KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 5 January 2001

THE WORSE? Pope John Paul II�s scheduled visit to Ukraine this June could
cause Orthodox-Catholic relations to deteriorate further, as the agreement of the
local Orthodox hierarchy to the visit has not been sought. The head of the
Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) has asked for the visit to be
postponed, saying that it would create the false impression that the conflict
between Orthodox and Greek Catholics in West Ukraine had been resolved.
Patriarch Aleksi II has repeatedly stated that this conflict and proselytism by the
Catholic Church in Russia constitute the main obstacles to an improvement in
Orthodox-Catholic relations, but Catholic representatives question this.


by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

`If the Vatican really does ignore the request to postpone the papal visit to
Ukraine things can't improve,' spokesman for Orthodox-Catholic relations at the
Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations Igor
Vyzhanov told Keston News Service on 25 January, `they are already getting
worse and worse.'

In recent years Pope John Paul II has made official visits to the predominantly
Orthodox countries of Romania and Georgia - but only with the agreement of
the local Orthodox hierarchy. In the case of the scheduled papal visit to Ukraine
this June, such agreement has not been sought. In a 22 January written request
to Pope John Paul II to postpone the visit, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox
Church (Moscow Patriarchate) Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan) explains
that it would create the false impression that the conflict between Orthodox and
Greek Catholics in West Ukraine had been resolved. Patriarch Aleksi II has
repeatedly stated that this conflict and proselytism by the Catholic Church in
Russia constitute the main obstacles to an improvement in Orthodox-Catholic

Speaking to Keston on 11 January, however, chancellor of the Apostolic
Administration for Catholics of European Russia, Fr Igor Kovalevsky,
questioned the validity of the obstacles to dialogue continually cited by the
patriarch. In Ukraine, in his view, the Moscow Patriarchate's problems over
jurisdiction were rather with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, while, he maintained,
the Catholic Church was nowhere engaging in proselytism: `We are just trying
to function normally in Russia and provide for our minority here - if I
proselytised in my parish then I would have three times as many parishioners.'

The reasons for the Moscow Patriarchate's accusations, as understood by
Russian Catholic clergy, are various. Fr Kovalevsky cited a widespread tribal
attitude to religion: `a Russian must be Orthodox, a Tatar - Muslim, a German -
Lutheran.' On 22 January Greek Catholic priest Fr Andrei Udovenko rejected
the associated view that a Russian Catholic must therefore be the result of
proselytism: `If a person was baptised Orthodox but never went to church then
it is alright for him to become Catholic, and vice versa. If a person is truly
Orthodox then he won't leave - Orthodoxy can't mean very much to him if he
abandons it so readily.' He surmised that a weak Moscow Patriarchate feared an
exodus in Russia similar to that in West Ukraine in the early 1990s: `600 priests
- all trained in Zagorsk - went over. They can't have been trained well in the
traditions of Orthodoxy if they switched as soon as they had the chance.' In his
view, there was also a long-standing Orthodox prejudice against the Catholic
Church - ironically encouraged by tsars of Protestant origin - as `politically
western, a tool of western expansion'. This was not in fact the case, he
maintained, since there were divisions even within the western orbit: `Ukrainian
against Pole; an English Catholic can't be a true subject of the Queen.'

According to Vyzhanov, however, Catholics misunderstand Orthodox
objections. He showed Keston a recent report from the Rome-based Catholic
news agency Zenit which claimed that `the Russian Orthodox Church is
opposed to the presence of the Eastern rite in Orthodox lands and to the return
of their property expropriated under Stalin.' `This is a lie,' exclaimed Vyzhanov,
`we are against the persecution of Orthodox - the situation in West Ukraine is
like in Northern Ireland, where the Catholics are the minority.' When told that
during a recent visit to West Ukraine Keston had been unable to find evidence
for more than a handful of local conflicts (see KNS 5 October 2000), Vyzhanov
expressed genuine surprise, remarking `but our bishop there constantly tells us
that there are problems.'

Turning to the issue of proselytism in Russia, Keston asked how Catholics
could be accused of this when their current numbers represented only a fraction
of their presence prior to the 1917 revolution. Vyzhanov pointed out that `the
picture has completely changed since then', as the prerevolutionary Russian
Empire included Lithuania, Belarus and parts of Poland, while within Russia
large numbers of German Catholics had emigrated and Poles were by now
completely Russified. Arriving to claim back their parishes, according to
Vyzhanov, Catholic priests sent from Argentina or Mexico would find ten
believers where there had once been 100: `They preach in the villages, force
literature onto people and soon they have their 100.' He singled out the presence
of missionary orders for special criticism: `If they are missionaries then they
must be coming here specifically to convert people.'

When Keston asked whether it was acceptable for a Mexican priest to press
literature onto a Russian citizen with a Polish surname, but not one with a
Russian surname, Vyzhanov deliberated before replying that it was not: `It is
still expansion. Why does he think the supposed Poles are waiting for him?
They would have invited him themselves.' He did not equate the Catholic
Church with the West, and contrasted the Latin with the northern or Germanic
tradition. `Here they talk about the West as if it were a homogenous unit, but
England is completely different from Italy. We don't have concrete problems
with Catholics in Germany, such as Renovabis.' When Keston suggested to
Vyzhanov that it was such German Catholic foundations and not the Vatican
which had funded the construction of the many new Greek Catholic churches in
West Ukraine, he appeared unconcerned: `Well, let them build, that's their

The Moscow Patriarchate, maintained Vyzhanov, in no way wished to claim
`that a Russian must be Orthodox - it is a question of jurisdiction.' He explained
that behind the accusations of proselytism - but never discussed due to the
absence of theological dialogue between the two churches - lay the theological
question of the primacy of the pope. `Rome is a local church, but it is set up
higher � the Vatican considers the whole world its canonical territory. To us
this position is unacceptable - the pope should just be the bishop of Rome.' An
improvement in Orthodox-Catholic relations, he maintained, would manifest
itself in discussion of such theological questions.

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.