Pope Benedict XVI, determined to make every effort to advance the dialogue between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, has made the extraordinary decision to transfer the archbishop of the Catholic archdiocese in Moscow to Belarus and replace him with an Italian.

It was an exceptional decision, with few precedents in European Church history. Some interpreted it as part of the costly price of Christian unity.

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, 61, whom Pope John Paul II sent to Moscow to reorganize the Catholic Church in European Russia, was replaced by Father Paolo Pezzi, 47, who has lived 10 years in Russia and was rector of the seminary in St. Petersburg.

The pope reassigned Archbishop Kondrusiewicz to his Belarus homeland to head the Archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev. The archbishop accepted the decision as the call of God, though he found it hard to conceal his sadness at leaving Moscow.

Charges of proselytizing

To understand the significance of the move, one should recall how, on the eve of the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991, Pope John Paul II appointed two apostolic administrators to reorganize the Catholic Church in Russia.

On April 13, 1991, the Polish pope named Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, 45 at the time, a Belarusian of Polish extraction, as apostolic administrator to the Catholics in European Russia. Simultaneously, he appointed Archbishop Joseph Werth as apostolic administrator for Catholics in Asian Russia.

The nominations caused considerable tension between the two Churches, with the Orthodox accusing Rome of proselytizing in its canonical territory.

Relations between the two sides descended into a deep freeze when Pope John Paul II first expanded the administrations into four, and then established them as dioceses in 2002.

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz found himself in the eye of the cyclone. A fluent Russian speaker and dynamic organizer, he helped rebuild the Catholic community in Moscow and elsewhere in European Russia, but the Orthodox charged that he and other Catholic leaders were engaging in proselytism.

He sought to convince them otherwise and develop a fruitful dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate of Moscow. Though he met the patriarch and other Orthodox leaders on several occasions, they regarded him with diffidence -- some say also because of his Polish roots -- and did not accept his reassurances that the Catholic Church had no intention of proselytizing, and merely wanted to care for Catholics in Russia and bring the Good News to nonbelievers. Orthodox leaders, however, insisted that only their Church has the right to evangelize on Russian soil.

Re-established ties

As Archbishop Kondrusciewicz said in his homily, when he consecrated his successor on Oct. 27, "The Catholic Church in Russia has existed for more than a century, but on the other hand it is still very young."

The historical records support him; they show that in 1915 the Catholic Church in Russia had 150 parishes and 360,000 Catholics, of whom 220,000 faithful and 80 parishes were in European Russia (including St. Petersburg and Moscow). When the persecution began in 1923, the Church in the Soviet Union had 1.65 million faithful, 397 priests and 580 churches.

While it is difficult to establish the number of Catholics in Russia today, sources told OSV they account for a little more than one half of 1 percent of the Russia's 147 million people. Other experts reckon their numbers range from 600,000 to 1.5 million.

Under the czar there were about 10 Catholic churches in Moscow. Today there are only two - the Mother of God Church and St. Louis of France. Those two provide for the city's 200,000 Catholics.

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz has handed over to his successor a vastly different Church situation to the one he found in 1991. It includes the restored church of the Mother of God in Moscow, an Institute for Philosophy and Theology in Moscow, a major seminary in St. Petersburg, new curial offices and the archbishop's residence, two Catholic radio stations, a Russian language Catholic weekly and a rapidly developing charitable service in the social field.

Continuing the work

Before his departure, he expressed regret that during his tenure in Moscow he had not been able "to establish better relations with the Russian Orthodox Church."

Informed of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz's difficulties in advancing the dialogue with the Orthodox, Pope Benedict decided to transfer him back to Belarus and replace him with a youthful, open and deeply spiritual Italian priest from the Communion and Liberation Movement whom the Russians like.

The pope believes that Archbishop Pezzi may stand a better chance than his predecessor of developing fruitful relations with the Orthodox in Russia and resolving the problems that divide them, and thereby pave the way for important developments too in international Catholic-Orthodox relations.

Obviously pleased with the new archbishop, the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate sent two official representatives to the installation Mass. One of them, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the second in command at the External Church Relations Department, read a message from Patriarch Alexis II saying he hoped the new archbishop would promote "good relations" between their two Churches and "an early resolution of the problems between us."

Interviewed by Russia's Interfax news agency, Archbishop Pezzi described his new mission "as a continuation and improvement of the work started before me. It should be the continuation, not the beginning."

He said he hoped to continue to improve "inter-confessional relations" and would seek to engage in "a friendly, valid and substantial dialogue with the Orthodox tradition, which is represented in Russia mainly by the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate."

Metropolitan Kirill, head of the Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, commenting on Russian Orthodox-Catholic relations, told Interfax: "It is clear that from a period which could be described as biting frost we have advanced to a warm spell."

Russian Church

by the numbers

  • 796,000 Number of Catholics
  • 1,435 Number of baptisms
  • 396 Number of parishes
  • 304 Number of priests
  • 3 number of dioceses
  • 2 number of archdioceses

Source: 2008 Catholic Almanac (OSV, $28.95)

Gerard O'Connell writes from Rome.