When the Russian Orthodox Church meets late this month to elect a new patriarch, the country's Catholic minority will be watching closely.

Its leaders have praised the late Patriarch Alexy II and say they count on an improved atmosphere in Catholic-Orthodox relations to continue under his successor.

"Alexy headed the Church through a very difficult period, as it was being reborn after an era of persecution," Father Viktor Kovalevsky, secretary-general of Russia's Catholic Bishops Conference, told Our Sunday Visitor. "We couldn't demand more from him than was possible. But he also did a great deal for Christianity here, and for Catholic-Orthodox ties as well."

Yet some Catholics say there's been another side to the story. While not doubting the patriarch's personal qualities, they insist his attitude was a lot more complex toward Russia's religious minorities, who still face serious problems nearly two decades after the end of Soviet rule.

"The basis for any relationship must be a normal religious life for Catholics. If we were allowed this, we could contribute much more to society," said Viktor Khrul, a senior Catholic journalist and a Moscow University lecturer. "But Catholics are still a target for public hostility here. We need solidarity in tackling anti-Catholic myths and stereotypes, and it's unlikely this will come from Orthodox leaders."

Patriarch Alexy, 79, died of heart failure Dec. 5 after heading the Orthodox Church for 18 years. His funeral in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral was attended by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Premier Vladimir Putin, and led by Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad. Elected interim leader at an emergency meeting of the church's governing Synod, Metropolitan Kirill has since become the church's public face, making him the likeliest candidate to become Russia's 16th patriarch when the church's council meets Jan. 27-29.

Challenging relations

Whoever takes over will seek to sustain the close relations with the state that have helped the church re-emerge as a favored national institution. He'll also have to maintain the church's post-Soviet structural expansion, which has allowed it, as Metropolitan Kirill said in his funeral oration, to stand up "like a sick man after a long period in bed."

Yet the new patriarch will face major challenges, too, in ecumenical ties with other churches.In October, the Russian church suspended participation in the Conference of European Churches after disputes over a Moscow-linked Orthodox community in Estonia. It's also threatened to downgrade participation in the Geneva-based World Council of Churches after bitter disagreements with Western Protestant denominations.

Although relations with Catholics have been more courteous, the church walked out of its International Commission for Catholic-Orthodox Theological Dialogue in October 2007 and has been distrustful toward Russia's Catholic community, which makes up just 0.54 percent of the country's 147 million inhabitants, according to Russian government data.

Catholic-Orthodox ties plummeted in 2002 when Pope John Paul II created four Catholic dioceses in Russia, in what Orthodox leaders saw as a trespass on their canonical territory. Since Pope Benedict XVI's April 2005 election, bishops from both churches have pledged to work together in tackling secularization and relativism in Europe. Although talk of a papal pilgrimage is still resisted, a stream of Catholic cardinals has visited Moscow.

When the first Catholic-Orthodox Family Forum convened at Trent, Italy, in December, Italy's Corriere della Sera daily newspaper confidently declared that the "war between Catholics and Orthodox" had finally ended."There's been progress in the dialogue -- our churches now share the same vision and can exercise a joint mission to the world," Father Kovalevsky said. "We've found a common language with Orthodox representatives, which is reflected in our virtually identical stance on various issues."

Yet some Catholics insist the public visits and exchanges haven't done much to alter realities on the ground. The Catholic Church isn't recognized as a "traditional" denomination under Russia's 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience or represented on the country's Inter-Religious Council. Meanwhile, a Catholic-Orthodox working group, set up in 2004, has made little progress in tackling local disputes. Only half the Catholic Church's 430 parishes are legally registered, and only one in 10 of its 270 priests and 300 nuns are Russian citizens.

Khrul, the Catholic journalist, thinks the animus felt locally toward Catholics is unlikely to change. The breakaway U.S.-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, whose return to communion with the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007 after an eight-decades schism was a key achievement for Patriarch Alexy, is lukewarm about ecumenical contacts, and the Catholic Church still faces ill-defined accusations of proselytism and missionary aggression.

Likely successor

Could things change if, as widely expected, Metropolitan Kirill is elected patriarch?Khrul and others are doubtful. Born in Leningrad, Kirill was just 30 when appointed an archbishop, and at 62 is the Orthodox Church's most energetic and experienced leader. Besides attending Pope John Paul II's funeral, he held talks with Pope Benedict XVI within days of his election, and has been a key point of contact in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

In December 2007, however, he reiterated his objections to Russia's four Catholic dioceses, insisting their creation had blocked "any possibility of achieving common aims" and would never be recognized by the Orthodox Church.Kirill has already faced strident criticisms for his past contacts with Catholics and may well feel the need to distance himself from any talk of new agreements and understandings. Addressing Moscow theology students in mid-December, he commended the "national ideal of Holy Rus," and called on Russians to "guard the spiritual boundaries of the Motherland" against "cultists, schismatics or false missionaries."His election would almost certainly strengthen the position of colleagues at the external relations department, who've made similar calls over recent years. 

Reasons for hope

There may be some grounds for optimism. Technically, the post of patriarch is open to any archpriest older than 40 with a theology degree and management experience. That's said to cover at least 150 figures, including Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk and Metropolitan Volodymyr of Kiev. 

A more conciliatory leader might well see his election as the chance for a new beginning, and conclude that the Orthodox Church can afford to be more generous. With 157 eparchies, or dioceses, and 29,263 parishes, according to end-of-year data, as well as 810 monasteries and convents, and 135 seminaries, academies and universities, it can hardly claim to be threatened by Russia's far-flung Catholics. 

Whatever happens, Russia's Catholic bishops will have a chance to outline their hopes and fears to the pope Jan. 26-29. 

Khrul remains cautious. "The truth is that Catholics still provide a convenient enemy to unite and mobilize people against, so it would be unwise to expect sudden miracles," he told OSV. "But much also depends on personalities and consciences here. It may just be that a new leader will also try to make real changes, by showing how Catholics share the same theology, ecclesiology and social teaching, and should be allies, not rivals, of Russian Orthodoxy."

New American primate

Even as Russia's Orthodox await the election of a new leader, some of their American counterparts are welcoming Metropolitan Jonah. Less than two weeks after being ordained a bishop, the 49-year-old was elected last month as the leader of the Orthodox Church in America, which is the second-largest U.S. branch of Orthodoxy after the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. It claims about 100,000 members.

Metropolitan Jonah, a convert to Orthodoxy from the Episcopal Church, succeeds Metropolitan Herman, who resigned after release of a report alleging misuse of millions of church dollars. First on the agenda? "We have a lot of healing to do," he told Religion News Service. "People felt very betrayed by the previous church administration."

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.