While I was preparing the memoir that will be published in September — Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II — I revisited several interviews I’d conducted in the late 1990s with two impressive personalities. And I was struck that my interlocutors, almost two decades ago, shed light on the meeting that will take place in Fribourg, Switzerland, on Sunday, February 12, between Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk, the head of external relations of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. The cardinal and the metropolitan will celebrate the first anniversary of the “Havana Declaration” signed by Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill last year. (I analyzed the document for NRO at the time.) But that anniversary meeting will take place in a context set decades ago. And that context, which has its deeply problematic elements, is clarified by my 1997 and 1998 interviews with Cardinal Edward Cassidy, one of Cardinal Koch’s predecessors at the Vatican’s ecumenical office, and Mrs. Irina Ilovayskaya Alberti, John Paul II’s informal adviser on Russian affairs.
Cardinal Cassidy was one of the few Australians in the papal diplomatic service, a man of robust good humor and candor (and therefore not always appreciated by his Italian colleagues in the Roman curia). He enjoyed running the Holy See’s ecumenical shop and worked hard to get John Paul II into Russia, a high priority on the papal agenda in the last decade and a half of the pontificate. As priest, bishop, and pope, Karol Wojtyła had developed a deep respect for Russian spirituality and for Russian thinkers like Vladimir Soloviev, a pyrotechnic intellectual and proto-ecumenist; and that understanding led the pope to the view that a rebirth of Russian Orthodoxy was both essential to the healing of the wounds caused in Russia by 70 years of Bolshevism and a potentially important factor in the post–Cold War spiritual renewal of the West. John Paul had also come into possession of one of the greatest of Russian icons, the Kazanskaya, which had been taken out of Russia in 1918 and, after a peregrination through Europe, eventually given to the pope. John Paul wanted to return this masterpiece of Russian iconography to its proper home personally, as a gesture of respect for the spiritual traditions of Russia and the opening gambit in a new conversation between Rome and Moscow. Cardinal Cassidy’s task was to try and make that happen.
Cassidy almost succeeded on more than one occasion, but Patriarch Aleksy II (KGB codename: Drozdov) always found some excuse to throw a spanner in the works — aided in part by his external-affairs chief, Metropolitan Kirill Gundyaev, now the Moscow patriarch. Cassidy was indefatigable in trying to break through this new religious iron curtain, but during one of our lengthy conversations his frustrations were evident. I had asked the cardinal why the Russian Orthodox leadership was being so difficult, and after rehearsing the familiar litany of Muscovite complaints (which always involved the resurrection of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 1990–91, 44 years after the UGCC had been declared illegal and “reincorporated” into Russian Orthodoxy), Cassidy became uncharacteristically, but interestingly, undiplomatic.
Kirill had told him, he reported, that the rebirth of the UGCC “blocks everything.” And when I asked him why the Russians were taking that line, he didn’t mince words: “Sometimes when you’ve got something to hide, the tendency is to be a bit aggressive. You don’t defend it because you can’t defend it, so you attack, and you attack us.” The indefensible “it” in question was, of course, Russian Orthodoxy’s connivance with the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) in the attempted liquidation of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. Moreover, Cassidy shrewdly observed, the fact that the Russian Church originated in Kiev, not Moscow, played a significant role in Russian political intransigence about Ukrainian independence, even as that uncomfortable fact fueled the Russian Church’s fears that a vital Greek Catholicism in Ukraine was a grave threat to Russian Orthodoxy’s conception of its own history and identity.
That Cardinal Cassidy understood this much better than some of the men who had been in charge of ecumenical affairs with Russian Orthodoxy for decades came into clear focus in April 1998, in several hours of conversation with the remarkable Irina Alberti.
Mrs. Alberti, a native Russian, had married an Italian diplomat and, after his death, became a personal assistant to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when the Nobel laureate resettled in Cavendish, Vt. After working with the Solzhenitsyn family for some years she returned to Europe and was drawn into the orbit of John Paul II’s informal conversation partners and advisers. She traveled frequently to her native land, after the Soviet crackup of 1991, and would brief the pope on her return if she had learned, as she put it, “anything interesting.”
