence within Russia.
We in the West may worry about a resurgent Russian nationalism - with the Church getting too close to the state - but the Orthodox say that they are just developing a relationship with the Kremlin in order to have influence and to be able to have religion taught in schools.
In pastoral work and mission there are some imaginative initiatives. In St Petersburg Fr Alexander Tkachenko, a young priest, runs a centre providing pastoral care for terminally ill children. His is the only hospice for children in the whole of Russia. About 200 children are cared for per annum and the Centre is now registered.
ACN has helped with three vehicles which visit outlying parishes - and vital paediatric palliative care is given, and the Liturgy is also celebrated.
This is faith in action - and very similar to the founding work of Fr Werenfreid van Straaten at Aid to the Church in Need for displaced and abandoned German refugee families after the Second World War.
For three years Fr Alexander had the only disabled vehicle in St Petersburg. In other developments the programmes of Blagovest Media and the courses of St Andrew's Biblical Theological Institute are real bridges of understanding.
The ecumenical road is not easy - often it is frozen or even non-existent in Russia - but the foundations of respect and understanding are being laid, with the help of Italian diplomatic engineering and a theologian Pope.
These foundations are also built upon the joint witness of the Orthodox and Catholic martyrs of the 20th century. Human rights issues, political misunderstandings, Russian historical identity and Ukrainian tensions are all part of the terrible legacy of Soviet suffering.
But there is one other legacy in Russia which has been rediscovered: a legacy of Christian faith which somehow survived the Gulag prison camps.
Look at the icons of the Mother of God and the Protecting Veil, and perhaps we in the West can be challenged to a deeper understanding and respect. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
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