A common tongue

Catholic and Orthodox Church in dialogue

In the aftermath of the emotions triggered by the Smolensk air crash there is an increasing need to improve the relations between Moscow and Warsaw. The Polish Church, which draws inspiration from the ‘two-lung Europe’ concept launched by John Paul II, has been longtime engaged in the rapprochement of the two peoples. Talks on a joint statement on mutual forgiveness, on the wake of the November 1965 Letter to German Bishops by the Polish ones have been ongoing since January. A bilateral meeting is scheduled in Warsaw next June 25-26. In March the Russian and Polish teams of experts have started working on the draft-document due to undergo ratification by representatives of the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches in Poland. “If we wish to have a voice in addressing contemporary challenges there must be concerted action, to the light of our common Christian heritage” said the Secretary of the Polish Bishops’ Conference Msgr. Stanislaw Budzik, who underlined, “both Churches need a common reflection on the values that cannot be dismissed in Europe that needs all Christian peoples to speak the same tongue”. Father Stanislaw Opiela, reported to SIR Europe on the difficulties in the relations between the Polish Church and Moscow’s patriarchate. In the years 1992 – 2000 Fr. Opiela served as Superior of the Russian province of the Company of Jesus, as dean of the Saint Thomas Aquinas College in Moscow, as Secretary of the Russian patriarchate. And performed his duties at the Ocipe in Strasbourg and Brussels.What are the distinctive elements of Moscow’s patriarchate?“Today in Russia orthodoxy acts as a bond. After the fall of Communism it’s the only idea that is capable of uniting the Country. We must not forget that it’s a multiethnic population, distributed on a very large territory. Throughout history the patriarchate of Moscow was subjected to the temporal power of the Tsars. At present, with the separation of Church and State powers, the Patriarchate no longer falls within the province of the President who nonetheless, owing to Russian society’s lack of homogeneity, needs its support more than before. The Catholic Church has her own structures that differ from those of the Orthodox Church. But the Orthodox want exclusive rights and consider Catholicism a confession for foreigners, for the non-Russian population”. The Catholic Church is often accused of proselytism… “The allegation is ungrounded. When I went to Russia after the collapse of Communism to look up a dozen of our Jesuit confreres who were forced to serve in partial or total clandestinity, I realized that we would be accused of proselytizing even though we hadn’t. The Jesuits received in Russia by Catherine II were given the possibility of erecting two parishes in Siberia, in Tomsk and Irkutsk, provided that they would provide religious assistance to only Polish deportees and others and that they would not accept conversions by the autochthonous population. Once we had fulfilled all obligations provided for by the law we opened an orphanage in Novosibirsk, and to prevent accusations of separatism we decided to grant hospitality to children from both Catholic and Orthodox religious environments. We were then accused of proselytizing”.There is much mention of the cooperation between Catholic and Orthodox priests at parish level. “A large number of Orthodox priests in Russia hold a positive attitude towards the Catholic Church. When I chaired the College I employed them as Professors. Indeed, our College is open to Orthodox students. Some Orthodox bishops are favorable to Catholics but these environments are rather small and hold no influence over the patriarch or the metropolitan bishops. When I was in Russia I often heard practicing Orthodox say that the Patriarchate was more interested in stepping up its structures and institutions than in helping the people”.What is the Russian populations’ attitude towards the Poles? After the Smolensk tragedy the episcopate and the Polish authorities repeatedly thanked Russia for the solidarity towards Poland… “I have not perceived hostility against the Poles. At times some referred to Pan-Slavism or to the ancient power of Polish landlords, but nothing more than that. However, nationalist and even chauvinist Russian environments marked by anti-Polish and anti-European sentiments, linked also to the Orthodox Church, do exist. Poland is seen like the West is, which by tradition the Russians consider rotten. Russia doesn’t long for a Western kind of democracy. But on the other hand it needs the West and Western investments in Russia depend on the Country’s dialogue with the EU. And if the EU will have a common foreign policy and an army Russia won’t forget it. There are Russia-phobic stances also in Poland. But perhaps they are the product of our tragic historical past”.

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