None of this Pimpernel business went over very well with the traditional managers of popes, who were also nervous about Mrs. Alberti’s arranging for John Paul to meet the prominent Soviet dissident Elena Bonner and, later, Bonner’s husband, Andrei Sakharov. Avoiding stepping on Russian political and ecclesiastical toes had been a deeply ingrained habit in the relevant Vatican offices since the early days of the Second Vatican Council, to which Pope John XXIII had invited Russian Orthodox observers; it was a habit that Mrs. Alberti found, to put it gently, distasteful. John Paul had wanted to go to Moscow for the 1998 celebrations of the millennium of Christianity in Rus’. The Russian Orthodox patriarch at the time, another KGB toady named Pimen, said that the pope was unwelcome, and those in charge of the Russian brief at the Vatican were “surprised,” Mrs. Alberti told me. They imagined that they had built up a good relationship with their Russian interlocutors by being accommodating to their demands and understanding of their crotchets — the Roman idea being that the dialogue had to be maintained at all costs, even humiliation. But as Mrs. Alberti, the native Russian, put it with some acerbity, all these Vatican Russophiles ever did was “give in to their demands,” so there was no incentive for the Russian Orthodox “partner” to be anything but recalcitrant.
An awareness of these dynamics — the Russian Orthodox insistence on maintaining a dubious historical narrative, and the futility of kowtowing to unreasonable Russian Orthodox conditions and demands — was not self-evident in the preparation of Pope Francis’s meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Havana last February. As I noted at the time, the Havana Declaration, whatever else might be said for it, continued to falsify both the history of Russian Orthodoxy and the current situation in Ukraine, while its language referred to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the same terminology that the Catholic Church uses for Unitarians. The fact that there was no common public prayer — even the Lord’s Prayer — between the pope and the patriarch suggested that the Vatican continued to bow before what could be at best described as a tepid ecumenism on the part of the Russian Orthodox. And the description of the war in eastern Ukraine as an “internal conflict” was a degrading nod to the Putinesque storyline on what was in fact the Russian invasion of a neighboring, sovereign state.
In the wake of the Havana Declaration, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, defended his old colleague from the days when they both served in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis, while respectfully raising appropriate questions about some of the less fortunate language in the declaration. Shevchuk’s magnanimity was repaid in part when the pope called on the Church throughout Europe to take up a large collection for the relief of those suffering from the Russian invasion — a gesture that, as Major-Archbishop Shevchuk suggested, got the Russian war in Ukraine onto Europe’s radar screen, at least temporarily.
It would be helpful if the February 12 anniversary meeting in Fribourg between Cardinal Koch and Metropolitan Hilarion would similarly refocus attention on what is now an increasingly lethal Russian-escalated assault on eastern Ukraine, while avoiding the mistakes of the Havana Declaration. As Irina Alberti understood in a way that some Vatican diplomats and ecumenists seem not to grasp, responding to ecclesiastical bullying and historical falsification by acquiescence in the guise of humility is not a prescription for progress in relations between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy. Moreover, it does not help Russian Orthodoxy get some breathing space between itself and the Russian state, should the Russian Church want to do so.
In my own Roman conversations in December, I had the impression that at least some quite senior Vatican officials on the diplomatic side understand that, in dealing with Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion, they are, essentially, dealing with agents of Russian state power, not with “churchmen” as the Catholic side understands the term. But it is not at all clear that Vatican officials on the ecumenical side have fully grasped that or have any real idea of how to deal with it. And if the ecumenical side of the Vatican is the driver of Russian policy under Pope Francis, as seems to be the case, that is a serious problem — precisely for ecumenism. For if the Russian Orthodox treat events like the Havana meeting and the Fribourg anniversary celebration as moves on a geopolitical chessboard behind which sits grandmaster Putin, and Vatican ecumenists treat such gatherings as religious encounters, that asymmetry is going to damage the cause of Christian unity, which can only be unity in the truth.
And that ecumenical failure would redound inside Russia. While politicians and commentators across the Atlantic world foolishly laud Vladimir Putin as a strong leader who gets things done, facts are stubborn things, and the facts are that Putin runs a kleptocracy that sits atop a crumbling civil society, maintains his control of that humanly ruinous situation by lethal force and a vast propaganda apparatus with tentacles reaching all over the world, and poses as a defender of traditional values. Meanwhile, the Russian Church leadership has neither the will nor the capacity, it seems, to speak truth to Putinesque power; those who try to do so are quickly marginalized or exiled.
Under these circumstances, the best the Catholic side of this “dialogue” can do is to resist new falsifications of historical or current reality, make clear that the integrity and vitality of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and other Eastern Catholic Churches in union with Rome are not matters for negotiation, and insist that encounters like the one in Fribourg on February 12 are truly religious events, in which the brotherhood proclaimed at Havana is embodied in honest conversation and common prayer.
This article was originally published on National Review Online