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Status of the Orthodox-Catholic Group in Russia

Interview With Father Igor Kowalewskj

MOSCOW, SEPT. 14, 2004 (Zenit) - Last February, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II created a "working group" to study the differences the two Churches have in Russia.

In this interview, Father Igor Kowalewskj, Catholic spokesman of the working group, explains how this work is carried out.

Q: How has the first phase of the Commission's work developed?

Father Kowalewskj: At the request of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, we have examined some cases that might be interpreted as proselytism. Analyzing these cases, we are trying to elaborate a code of conduct for the two Churches.

The Russian Orthodox Church already knows that neither the Vatican nor Russian Catholic bishops have a strategy of proselytism. Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, responsible for the patriarchate's international relations, said so during his visit to Poland in April.

There are cases, however, which for lack of information might be interpreted as proselytism. Our working group is studying these cases to improve relations between the two Churches. The first meeting of the working group, here in Moscow, took place from May 5-7; the next will be held in the second half of September.

Q: Who makes up this working group?

Father Kowalewskj: On the Catholic side is, also, Father Joseph Maj, member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Jean-Fran├žois Thiry, director of the Bibliotheque de l'Esprit Cultural Center in Moscow.

Representing the Orthodox is Archpriest Vsevelod Chaplin, vice president of the Foreign Affairs Department of the Moscow Patriarchate; Father Igor Vyzhanov, responsible for relations with the Catholic Church; and Father Ivan Lapidus.

Q: What are your expectations and hopes for the next meeting?

Father Kowalewskj: The atmosphere of the first meeting was very friendly and we hope that with these meetings relations between are Churches will improve, both at the informal as well as the formal level.

Q: Orthodox Father Igor Vyzhanov has spoken about the spirit of work of this commission, saying that it is a first, very important, concrete step to improve relations. What is your opinion?

Father Kowalewskj: I totally share Father Vyzhanov's hopes, but it is also very important that we study concrete cases to elaborate a code of conduct for the faithful of the Catholic Church.

I hope that this policy of generic accusations on the invasion of canonical territories or on proselytism will be put to one side and that we, here, as religious minority, will be able to confess our faith and collaborate with the Orthodox Church.

We have things to learn from the Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church has things to learn from us Catholics. I myself have very good relations with Father Vyzhanov at the informal level; at the formal level they are somewhat colder.

Q: In your opinion, what is the role of the Catholic Church here, in Russia, if it cannot be very active in the field of evangelization?

Father Kowalewskj: The Catholic Church has always been a minority Church and it will continue to be so. This is why we wish to have opportunities to confess our faith in a normal manner, as in any other country.

Living here, in the midst of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church has always been able to make a specific contribution to Russian culture, especially in charitable and educational activities. This is the specificity of the presence of the Catholic Church in Russia. We can share many things with the Orthodox Church.

Q: How many Catholics and priests are there in Russia?

Father Kowalewskj: In the whole Russian Federation there are 250 parishes and some 300 priests, the majority of whom are in the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow, given that most of the Russian population is here, in Moscow, and that most Catholics also live here.

It is very difficult to establish the number of Catholics who live in Russia, as we don't know all of them and not all of them go to Mass. But I don't think that there are more than 600,000 Catholics in the whole Russian territory. We are really a minority. All together, the Protestant communities are more numerous than the Catholic.

It would be absurd and even paranoid to think that we Catholics can convert Russia to Catholicism. There is no strategy for Russia's conversion. And even if we wanted to, we would never be able to do such a work.

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