OKI-Logo The Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumene


Johannes Oeldemann from the Johann Adam Moehler Institute treated the topic in CATHOLICA (1/2002) under the heading "The complementarity of traditions." Besides, important comments were made in Erfurt by bishop Prof. Dr. Gerhard Feige. Right at the beginning it has to be emphasized that with regard to the ecumene, i.e. to recognizing other churches, the Russian church has always taken a special position in regard to other orthodox churches. After the first millenium with its excommunications within the Catholic Church East and West (often lasting for decades) and after the second millenium with its growing alienation a separation between East and West occurred in the 18th century, to be precise, in 1729 when the Roman Congregation for the Propagation of Faith (Propaganda Fide) prohibited what is called the "communicatio in sacris", entailing farreaching consequences such as, among other things, the increasing usage of "catholic" and "orthodox" as terms for two different denominations.

After 1729, Greek patriarchs felt uneasy about the doubts which were entertained by official Roman authorities concerning the right of the Greek churches to administer the sacraments. They were also disquieted by the competition between the socalled united orthodox and the socalled nonunited orthodox churches.

In July 1755 the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Jerusalem declared in Constantinople: We who by the grace of God grew up in the orthodox church, obey the canons of the holy apostles and fathers, recognize only the one, our holy, catholic and apostolic church, accept its sacraments, consequently baptism, too, but who regard the sacraments of the heretics as wrong, we reject the sacraments of the heretics in a mutually recognised resolution. That is why we treat western converts who want to join us as unchristened people. Never before has a comparable condemnation been pronounced between the Greek and the Latin Church. The patriarchate of Antiochia sided with the other Greek patriarchs. This condemnation has up to now not been withdrawn, a fact which is often hushed up.

But Moscow, the socalled "third Rome", did not take sides with the other orthodox patriarchates, on the contrary, it decreed in 1757 that the sacraments of the Church of the west had to be recognized as valid also in the future. This was reconfirmed by the Moscow metropolitan Filaret Drozdov in the 19th century who on Dec. 7, 1995, was canonized in the Kremlin Cathedral in Moscow. Metropolitan Sergij confirmed the validity of the Catholic sacraments again in 1931 and 1936. Furthermore, the Russian Orthodox Church adopted the recommendations of Vatican Council II concerning the "communicatio in sacris" Dec. 16, 1969, confirmed them again July 26, 1986 when a delegation of the German Bishops’ Conference happened to be in Moscow but suspended them out of consideration for the other orthodox churches.

"The fourth cardinal’s hat for the Russian priest Sergij Bulgakov?" asked a Swiss source when Henri de Lubac was made cardinal and like Balthasar, Jean Danielou, and Grillmaier confessed in his memoirs that he owed to Russian theology and philosophy of the beginning 20th century the contribution he was able to make as a council theologian, especially along the lines designed by Sergij Bulgakov. Smolensk metropolitan Kyrill said that while reading about Vatican Council II he had the feeling that he knew all that already - and thus realized how much of the Russian National Council of 1917/18 had become influential in the renewal of the church through Vatican Council II. But also before that, Russia had done a lot for the development of the Catholic Church; so e.g. did the Jesuit order survive in Russia because there the papal decree to dissolve the order was not executed.

At the beginning of the 90s, the Russian Church sent kindergarten teachers and educators to the west and in 1993 adopted the regulations of Hildesheim diocese for kindergartens run by the Church.

In 1994, all the rectors of theological faculties and seminars were invited to Smolensk to discuss the training of future theologians and to decide upon a new order of instruction. Two Jesuits, the rector of the Russian College at Rome as well as the rector of the Theological Faculty of the Jesuits ub Frakfurt/Main, Germany, were present at this conference and brought their experience to bear on the new order.
Nothing short of a miracle of the Holy Spirit it seems to me that the Russian Church in August 2000 at the Episcopal Synod passed a decree on the ecumene calling upon its members to entertain contacts with Christian churches, episcopal conferences, national churches, and dioceses.
It borders on the miraculous if you come to think of the serious reproaches which the patriarch in Russia is subjected to, - among other things he is looked upon as a "half-jewish person of German descent" -, the second man in charge, metropolitan Vladimir of St. Petersburg, being an Assyrian, and metropolitan Kyrill a Mordovian. There are quite a few oppositional parties: Four or five Old Believers Churches against the Moscou Patriarchate; strong propaganda of the Russian Synod in exile (which just now in Dresden took away the church building from the Russians) against Aleksij, who (allegedly) betrayed the true faith and is a supporter of ecumenism; the "True Orthodox Church" against Aleksij who has the support of numerous bishops in Russia.
Almost a miracle because in 1994 the Greek churches (which never cancelled the 1755 condemnation) succeeded in putting through the regulation that it is not even allowed to say a prayer together with nonorthodox christians. In 1990, in Germany all chairs of Russian philosophy were abolished, almost all chairs for the teaching on the Eastern Churches, too. Against this background it is all the more remarkable that the recognition of East and West as one church (expressed in the discussion about the Canonical Territory) up to now only kept up by Moscow is obviously shared by other orthodox churches in Serbia, Bulgaria, Rumania, the Czech Republic and Cyprus because they sent notes of solidarity to the Moscow Patriarchate.

But the miracle remains. Even in the critical pronouncements of the Moscow Patriarchate voiced after the Catholic dioceses in Russia had been established in spring 2002 the authorities were eager to emphasize their abiding interest in a dialogue with the episcopal conferences, dioceses, and religious orders. I read in the communications of the Patriarchate how greatly the visit to the diocese of Trient/Trento was appreciated. (It was there that the patriarch expressed his solidarity with Pope John Paul who suffers a lot because of the worldwide campaign against the Church because of paedophile priests.)
I recall the encounter between Bishop Josef Homeyer and Patriarch Alexij in the freezing month of January 2002 in the Patriarch’s flat at the Èistij Pereulok in Moscow. There the fraternal conversation also touched on the weakness and poverty of the Russian orthodox churches in Russia (and the guests from the West were glad to have payed this visit, because "they that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick." Luc 5,31) and at the end the Patriarch - almost on the verge of tears - said: "Nikolaus Wyrwoll, please translate now as minutely as possible: Dear Bishop Josef, whatever you will hear as the exact or the alleged word from my mouth I assure you now I will remain ecumenical - and what sort of people I am surrounded by, that you were able to infer yourself from the conversations." That indeed we had noticed.

The attitude of the Russian - and of the Polish as well as of many other catholic interlocutors - seemed to be extremely conservative, fearful, and unecumenical.
Prof. Ernst Christoph Suttner is no longer allowed to teach at the Catholic Theological Seminary in St. Petersburg where he lectured on the ideas of Vatican II concerning contacts with orthodox christians. It was intimated to him that that was against Pius XII and Mystici Corporis, and that that could not be tolerated in classes for students training for the catholic priesthood.
Franciscan nuns were removed from Novgorod because they stuck to the General Principles and Practical Norms for the Coordination of the Evangelisation and the Ecumenical Engagement of the Catholic Church in Russia and in other Countries of the GUS (issued June 1, 1992) and because they used either the Catholic Prayerbook or the Orthodox Molitvoslov when visiting the sick in the hospital and saying prayers together with members of the respective denominations.

Dr. Oeldemann from the Johann Adam Möhler Institute in Paderborn said in a KNA-interview (June 11, 2002) that the tensions caused by the establishment of the catholic dioceses in Russia had probably not arisen if over the last ten years the catholics had stuck to the "Principles" which in II, 2 advise the catholic bishops to pay attention "that no activity within their ecclesiastical jurisdiction runs the risk of being interpreted as a ‘parallel evangelising structure’."
Bishop Dr. Gerhard Feige at the jubilee of the theological faculty in Erfurt has very aptly characterized the whole situation.
Dr Oeldemann in the interview mentioned above made a very concrete proposal which I would like to take up according to St. Luke’s word: "They that are whole do not need a physician, but they that are sick." Oeldemann proposes to revive the contacts between the German Bishops’ Conference and The Russian Orthodox Church and to continue as soon as possible the series of theological talks which were started in the mideighties.
So much for Oeldemann’s proposal. The topic could be: The circular letter concerning social problems issued by the synod of the Russian Orthodox Bishops in August 2000. In the meantime two German translations have been published, the one of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung is already in its second edition.
The Russian Orthodox Church is predestined for such talks. That is why Prelate Wilhelm Schätzler already in 1983 with great understanding proposed talks between the DBK and ROK.
Why predestined? Because the Russian Orthodox Church from 1757 to 2000, often against the resistance of all other orthodox christians , adhered to their conviction that East and West are one church. That accounts for the hurt feelings of the Russian Orthodox and for their reaction when those dioceses were established, a feeling which is paralleled by the psalmist (Ps 54, 13f) when he says: "For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: But it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide and mine acquaintance. We took sweet council together, and walked unto the house of God in company." In a similar way, Achille Silvestrini responded in a talk before Lutheran superintendents in Domus S. Marthae who like me attended a Rome seminar in Rome by drawing our attention to Romans 15, 20.
Bishop Franz Eder payed his farewell visit to Patriarch Aleksij October 16, 2002 with Msgr. Dr. Albert Rauch and Dr. Johannes Oeldemann, director in the Adam-Möhler-Institute in Paderborn. On the 27.th of August 2002 Cardinal Kasper wrote in a letter: " I hope that your contacts with the Moscow Patriarchate will also help to inspire us with confidence and to resume the dialogue in order to come to fair and fraternal regulations in our mutual relations."

Dr. Nikolaus Wyrwoll
Ostkirchliches Institut
Ostengasse 31, D-93047 Regensburg