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Russian Leader's Visit Lifts Hopes

By Delia Gallagher

ROME, NOV. 14, 2003 (Zenit) - Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Pope John Paul II on Nov. 5 was a sign of hope for Catholic-Orthodox relations, according to Vatican and Russian officials.

Putin met for 45 minutes with the Pope, their longest meeting so far. During the meeting, the Putin kissed the icon of Kazan and told the Holy Father that he would talk to Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II upon his return.

In the midst of internal political difficulties and international skepticism that Putin's Russia is returning to its authoritarian past, with the arrest of prominent businessmen, the Russian president at the Vatican presented himself as a willing broker in the Vatican's efforts at reconciliation with the Orthodox Church.

On the eve of his visit with the Pope, Putin told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, "My personal position is that it's important to make every effort in favor of unity among the various Christian confessions. ... I consider it my objective no so much making it possible for the Pope to come to Russia, as much as favoring Christian unity with every opportune step."

In September, Putin told the Associated Press in Moscow that a papal visit to Russia would be a "right step," one that he hoped would be taken "sooner rather than later."

Why has Putin suddenly put himself in the middle of the standoff between the Orthodox patriarchate and the Vatican?

"Russia is a nation looking for stability," said an official of the Russian representative to the Holy See (the equivalent of an ambassador). "We are looking for values which we lost after the 1917 Revolution and again after the values of Communism."

"President Putin wants to refind those roots in the Christian values of Russia; 85% of the country is Christian," the official said.

"He also wants to assure Russia's place on the international scene," the official continued. "Russia needs to cooperate with all the world's religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. When he traveled to Malaysia, Putin said, 'Russia is Muslim country,' meaning we have 20% Muslims in our country."

While those at the Vatican may have welcomed Putin's good will, it seems unlikely that it will move those in Moscow. Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad commented last month in an interview with 30 Days magazine on politicians' "mediation" in Church affairs.

Referring to Italian President Berlusconi's offer to assist in reconciliation, Metropolitan Kirill said: "One can note that the Russian authorities leave to the Churches the responsibility to find a solution to their differences. I think that the situation is the same in Italy. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church are not representatives of two states in conflict."

He continued: "We have channels of communication that function very well and have never been interrupted at the official level. But when it comes to fulfilling reciprocal obligations, unfortunately we find that the Catholic party plays a double game: It says one thing but does another in practice. It does not seem to me that the solution to the existing problems depends on the participation of either state in the process of negotiation, but the sincere willingness of the Catholics to overcome these problems."

The Vatican sees President Putin's "mediation" in a different light.

"It is an encouraging sign," one official told me. "It is true that President Putin may not be able to do much, but all help should be welcomed."

"There is a great difference in mentality," another Vatican official told me. "Many people don't realize that the Catholic Church actually gives money to the Orthodox, through Aid to the Church in Need and other such structures. But the Orthodox see this and think, 'Who knows what they want?'"

"The Catholic Church cannot substitute the Orthodox Church," continued the prelate. "We do not want to."

And what about the Russian people? How was Putin's visit seen at home? I asked a representative of the Russian government.

"On all three of the [state-owned] television channels," he told me, "they showed three images of the visit. The first was the Swiss Guards with their colorful uniforms, then the Pope showing Putin the icon of Kazan, and finally Putin shaking the Pope's hand."

"The news did not offer any commentary on the visit," the official continued. "They spoke more about the president's meeting with the Italian government and the possibility of cooperating with the EU, which many Russians are interested in."

The Pope, too, is interested that Russians feel themselves a part of modern Europe. Cardinal Paul Poupard in 30 Days magazine recalls the Pope's instructions to him in 1991, when organizing a pre-synod symposium for Europe on culture.

The Pope told him "to give great space to the Russians." And so the delegation of Russians to the symposium consisted of 12 members while all other countries had two representatives. "It's important that the Russians feel that they are completely inside Europe," said the Pope.

______________________________

Thérčse and the Iraq War

It was a Russian Orthodox thinker who placed St. Thérčse of Lisieux among the "saints of genius" in the history of Christianity along with St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Joan of Arc.

