By Philippa Hitchen
While Churches in the West prepare to celebrate the Epiphany this Sunday, Christians in much of the Eastern Orthodox world, which follows the ancient Julian calendar, are gearing up for their Christmas celebrations.
In Russia, home to almost 40 percent of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Kirill will lead celebrations at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Last May, the cathedral hosted the relics of St Nicholas, one of the Orthodox world’s most revered saints, in an unprecedented ecumenical gesture from the Catholic Church in the Italian city of Bari.
The loan of the relics to the Russian Church was the result of a historic first meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Cuba in February 2016, an encounter that also led to a visit to Moscow by Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, last August.
Dominican Fr Hyacinthe Destivelle heads the Eastern relations desk at the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. He talks about recent progress in relations between Moscow and the Holy See and about his hopes for the coming year….
Fr Destivelle notes that the Cuba meeting between the Pope and Patriarch Kirill “opened a new phase of our relationship”, leading to the loan of the relics, seen by over two million people in Moscow and St Petersburg, as well as the first visit of a Vatican Secretary of State to Russia since 1999.
Vienna meeting to mark Havana encounter
He says the next step will be the 2nd anniversary of that Havana meeting which will take place in Vienna on February 12th, through the invitation of Cardinal Christoph Schonborn to Metropolitan Hilarion and Cardinal Kurt Koch.
Fr Destivelle also notes that a joint working group, founded after the Havana meeting, is working on other cultural and spiritual projects. “Spiritual ecumenism and especially ecumenism of saints is very important”, he says, to remind us that “unity will not be fruit of our efforts” but rather the work of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of the saints.
Cultural, spiritual events to prepare for papal visit
Cultural events, such as exchange study visits for young priests, or concerts, are also important to recongise that “although our cultures are different, we share the same faith”, he adds. While he says he is not aware of any plans for a papal visit to Moscow at the moment, Fr Destivelle insists that such spiritual and cultural initiatives are essential “to prepare the mentalities” for such a visit.
From high level contacts to grassroots ecumenism
While Catholics have been sensitive to ecumenical issues since Vatican II, he says, the Orthodox Church was persecuted at that time, and although there have been high level exchanges, the “people of God was not really involved in all these contacts” That’s why visit of relics was so important to make people sensitive to the necessity of Christian unity, he says.
Finally, Fr Destivelle speaks about the theological dialogue with the 14 Orthodox Churches, noting that the adoption of last year’s ‘Chieti document’ is “probably a fruit also of the good relationships existing now between the Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate.