When Catholic and Orthodox theologians gathered in Cyprus in mid-October, hopes were high for progress on issues long separating the two traditions.

Organizers of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue were relieved to welcome back representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, who walked out of the last plenary two years ago over the composition of the Orthodox side. Their return to the dialogue, now entering its 30th year, is one sign of a new rapprochement in Catholic-Orthodox ties since the January election of Russian Patriarch Kirill.

“Though conditions have been improving for some time, expectations have grown recently”, Father Igor Kovalevsky, secretary-general of Russia’s Catholic Bishops’ Conference, told to Our Sunday Visitor. “We’ve stopped looking at each other as two competing firms and realized how much we need each other, especially in those countries of Europe which have forgotten their Christian roots.”

Combat ‘arch-relativism’

“Our positions and teachings are already very close, especially on ethical issues”, the head of the Russian church’s Synodal Department for Church and Society, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, told OSV in an interview. “In some aspects, we’re more conservative, while in others we allow freer opinions. But we both share a commitment to propagating Christian values and ensuring moral upbringing against today’s arch-relativism.”

Catholic ties with the Russian Orthodox Church have long been tense over the post-communist revival of Greek Catholic communities, who combine the Eastern liturgy with loyalty to Rome. There have been bitter disputes in neighboring Ukraine, where Greek Catholics are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their Church’s re-legalization after four decades of Soviet suppression.

In the 1990s, Russian Orthodox leaders accused Catholics of trespassing on their canonical territory and exploiting their weaknesses after Soviet rule. With Orthodox life now substantially rebuilt, this complaint has clearly diminished.

The more relaxed atmosphere brought a rapid increase in contacts after Pope Benedict’s April 2005 election. These have been forecast to deepen under the new Patriarch Kirill, who was already well known to Catholics after two decades heading the Moscow Patriarchate’s external relations office.

In March alone, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, pledged during a Moscow visit to strengthen ties “on inter-state and inter-church levels”, while the Russian Orthodox Church became one of few worldwide to support the pope when he criticized attitudes to the combat of AIDS.

Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Patriarch Kirill's successor at the External Relations Department, paid a five-day visit to the Vatican in September for top-level talks.

The Oxford-educated Archbishop Hilarion, just 43 years old, headed negotiations with the Catholic Church from 1995 to 2001, and has called repeatedly for a Catholic-Orthodox “alliance” to uphold traditional Christian teachings against liberal Western causes such as same-sex marriages and euthanasia.

He told journalists the pontificate of Pope Benedict marked “the best moment in history” for Catholic-Orthodox relations, adding that he had assured the pope during talks at the papal summer residence that his church was ready to cooperate with Catholics “in all fields.”

“It’s obvious to us that the Orthodox and Catholic churches cannot be rivals any longer — they must be allies, open to cooperation,” Archbishop Hilarion said. “Together we will be able to reveal our Christian vision of the family, procreation and human love, as well as our conception of social justice, just division of goods and engagement in defending the environment.”

Really not so good?

Back in Russia, some Catholics are suspicious of Patriarch Kirill’s close ties with their country’s strongmen, premier Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev.

They’re also skeptical about the inter-church exchanges, insisting they shouldn’t be taken as signalling greater protection for Russia’s Christian minorities.

A Catholic-Orthodox joint working group, formed in 2004, has achieved little, they point out, while only last year, Patriarch Kirill warned his church would “never recognize” Russia’s four Catholic dioceses, created in February 2002.

For all the conciliatory gestures, Catholic clergy still face problems obtaining visas and work permits for Russia, while Moscow’s Catholic Immaculate Conception Cathedral is so over-used that it has to host 15 Masses every Sunday.

In August, Catholics were shocked at the lenient 14-year sentence handed down to a man from Tver, who murdered two Jesuits, Fathers Otto Messmer and Victor Betancourt, at their Moscow apartment in November 2008.

Claims that a pope-patriarch summit could be in the making surfaced in early October, when it was confirmed that Pope Benedict will be visiting predominantly Orthodox Cyprus in June 2010.

Outside Russia, Meanwhile ...

There have been signs of improved Catholic-Orthodox ties outside Russia, as well.

Orthodox leaders took part in liturgies and talks during the pope’s visit to the Czech Republic in September, and have cooperated with Catholics in defending religious education in nearby Romania, whose new patriarch, Daniel Ciobotea, elected in September 2007, is an experienced ecumenist.

 In Poland, a Russian Orthodox delegation, the first for many years, visited the Jasna Gora national sanctuary in September in what the Polish Bishops’ Conference praised as an “important step towards reconciliation.”

 Even in Greece, where most Orthodox bishops and metropolitans have traditionally shunned all Catholic contacts, there have been instances of goodwill and cooperation.

“This is a multicultural society, in which Orthodox, Catholics and people of different non-Christian religions live harmoniously together,” Metropolitan Kyrillos of Rhodes, who has hosted inter-church meetings, told OSV recently.

“There’s mutual acceptance and sympathy between clergy and lay members of these communities, helped by participation in common events. Some Catholic priests have demonstrated modesty in their service and contributed to good relations with the local Orthodox church,” he said.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.