So reported Jean Guitton, a French expert on St. Thérčse who admitted he was converted to the saint by a book entitled "From Jesus to Us" written by the "non-Catholic" Merezhkovskii, a friend of Dostoevski.

St. Thérčse was the topic of a Nov. 10-11 conference at the Gregorian University, sponsored by the Cardinal Suenens Center of John Carroll University in Ohio. Cardinals Godfried Danneels and James Stafford were among the invited speakers.

Conference organizer Doris Donnelly recalled meeting Cardinal Stafford some years earlier in the United States.

"I have a profound devotion to someone you would never guess," the cardinal told Donnelly. That someone was St. Thérčse, and Cardinal Stafford spoke at the conference of "this mighty daughter of the Church," and said he was once moved to tears by the experience of hearing St. Thérčse's words being sung.

Cardinal Stafford, who has recently moved from being president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity to head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, is a courageous intellectual. His talks are always densely packed with analysis and historical reference and his conversation is careful, though not shy. He risked unpopularity in certain circles as he took an outspoken stand against the war in Iraq this year, a subject to which he returned during his talk at the conference.

"St. Thérčse has much to offer the Church as it experiences the problems of today," said Cardinal Stafford. "After the facile optimism of the Second Vatican Council in relation to culture, in particular No. 53 of 'Gaudium et Spes,' a more sophisticated critique needs to be given."

"And that needs to be done in the Catholic tradition which is Augustinian and Thomistic for the most part," he continued. "The Catholic tradition has been able to sustain itself in a way no other tradition in the world has, but a postmodern society needs more of the narrative approach which Thérčse gives us. Then we will be able to begin to face the problems within the Church."

"We need a recovery of virtue within the clergy and the laity," said Cardinal Stafford. "The laity are not far behind the clergy in terms of persons supporting aggression in Iraq despite the protestations of the Pope."

He lamented: "In seminaries and universities, we find no Thomists. We find them, paradoxically, in non-Catholic universities."

______________________________

A Cardinal Pays a Visit

Finally, Vatican watchers were treated to a rare sighting on Tuesday of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who lives quietly in Rome.

The occasion was the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Legionaries' university, the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum, and an inaugural lecture entitled, "The Civilization of Love," by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

In his address, the cardinal stressed the importance of Christian charity in building up a truly just civilization, since "only love is credible."

The three-tiered atrium of the university was packed with professors and students, including diocesan seminarians, Legionaries, religious and lay students (the school's enrollment is 3,500).

Cardinal Sodano arrived with an entourage and Vatican and Italian security, and began chatting to those waiting in the foyer. From the back of the hall, a tall blond man in black cassock bounded across the foyer with a purposeful stride.

"Could that be the 83-year-old Father Maciel?" I wondered aloud to a journalist next to me. Indeed it was.

Evidently Cardinal Sodano's entourage didn't quite realize who it was either, since the cardinal kept chatting to the crowd, while Father Maciel waited patiently behind him.

When Cardinal Sodano finally turned around, he walked toward Father Maciel with open arms saying, "Dear Father, look what great work you have done!"

Father Maciel tried to kiss his ring, but Cardinal Sodano pushed back his hand and embraced him.

"Still young! Still strong!" the cardinal remarked to Father Maciel.

Father Maciel gave a short address thanking the cardinal for his "encouragement of this university."

"You have provided in various ways for its growth," he said to the cardinal.

Father Maciel recounted that the idea for the university was John Paul II's, who proposed it to him during a conversation at the Legionaries' Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Rome, in January 1980.

"The Holy Father has been a clear and profound guide, a font of light," said Father Maciel.

It is clear also that Father Maciel has been a light for the Legionaries. The athenaeum's rector, Father Paolo Scarafoni, paid him tribute saying: "On this 10th anniversary we remember that we have worked hard, we have made huge strides, but we have done it all standing on the shoulders of a giant."

John Paul II approved the constitutions of the Legion in 1983. Now active in 20 countries, the Legionaries have 500 priests and 2,500 seminarians, in addition to some 60,000 members in their apostolic movement, Regnum Christi.

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Russia, Putin, War, Iraq, Cardinal, St. Thrse

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