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No Papal Visit to Moscow but a Meeting With Patriarch in Third Country Possible

Metropolitan Hilarion - the chief diplomat of the Russian Orthodox Church - says a meeting between the Russian Patriarch and the Pope is being talked about and is a distinct possibility

  • “A visit by Pope Francis to Moscow is not on the agenda. On the agenda is a meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope."
  • "I think that will take place in a neutral country, meaning neither in Moscow nor in Rome." 
  • "Several different countries have already offered to host it. I mention Austria and Hungary." 
  • "But I do not want nor can I tell if will take place in 2015. It is my hope that it will be this Pope and Patriarch who will reconcile.”

This article originally appeared in Corriere della Sera. Translated at Inside the Vatican


The Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev speaks softly, in fluent English with a slight Russian accent. He is a kind of “foreign minister” of the Patriarchate of Moscow, one of the strategists of a reconciliation that Catholicism and Orthodoxy seek after centuries of theological division; and that he is are trying to bring about as quickly as possible.

Hilarion, 49 in July, explains what unites the two Christian Churches, and what still divides them. He sketches an analysis of the world situation that sounds like a radical critique of “European secularism” and its “indifference” toward the tragedy of Christians in the Middle East. He warns that the conflict in Ukraine may lead “not to to a new Cold War, but to something worse: a Third World War.”

Eminence, in recent years have the relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Vatican improved?

Metropolitan Hilarion: I can say yes. There has been a positive development since the pontificate of Benedict XVI (2005-2013), whom I met many times. And even with Pope Francis I met already four times. We examined their priorities and found the Popes both very well informed and also equally well-disposed.

Do you find a continuity between Benedict and Francis?

Hilarion: Certainly.

Do you think it helps that Bergoglio is neither European nor Eurocentric?

Hilarion: It helps a lot. You know, usually the analysis and understanding of Christianity is based on European data and categories. And therefore likely to mislead. We learn that in the Netherlands thousands of parishes has been closed, and this is the reference, neglecting instead the last 27 years when we have opened 27,000 Orthodox churches in the world, three a day. And we continue to build. I mean to say that the vision is lacking a more comprehensive, global perspective, because in Latin America, Christianity is growing, alive. And in North America, Christianity is not like it is in Europe. Idem in Africa, Asia, Australia. Not to mention the Middle East, where anti-Christian persecution has created a tragic reality. Francis understands the global dimension of these problems.

In your view, has the West has done enough to prevent these massacres?

Hilarion: Honestly no. People do not know almost anything about what is happening in that area of ​​the world, and the impression is that for a long time it has not wanted to listen. I remember I talked to the UN three years ago, greeted by an indifferent silence. In the public policy discussion, this matter has been neglected for too long. And then suddenly, the so-called Islamic State, ISIS, and the anti-Christian persecution, was discovered. In Iraq 15 years ago there were 1.5 million Catholics. Today there are perhaps 200,000 or 300,000. The same happens in Libya, in Syria. I have the impression that in recent years Russia has been among the few countries that have followed a strategy in defense of Christians.

You seem very critical with Europe. Do you consider it a negative model?

Hilarion: I think it is a positive role model in its ability to unite different countries in a geopolitical union. But I see a deviation from the trajectory of the founders like the German Konrad Adenauer and the Frenchman Robert Schumann. They founded an association of Christian countries with Christian roots. Now those roots are not only ignored but rejected in the name of ​​secular humanist values. Secularization is a phenomenon we see a little everywhere, in the West. It is not necessarily bad. It is when it shows up in a militant anti-religious form, as in much of Europe. With the growing Islamic presence, it seems to me that the EU is not in a position to respond effectively. If you abandon Christian values, what may be opposed to Islam? Think of the family. If we want a strong Europe, we need a strong family, that meets the unfavorable demographic trend. We cannot respond with the same-sex marriages, with families where there is not a mother and a father.

Are you not afraid of appearing homophobic, an enemy of homosexuals?

Hilarion: No, we Orthodox are not. Not a problem of one’s private life. This is not to marginalize, persecute or imprison homosexuals. But we must be careful not to destroy traditional families. Careful to make it clear that abortion is a crime. In Russia we talk about this a lot.

But in Russia, abortion is legal…

Hilarion: But I do not speak of what is legal. I am referring to what is morally right, the right of children to be born.

In this you are in tune with the Catholic Church?

Hilarion: On the moral and social values, ​​we are very close.

How did you receive the offer of Pope Francis to set a common date for Easter between Catholics and Orthodox?

Hilarion: We received well, but it needs to be clarified. What does a common date mean? Only in the calendar and fixed forever, or that there is a fixed system of calculation? There are several criteria. To arrive at a reconciliation, we must return to the understanding of the first millennium: from there passes the way of reconciliation.

You are aware that Vladimir Putin, after the audience with the Pope said: “I hope that soon there can take place the desired meeting between you and the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill?”

Hilarion: We must make a distinction. There are the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church (religious institutions). And there are the Russian Federation and the Holy See (sovereign states). Putin is following his agenda, the Patriarch is following his own. A meeting has been in preparation for 20 years. It was to occur in 1997 between Alexi II and Pope John Paul II but the meeting was canceled at the last minute. Now we are growing closer to a meeting every day, but it must be prepared.

You always gives this standard response. Is a meeting not much closer now than in the past?

Hilarion: A trip by the Pope to Moscow is not on the agenda. Rather, what is on the agenda is a meeting. But again, it must be prepared, perhaps preceded by a joint statement. It must be in a neutral location. Many nations have offered to host such a meeting…

For instance?

Hilarion: I cite two countries: Austria and Hungary.

It is rumored that it will take place during 2015…

Hilarion: I will not set a date. I will say that there is a good dynamic, and I see it as a near-term prospect. My hope is that it will not be a future pope and a future Patriarch, but these two, who will meet.

Are you surprised that Francis has never characterized Putin as an aggressor in the conflict in Ukraine?

Hilarion: I’d rather not talk about politics. It is something other than the Orthodox Church.

You know that you (the Russian Orthodox Church) are considered very close to the Kremlin and its policy…

Hilarion: That is not true. We are an international body, present in many countries, and we do not take sides in a conflict between countries. Associating us with the Kremlin is wrong. We have a common agenda on some issues, maybe we consult. But we decide independently. We are separate from the state not only on paper. The Anglican model, in which the king or queen “bless” the Primate of the national church, as in Britain, we had at the time of Peter the Great until the Revolution of 1917. Then no more.

Can we at least say that you see the danger of a “geo-religious” confrontation between Orthodox and between Catholics and Orthodox, as a result of the conflict that is tearing apart the Ukraine?

Hilarion: I see such a risk, and it is very high. Relations between Russia and the West are pointing in a direction that can lead, not to a new Cold War, but to the Third World War. The spiral sanctions-retaliation-threats does not lead anywhere. And the consequences for the people living there are of great suffering. The humanitarian catastrophe and divisions inevitably cause damage on the religious. All the more so in a divided nation, we need a united Church.