This week, a World Summit
of Religious Leaders took place in Moscow under the sponsorship of
Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The summit,
designed as a lead-in to the July 15 meeting of G-8 nations in St.
Petersburg, drew over 200 religious leaders from 49 countries, including
Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and other communities.
The aim was to arrive at a common set of values in light of pressing
global concerns. In their final statement, participants called for an end
to terrorism, an ethical underpinning for modern notions of democracy and
human rights, and respect for human life from natural beginning to natural
The Vatican was represented by a high-level delegation that reads like
an "all-star team" of Catholic ecumenical and inter-religious engagement:
Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting
Christian Unity; Cardinal Paul Poupard, President of the Pontifical
Council for Culture as well as the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious
Dialogue; Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, former President of the Pontifical
Council for Justice and Peace; Cardinal Godfried Daneels of Brussels;
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, emeritus archbishop of Washington; Archbishop
Diarmiud Martin of Dublin; and Bishop Vincent Paglia of Terni, Italy. Most
are longtime stalwarts of the Community of Sant'Egidio's ecumenical and
The delegation represents the largest number of cardinals ever to visit
Russia at once, and was taken as a sign of an ecumenical "thaw" in
relations between Russian Orthodoxy and the Catholic church.
Ironically, this "summit of religious leaders" was missing the two most
iconic religious figures of our time: the Dali Lama and the pope.
The Dali Lama was not on the guest list for political reasons. Putin's
government wants close ties with China, and the Chinese would have
objected had Putin given the living symbol of Tibetan nationalism a
As to the absence of Benedict XVI, Orthodox officials offered a
"The visit of the pope of Rome is a historical event, and it would be
methodologically wrong to put it on a par with other historical events,
including the summit," said Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and
Another noticeable absence was Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz
Kondrusiewicz of the Mother of God archdiocese in Moscow (so named so as
not to offend Orthodox sensibilities, who insist there can be only one
archbishop of Moscow, Alexy II). Orthodox frostiness to Kondrusiewicz is
well-known, in part because of his insistence upon "reciprocity" in the
Catholic/Orthodox relationship. Bishop Joseph Werth, of the diocese of
Trasfiguration in Novosibirsk, took part as president of the Russian
Local sources say the choice not to include Kondrusiewicz was made by
Frustrated with what they see as a pattern of placating the Orthodox,
local Catholic critics charged that the summit was largely a public
relations exercise by Alexy designed to put a "human face" on the Putin
government, in exchange for preferential treatment for the Orthodox.
Critics said it resembled international "meetings for peace" organized by
the Soviets in the 1960s and 1970s. They observe that tough cases such as
the Chechen war, or Russian policies on religious liberty, were not on the
Vatican sources argued that whatever its shortcomings, the summit
represented an opportunity both to improve Catholic/Orthodox ties, as well
as to bring the various religions closer to a compact witness against
religiously motivated violence.
In an interview with the Italian Catholic daily L'Avvenire,
Kasper downplayed the prospect of a papal trip to Russia.
"At the moment, the trip of the pope to Russia is certainly not the
principal object of our conversations," he said. "We have many other
things to discuss, many common initiatives we're considering, beginning
with the defense of the Christian roots of Europe."
On the subject of Catholic/Orthodox relations, there's an important
Vatican personnel move to report. The officer in the Pontifical Council
for Promoting Christian Unity responsible for Catholic/Orthodox dialogue,
Polish Jesuit Fr. Józef Maj, was replaced in early May by a Slovenian
Jesuit, Fr. Milan Žust.
Žust is a deep admirer of Eastern traditions, and observers say his
appointment may boost relations with the Russian Orthodox since, as a
Slovenian, he does not trigger the same historical resentments as a Pole.
Russian sources told NCR that the Orthodox leadership in Moscow
backed Žust's appointment.
Žust was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1967. He wrote his doctoral
dissertation on Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), a Russian Orthodox
theologian, philosopher, mathematician and engineer, sometimes compared by
his followers to Leonardo Da Vinci.
Prior to his Vatican appointment, Žust taught at the Gregorian
University. He has also served as superior of the Jesuit community at the
Centro Aletti in Rome, where he guided visitors through the pope's
"Redemptoris Mater" Chapel, the work of Jesuit Fr. Marko Rupnik, also of
From Sept. 1 to Sept. 22, 2005, Žust served as a visiting professor at
Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.
We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.